A Brief History of the Masculinization of the Garage

In the U.S., garages did not really become a part of the “typical” American home (if we can say such a thing) until the start of the 20th century.  Certainly garages existed; but they weren’t seen as a necessity.  Two things you’d probably guess drove garage production initially: the increasing presence of cars owned by individual families and suburbanization.  But,garage-mtneerman-2006 suburbanization was also accompanied by a renewed interest in a sort of “do-it-yourself” lifestyle, and garages played a role in this history.  There’s some disagreement concerning whether a “do-it-yourself” zeitgeist prompted suburban retreat or the other way around.  But, the important bit is that they are related.

Industrialization and suburbanization brought about fantastic transformations in family life and gender relations.  Men and women began to rely upon one another in new and unprecedented ways.  Divisions between work and leisure became more pronounced for men and this same boundary was probably blurred more than ever before for women.  The same forces that led Lasch to call the family “a haven in a heartless world” were inequitably distributed between family members.  This fact is reverberated in our design and use of home architecture.

If you have a home built in the early 20th century that hasn’t been remodeled, it’s likely that you have a fairly closed-off, small kitchen and probably only one centrally-located bathroom.  These are just two examples but they’re a powerful illustration of an important issue to do with gender and space.  Small kitchens, structurally isolated in homes are a remnant of a particular set of gender relations in families.  When architects were designing homes for my grandparent’s generation, kitchens were small and segregated because few people were thought to have reason to inhabit them.  Multiple bathrooms seemed a waste of space until the hustle and bustle of dual-earning couples’ morning routines became a national norm.

Garages, basements, and more, have historically served as spaces to which men retreat to work on projects around the house, hobbies, to read, watch television, or “to tinker” as my grandmother-in-law says of her husband.   Continue reading

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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.

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Gendering Your Household by Smell

There’s a small body of work on the sociology of smell that deals with gender.  Scents, their cultural meaning, and our experiences of them are culturally mediated processes (here, here, and here).  What women and men ought to smell like is, in some ways, just another of the various ways in which we are all held accountable to recognizable performances of gender.  Controlling one’s own scent is a small part of this process.  And controlling the scent of your home–perhaps in different ways for different spaces within the home–is a piece of gendering our social environments as well.

Yankee Candle stores are always fun.  I generally find myself in one some time in winter or fall when I want my house to smell like I just baked something with apples in it or like a fir tree had an accident in my living room.  Like a great deal of stores dedicated to selling niche home décor, Yankee primarily caters to women.  Desiring your home to smell like “Fluffy Towels,” “Autumn Leaves,” a “Bahama Breeze,” or “Home Sweet Home” is something that many people likely classify as a “feminine” desire (regardless of the gender of the desirer in question).

Like a number of products catering primarily to women, Yankee has developed a “men’s line.”  I’ve always thought that gendering scents has been somewhat ridiculous–that the line between perfume and cologne was less clear than it’s often depicted.  Smells don’t have a gender, do they?

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Feminism as a Gendered Space — “Gendering Feminism”

Feminism isn’t really a space—but it’s certainly an ideological terrain of sorts.  It’s an identity people “adopt,” a stance people “take,” and insult people “hurl,” a set of theories people “cite,” a part of a movement people “join,” and more.  British suffragist Rebecca West famously stated: “Feminism is the radical notion than women are people.”  Feminism—to me—is the revolutionary idea that gender inequality exists, but that it doesn’t exist of necessity or inevitably.

In my research on men’s participation in marches dedicated to raising awareness about issues of violence against women (here), I came to think of feminism as a gendered space—as gendered ideological terrain.  Men’s adoption or support of “feminist” views or issues often seemed to be implicitly understood as a gender transgression.  This was all the more interesting, because, at the particular events I observed, men were required to transgress other gender boundaries as well—they dressed in drag.

Walk a Mile in Her Shoes®” marches require participants to walk one mile wearing “women’s” shoes—which are almost also understood as high heels.  The event is gender segregated by design: men walk, women watch.  Playing on the adage that to truly understand someone else’s experience requires walking a mile in her/his shoes, this event makes literal that which was perhaps never meant to be taken literally.  The movement-sponsored shoe is a 4-inch, red, patent leather, heel.  Men (not all, but some) at all of the marches I attended referred to these shoes as “stripper heels”).  Some men wear traditional masculine attire aside from the shoes (business suits, sports team uniforms, jeans and shirts, etc.).  But many men take the event as an opportunity to dress in drag.  And when these–primarily heterosexual–men dressed in drag, they often also performed stereotypes of women and gay men that seemed directly opposed to the message organizers sought to send with the event.  Although I did see examples of women (and less often men) uncomfortable with some of the men’s behaviors, the majority of marches and audience members laughed with and at them.

