Material Feminists – Challenging the Shape of and Relations between Domestic Spaces

screen-shot-2012-10-22-at-10-19-47-am  Cross-posted at Femme-O-Nomics

Vernacular house forms are economic diagrams of the reproduction of the human race; they are also aesthetic essays on the meaning of life within a particular culture, its joys and rituals, its superstitions and stigmas.  House forms cannot be separated from their physical and social contexts. (Hayden 1984:  98)

The history of American home architectural design and the design of suburban space were never foregone conclusions.  From about 1870 through 1930, American home architecture was the topic of heated debate.  The homes that we live in today, their spatial arrangements, barriers, rituals, and traditions, and the shapes, uses, and meanings of our neighborhoods were fiercely debated topics.  And the debates that emerged out of the late 19th century still structure our lives today.

What kind (of kinds) of home(s) Americans needed has always been a question without a simple answer—with many competing perspectives.  The designs of our home not only allocates our belongings throughout the house, it structures the ways in which we interact with one another and the communities in which we live.

Dolores Hayden suggests that building programs competed to define American homes.  Overly simplified, a “building program” is a statement concerning the spatial and architectural requirements of some built space, typically defining the type of building along with a list of the sorts of activities that the building is intended to shelter (sleeping, eating, cooking, playing, lounging, entertaining, etc.).  At a general level, building programs communicate the requirements (economic, technical, social) of a building, including an explanation of how the built space accommodates the activities it is intended to house.  But buildings do more than accommodate social interactions.  They also structure our interactions, preclude or present the possibility of interactional flexibility, and make symbolic boundaries physical.

Hayden traces the ways that feminists challenged home design to consider the ways it might encourage new family forms and possibilities for individual family members.  And the detached, single-family, suburban house “won” in significant ways at a critical moment in American history, but it was challenged all along the way.  This group of activist women comprises some of the first of a group Christine Delphy famously referred to as the “material feminists.”  Material feminists are concerned with the material—and in this case architectural—conditions under which gender relations, hierarchies, and distributions of power emerge and find support.

Material feminists like Melusina Fay Peirce were interested in socializing the household (as many industrialists were as well), but Peirce and her supporters wanted to do so in ways that would remain under women’s control through neighborhood networks.  Though most reformers in the late-19th century agreed that isolated households were stifling, inefficient, isolating, and a great burden to women, they also feared that socializing the household would deprive American families of the home as a sacred space (apparently outside of market influence and control).

Peirce’s design was for a neighborhood, not a single home.  She envisioned women working together in communal spaces overcoming women’s isolation in addition to their economic dependency as they would be collectively producing “goods” for sale (prepared meals, clean laundry, etc.).  Her designs included kitchenless homes and apartments that would promote economic inter-dependence while simultaneously fostering community.

There were plenty of problems with early material feminist models.  For instance, the blind acceptance of gender stereotypes allowed men’s lack of participation in housework child care to go unchallenged. And yet, similar to Virginia Woolf‘s lament, these were a group of women who desired rooms of their own.  But, material feminists wanted more than their own room, they wanted neighborhoods designed in ways that promoted women’s collective interests at the time.  Peirce put it this way in Co-Operative Housekeeping (1871):

What we do need… is a world of our own, a place in the universe for ourselves… a free and cheerful space, were we can meet and help each other in work and play, can forget our present formal and stilted intercourse and narrow gossip in a busy round of important interests and a frank exchange of thought and sympathy, can expand all out faculties without being called strong-minded, and indulge all our tastes without being deemed extravagant…  This feminine world, which has never yet been, but which must some day be, if there is any hope for women, will begin to emerge out of chaos as soon as we co-operate in the daily work and the great business of our lives. (Peirce 1871: 83).

It’s a strategy that we’d criticize today for being overly essentialist and condemning women to occupational ghettos.  We might today consider Peirce as attempting to operate within a system of inequality rather than actually challenging it.  But, at the time, it was revolutionary.  And material feminist ideas for structuring our homes differently—like Peirce’s—are interesting because they involve transforming our relationships to the communities in which we live.  The homes Peirce designed look odd by many of today’s standards, and they certainly didn’t allow for a diversity of family forms.  But they were a part of challenging the role that the construction of domestic space plays in the social construction of family relations and the different experiences that are structured through architectural design.

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