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

By Dolores Hayden | Go to book overview

4 Housewives in Harvard Square

Unnatural Sacrifice

In 1868 Melusina Fay Peirce, an angry housewife, rebelled at what she called the "costly and unnatural sacrifice" of her wider talents to "the dusty drudgery of house ordering." 1 She proposed that women unite to take control over their lives and work, and suggested that totally new approaches to urban design would result. One of the first women to make a detailed economic critique of domestic life in the United States, Melusina Fay Peirce demanded pay for housework and organized the women of her own town to get it. Since she lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and her colleagues were the wives and daughters of the literary and intellectual elite, she was assured of publicity. Her campaign against traditional homemaking and traditional housing introduced the term "cooperative housekeeping."

Born in Burlington, Vermont , in 1836, Melusina Fay (4.1) was one of six daughters and three sons of an Episcopal minister, and a descendant of the outspoken Anne Hutchinson. After the death of her mother, whose life, her daughter believed, had been shortened by an endless round of domestic work, she attended the Young Ladies' School of Professor Louis Agassiz in Cambridge. While in Cambridge, she met Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce was also a student of Agassiz, and perhaps this was his introduction to Melusina Fay. They were married in 1862, and a year later he was invited to lecture in the philosophy of science at Harvard. One biographer reports that she "joined him in his early scientific work"; another says she was "something of a scientist in her own right." 2 It cannot have been an easy marriage, for the thirteen years it lasted, but she made her protests against male chauvinism in general rather than against Charles in particular.

In 1868, after six years of marriage, thirty-two-year-old Melusina Peirce felt the "costly and unnatural sacrifice" of her wider talents. She wrote of American middle-class men dampening young women's aspirations:

Has a wife an eager desire to energize and perfect some gift of which she is conscious, her husband "will not oppose it," but he is sure that she will fail in her attempt, or is uneasy lest she make herself conspicuous and neglect her housekeeping. Or if a daughter wishes to go out into the world from the narrow duties and stifling air of her father's house, and earn a living there by some talent for which she is remarkable, he "will not forbid her," perhaps, but still he thinks her unnatural, discontented, ambitious, unfeminine; her relatives take their tone from him; nobody gives her a helping hand; so that if she accomplishes anything it is against the pressure--to her gigantic --of all that constitutes her world. If her strength and courage fail under the disapproval, they rejoice at the discomfiture which compels her to become what they call a "sensible woman." 3

Of course, she never became a "sensible woman."

She identified the cause of women's economic and intellectual oppression as unpaid, unspecialized domestic work. In a

-67-

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