Women and Men in the 19th Century: The Separate Spheres

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Photo Credit: OpenClipartVectors/Pixabay/CC0 1.0

I’m not ashamed to say I’m a feminist. I became a feminist in college when I began studying literature and women’s fiction. I came from a very patriarchal house where my parents supported the idea that men ruled, and women’s purpose in life was to serve everyone around them — parents, husband, children, community. I don’t blame them, as they grew up in an age that still believed in these antiquated ideas about gender roles. Thankfully, much has changed.

In my guest blog post for Lisa Lickel’s Living Our Faith Out Loud, I talked about Vivian and her destiny as a Gilded Age debutante and the expectations put upon her. But where did these expectations come from? Partly, from the upper class society in which she lives but also from an idea that emerged in the 18th century and carried through well in the 19th — the separate spheres. 

I first learned about the separate spheres when I was in graduate school. One of the signature academic texts on the subject is Barbara Welter’s “The Cult Of True Womanhood: 1820 – 1860” written in 1966 (not coincidentally, not long before the second wave feminist movement began making its appearance on the political stage). The article made a huge impression on me, especially the discussion of the separate spheres and its sister ideology, the cult of true womanhood . In the late 1960’s, writers, theorists, and scholars were beginning to take a more critical look at gender roles, stereotypes, and gender ideologies from the past, and they were exploring their relevance and repercussions on the present and future.

To put it as simply as I can, the term “separate spheres” embraces the idea that men and women each have a very specific “place” in the world. I use the word “place” here a bit ironically, because confinement in the physical, emotional, and spiritual sense has been one of the greatest battles women have had to fight against socially, politically and psychologically. In the 19th century, philosophers, religious leaders, and intellectuals believed men were born for the public sphere (which included politics, business, and law) and women for the private sphere (home, family, and community). In other words, men’s purpose in life was to go out and make money, make laws, and run the country, and women’s purpose was to take care of the home, have and raise the children, and participate in community events. This is a very simplified vision, of course, but it gives you an idea of how the spaces which men and women could occupy according to this ideology were limited.

What’s interesting when we look at the separate spheres more closely is not only do they define what women (and men) could do but what they couldn’t. Women were expected to stay out of medicine, for example, because they “did not belong there”. Similarly, the idea of a stay-at-home dad was inconceivable in this ideology since the home was the domain of women. Of course, each was allowed to reap the rewards of the other sphere. For women, this meant financial support, for men, it meant a comfortable home and loving family.

What is most relevant about the separate spheres when it comes to my fiction is not so much the physical spaces it represents but the psychological ones. In the mid-19th century, the world of business, politics, and industry were developing at a rapid pace. Because of this, jobs were opening up in the cities and people flocked to them, leaving behind the slower, simpler life they had had in the country. At the same time, in the minds of many people, industry was a big bad monster (hence Frank Norris’ allegory of the octopus to illustrate the brutality of the railroad industry in his book The Octopus) capable of luring people, especially the young, into greed and sin, soiling their minds, souls, and bodies. 

In this atmosphere of dirty business and dirty politics, the home became an idealized symbol of purity, comfort and refuge (which is one reason why Victorian homes were so ornate and overstuffed). And who better to take care of it than pure, unsoiled women? They were the “angels in the house”, the eyelash-fluttering sweethearts who spent their days cleaning, cooking, shopping, attending children, and, for some, engaging in religious and charitable work. This ideal of the angel in the house had always existed, but it took on a more important role in the minds and hearts of people living in the nineteenth century. Many saw the divide of the spheres so distinctly they couldn’t fathom allowing women into the arena of politics, business, and law, all notoriously corrupt and dirty at that time. Women had to be protected and, even more, they were the protectors of the morals and values of men. Is it any wonder that author Virginia Woolf once wrote that for a woman to get any significant work done, she had to kill the angel in the house?

The ideal of the angel in the house actually derived from a poem written in 1854 by poet Coventry Patmore and the model for this ideal was Patmore’s wife, pictured above.

Photo Credit: Portrait of Mrs. Coventry Patmore, John Everett Millais, 1851, oil on panel, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge: PKM/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD old 100)

The description above might sound like a gross stereotype, but it illustrates the whole idea behind the separate spheres. It was, after all an ideology – the way people wished things would be or believed they were supposed to be. In Book 1 of my Waxwood Series, The Specter, the image Patmore’s angel in the house becomes the defining characteristic of the public persona of Penelope Alderdice, Vivian’s grandmother. It is, in fact, such a domineering archetype that her gravestone is carved with a verse from Patmore’s poem. In the book, part of Vivian’s journey leads her to pick apart this persona to reach a deeper understanding of who her grandmother really was and, in doing so, understand her own future. 

