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

By Dolores Hayden | Go to book overview

1 The Grand Domestic Revolution

A Lost Feminist Tradition

Cooking food, caring for children, and cleaning house, tasks often thought of as "woman's work" to be performed without pay in domestic environments, have always been a major part of the world's necessary labor (1.1). Yet no industrial society has ever solved the problems that a sexual division of this labor creates for women. Nor has any society overcome the problems that the domestic location of this work creates, both for housewives and for employed women who return from factories and offices to a second job at home. This book is about the first feminists 1 in the United States to identify the economic exploitation of women's domestic labor by men as the most basic cause of women's inequality. I call them material feminists because they dared to define a "grand domestic revolution" 2 in women's material conditions. They demanded economic remuneration for women's unpaid household labor. They proposed a complete transformation of the spatial design and material culture of American homes, neighborhoods, and cities. While other feminists campaigned for political or social change with philosophical or moral arguments, the material feminists concentrated on economic and spatial issues as the basis of material life.

Between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Great Depression, three generations of material feminists raised fundamental questions about what was called "woman's sphere" and "woman's work." They challenged two characteristics of industrial capitalism: the physical separation of household space from public space, and the economic separation of the domestic economy from the political economy. In order to overcome patterns of urban space and domestic space that isolated women and made their domestic work invisible, they developed new forms of neighborhood organizations, including housewives' cooperatives, as well as new building types, including the kitchenless house, the day care center, the public kitchen, and the community dining club. They also proposed ideal, feminist cities. By redefining housework and the housing needs of women and their families, they pushed architects and urban planners to reconsider the effects of design on family life. For six decades the material feminists expounded one powerful idea: that women must create feminist homes with socialized housework and child care before they could become truly equal members of society. 3

The utopian and pragmatic sources of material feminism, its broad popular appeal, and the practical experiments it provoked are not well known. Since the 1930s, very few scholars or activists have even suspected that there might be such an intellectual, political, and architectural tradition in the United States. In the early 1960s, when Betty Friedan searched for a way to describe the housewife's "problems that have no name," and settled on the "feminine mystique," Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Women and Economics (subtitled

-3-

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