Men, Women, and the Remarriage of Public and Private Spheres

by Celia Allison Hahn

Celia Allison Hahn is director of publications for the Alban Institute in Washington, D.C.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 4-11, 1986,p. 547. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The divorce between the public and private spheres of life is painful and debilitating for both men and women. We have tended to view the home as the proper place of woman, where as in the public sphere, the role has been given exclusively to men. Especially in the church, new ways of looking at power and leadership are needed.

So God created (the human creature] in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and till the earth and subdue it; and have dominion . . . over every living thing that moves upon the earth" (Gen. 1:27-38).

But the very stress on wholeness in this picture hints at separation and disruption. Our primal unity is daily "put asunder": the image of God often does not shine through us; women and men frequently cause each other pain; our responsibilities usually don’t feel like blessings; public dominion is commonly expressed in loveless ways; and parents are often puzzled about how to exercise their authority.

For most of human history, that original pair of human tasks -- procreation and dominion -- has been divided. Though procreation clearly requires the cooperation of men and women, we have tended to view it as the proper role of woman (something shared with the animals) to be carried out in her domain -- the private sphere. And the dominion given to male and female has somehow become an exclusively male responsibility (something to be shared with God) exercised in the public sphere, which has come to be regarded as the appropriate arena for the labors of men. Human beings have not embraced their tasks as partners: men have distanced themselves from their nurturing selves and their bodily lives, and women have tended to distance themselves from their public responsibilities. The earth creature was given what Phyllis Trible has called the paradoxical task of ruling over the earth by serving it, but somehow the ruling and serving have come apart: men have been more likely to rule, and women to serve.

Even within the religious tradition of the writer of Genesis we can see a growing division between procreation and dominion, and between the private sphere of women and the public sphere of men. The spiritual dimension of procreation, for example, became located in the fertility gods of pagans and was regarded by Israel as a suspect power, to be conquered and suppressed. And a covenant faith sealed by circumcision could not include women as full participants. Throughout most of the biblical period, women might have had some status as mothers, but as mothers they were homebound, removed from public life; they were like the veiled Muslim women who, like snails, carry their homes with them when they venture into the streets. And as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has noted, Paul relegated Christian love to the private life rather than to the arena of social transformation.

The divorce between public and private arenas has multiplied over the centuries. In A Choice of Heroes: The Changing Face of American Manhood (Houghton Mifflin, 1984) Mark Gerzon traces the nature of this split in more recent times. Before the industrial revolution, Gerzon points out, men and women worked at home, and women, like men, could be butchers and gunsmiths, mill and shipyard operators. But after industrialization the world of work became the province of men, and home and family the proper arena for women. Children learned to "equate the first sex with the world outside the home, the second sex with the world within" (p. 158).

This carving up of life’s territory seems to make people miserable. I want to sketch briefly some of the forms that pain takes for women and for men, at home and outside the home. In doing so, however, I don’t mean to deny that there are women who are already powerful leaders in public life, nor that there are men who are wise and affectionate fathers. I am aware, too, that there are political, social and psychological problems that -- along with gender differences -- contribute to the divorce between public and private spheres. I simply wish to focus here on the ways the public/private divorce is a special issue between the sexes.

The invisible cords restraining women are many. Jean Baker Miller tells of a woman who "felt able to work and to think well so long as she worked on her ideas and plans in her own house. She could not bring them into the work setting. As she used to put it, "If only I could bring my inside self outside"’ ("Women and Power" [Works in Progress, The Stone Center, Wellesley College], p. 3)

I know that as a young woman, I took it for granted that my real life was my private life. At the end of a day at school or work, I would be released from secondary tasks to pursue the things I cared about most. Considering the numbers of women who don’t expect very much from the workplace beyond a modest paycheck, I conclude that the whispers I responded to then are still audible today.

Women who do reach out for a place in the world are often reluctant to give up control at home. Consequently, they are overextended and exhausted, and can’t give their best in either place. Though they may say they want home tasks shared equally, they treat their husbands like inept assistants -- and that’s what they get! Perhaps they are frightened to give up a toehold in one realm when the other realm seems so uncertain.

In the workplace itself, a woman may still be identified with the procreative task. She may find that her talents are discounted, her female coworkers are jealous, and that her male co-workers sexually harass her.