The problem with the angel in the house and the separate spheres was that they created a model of womanhood most women found impossible to live up to, not to mention greatly unsatisfying (think: 19th century version of Betty Friedan’s “The Problem With No Name”). A great example of this comes from Natalie Dykstra’s book Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life. Dykstra describes historian Henry Adams’ mother in typical “angel in the house” terms: 

“Mrs. Adams, lively but pampered, had been a social ornament when young. What had charmed her wealthy father… had also captivated her husband — her buoyancy, her love of conversation, her open affection.” (location 949). 

However, as with many women, Mrs. Adams’ role as the angel in the house proved anything but satisfying:

“[F]ollowing marriage and the birth of seven children within fifteen years… Mrs. Adams found little to engage her beyond her family. Simmering unhappiness had become tightly braided with chronic physical debility — crushing headaches, sleeplessness, and constant noises in her ears.” (Dykstra, location 949). 

It was not uncommon for women to become ill because their temperaments did not fit into the sphere to which they were confined. A famous example of this is Charlotte Perkins Gilman story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, which I discuss here. Welter refers to the cult of true womanhood, but it should really be called the myth of true womanhood. Ideologies take on the proportions of myths because these narratives cannot be realized as anything but legends.

Thankfully, the idea of the separate spheres was beginning to crumble by the end of the nineteenth century when women began to enter the public sphere through politically progressive movements like suffragism and worker’s rights (which is a topic for another blog post). The images of the New Woman and the Gibson Girl (also topics for future blog posts) emerged during this time. Both overshadowed the image of the Angel in the House that had kept so many women chained in previous decades.

One of my passions is to give a picture of characters who were both products of their time and rebels of it. So it’s not surprising that many of my characters (the women especially, but also some of the men) refuse to stay in their sphere and venture outside of it. In my Waxwood series. I talked earlier about Vivian Alderdice, whose journey takes her away from the confined space of the separate spheres. Similarly, In Book 3, goes through her own journey when the darker consequences of this ideology present themselves in her mentally unstable Aunt Helen. In my upcoming historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, Adele Gossling rubs the people of the small town of Arrojo the wrong way precisely because she is a one of these New Women mentioned above and not ashamed to proclaim it.

Both the separate spheres and the cult of true womanhood weren’t just about where a woman should be, but what she should do while she was there. It overlooked more salient questions such as whether she wanted to be there at all, and what the consequences of her being there if she didn’t could be.

To find out more about my book, The Specter, and purchase a copy, go here.

You can read more about the Waxwood Series here.

And if you like mysteries, you can read up on my upcoming Progressive Era historical mystery series here.

Want more fascinating information on history? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events and dates? Then sign up for my newsletter! Plus, you’ll get a free short story when you do :-). Here’s the link!

Works Cited

Dykstra, Natalie. Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co., 2012. Kindle digital file.

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A Prequel Short Story: The Rose Debutante

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Photo Credit: Painting of a pink rose with purple background, uploaded 8 August 2017: G4889166/Pixabay/Pixabay license

A few months ago, I announced to my readers group and author page that I would be updating the free gift I was offering for my newsletter subscribers (present and future). I would be giving a short story related to my Waxwood Series. The story gives some insights into the Alderdice family and, in particular, the character of Vivian Alderdice, the unofficial protagonist of the series.

I call the story a prequel, which it is on one level. Dictionary.com defines the word prequel as “a literary, dramatic, or filmic work that prefigures a later work, as by portraying the same characters at a younger age” (“Prequel”, 2010). I’m not entirely satisfied with this definition, as it leaves out what I think is one of the most important elements of prequels — story (or series) importance. Authors and filmmakers create prequels for a reason. A prequel usually contains some keys to a richer understanding of the story or the characters, a sort of “this is how they got here” element in a separate work. This, then, gives readers a reason to read the story outside of the fact that they (hopefully) loved the characters enough to want to know about their lives before the story/series began.

This is why I wrote the short story “The Rose Debutante”. As I was writing The Specter, Book 1 of my Waxwood Series, I realized one of the keys to understanding both Vivian and her grandmother Penelope Alderdice (whose role in the story and series I wrote about here) was to understand their position as 19th century debutantes. I could have chosen to discuss the debutante in a factual blog post (and probably will do so sometime in the future), but I started getting more intrigued by the psychological aspects of this role thrust upon Vivian a little before the start of Book 1. I wanted specifically to explore what that role meant for her in light of Gilded Age thinking about women, money, and marriage.

