¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Definitions of women’s culture prove frustratingly hard to find. Neither Nancy Cott nor Caroll Smith-Rosenberg, the two most commonly cited sources of women’s culture, actually use the term. In her 1972 anthology Root of Bitterness Cott argues that
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 This rather tempered approach to the value of women’s “subculture” went rather unnoticed, perhaps because Cott’s subsequent work, the 1977 The Bonds of Womanhood, which also lacks the phrase “women’s culture” was interpreted as celebrating the separate sphere, which became conflated with women’s culture.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Similarly, neither in the “New Woman and the New History” or “The Female World of Love and Ritual” did Carroll Smith-Rosenberg ever use the phrase “women’s culture” Smith-Rosenberg like Cott writes of “roles” and argues that the search for women’s historical agency is key. “If we look at women only as victims we fail to explain why so few women openly criticized their restrictive roles and we fail as well to explore the sources of strength that made it possible for women to survive in restrictive cultures.“ (194).
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 In the Female World of Love and Ritual Smith-Rosenberg documented the ways that “rigid gender-role differentiation” in Victorian America led to “a specifically female world … built around a generic and unselfconscious pattern of single-sex or homosocial networks” This female world rested on prescriptive roles for women in “a world composed of distinctly male and female spheres, spheres determined by the immutable laws of God and nature.” Smith-Rosenberg, whose earliest work was in the field of the history of medicine, was deeply interested in the inner lives of women. The Female World of Love and Ritual is replete with psychoanalytic considerations, particularly focused on women’s reaction to prescriptive limitations on their live.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 “women’s sphere had an essential integrity and dignity that grew out of women’s shared experiences and mutual affection that, despite the profound changes which affected American social structure and institutions between the 1760s and the 1870s, retained a constancy and predictability. The ways in which women thought of and interacted with each other remained unchanged. Continuity, not discontinuity, characterized this female world”
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Here we find the elements that would be abstracted and labeled women’s culture. The emphasis on the unchanging, the emotional and the experiential. While Carroll Smith-Rosenberg carefully delineated her time period of just over 100 years, the women about whom she wrote, middle-class literate women, and repeatedly emphasized the need to understand this “female world” in relation to the men, the overarching argument was adopted and applied transhistorically as an endorsement of separatism resting on essentialism.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 However scholars of women’s culture also contextualized their arguments in broader terms. Kathryn Sklar, in her 1976 biography of Catharine Beecher, often cited as an example of women’s culture, argued that “the house exemplifies a new set of social boundaries constructed and occupied by nineteenth-century Americans. It defines a new kind of space within which they forged their identities and around which they organized their social and political interaction” (xi) Sklar ties the emergence of domesticity to its political context, as the home became a place to” “integrate personal and national goals (xii) and mediate “the expanding thrust of Jacksonian Democracy and the continuing social need for coherence and stability.” The “domestic code” promulgated by Beecher, characterized by a tension between the domestic world and the one which lay outside the front door, meant that the it “contained the seeds of its own destruction” (xiv) and ultimately allowed women to “subvert their assigned roles.(xiv)” Here is the second piece to the historians concept of women’s culture, an ideology of the private which women eventually used to expand into the public realms.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 In The Bonds of Womanhood Cott joined these prior pieces into the strongest argument for what would come to be called women’s culture. Cott draws on Carrol Smith-Rosenberg to describe what she terms a “culture of sensibility,” but she remains, like Sklar, focused on the way the ideology of domesticity played a role in the emerging “national culture” (98)
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Cott concluded that “women’s view of their domestic role established a substructure for their nondomestic pursuits and self-assertion” (9). Rather than being victims of an ideology of domesticity, Cott finds that domesticity “reconnected woman’s ‘separate’ sphere with the well-being of society” in what would come to be known as republican motherhood (199). This was a “a social power based on their special female qualities rather than on general human rights “(200), which Cott positioned as “a necessary stage in the process of shattering the hierarchy of sex” albeit one that came with attendant “defects.” (201). In opening certain avenues to women because of their sex, it barricaded all others.” (201). Still for Cott, separate spheres “contained within itself the preconditions for organized feminism” a gendered “group consciousness.”