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

By Dolores Hayden | Go to book overview

9 Domestic Evolution or Domestic Revolution?

A slender, dark-haired woman, with a light, penetrating voice and great powers as a speaker, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (9.1) charmed audiences in the last decade of the century in New York and in Topeka, in Kansas City and in London. Her most popular lectures discussed women, men, and the home. Although her eyes flashed with anger or indignation when she spoke of women's oppression, she could quickly change pace, joking, prodding, ridiculing traditionalists who romanticized the Victorian home and woman's place within it: "It is not that women are really smaller-minded, weaker-minded, more timid and vacillating; but that whosoever, man or woman, lives always in a small, dark place, is always guarded, protected, directed and restrained, will become inevitably narrowed and weakened by it. The woman is narrowed by the home and the man is narrowed by the woman." 1

Gilman was by turns practical and fanciful. She might discourse on economics, illustrating her points with anecdotes based on her days as a boardinghouse keeper in Oakland, California, or her struggles as a settlement house worker in Chicago. Or she might picture for her audience an imaginary society, with an ideal set of economic relationships, a place first created in her utopian fiction, such as the California town, Orchardina, where women did no private housework, or the Amazonian country, Herland, where women had governed for centuries, without men, and socialized domestic work was the rule. Gilman stood out among all of the feminists and the futurists of her time as the charismatic person who synthesized the thinking of suffragists, home economists, and utopian novelists on the question of the home, and produced a program for collective domesticity which made her a leading figure in feminist circles in the United States and Europe. In her first book, Women and Economics, published in 1898, and in many subsequent books and articles, she prophesied a world where women enjoyed the economic independence of work outside the home for wages and savored the social benefits of life with their families in private kitchenless houses or apartments connected to central kitchens, dining rooms, and day care centers.

On the basis of her economic, social, and architectural arguments for collective domestic life, she has been judged the most original feminist the United States has ever produced, and she has been described by various scholars as representing "the full elaboration of the feminist impulse" and as putting forward "radical" proposals based on "socialist" premises. 2 Yet her audience included middle-class women and men who were not socialists, as well as Socialist Party women. In many ways her program was a somewhat conservative synthesis of earlier material feminist ideas with popular theories of social evolution. She was witty, lucid, a wonderfully successful popularizer. She used evolutionary theory to support feminism the way an itinerant preacher might use the Bible. She often ignored

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