In Book 1, there is reference to one of the most salient events in a 19th century wealthy young woman’s life — her debutante “coming out” ball. Researching this, I was fascinated by the undercurrents of this seemingly gay event, when a girl stopped being a girl in the eyes of society and became a woman. I wanted to explore the question, “What did that really mean for  her, beyond the obvious (putting a young woman into the marriage market?)” I wanted to examine Vivian’s psychological reality as it related to this one very important event in her life that becomes the pinnacle of her thoughts and actions in the evolution of the Waxwood Series.

So it was natural for me to write a story about Vivian’s coming out ball. The story isn’t only a glimpse inside the excitement and lavishness of this event in wealthy Gilded Age society, but it’s also about the apprehensions, the expectations, and the fears encountered by a young woman who, with her hair up and in her first pair of high heels, is no longer seen as a girl but as a young woman with a role to play in her very structured and class-conscious society. For Vivian, perhaps, more than for many young women who took their coming out ball as a matter of course, the event brings the epiphany that her days of psychological liberty are over and now begins the straight and narrow path of womanhood as experienced by so many 19th century women of all classes. The story also gives readers a foundation on which Vivian’s later epiphanies, explorations of the past, and discoveries of the future are based in the series.

This is the first time I’ve written any kind of prequel to any of my stories, and I discovered in the process not only a way to let readers know about Vivian with more psychological depth but the beauty of making connections. In this story there appears several characters who later make a more standing appearance in Book 2 of my series, Tales of Actaeon.

To receive a copy of the short story The Rose Debutante, you must either already be signed up for my newsletter or you can sign up for it here.

To find out more about The Specter, the first book in the series, and get your copy, check out the links on this page.

And you can find out more about the Waxwood Series here.  

Works Cited

Prequel, 2010. Retrieved from https://www.dictionary.com/

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The Specter (Waxwood Series: Book 1): Release Day Blitz

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The Specter Front Cover Photo Credit: Portrait of Sonya Knips, Gustav Klimt, 1898, oil on canvas, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria: Aavindraa/Wikimedia Commons/PD Old 100

Title: The Specter

Series: Waxwood Series, Book 1

Author: Tam May

Genre: Historical Fiction/Women’s Fiction

Release Date: June 28, 2019

To what lengths will one go to exorcise a specter?

One rainy morning in 1892, people gather to mourn the death of San Francisco socialite Penelope Alderdice. Among them is a strange little woman named Bertha Ross, who claims to have known “Grace” in the 1850’s in the small town of Waxwood. But Penelope’s granddaughter, Vivian, has never heard of Grace or Waxwood.

Bertha reveals surprising details about Grace’s life in Waxwood, including a love affair with Evan, an artist and member of Brandywine, Waxwood’s art colony.Vivian’s mother, Larissa, insists Bertha is an imposter who has come not to mourn a woman she knew in her youth but to stir up trouble. 

Vivian, however, suspects the key to her grandmother’s life and her own lies in Waxwood. She journeys to Brandywine where she meets Verina Jones, Evan’s niece, and discovers a packet of letters her grandmother wrote forty years ago about her time in Waxwood.

As Vivian confronts the specter that holds the truth to secrets buried in the family consciousness, she examines her grandmother’s life as a mid-19th century debutante and her own as a Gilded Age belle. Will she find her way out into the world as an autonomous being, or will she be haunted by the specter of her grandmother’s unhappiness all her life?

You can pick up your copy of the book at a special promotional price at the following online retailers:

Amazon US

Amazon UK

B&N

Apple iBooks (iTunes)

Kobo

Excerpt

Larissa patted her head. “You’ve done all I asked of you thus far, Vivian. But lately, you’ve forgotten your position.”

“My position?”

“You’re the granddaughter of Malcolm Alderdice,” her mother said in a firm voice. “That means something in San Francisco.”

“I was the granddaughter of Penelope Alderdice too,” Vivian said. “Doesn’t that mean something?”

“In so far as she was Mrs. Malcolm Alderdice, dear.” Her mother sighed.

“A door has opened,” Vivian said. “Mrs. Ross opened it, whether we wanted her to or not.”

Her mother gave her a rueful look. “One need not walk through every open door, especially if a madwoman holds the key.”

“Mrs. Ross wasn’t mad,” Jake murmured. “Confused, but not mad.”

