American feminists of the nineteenth century—women’s rights women—felt they needed a doctrine that would help make their demands for social reform legitimate and at the same time serve as a powerful instrument in their criticism of the conservative institutions under-pinning American society. In flight from the orthodox church at a time when organized religion was still by far the strongest of these institutions, feminists were forced to invent their own god—a god who they felt did not endorse and perpetuate patriarchal systems.
The political impact of religious belief for nineteenth-century women is far from clear; historians of the women’s movement continue to debate the so-called “feminist” and “antifeminist” aspects of women’s faith. On the one side, missionary activities, religious revivals, utopian communities, and social reform work gave many women the energy and legitimacy to determine their own lives. On the other, the orthodox conception of females as hand-maidens of the Lord—and of men—was used to justify their continued exclusion from positions of authority in both clerical and lay organizations. For leaders of the women’s rights movement themselves, however, no conventional religious orthodoxy could be persuasive.
The biographies of feminist leaders of the nineteenth century repeatedly show a progression through the possibilities of faith. Rejecting Calvinism and embracing what was then taken to be a more liberal creed (Quakerism or Unitarianism, for example), these women still tended to become disaffected and they sometimes ended by resorting to spiritualism or even personal deism. In the path from piety to sisterhood to feminist agitation there was usually a sharp break—a sort of “deconversion”—before the end of the route. Some as astute as Elizabeth Cady Stanton recognized that belief in God must be distinguished from control over the ideology and institutions of the church. If women were free to believe and to gain what strength they could through faith, institutionalized power remained in the hands of men.
Perhaps it is not so surprising, in view of this, that many feminists turned to science. They did not suspect they would find the same defects in the institutions of the new god.
William Leach’s True Love and Perfect Union is especially valuable in its exploration of the links between feminist beliefs and the rational, positivist ideology of nineteenth-century science. According to Leach’s evidence, feminists were unable to gain the same kind of objectivity toward the scientific mode of discourse as they had toward the religious.
Leach begins with two promising assumptions: that it is possible to distinguish an ideology of feminism itself; and that feminism, seen against the background of other nineteenth-century ideologies, was “not peripheral to or independent of other reform movements.” These two principles enable Leach to discuss feminist ideology in its relation to the main bourgeois reformist mainstream and to analyze its relation to Progressivism.
Welcome as this approach is in principle, however, it accounts for the book’s discursiveness. Leach feels bound to describe feminism in connection with every neighboring ideology of the later nineteenth century. Rationalism, positivism, idealism, evolutionism, Hegelianism, humanism, sentimentalism, individualism, transcendentalism—the list gives some indication of the author’s tendency to wander from one topic to another. And although his discussions are informed by a discerning if somewhat idiosyncratic grasp of the intellectual and social history of the period, Leach still finishes by saying a little about a great many things.
One obvious problem is the evidence Leach brings to support his argument. Relying mainly on newspapers and other ephemeral sources, he quotes the reformers’ most heartfelt, delightful, and absurd proclamations, and supplies fascinating anecdotal details about a broad range of events, from the “marble palaces” of the first great department stores to Burt Green Wilder’s comparative anatomy courses at Cornell in which he tried to make accurate information on human sexuality available to both men and women. While Leach’s anecdotes convey a colorful sense of the times, they suffer from a certain superficiality since his sources rarely supply the precise context of the remarks or scenes depicted. People and events are noted, quoted, then dispensed with; they are rarely discussed in depth.
But there is a more important explanation for the book’s failure to mount a fully convincing argument. For although he discusses many ideologies, Leach never defines the most important term of all—“feminism.” The closest he comes is a general statement that “most feminists sought to make women productive individuals within a scientifically organized, egalitarian society.” This is fine as far as it goes; but what qualifies someone to be called a feminist in the first place? Leach’s answer seems, at first glance, simple: anyone who can be quoted making a remark characteristic of feminism becomes a feminist. But this definition lets in a rather heterogeneous group, including any number of men who are as much Leach’s subject as feminist women, if not more. And it allows someone to be cast in the feminist mold simply because of a chance remark that might disguise an outlook otherwise profoundly limiting to women. Leach’s one-line description of Henry James, Sr., for example, as a man who “believed that ‘every’ sexual ‘barrier’ should go, freeing women’s ‘activity in any line they themselves chose,”‘ will come as a surprise to readers of Jean Strouse’s Alice James, where a deeper and quite contrary picture of the elder James is given.
