Cities of equality: the material feminists

Words: Natálie Zehnalová

We spend a lot of our time in environments that were built to fit the requirements of men and the heteronormative family, and are, as a result, often poorly suited for anyone else. Equality is primarily negotiated in theoretical, political, legal frameworks – but how does it play out in the physical realm? 

Concrete proposals to reorganise space, both public and private, to better accommodate the needs of women have in fact been around for well over a century. Even if they were at their core utopian, and not without their own shortcomings, they can serve as a reminder that how we organise the environments we inhabit and the routines we perform impact our lives. 

“No industrial society has ever solved the problems that a sexual division of labour creates for women,” wrote the urban historian Dolores Hayden in 1981. Now professor emerita of architecture, urbanism, and American studies at Yale University, Hayden has spent her career researching inequality between genders in relation to how work is distributed spatially. She points out that confining tasks such as food preparation and childcare into the privacy of the home brings obvious problems for women.

But Hayden wasn’t the first to connect these dots. She herself credits the primacy to a group of feminists in the United States, active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, operating parallel to the first wave of feminism fighting for universal suffrage. ‘Material feminists’, as Hayden calls them, examined the material and economic conditions they found themselves in and identified the exploitation of women’s domestic labour as the most basic cause of women’s inequality. In their view, a woman could not be an equal member of society for as long as she was stuck at home, sweeping floors, dusting shelves and preparing meals. 

This work is invisible, because it takes place behind one’s own walls – and the fact that the work is unpaid creates a relationship of dependence. Material feminists sought to alleviate women’s economic dependence on men by proposing changes in the organisation of housework and spatial arrangement of homes, neighbourhoods and cities. They challenged the separation of men’s and women’s spheres, as well as the division between the private and public characteristics of industrial capitalism. They believed that housework and childcare should be socialised in order for women to become truly equal members of society.

Spatial feminists believed that housework and childcare should be socialised in order for women to become truly equal members of society.

Writing for the journal Atlantic Monthly in 1868, author and activist Melusina Fay Peirce laid out a detailed critique of the domestic economy and proposed a model of what she termed ‘cooperative housekeeping’. She aspired to free women from their chores and allow them to pursue their own interests – a wish that was in part fuelled by the conviction that pressures of housework prevented her mother from following her professional ambitions in music and contributed to her premature death. Pierce envisioned groups of women running professionalised facilities providing services such as cooking and laundry for members of the cooperative. Such an arrangement would ease the burden on individual housewives, grant them the time for other activities, create room for community exchange by bringing women from different backgrounds together and even create jobs. Attempting to put her ideas into practice, she founded the Cooperative Housekeeping Association in Boston in 1870. The experiment ultimately failed because husbands didn’t allow their wives to participate fully. 

Charlotte Perkins Gilman expounded similar ideas. Visions of kitchenless houses and cooperative kitchens providing for multiple households appear across her lectures and fiction. She explained her thoughts more comprehensively in her book Women and Economics, published in 1898. But Gilman’s own work and the aims of the movement at large contains contradictions that contributed to their ultimate failure – most importantly, their neglect of issues of race and class. The movement was organised by white middle-class women for white middle-class women, and their proposed solutions relied on the labour of servants, mostly Black or immigrant women, whose own households and struggles were never considered. Gilman herself expressed in her other work opinions echoing social Darwinism and the belief that people of other races were less developed than their white counterparts. 

But it was external factors that really contributed to the movement’s deterioration. Those included, paradoxically, the achievement of women’s suffrage, which led to an overall decline in feminist activity based on the assumption that the main goal had been accomplished. Wide-spread red-baiting (the discrediting of ideas perceived socialist or communist), too, and attacks from industrial corporations who had an immediate economic interest in preventing the socialisation of domestic work further shattered the movement. Companies heavily promoted an ideal of a single family living in their privately-owned suburban dwelling because it promised greater profits. The final ideological defeat came with the state support for homeowners expressed in the Hoover Commission Report of 1931. 

The material feminist legacy faded quickly, and their ideas got lost in the whirlwind of history. But the unfair division of unremunerated household labour and care for family members – not only for children, but also for the elderly as the population ages – remain both highly relevant and entirely unresolved. Some recent solutions which diffuse the boundary between private and communal living, such as apartments clustered around a shared kitchen, point in a similar direction as material feminists of the late nineteenth century. Hayden, who contributed to the renewal of interest in their school of thought in the 1980s, had an important point when she wrote: “Any socialist, feminist society of the future will find socialising domestic work at the heart of its concerns, and, along with it, the problem of freedom versus control, for the individual, the family, the community, and the nation.” 

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Natálie Zehnalová is a Berlin-based writer and a graduate student of Cultural Studies and Cultural Semiotics at the University of Potsdam. She is particularly interested in cultures, histories and identities outside the spotlight.  Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.