His mother gave him a look. Then, in a more congenial voice, she said to her daughter, “Not every door is the door to heaven, dear.”

“Let it be the door to hell, then,” Vivian declared.

Advanced praise for The Specter

“An absolutely fascinating story” — Jackie, Goodreads reviewer

“Could not put this down, read from cover to cover in one sitting.” — Melanie, Goodreads Reviewer

“May’s historical fiction picks apart the delicate façade of American gentility in upper class, well-heeled families on the wild West Coast at the end of the nineteenth century.” — Lisa Lickel, author and blogger, Living Our Faith Out Loud blog.

About the Author

Tam May grew up in the United States and earned her B.A. and M.A in English. She worked as an English college instructor and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher before she became a full-time writer. She started writing when she was 14 and writing became her voice. She writes fiction about characters who must find their future by exploring their personal past and the collective past (the time in which they live).

Her first book, a collection of contemporary short stories titled Gnarled Bones And Other Stories, was nominated for a 2017 Summer Indie Book Award. She is currently working on a Gilded Age family saga, of which the first book, The Specter, is now available. She is also working on a historical mystery featuring a turn-of-the-century New Woman female sleuth. Both series take place in Northern California.

She lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area home. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and watching classic films.

Tam May grew up in the United States and earned her B.A. and M.A in English. She worked as an English college instructor and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher before she became a full-time writer. She started writing when she was 14 and writing became her voice. She writes historical and contemporary fiction about characters who must examine their past and the time in which they live to move on to the future.

Her first book, a collection of contemporary short stories titled Gnarled Bones And Other Stories, was nominated for a 2017 Summer Indie Book Award. She is currently working on a Gilded Age family saga, of which the first book, The Specter, is now available for preorder. She is also working on a historical mystery featuring a turn-of-the-century New Woman female sleuth. Both series take place in Northern California.

She lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area home. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and watching classic films.

Social Media Links

Website

Blog

Facebook

Facebook Readers Group

Twitter

Pinterest

Goodreads Author Page

Amazon Author Page 

BookBub Author Page

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How Small-Town California Inspired Waxwood, The Series

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The old Southern Pacific train depot in Benicia. It used to be the entrance of the town and the last stop before passengers boarded the ferry that took them to the East Bay and San Francisco. I was told in the visitor’s bureau that the depot was placed there in 1902 and was functional until the 1940’s, when cars began to replace train travel in that area. Personal photo.

Last year, I was able to visit the San Francisco Bay Area, one of my favorite place of all time. During my trip, I saw Benicia, a small little town that I had researched quite extensively and I wrote a blog post about it here.

At the time, Benicia was the inspiration for the location of my upcoming historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries. What I didn’t realize until after I started to revise my upcoming book The Specter, was that parts of Benicia had infiltrated into my idea of the town of Waxwood, the town on which my Waxwood Series is based.

Element of Benicia make Waxwood a character as much as any other of the human characters. It’s a small, quiet, little town with the kind of slow-paced rhythm you would expect from small-town America. Right on the Carquinez Straight, it has a small pier where you can walk and enjoy the view of the hills and the Benicia-Martinez Bridge. People are laid-back and friendly. There’s a rich art community there with local artists displaying their work in small shops down First Street. 

Here’s Vivian’s first impressions of Waxwood from The Specter:

By the time Vivian stepped off the train at the Waxwood station, early afternoon had settled in. She saw immediately what Mrs. Moore meant about there being “nothing there.” Compared to the city, Waxwood was half-deserted and nearly pitiful in its emptiness. She could see only the train tracks trailing a bay whose size was paltry compared to the one bordering the city. And yet, Vivian was at ease in this small village with its slowly moving waters and nearly deserted street. Even the station agent’s expression seemed bucolic as he smiled at her from his caged window.

Not an auspicious view for a town, perhaps!

As I mentioned above, Waxwood is a character in the series. It’s not just the place where the Alderdice family goes for their summer vacation, or the place where other characters in the series end up. Waxwood is as alive and changeable as the characters themselves. 

The Waxwood Vivian visits in Book 1 of the series, which takes place in 1892, is not the same Waxwood she sees six years later in Book 2. Like all of America in the Gilded Age, Waxwood goes through some rapid changes. It becomes more commercialized, more touristic, less quaint and quiet. It has its own ominous presence and ghosts, much like the characters in the series. In this way, it mirrors the evolution of the characters, especially Vivian. 

