Mary Beth Norton


On her book Separated by their Sex: Women in Public and Private in the Colonial Atlantic World

Cover Interview of June 14, 2011

In a nutshell

Separated by their Sex examines the origins of a crucial concept: the notion that the world is divided into realms we call public and private.

A gendered public-private divide—in which the private realm of the household is assigned to women and the rest of the world to men—appears fundamental today, even though in the twenty-first century such definitions are changing.  There are still far fewer women than men in public office, and far fewer “house husbands” than housewives. Key problems of integrating work and family life are even today assumed to be primarily women’s concern.

Yet despite its seemingly timeless quality, the gendered public-private divide turns out to have a history: it originated in early eighteenth-century England.

Its promoters were the cultural arbiters of the day, John Dunton, Richard Steele, and Joseph Addison. Dunton outlined the parameters of the private, whereas Addison’s and Steele’s writings carefully excluded women from the public, attempting to ensure that men controlled politics at all levels, including discourse.

My book uses a series of case studies from both sides of the Atlantic over more than a century to expose the developing history of the gendered public-private divide.

Dunton is the focal point of one chapter, while Addison and Steele play major roles in two others. Also making prolonged appearances are, among others, female petitioners on political topics to Parliament during the English Civil War of the 1640s and the men who responded to them; the wives of two colonial governors; the female author of numerous political broadsides in late seventeenth-century London; the first American woman to keep a travel journal (in 1704); and the young Benjamin Franklin, who in the 1720s wrote several important essays under the pseudonym “Silence Dogood,” claiming to be a rural Massachusetts widow.