English Literature

Shadow of a Woman: The Separate Spheres

Having noted fairly quickly that AQA’s ‘Power and Conflict’ anthology features half as many female poets as it does male and that many of the texts available not only showcase the suppression of women (An Inspector Calls), but also paint them only in the shadows or in a distant window – like Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, I thought the best way to illuminate the female experience was to share the ideology of the separate spheres. It comes as no surprise that the poets in ‘Power and Conflict’ depict the male experience in all its bloody glory, because we associate power and conflict with war, and therefore men (I appreciate not all the poems are about war…). However, particularly in An Inspector Calls, the audience and reader are exposed to the female experience through understanding and witnessing the male experience.

The separate spheres emerged as an ideology during the Industrial Revolution – the acknowledgement of gendered separation being much older, however. With Blake’s ‘harlot’s curse’ and Browning’s murdered duchess, it is ever the powerless and suppressed woman that we see emerge from these texts. It is these roles that are dictated by the separate spheres. With both religious and biological influences, the woman’s place or ‘sphere’ is located in the private realm of domestic life: child bearing, housekeeping and religious worship – in the shadows. The men, therefore, occupy their own sphere – they are warriors, hunter gatherers and breadwinners. From Democracy in America, Volume 4, Alexis de Tocqueville writes:

Classroom activity: Students draw their two spheres across a whole page, slightly overlapping the middle (I’d suggest printing them!). In each sphere, one for men, one for women, students make notes on the gender roles and expectations relevant to the texts they are studying. They can then explore how these roles and expectations are painted in the text.

An Inspector Calls

When the play was written and first performed, women were beginning to have a higher status in society. We know that this is partly due to the Second World War. Both Eva Smith and Sheila Birling assert a certain amount of expression and power (therefore dipping a toe or two out of their given sphere). Perhaps here, we see the spectral influences of Americanisation where the glamour of Hollywood threatened to transform women into something quite the opposite of the demure housewife w2241vg955ho learned to sew whilst her husband was out killing lions with his bare hands, no doubt. Priestley himself even said in 1934 that young ‘factory girls’ who wanted to look like ‘actresses’ were vulnerable – but, vulnerable to what? Perhaps to the men who felt threatened by
the very idea that masculine roles were being challenged. The male sphere was being encroached upon by lipstick wearing, opinionated factory girls!
The reaction to this challenge is really what we see Priestley depicting in the play: each male character demonstrates some manifestation of anxiety and loss of control brought on by their ‘sphere’ of power and influence being challenged by a woman – Eva Smith. The feminisation of their masculine culture is too much to bear. Only Eric is prepared to share his world and begin to normalise the idea of something different.

Mr Birling uses words like “hard-headed”, “duty” and “public”; he also comments that “Clothes mean something quite different to a woman. Not just something to wear and not only something to make ’em look prettier, but a sort of sign or token of their self-respect” which places him firmly in the masculine sphere, where the man is in public and built to achieve and views the woman as a pleasing adornment. Here, Priestley demonstrates his protofeminist attitude (and in many other lines), because he highlights how appalling it is that a woman must buy clothes paid for by her husband or father in order to look pretty (for the male gaze) and only then may she feel worthy. Sheila uses words like “Daddy”, “sorry” and “fault” which immediately reflect the submissive nature expected of women at the time.

Priestley chose to make a young woman the focus of his play to demonstrate how they were being exploited. It is significant as well that the nature of time is questioned at the end of the play: some of his works are influenced by J.W Dunne’s An Experiment with Time, which questions whether or not time travels in one direction. Perhaps the Inspector is seen as a foreshadowing of the real Inspector who will knock on the Birlings’ door any moment as the curtain falls…The idea that time could be warped not only reassures us that the irresponsible members of the Birling family may yet be punished, but it also serves to push the audience into a reflective state so they consider the rigidity of the spheres in which their lives are conducted (even in 1945 and arguably, today) and how harmful that may be.

If students can create visual representations of gender roles and actually see them in the context of the texts, not just as added comments by the teacher when reading, or an extra powerpoint slide or a handout to read, they are far more likely to integrate these ideas into their written work.

The British Library has an excellent bounty of fruitful reading on this topic to inform teaching: https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gender-roles-in-the-19th-century

Categories: English Literature

4 replies »

  1. Great post and an excellent, practical suggestion in getting pupils to actively engage with what can otherwise be a little too abstract for them at times. The depth and quality of connection between events of the text and the wider purpose/impact/thematics is a real determiner in the quality of response.
    Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” sprung to mind when reading your post. The notion of separate spheres is at the heart of her critique of the ‘rest cure’ and patriarchy. Pupils have really engaged well with this text and, as you mention in relation to Priestly’s play, its social critique certainly resonates with contemporary readers/audiences. (Well worth checking out the story in the unlikely event you haven’t already). Thanks again for the great post. M


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