Why did I name the town Waxwood? The idea of the wax wood trees (which do not exist in real life, as far as I know) intrigued me. In The Specter, Vivian encounters the forest with another character, Ruth:

The hill they had ascended, though not so very steep, was crowded with tall trees with umbrella tops and a strange, glossy wood. Vivian slipped off one of her gloves. Her hand moved to touch the shiny tree. The matted sheen felt almost rough to the touch and a little sticky. 

“The surface softens with the sun and hardens with the moon,” Ruth said. “It’s why they call them wax wood trees.”

Certain elements have always fascinated me and wax is one of them. Wax can be both pliable and unyielding, it can be creative, molded and shaped into anything you like. And it can be dangerous, as when a candle tips over with the potential to set a curtain or a room on fire. The wax wood forest has its own significance in the series, which is the subject for another future blog post.

To find out more about The Specter and pick up your copy at a special preorder price, you can go here.

To find out more about the Waxwood Series, go here.   

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A Personal Look at the Gilded Age

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This is one of the most iconic cartoons of the Gilded Age. John D. Rockefeller’s monopoly that sparked the anti-trust acts in America (not to mention a slew of progressive reforms that would characterize the era following the Gilded Age).

Photo Credit: Political cartoon showing a Standard Oil tank as an octopus with many tentacles wrapped aro und the steel, copper, and shipping industries, as well as a state house, the U.S. Capitol, and one tentacle reaching for the White House. Keppler, Udo J., Puck, v. 56, no. 1436 (1904 Sept. 7): Animalparty/Wikimedia Commons/ PD US

Several months ago, on my old blog, I posted about the Gilded Age, which is when my upcoming book and series takes place. I focused on how it was a time of excess, commercialism, dirty politics and class divides. I’ll be posting a revised version of that blog post on this new blog at some point in the future, but for now, you can read it on my old blog here.

Because the first book of my series is coming out and already available for preorder, and I’m working diligently on the second book, I thought it was time to offer a little more personal insight on what brought me to this time in American history, and why I am so fascinated by it.

My exposure to the Gilded Age began in 2007. I was back in Texas and searching for some direction in life. I already had a master’s degree in English but was a little bored with teaching college English courses. So I decided to enroll in a master’s program in History to broaden my teaching prospects. It was a logical choice for me, as I loved literature and writing, but I also loved history and felt I was missing background and knowledge both from a professional and artistic perspective.

One of the first courses I took was about the history of America in the  late 19th century. Our course textbook was The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America, a collection of essays written by different historians subjects relevant to that time and our time (big business, politics, popular culture, etc). While some essays interested me more than others, I was compelled by how much  of the foundations of 21st century America were set down more than one hundred years ago. I was inspired by this course to look back at the past and see its connection with the present and future.

Although the idea for the Waxwood Series didn’t come until much later, I knew right away I wanted to eventually write fiction set in this time period. It was such a vibrant time of change not only on the practical level (like politics, business, and entertainment) but on the societal and psychological level, with shifting ideas and values. When I started to conceive of the Waxwood Series, I wanted the Alderdice family to be stuck in the past of old Victorian ideals of family, loyalty, and life. I could envision them being in direct conflict with their environment, where the world was changing all around them (especially in San Francisco, the hub of the Far West at that time). I saw the conflicts between the older generations of the family (the grandparents and the mother, Larissa) and the younger generation (Vivian and Jake). These conflicts I knew would be subtle, cryptic almost, embedded within the family drama and they would come out in the unwritten and unspoken acceptance of family behavior and values based on those old ideals. 

Since the Gilded Age is thought to span approximately the last quarter of the 19th century, I had quite a few decades to choose from when I thought about when I would set each of the four books in the series. I chose to place the last 3 books at the very end of the 19th century for a reason. Hurling the Alderdice family into the new age by Book 4 offered a fascinating way to look at how this family would cope, leaving open questions for their future.

Part of writing historical fiction, for me, is about more than just reliving the past. It’s also about how characters react to the changes around them and adjust themselves (or, in some cases, don’t adjust). In the Gilded Age, changes in America were happening so rapidly that a family like a wealthy and influential family like the Alderdices would be reeling from the impact. These families were the most reluctant to change for obvious reasons — the old world ways were working for them, so why rock the boat?

So in the Waxwood Series, history plays an important role, but what the story is really about is the Alderdice family within their historical time. As I explained in my recent blog post for the OWS CyCon blog tour, history comes alive for me when we see the people in it. That’s what  I hope to give readers in my fiction.

To learn more about The Specter and get hold of a preorder copy, go here.

You can learn more about the Waxwood Series here.    

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