Because Leach never says how he defines his sample of feminists or what he regards as the basic tenets of feminism, the reader is left to puzzle over which of these, the evidence or the definition itself, came first. What is more, Leach’s use of the term “feminism” is strategic, indeed essential, to his argument, because it lets him ignore the more explicit and more accurate nineteenth-century term, “the woman movement.” This is an important point, for in Leach’s account of feminism the statements of women and men are treated interchangeably. But “the woman movement,” with its insistence on the singular generic, emphasized the belief that women as such shared something which made a collective effort by them, as women, worthwhile. Although grammatically awkward, this nineteenth-century usage—together with its variants, “the woman question,” “the advancement of woman,” and “woman’s rights”—reflected contemporary concerns more accurately.
Of course there were men who supported the woman movement. One should know who they were and what they thought. On this task Leach’s book makes a good start by bringing to light less well-known names than those of Henry Blackwell and Parker Pillsbury. But what the historian must recognize above all is that the woman movement was fundamentally a protest against the subordination of women to men. That is why attention to gender is essential here, of all places. For if the central issue of the movement—the motivating issue—was sexual subordination, then one naturally wants to know what women were seeking in feminist reform as distinct from what men sought.
Unfortunately, instead of dealing with these questions, Leach devotes much space to quoting such men as a correspondent of T.W. Higginson’s who grandly stated, “This is no woman’s movement…. It is a reformation intended to advance and improve the happiness of men and women equally.” Now no matter how accurate (if sanguine) the latter part of this remark, the ideology of woman’s rights was in fact concerned primarily with the discrepancy in power between men and women. Indeed, it was typically those who opposed the woman movement, not its supporters, who relied on this argument, that men’s and women’s interests were really the same, since in their view that eliminated the need for women to take an active role in public life: if women shared exactly the same concerns as men, why did they need political power?
Because Leach is concerned with class, not gender, he gives only passing attention to one of the most important conceptual hurdles feminists had to overcome. This was the almost universally accepted notion of a separate “woman’s sphere”—an ill-defined space that included housework and child care, and in which women were said to exercise “separate but equal” power. How did feminists, male and female, square this not evidently rational conception with rational feminism? The question is never answered, not for lack of evidence but for lack of focus.
This weakness derives from Leach’s emphasis on situating feminism within the ideology of the progressive, educated bourgeoisie, as he sees it. Leach considers the feminist reform movement part of a more general transformation within nineteenth-century liberalism. Like other reformers, in Leach’s view, feminists were involved in reformulating liberal ideology in ways that would support an elitist, centralized state, while also exemplifying scientific knowledge and rationalism and incorporating humanitarian and cosmopolitan values. Leach finds the new ideas epitomized in the world view of the emerging social sciences. Indeed, the narrative culminates in an analysis of the social vision of the American Social Science Association (ASSA), which Leach considers “the queen of bourgeois reformist organizations.” He writes:
In the name of all classes, in the name of science that crossed all boundaries, in the name of both sexes, and in the name of humanity, [the ASSA] sought to keep or obtain for the educated middle class an invincible place in the institutional and professional centers of American society….
Mid-nineteenth-century feminism reflected in all ways the ideological syndrome of the American Social Science Association. It also reflected how much and how deeply feminist ideas on love and marriage, education and health, religion and science, work and fashion, had been forged within the larger quest by the educated bourgeoisie to quell the turmoil within itself, to clarify power relations within itself, and to reconstruct rationally American social institutions. It indicated how dependent feminists were and how dependent they would remain upon the shifting needs and emerging priorities of their own class.
