The Value of Religion in Women’s History, Part 2: ‘Separate Spheres’ and Agency


Elizabeth Fry c. 1823, by Charles Robert Leslie

As previously discussed, religion was an important part of life for many women in 19th-century Britain – so much so that it informed the centerpiece of their identity. Happiness and purpose were to be found in God and the obedience of his precepts. This could also mean religious beliefs reinforced societal expectations of ‘separate spheres’ for many women.

‘Separate spheres’ is historian lingo for a movement generally believed to have arisen in the late-18th century as work increasingly became separated from the home due to urbanisation and industrialisation. As this separation grew, men began to leave the home to go to work, while women continued to stay in the home, and were tasked with ‘domestic duties’.

There is much debate among historians as to whether this bifurcation of ‘home’ and ‘work’ was too distinct – suggesting that women and men crossed over these ‘boundaries’ frequently between the public sphere of work, and the private sphere of home. Families heavily influenced by evangelicalism did, however, tend to expect this division to be part and parcel of married life.

Helen Martineau, a Unitarian wife of a physician, remarked how happy domestic life had made her in August 1823, despite her previous apprehension due to her lively life outside the home:

“It is astounding how I am changed. I who used to enjoy society so much. I do still enjoy it, but I have a still dearer source of enjoyment in my child & when my husband also is with me – then it is almost heaven upon earth.”

Some women were worried about getting married at all, in the understanding that they would have to prioritise domestic work and possibly forfeit some of their other activities and interests. Elizabeth Gurney – later Fry – (a thoroughly active Quaker, female minister, and philanthropist) believed that marriage would mean serving God in a ‘different way’ in which the domestic realm would take precedence. She notes in a letter to her cousin in 1799:

“I have almost ever since I have been a little under the influence of religion, rather thought marriage at this time was not a good thing for me…If I have any active duties to perform in the church, if I really follow as far as I am able the voice of Truth in my heart; are they not rather incompatible with the duties of a wife and a mother?… but it is now at this time the prayer of my heart, that if I ever should be a mother, I may rest with my children, and really find my duties lead me to them, and my husband; and if my duty ever leads me from my family, that it may be in a single life.”

Religion shaped women’s understanding of family life, which – in their understanding – expected married women to prioritise domestic duties.

It is important to remember that belief in ‘separate spheres’ was shaped by an understanding of the Bible which was taught by the churches to which the women subscribed. Women were not simply subjected to these rules by force: they believed it was the ‘right thing to do’ to submit to them.

Freedom of choice for women did not always mean the ability to do whatever you wished or to challenge patriarchy – it also was notably defined by the willingness to ‘choose what is right’ – which, for many, were the principles their church believed were aligned with Scripture.

Thus, religious women found their identity and in purpose in God, and prioritised their love for him above all which manifested in their duties and activities. For married women, it was generally anticipated this would mainly include domestic work.

Angela Platt is a PhD student in Royal Holloway’s Department of History. Her thesis explores the lives of nonconformist families in England between 1780 and 1850. The next post will examine exceptions to this norm as religion provided women opportunities in the ‘public sphere’.

The Value of Religion in Women’s History, Part 1: Identities

Prayer without end

 Old Woman saying Grace, known as ‘The Prayer without End’, Nicolaes Maes, c. 1656

Religious principles are a frequent theme in didactic literature of the long nineteenth century. Religion was vitally important to women and was often used in arguments to improve their position in their family and society.

It gave women a voice and was significantly valued by the women themselves – as religion formed their identities, as mothers, wives, and their relationship to their communities. For many women of this period, the Christian God of the Bible was a pre-eminent force in their lives, directing them by his providence and preparing them for an eternal future with him and other believers in an eternal home. Love and service for God – in whatever manifestation that presented – was supreme.

This three-part blog series will demonstrate the importance of understanding the religiosity of women in this period, highlighting how religion shaped identities, helps us understand debates over women’s position in society, reveals agency, offers opportunities and catalyses activism. This first post will focus on religion and identity.

While it would be remiss to suggest that all women in the long nineteenth century were religious (they weren’t), those who were eminently religious did not consider it a tangential part of their lives; religion was the axiom which underlay their other activities; whether political, family-orientated, or career-driven – religious experience was central.

The importance of faith is especially evident in diaries and letters of nonconformist women (Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians and Congregationalists) which I have examined from 1780-1850. Anna Braithewaite, a Quaker minister in the early nineteenth century, comments in a letter (in July 1823) to her husband how greatly she missed him and her children – and yet considered her love and service to God as the greatest priority:

“My mind was brought to a close sense of the separation between me and all who are dear to me… I felt to the full the reality and bitterness of the sacrifice, yet I desired to be preserved in a cheerful surrender of my all unto Him whom I love, and whom I feel utterly unworthy to serve.”

Another Quaker woman, Elizabeth J.J. Robson, noted that the greatest happiness could only be found in Christian religion, in her diary in 1844:

“I have thought that we cannot be perfectly happy, unless we be true Christians, self-denying, cross-bearing Christians.”

Jane Attwater, a pious Baptist lady, frequently wrote prayers in her diaries. In March 1782, she praised God for his goodness, and chided herself for being less than fully devoted to Him:

“How little alas can I do for such infinite goodness, o for a heart intirely devoted to thy service.”

Many women believed that they ought to love God, in light of all that he had done for them, and that this ought to manifest in obedience to his calling upon their life. Religion was not a peripheral part of life for these pious women – it was the centrepiece.