In less obvious ways, she is likely to find that her working style -- the gifts she has to offer, her way of exercising influence and her definition of success -- is different from the norm. Measured by masculine yardsticks, her contributions may seem inadequate. And unless she is willing to focus all her efforts on the job, she may find it difficult to be successful. If she does achieve success, she may pay the cost of isolation.

Women experience the pain of the divorce between public and private spheres at home as well as at work. Though struggles in marriage and motherhood require enormous personal initiative, sophistication and courage, the heroism of the private sphere generally remains unsung. It may go especially unnoticed by a husband who sees his wife’s domestic routine as cozy, safe and free of the pressures he trudges off to encounter every morning. For some women the at-home role can feel like a trivial, emotionally sterile one. Gerzon describes talk-show host Phil Donahue as "every wife’s replacement for the husband who doesn’t talk to her" (p. 188) Perhaps women consult psychiatrists and pastors in greater numbers because of their hunger for someone with whom they can share their experiences and feelings (a hunger that feels "feminine" to many men and from which they therefore distance themselves). A woman’s attentiveness to (and resultant sophistication in) reflecting on her personal experience and emotional life may further isolate her from others, especially if her partner responds to her overfunctioning in that sphere of life by underfunctioning. For not a few women, home life consists of caring for a group of immature people, one of whom is her husband. I know of one family (now sundered) in which the husband seemed to join his adolescent sons in thumbing their noses at Mom. She had been granted, and had accepted, all of the emotional responsibility in the family -- and was cordially hated for it. How unfair, she might well have complained, to be treated that way after she had poured her heart and soul into her nurturing role all those years! Too many women embark on the false quest offered by the culture: to earn salvation by being domestic workaholics, pursuing the perfect home, gourmet meals and a successful and happy family. Disappointment and depression are the inevitable results of pursuing such a false savior.

When families come apart, says Gerzon, divorced men "refuse to understand that most mothers have been awarded by the courts what they had all along -- the daily responsibility for their children’s care" (p. 195). For many men, their distance from home life began with the birth of their children, an event they avoided through fear and feelings of inadequacy. Those feelings may be a large reason -- besides the inherent lure of the marketplace -- for men’s reluctance to involve themselves in their families.

Indeed, men are socialized in ways that may prove dysfunctional in home life. "Winning" is not a very useful goal in the private sphere. Parenthood is an experience that can force people to grow up in this area of life; but some fathers opt out of that school of hard knocks, and as a result remain immature in their intimate relationships.

If one thinks dependence is a dirty word, one isn’t likely to admit being starved for opportunities to be dependent. So one stays hungry. If one thinks that attention to the complex demands of intimacy is "feminine," then it is tempting to reduce intimacy to sex, an unimpeachably "masculine" urge, and never explore broader possibilities of a close relationship. And even though separation from the bodily and affective life may seem masculine, that separation can ultimately undermine men’s vitality, which they cherish so deeply and on which their worldly success depends.

Men are also not without their publicly inflicted forms of pain. Women may be unaware of the oppression men experience in the workplace -- the experience of impotence in the midst of a powerful system, for example -- and the risks, responsibilities, moral dilemmas, long hours and perhaps wearying travel and dreary motel rooms that are often part of men’s working lives. If women’s strengths are not fully present in the public sphere, it is men who have to get along without them.

If we put these two sketches of male and female pain into the same frame, the possibilities for mutually induced misery multiply. If the woman’s life is confined to the private sphere, she may nag her husband to function in that setting as though that were the only place there were. (It is the only place she sees.) Men keep her out of the public arena, and she responds by largely ignoring it. His need to win may lead him to put in 60 or 70 hours a week on the job, removing him further from the world of his wife and children. Each feels trapped, and regards the other’s "freedom" with resentment. He hides or denies his profound dependence on his wife, and thereby fuels his contempt for her. His emotional dependence on her is reciprocated by her economic dependence on him.

One of the most excruciating collisions occurs when a woman, dutifully following her cultural instructions, concentrates all her energies in the cramped arena of home. My mother-in-law was one such woman, and only after her death did I come to see her as a victim rather than an oppressor. She had been successfully indoctrinated with the belief that her lifelong duty was to take care of her family. After her husband died, she alternated between apathy and a frenzied attempt to revive the vocation that had given her life meaning. On vacations she fed all of us relentlessly; the rest of the year she languished in front of the television, having no outlet for her energies. She had never been invited to use her considerable nurturing skills outside the small circle of blood kinship. Her caretaking energies became a burden to her grown sons and their families rather than a point of connection with the wider world that needed her care.