Although Leach’s analysis is really more applicable to the ASSA itself than to the feminist movement, it is still a powerful and challenging argument. His attempt to integrate feminist thought with that of other reform movements, and his identification of little-known male and female feminists, will help other scholars to explore the reform networks of the post-bellum period. Indeed, Leach adds more substance to an era in which feminism is little known. For example, in his discussion of the changes in attitudes toward sexual frankness, Leach argues persuasively that 1872-1874 was a period of transition during which the radical attitudes of the 1850s and 1860s drowned in a new wave of reactionary propriety—a reaction supported by feminists themselves. Unfortunately, like so many other important issues in this compendious book, the point is dropped almost as soon as it is raised. One hopes that the additional link Leach provides between feminism and Anthony Comstock’s movement against obscene literature will serve as a starting point for other historians.
Leach’s attempt to assimilate feminism into the general outlook of the reformist bourgeoisie may explain too much, however. He implies that bourgeois reformers on the whole were feminist. Then, in addition to pointing out that 40 of the 193 male ASSA members in 1874 openly allied themselves with the woman’s rights movement, he should also have explained why the other 153 did not. Perhaps if he had examined more closely how bourgeois men and women disagreed in their reformism, as well as how they agreed, and if he had investigated who actually ruled the strongholds of the new ideology (apart from the ASSA)—the institutions, the academic and other centers of power—his class analysis would be more persuasive.
If he had dealt with the question of power more rigorously, Leach might also have avoided a number of inconsistencies. For example, in discussing the feminists’ view of individualism—surely an important concern for the historian of bourgeois ideology—Leach ignores the work of Ellen Du Bois and Linda Gordon,1 and fails to recognize what they suggest: that men and women might understand the tradition of individualism, and especially of possessive individualism or “self-ownership,” quite differently. Because he refuses to acknowledge the possibility of such distinctions, he makes vague and contradictory claims—that feminists attacked but at the same time preserved individualism, that they rejected it but were somehow condemned to failure by their attachment to it, and so on.
While Leach attempts unpersuasively to discern in feminist thought a communitarian ethos in opposition to individualism, Dolores Hayden in The Grand Domestic Revolution shows how such an ethos emerged. Evoking the tradition of what she calls “material feminism,” Hayden emphasizes gender rather than class; in more than one sense her book poses an antithesis to Leach’s.
Hayden writes about a feminist past that shows that ours is not the first generation in which women have sought practical means to free their lives from domestic sacrifice. The women who created what she calls the “intellectual, political and architectural tradition” of “material feminism” began that struggle in the years between the Civil War and the Great Depression. Their leaders included women such as Melusina Fay Peirce, Marie Howland, and Mary Livermore, who are little known today. They considered, Hayden writes, “the economic exploitation of women’s domestic labor by men as the most basic cause of women’s inequality.” Because they saw domestic work as the cause of social oppression, they challenged both the physical separation of domestic space from public space and the ideological separation of domestic economy from political economy. They raised fundamental questions about what the concepts of “woman’s work” and “the woman’s sphere” could mean in an era of industrial capitalism. Sexual equality could only come about, they believed, when housework and child care were transformed into social and cooperative labor.
Hayden, like Leach, believes that the separation of private from public issues in the history of feminism is artificial. She argues that the material feminists captured the essence of the woman movement because they united public and private demands: they emphasized that women’s domestic labor was the source of the continuity and reproduction of society, and they aimed both to improve women’s rights in the home and to establish the principle of women’s autonomy in the public sphere. Though a minority, they exercised an influence “far beyond their numerical strength,” Hayden claims, because of the centrality of their arguments.