Faith provided happiness and purpose. Whether women found themselves committed mainly to domestic work, or active in the ‘public sphere’, religious women believed their lives were to be both directed by and towards God. Identity was found in their love and service to God, who was pre-eminent in their lives.

Angela Platt is a PhD student in Royal Holloway’s Department of History. Her thesis explores the lives of nonconformist families in England between 1780 and 1850. The next post will explore how concepts of ‘separate spheres’ and agency can be better understood through religion.


We are delighted to welcome guest blogger and American MA graduate Katie Chaka, who wrote this post about Catholic women’s response to the Nazi Lebensborn programme.


‘Verein Lebensborn’ Taufe (1935), Bundersarchiv, Bild 146-1981-075-01


In Nazi Germany women’s primary function was widely considered to be reproduction. Their roles in German society during the rule of the National Socialist regime were increasingly limited and strictly defined by the traditional ideals of Küche, Kinder, and Kirche (kitchen, children, and church).  Women were expected to embrace the value of their reproductive capabilities and focus primarily on being mothers and moralizers of the nation. One organization that fully capitalized on this gender stereotyping of women, as well as the encouragement of reproduction through eugenic measures, was the Lebensborn programme.

‘SS Photo’ (1937),  Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R99621

Lebensborn, meaning ‘Fount’ or ‘Well of Life’, was launched on 12 December 1935 by the Nazi SS organization under the direction of Heinrich Himmler. This programme aimed to provide “racially healthy” families with welfare aid in order to encourage them to produce larger numbers of children. It also gave maternity and childcare services to unwed mothers who could still provide a racially valuable child to the state outside the boundaries of traditional marriage. This secretive programme consisted of multiple maternity homes where women were able to bring their pregnancies to full term, free from the judgment of traditional societal norms. The Katholischer Deutscher Frauenbund (KDF), was the most liberal Catholic women’s organization with 200,000 members.  It promoted women’s rights within the church and community, and thus particularly resented this type of intrusion by the state into family affairs. As a result, responses from the KDF display a distinct shift from adaptation to opposition in 1935, regarding issues related to motherhood and morality. This shift was largely due to the perceived negative social and religious effects of the Lebensborn program in German society.

As women and as Catholics, they met Hitler’s 1933 appointment as Chancellor with silence, as they awaited an official response from the Vatican in Rome. As Der Gerade Weg, a Catholic weekly journal explained, “The Church can wait. Her great strength lies in this waiting, in her ability to suffer..”.  Due to the  Concordat negotiations between the Vatican and Nazi leaders, women initially attempted to adapt to new Nazi ideas and policies, because Church leaders believed the regime would protect their religious autonomy. The KDF in particular fought to remain autonomous by rejecting mergers from not only Catholic male organizations, but from the NS-Frauenschaft as well. Unfortunately for German Catholics, almost immediately after Concordat negotiations were finished, the Nazi regime began stripping the Catholic community of its religious rights.


‘Schwester in einem Lebensbornheim’ (1942), Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1973-010-11

Throughout 1934, Catholic institutions began to understand the extent to which Christianity and Nazism were incompatible ideologies. An article in the KDF journal Die Christliche Frau from 1934 argued that the state of modern marriage was a degeneration of its former self and warned against the “national license for sexual excesses”. The article critiqued society by asking its female readership if the Catholic Church even had authority over issues dealing with virginity anymore. Yet Catholic women were about to become increasingly more uncomfortable with the Nazis’ overt deviation from traditional religious norms of morality.

From 1935 onward, there is a perceptible shift that can be seen with regard to responses by the KDF towards issues of morality and motherhood in German society. Therefore, statements made by Catholic women, their organizations, and Church leaders that discuss the crumbling standards of morality should be read as a direct, but also veiled, response to the ideals for which Lebensborn stood, as well as the institution itself. There is no question that this was in response to the public propaganda blitz targeting the German youth on the basis of “biological marriages” instead of traditional marriages, launched that same year. A leading concern for the KDF was the subordination of “many adolescent girls operating in a downright sinister fashion”. It is also no coincidence that this was the year in which Lebensborn was founded. Therefore, the organization created a need for the eradication of Christian moral norms since traditional norms would harm Himmler’s overall goals. While it is unclear if women in the KDF knew the particularities of the Lebensborn program, they openly and consciously disapproved of, and openly responded to, the very foundation that the organization was built on.

KDF women consistently addressed these issues of morality in their writings, correspondence, and educational paths. Secular baptisms, educational classes favoring Germanic roots over religious teachings, and the validation of illegitimacy within Lebensborn homes caused many Catholic women to oppose the Nazi regime through their available outlets. The KDF specifically began to encourage women to educate their families on the sacraments of marriage and baptism within the privacy of their own homes. President Gerta Krabbel also wrote to Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber to inform him that her organization would be taking religious matters into its own hands, due to the lack of support from the male hierarchy of the Church.

As much as KDF women vociferously opposed the encouragement of the regime towards sexual “immorality” and bearing illegitimate children through the Lebensborn programme, they did not take nearly as strong a stance towards the treatment of the Jews and other minorities. Reoccurring themes throughout women’s documents present their willingness to stand up against political issues that they found incompatible with their religious beliefs, yet they did so on a selective basis. Nevertheless, the complicated, and sometimes heavily veiled, responses of Catholic women can greatly add to our understanding of women’s experiences during the Third Reich by giving new insights into how Nazi eugenic policies could conflict with Christian faiths.

Katie Chaka  is an M.A. graduate from Oakland University, Michigan USA.

We would like to thank Katie for her post and encourage other students working on women’s and gender history, in the UK and at overseas HE institutions, to submit posts for consideration.  We are always happy to receive them.