Women who exercise too much power in too limited a sphere -- a sphere that has a formative effect on our lives -- become oppressive to those who inhabit it. I have seen several men respond with deep feeling and instant identification to James Thurber’s drawing titled "Woman and House," in which a tiny man cowers apprehensively on the sidewalk in front of his home, which is being transformed into the menacing figure of an enormous woman. How ironic that women’s confinement to the private sphere should be a major source of men’s oppression!

Thus, the separation between dominion and procreation, the work of the body and the work of the mind, the work of love and the work of power, is a source of suffering. The life-giving energy that is generated when opposites are held together in tension dissipates or turns to hostility when they are sundered.

Society, as well as the human heart, has been the 3 victim of the divorce between public and private life. Dorothee Sölle points out that the sphere left for love is reduced by this division; the great commandment becomes a small one: "Love your neighbor, but not in public" (The Strength of the Weak [Westminster, 1984], p. 36). The men who have skipped the crash course for maturity offered by parenthood play boys’ games in their sphere of dominion, threatening the destruction of both spheres. Meanwhile, the domestic strength of women is needed in the world. I look at those gathered to hold discussions on arms control and see an ocean of dark flannel suits. The women are not there. As Ellen Goodman observed of news reports about the recent summit meeting: "Women had no public role, so they were covered in their private role. Every item in each wardrobe was scrutinized... It is sad that the summit is one of the last bastions of an all-male world" (Washington Post, November 30, 1985).

The divorce between public and private has unfortunate consequences in our churches as well. When our parish recently offered a course on "Women and Men in the 80s," lots of women signed up right away, evidently eager for some dialogue with men about the changing roles of men and women. Men’s registrations, however, straggled in slowly, reflecting an apparent ambivalence about the prospect of such a discussion. But it was the male participants who raised ecological or political issues in the course of the discussions -- subjects on which the women were silent.

I don’t think this vignette of parish life is atypical. I hear male clergy complain that their congregations are full of women, and there is much moaning about a feminized, privatized religion. And, apparently in reaction to this situation, clergymen issue rattling attacks on the social problems of the day. attacks that appear to be today’s version of muscular Christianity.

Given that the split between the spheres of procreation and dominion impairs our ability to grow up and to respond to all creation’s gifts and tasks, that it makes men and women miserable and distorts our individual, social and congregational life, what possibilities are there for a "remarriage" of these spheres? I would suggest that we can glimpse some possibilities in the ministry of Jesus. the life of the early church and the nature of congregational life.

The rhythm of Jesus’ own life reflected an easy oscillation between public and private life. He moved with a sure instinct from times of solitude or intimacy with friends to compassionate involvement with crowds of people and deft movements in the political world. His carefully chosen public strategy never left him too busy to attend to a small domestic encounter -- with a worn-out hostess, children looking for some attention, the problem of a shortage of refreshments at a wedding, or a tearful, uninvited guest at a dinner party. His movement illuminates how important a balance between public and private spheres is in our lives. If we settle for a permanent retreat to private life, or are continually stretched out by demands from without, we will not have an abundant life.

Jesus’ life also provides a model of a wedding between the world of women and the world of men. In Jesus, centuries of religious struggle are momentarily reconciled. Jesus was open to the stranger, the marginal, to having his outlook broadened by a Syrophoenician woman and to the spreading of the good news through the enthusiastic testimony of a woman of Samaria.

The power of this reconciliation wrought by Jesus was evident in the life of the early church. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza describes the special integrative possibilities of the infant church that gathered in the homes of women and men. "The house church, by virtue of its location, provided equal opportunities for women, because traditionally the house was considered women’s proper sphere, and women were not excluded from activities in it. . . The public sphere of the Christian community was in the house and not outside of the household" (In Memory of Her [Crossroad, 19851, p. 176) Rosemary Rader in Breaking Boundaries: Male/Female Friendship in Early Christian Communities (Paulist, 1983) lifts up the joyful partnership between Christian men and women who experienced liberation from the restrictions of patriarchal marriage through heterosexual friendships and early informal communities. Though the old divisions soon reasserted themselves, we can look to the life of Jesus and the early church for a glimpse of some shining moments when the Genesis picture was brought to life anew.

