The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities

By Dolores Hayden | Go to book overview
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2 Socialism in Model Villages

The Domestic Critique

The earliest campaigns against traditional domestic life in the United States and Europe were launched by communitarian socialists committed to building model communities as a strategy for achieving social reform. Such reformers believed that the construction of an ideal community would transform the world through the power of its example. They often described the model communal household as a world in miniature, a concept which at once domesticated political economy and politicized domestic economy. Their campaigns against the isolated household were only part of their larger social and economic goals. However, their conviction that the built environment must be transformed to reflect more egalitarian systems of production and consumption persuaded them of the importance of making a full critique of conventional housing and domestic life.

While communitarian socialists conducted hundreds of experiments in the United States during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the theory behind these experiments was first developed in Europe. Among nonsectarian utopian socialists, both English and French theorists advocated collective housework and child care to support equality between men and women. In England, beginning about 1813, Robert Owen published the first of several plans for ideal communities including collective kitchens, dining rooms, and nurseries. Owen's experiments as manager and then as owner of textile mills at New Lanark in Scotland between 1800 and 1824 included the Institute for the Formation of Character (2.1), an early attempt at developmental child care for the children of working mothers. As Owen described it, "the Institution has been devised to afford the means of receiving your children at an early age, as soon almost as they can walk. By this means, many of you, mothers of families, will be enabled to earn a better maintenance or support for your children; you will have less care and anxiety about them; while the children will be prevented from acquiring any bad habits and gradually prepared to learn the best."1 Since this institute was intended to support Owen's claim that environment and not heredity shaped character decisively, fashionable visitors in top hats and bonnets came to observe the experiment. In 1825 Owen's architect, Stedman Whitwell, produced a model of an ideal community (2.2) to be built on the land Owen had purchased from a German religious community in New Harmony, Indiana. He called it a "parallelogram," and it is one of the earliest designs for structured, multi-family housing with community facilities to be built in the United States. Although it was never erected, Owen's experiment at New Harmony did include the establishment of community kitchens, a child care center, and an early women's association in the existing buildings there.

Other English radicals in the Owenite movement shared Owen's goals for women and even went beyond them. In 1825

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