Material feminism drew on the thought of communitarian (i.e., pre-Marxian) socialism, which considered domestic and industrial labor of equal importance.2 Material feminists thereby avoided both the traditional Marxist neglect of domestic labor and the feminist indifference to class issues; at the same time they benefited from Marx’s insights into the mechanisms of production, and feminist insights into mechanisms of reproduction. Hayden writes:
Only the small group of material feminists…carried on campaigns to end the economic exploitation of household labor, holding…to the belief that women’s labor in the household must be the key issue in campaigns for women’s autonomy. In order to define their feminist struggle for women’s control of their labor, they used economic arguments about women’s work similar to the Marxists’ arguments about men’s work, but they saw gender, rather than class, as the unifying category.
But while the material feminists had a keen perception of sexual injustices, they were far too optimistic about the ease with which they could be eliminated. This resulted in part from the utopianism of their communitarian socialist heritage, and in part from the evolutionary view of social reform shared by many Bellamy Nationalists, Populists, socialists, and liberal reformers of the turn of the century.
American cities were rapidly changing; as population density grew, urban and commercial services were expanded to keep pace, and increasing numbers of multifamily dwellings were built. Material feminists thought these demographic and technological changes must hasten greater socialization and interdependence, and that with proper guidance the liberation of the household would evolve as a natural result. The restructuring of work and the architectural environment, they believed, would in turn allow the peaceful evolution to a classless society.
Of course, many architects, urban planners, and other experts, both in the United States and in Europe, also hoped to solve basic social problems by “remaking” the city. What was unique about the material feminists, according to Hayden, was “their insistence that these economic and spatial changes should take place under women’s control” and their recognition that changes in domestic work would be central to both economic and social transformation. They hoped that such social changes would bring in their wake a natural expansion of women’s freedom and power, as Hayden explains:
The material feminists’ assertion that women must control the socialization of domestic work and child care attacked traditional conceptions of women’s sphere economically, architecturally, and socially. First came demands for housewives’ wages, such as Melusina Fay Peirce articulated: “It is one of the cherished dogmas of the modern lady, that she must not do anything for pay; and this miserable prejudice of senseless conventionality is at this moment the worst obstacle in the way of feminine talent and energy. Let the cooperative housekeepers demolish it forever, by declaring that it is just as necessary and just as honorable for a wife to earn money as it is for her husband….” Demands for workers’ benefits and limitation of hours always accompanied demands for wages to underline the housewife’s current status as an exploited worker.
Melusina Fay Peirce appears briefly in Leach’s book as merely another herald of the new social sciences, but she is treated as a major figure by Hayden. Hayden makes it clear that Peirce was dedicated above all to women’s attaining control over their sphere. Peirce pioneered the idea that housewives should band together into producers’ cooperatives, which she hoped would make them financially independent of their husbands.
As Peirce defined it, groups of twelve to fifty women would organize cooperative associations to perform all their domestic work collectively and charge their husbands for these services. Through membership fees, such a group could purchase a building to serve as its headquarters, furnish it with appropriate mechanical equipment for cooking, baking, laundry and sewing, and supply a cooperative store with provisions. One or two members would manage the association, and many members would work there, although some women might choose to develop other careers or spend more time with their children.
Peirce trusted too much and too naively in the separatist vision. Even when the “cooperative housekeeping” that she organized in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1869 collapsed after only two years because of husbands’ opposition, she refused to modify her views. But her dream of a “cooperative housekeeping” arrangement that would free women from individual domesticity was shared, in one form or another, by each of the six major figures Hayden discusses.
Marie Stevens Howland (1836-1921), for example, went beyond Peirce and strongly advocated not only women’s economic independence and cooperative housekeeping but child care as well. Howland was a self-supporting free-thinker whose experience ranged from millwork in Lowell to cultural radicalism, free love, trade union activism, and residence in several experimental communities. She put together a program, along with an architect and an engineer, to create an experimental community in Topolobampo, Mexico, which was to include cooperative housekeeping services, kitchenless homes, and full-time nursery care. Some of these ideas had been sketched out in Howland’s utopian novel The Familistère (1874), named for the Fourierist cooperative industrial community in Guise, France, which Howland visited and reported on for the American press.
