P is for Public (and Private too)

If you’ve lurked around this blog at all, you know that I research and write on women who wrote about the Bible in the past. When talk turns to women and men during the nineteenth century, the words Public and Private often appear in the conversation. Conveniently, both words start with the letter P.

I’ve chosen to use Public as my P-word because it represents the things, it is argued, that women ought not to be. Men dominated public places and spaces, and this was thought to be a good thing. Women had No Place in such spaces, and if they did show up, they were supposed to be silent observers, not active participants. Their place was in the Private, not the Public sphere. These two spheres were separate, and only men, it is argued, could travel between them. This was just How The World Worked.

This basic assumption about the division of the world into two spheres is widely repeated in many places. I’ve done some of that repeating myself. But, the more I read about what women did in the past, the more I doubt the accuracy of this simplified view of the world. I am starting to think that the Public/Private split may be a mid-twentieth century concept projected backwards upon history. Is this a legitimate thing for historians to do? What other maps have we imposed upon the past that distort the landscape of that distant country? Further, the definition of what exactly is Public (the concern of all in a society) differs substantially in various times and places. Can we always accurately map the Public/Private dividing line?

In my work, I am beginning to see that the simple division of the world into two spheres is not helpful in my attempt to understand what women in the past said and did. Now to find concepts that may help understanding.

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