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

March 30, 2012


The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods and Cities, by Dolores Hayden. The MIT Press (1982), Paperback, 384 pages.

An architectural historian looks at the radical feminists who argued, a century ago, that if women were to be equal in the public sphere, they needed to be freed from their total responsibility for the domestic world of home and children. She describes how they designed neighborhoods and apartment buildings to make that possible.

Dolores Hayden explores a path not taken by American society and American feminism. She examines the writings of feminists from around 1900 who believed that women’s inequality in politics and economic life was grounded in the fact that so much of women’s energies went into the “reproductive labor” of maintaining households and raising children. With no reliable birth control easily and publicly available, women of the time had to choose between singleness that would allow a career and married life that inevitably included raising children. The “material feminists” whom Hayden discusses believed that unless career and marriage could be made compatible, women would not be able to perform equally with men.

What is most remarkable about the women that Hayden describes is that they not only wrote about such ideas, they designed domestic spaces that allowed women to share domestic duties with others, lessening the demands on any one wife and mother. In theoretical terms, they “socialized” cooking, cleaning, and childcare into shared spaces. Hayden’s book is full of drawings and plans for “kitchen-less” homes.

Sometimes women in towns and cities across America, from Kansas housewives to the wives of Harvard professors, simply joined forces and traded off chores. Other women planned to hire others to perform socialized domestic tasks. Charlotte Gilman, a major advocate of such reforms, believed that women who chose to work in these domestic centers should be the best trained, most respected, and most highly paid employees, not those whom she considered racially or ethnically inferior.

But nothing came of these radical ideas, as women today who combine employment or careers with family responsibility know all too well. The second wave of feminism advocated that domestic responsibility be equally shared between husband and wife. Maybe more men “help,” but no major change in this direction has taken place. As for “socialized cooking,” many of us rely on commercialized options like McDonald’s which are hardly the kinds of options that feminists once envisioned. And childcare options are even worse.

Neither Hayden and the feminists she described had perfect alternatives to the basic problem of women’s double duty in both the public and private worlds. But the ideas they put forth are intriguing. At least they recognized the problem and tried to come up with alternatives. No one today seems willing to do even that.

I highly recommend The Glorious Domestic Revolution. But I wonder how women will find time to read it, as they shuttle between their offices and their children’s needs.

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