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

By Dolores Hayden | Go to book overview

12 Coordinating Women's Interests

A Philosopher Takes Command

In 1868 Melusina Fay Peirce campaigned for cooperative housekeeping with a series of articles in the Atlantic Monthly. Fifty-four years later Ethel Puffer Howes (12.1) launched her proposals for community kitchens, day care, and women's work outside the home in the same periodical. 1 A comparison of their careers illustrates how much the theory and practice of material feminism had developed in that critical half century. While Peirce had emphasized the need for women to reorganize "woman's sphere," Howes stressed her desire to enlarge the scope of "male" career possibilities for married women. Peirce had studied at the Young Ladies' School of Agassiz and was a pioneer campaigner for women's undergraduate education before Harvard admitted women at all; Howes studied at Harvard and received a Ph.D. from Radcliffe. Peirce had been frustrated in her aspirations for a scientific career, but Howes enjoyed a successful academic career in philosophy before turning to domestic reform. Although both believed in cooperation as an economic strategy for women, for Howes, this was a concrete term linked with the activities of the Rochdale pioneers, the Finnish and Jewish cooperative homebuilders in New York, and many successful community kitchens; for Peirce, cooperation had been a broader, vaguer, and more elusive ideal. Howes enjoyed years of administrative experience as Executive Secretary of the National College Equal Suffrage League and as an active member of the American Association of University Women, while Peirce, despite her many memberships in women's organizations, was never a really capable administrator. Howes recruited experienced and committed people, whereas not all of Peirce's "cooperators" had stood behind her. In short, Howes was a seasoned general, while Peirce had been a young idealist. Yet Howes had hardened opposition to face. Her experiment may be said to be an emphatic defeat for housewives' cooperatives and feminist motherhood, while Peirce's was but an early skirmish in the domestic revolution. Understanding the strengths of Howes's leadership, as well as the weaknesses of her strategy is essential to any feminist who chooses to take this issue further.

Ethel Puffer was born in Framingham, Massachusetts, in 1872, the oldest of four gifted sisters. Considered "one of the most brilliant students" ever to graduate from Smith College, she earned her B.A. in 1891, at age nineteen, and accepted an instructorship in mathematics there before traveling to Berlin and Freiburg in 1895 for graduate study. In Germany she began work on the aesthetics of symmetry, which she returned to pursue at Harvard, combining work in philosophy and experimental psychology with George Santayana, William James, and Hugo Munsterberg. In 1898, a larger group of faculty examined Puffer, finding her "unusually well qualified" for the doctorate, but Harvard could not award a woman a Ph.D. at that

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