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On Masculinity and Home Improvement

— Cross-posted at Femme-O-Nomics

Home improvement stores are gendered spaces.  I know next to nothing about home improvement.  I come from an elite enough background that when something in our home needed improving, we didn’t (for the most part) do the work ourselves.  We hired others (always men) to come in, assess the situation, make a recommendation, and do the work involved.  This weekend, I thought I was faced with having to improve my own home, but thankfully, I found someone to do it for me at Lowe’s–someone who, as it turns out, was a woman.

My family and I got back from a morning outing only to realize that we neglected to bring our house keys.  [We have so many keys at our new house that we keep them on separate sets, though we had a garage key made for our car keys as a result.]  So, we pulled up to our garage, and realized that we had no way of entering our house.  We left a window unlocked, but had to tear a screen to get into the house.  So… short story long, we had to repair a screen—something we know absolutely nothing about.  I brought the whole screen with me thinking I would just get a new one that size.

When we got to Lowe’s, a woman–Carla*–confronted us as we entered asking what we were looking for.  Holding up the screen, I smiled (with a bit of embarrassment) and said, “Screens and keys.”  She said, “I can take care of both of those for you.”  She brought us over to the screen section.  I didn’t even realize we were there.  She asked what kind of screen we wanted.  I considered trying to act knowledgeable, but said, “We want to make this,” gesturing to the broken screen, “look like new for as cheap as possible.”

“Have you ever done a screen?” she asked.  I laughed—but not as hard as she laughed at me after I laughed.  If it’s far beyond hammering something or turning a screw, I’m a bit out of my league.  So, I asked, “Is there any way you could help me with this?”  Excitedly, she said, “Yeah!  I’ve changed tons of these.  I just did my whole house last year.”  I was struck in many ways because I don’t think I’ve ever been able to say this about a residence I’ve lived in.  I’ve never “done” anything to my whole house.

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Considering the Significance of Space in Family Relations

Family minivan sticker sets signify a common fallacy in considerations of family life: the belief that “the family” is composed of certain people (and not others), and that it exists in a certain form (and not others). In fact, the stickers themselves–along with the vans to which they are often affixed–are part of an elaborate, and often very public, performance of family. Families are conceptualized in competing ways in sociological research. A great deal of scholarship presents “the family” as an enduring relationship form that structures our lives. Talcott Parsons mistakenly theorized the “traditional family” as though it was a timeless universal—or that it ought to be—glossing over the very real diversity in family forms and family relations.

The problems with Parsons’ understanding of gender and family life are now well-documented (see here and here for two of my favorite critiques), but much of the transformation in gender and family sociology stems from how these apparently static forms (Parsons’ perspective) are actually produced. Speaking of “the family” is already an illusion as the term itself inhibits consideration of the diverse forms families take. Considering “the family” as a collective accomplishment rather than an objective state of being opens up new kinds of questions. Are the joys of the accomplishment of families equally distributed to all of its members? Are the burdens? How are spaces mobilized by families and put to use in the ongoing drama of family life? Do different groups, living in different social contexts, with different kinds and amounts of economic and symbolic resources have equal access to accomplishing the families they want?

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The Gender of Life at and in the Family Home in the Twenty-first Century

During a five year period (2001-2005), a group of physical and cultural anthropologists along with an ethnographic photographer (Jeanne E. Arnold, Anthony P. Graesch, Enzo Ragazzini, and Elinor Ochs) undertook an in-depth study of contemporary family life as a part of the UCLA Center on Everyday Lives of Families.  Some of their findings are published in a short book—Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open their Doors.  The book itself is a dizzying array of information, beautifully depicted in ways that illustrate the rhythms of household life, transformations in social interactions between family members that may not have been anticipated by the architects who designed the homes they live in, the massive collections of stuff that American families collect and consume, and new data helping to understand both how members of the household understand their homes, how they use them, and how they feel inside of them.

The study itself is not generalizable for a number of reasons.  For one, the sample size is only 32 families.  All of the families self-identify as “middle class” (a problematic measure), representing a broad range of neighborhoods in southern California, including a range of ethnic and racial groups, with various occupations.  Most of the families were heterosexual, but two of the families were not.  As the authors put it:

Each family that joined the study consists of two parents who both work full time (or close to it), and two or three children, one of whom is 7-12 years old.  We sought families that were negotiating the many challenges associated with having both parents in the workforce while they were raising young children. (17)

The data collected is the really interesting part of this study.  In addition to interviews with family members, video documentation of their homes, photographs and counts of all of the objects and rooms in the homes, site visits at various points throughout the day, house history questionnaires, detailed architectural floor plans of the homes (included maps of when and how various rooms and spaces were used during the study), the team also had each family use a video camera alone and provide a self-guided tour through their home describing the various rooms as they deemed fit.

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