I see hopeful possibilities in today’s churches, as well. Our congregations have a special opportunity to be a "bridge between the public and private spheres," to use Parker Palmer’s wonderful metaphor (see The Company of Strangers [Crossroad, 1981]. If the world of women needs to be stretched toward the public arena, and if men need to be called to pay attention to the affective side of life, then the church is a natural place for that stretching and calling to take place. People already expect the church to be this bridge: they come to the church for the solemnization and sustenance of their marriages, to have their children baptized and taught, and to find leadership in peacemaking and feeding the hungry. On that bridge, women and men can meet in a space removed both from the nuclear family, with its high emotional charge, and from the huge, impersonal public sphere, which often leaves people feeling frightened, powerless and confused.

As a bridging place, the church can encourage women and men to acknowledge the value of both spheres, even while they may, at a particular stage in life, need to invest most of their energies in one sphere. The church can encourage us not to make an idol of either the public or the private sphere, not to put down those who are engaged solely in one or the other for the present, and to choose some toehold of our own in each sphere that will make our acknowledgment of its validity concrete and keep its possibilities alive for us. A woman caring for young children at home, for example, may be encouraged by her church to support a political initiative. Women who now enjoy many productive years after their children are raised particularly need to be affirmed, supported and challenged to engage in service. If they are treated as subjects, rather than objects of ministry, both their families and the world will benefit.

New ways of looking at power and leadership are needed in the church. Serving and ruling must be held up as different aspects of the same reality. Churches too often encourage people to feel powerless -- personally, theologically and organizationally. Hierarchical styles of leadership must be radically questioned. The church can draw on its ancient knowledge that prophetic voices can come from those who are marginal to public power.

Churches’ involvement in private and public issues will also need to be informed by a more sensitive understanding of how men and women approach those issues. For example, Patricia Washburn and Robert Gribbon, in Peacemaking Without Division (Alban Institute, 1986) , point out that most women will not respond to social issues if they are approached on the basis of ethical principles or ideological abstractions; they will, however, respond to approaches that are communal, contextual and concrete. According to their research, "In church activities for social justice, women seem more comfortable dealing with concrete situations involving real people, whether that is an exchange with Soviet citizens, staffing a food closet, or providing sanctuary for a Latin American refugee family." This kind of understanding, and a welcoming of masculine and feminine approaches, needs to be developed and expanded in church programs.

The role of the clergy, especially male clergy, is crucial in the "bridge church." The pastor, like the psychiatrist, cares for a woman’s emotional life as part of his daily work, and provides what she may be starved for at home. (Some research indicates that clergy wives are just as starved as the parishioners.) Instead of accommodating this situation by merely taking up the emotional slack for the men, pastors should encourage men and women to work their problems out with each other. Rather than basking in the grateful admiration of his female parishioners, the clergyman could encourage women to ask assertively for what they need from the men in their lives, and they could coach their brothers in the affective skills they have developed through pastoral work. Clergy can recognize that women’s emotional and spiritual strength is a gift that the world needs, not an aberration to be avoided or remedied. Rather than serving as chaplains to a feminized church, pastors could use their authority to support men and women in leadership, and to hold up both masculine and feminine perceptions, experiences, styles, strengths and passions. Taking a hint from the missionary couples of the early church, our congregations could benefit from recruiting male/female leadership teams.

Clergywomen have an essential contribution to make in this area. Previous generations have expressed concern about the effeminacy of the clergy, and it’s not surprising that if Christian ministry requires feminine sensitivities, and women have been excluded from being leaders, then an "effeminate" style of leadership may have resulted that put off both men and women. When women’s leadership is fully welcomed by the church, then we can all lead each other to incorporate the gifts of women and men without surrendering our primary masculine or feminine identities. I hope that women will increasingly hold their share of the church’s public roles as senior ministers and church executives, and that churches can thereby provide society with a new model of leadership.

Clergy also need to have a more sophisticated understanding of their role. We have lived through a period when clergy were people almost completely identified with their roles, and a subsequent period when, in reaction, many pastors shrugged off their role and tried to be "just plain folks." Though one can be sympathetic to this response, it represents the abdication of the appropriate clergy role in favor of a private and personal reality. We need clergy who accept the public responsibilities that are properly theirs as religious leaders. Clergy who accept their authority faithfully, who move in and out of their public role, share in the struggle and joy of their Lord and encourage the rest of us to own the authority that is ours in our public and private lives.

Perhaps all of us by pondering the biblical symbols that point to the unity for which we hunger, and by exploring the possibilities for the remarriage of public and private spheres that lie in the life and leadership of our churches, can rediscover the union in which we were joined by God at creation.