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


I hope this book will help scholars and other readers to stop automatically applying the modern concept of the public-private divide to societies that existed before approximately 1720.

I now cringe whenever I read something that purports to describe the “private” realm in medieval Europe, for example. We shouldn’t employ such terms when writing about historical eras before the gendered notion of the private existed.  If we do use them, we should acknowledge, at the very least, that they are inventions of the eighteenth century, and that we are applying them anachronistically.

The knowledge of the invention of the public-private divide is crucial today—for modern Americans to understand that notions of “women’s proper sphere” were historically constructed.

Ideas created nearly three hundred years ago can be changed when the circumstances that fostered them no longer apply.  And then, perhaps, the next woman to run for president will not encounter the same assumptions and prejudices that confronted Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008.

© 2011 Mary Beth Norton