The American woman movement became increasingly conservative after the early 1870s, not just in its attitude toward sexual frankness, an attitude reflecting that of American society of the time, but also in the decline of fervor for experimental communities. Mary Livermore (1820-1905), Hayden’s third subject, personifies this trend. Although she was a prominent member of the Civil War Sanitary Commission and a much sought-after lecturer on the suffrage and temperance circuits immediately after the war, she opposed cooperative housekeeping until the mid-1880s. Only after she had thoroughly investigated cooperative laundries, kitchens, and dining rooms in her travels around the country did she become convinced that they were not only workable but inevitable. She began speaking in favor of both consumers’ and producers’ cooperatives and also strongly supported an increased “professionalization” of domestic labor—the training of young girls by “experts” in household work. Thus Hayden describes Livermore’s program as a “rationalized version of the more passionate enthusiasm of Peirce and Howland.”
The “rationalizing process” continued with the ideas of Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911)—the inventor of “home economics” and an advocate of the public kitchen as a necessary resource for working-class mothers—and, to a lesser extent, of Jane Addams. In her discussion of how home economics took over the cooperative housekeeping ideal of material feminism, we see the full originality and power of Hayden’s perspective. She portrays the ideas of Richards and Addams as the re-routing of an older heritage, and in so doing rewrites the history of domestic science. Her description of the social settlement house (such as Jane Addams’s Hull House) as a new approach to cooperative domestic space is a tour de force.
Of the figures Hayden discusses, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) is perhaps most obviously in the material feminist tradition, for she spent a good part of her adult life denouncing the isolated private home as archaic. It is a mark of Hayden’s originality that Gilman is not the heroine of this story. Gilman’s ideas, far from being unique, relied on the earlier social criticism of other feminists, free-lovers, Nationalists, social settlement workers, and home economists. Moreover, in Hayden’s view, Gilman’s proposals reflected her own distaste for cooperative ventures; her thinking was firmly entrepreneurial, aiming to mobilize women’s household “services” on a “business basis” by employing paid workers.
Ethel Puffer Howes (1872-1950) is the last in the line, a philosopher by training who married late, had children in her forties, and then devoted herself to trying to reconcile women’s family and career through domestic reform. After obtaining Rockefeller funds, Howes established an Institute for the Coordination of Women’s Interests at Smith College in 1926. The Institute tried various domestic experiments—providing cooked food to housewives, day-care programs for preschool children, part-time career training for married women—before its money and support from the college ran out in 1931. Howes might thus be described as a kind of more sober and pragmatic Melusina Fay Peirce: the two women had similar goals, but different methods.
Except for Jane Addams, who is known for her settlement work and her pacifism rather than for material feminism, and Gilman, who has been rediscovered since 1965, these names are not familiar. Indeed, their present obscurity is accounted for in Hayden’s argument: that in the 1920s the live tradition of material feminism was trampled by anticommunism, and virtually obliterated in the decades that followed by the demands of monopoly capitalism for scattered-site industrial location, suburban development, and, most important, an increasing tendency to link the stability of the work force to single-family home ownership.
Hayden’s aim in exhuming material feminism is to gain inspiration from its vision, and to learn from its mistakes. It seems an astonishing feat for her to have discerned this theme of domestic transformation, recurrent and vivid, in polemic, literature, and practical plans over three-quarters of a century. The summary I have given of the major figures in Hayden’s narrative does not reveal the richness of her material and her research. Her book contains numerous photographs and drawings of proposed domestic environments and block-planning; she has collected much evidence of projects to socialize domestic labor, and two appendixes provide additional accounts of thirteen cooperative dining clubs and of twenty cooked-food delivery services throughout the country from 1869 to 1921.
Because Hayden identifies the desire for women’s autonomy as the central ideal of material feminism, she must address the question, which Leach avoids: what was it that unified women as women? And her answer is that women were united by their common domestic labor, and that they accepted this premise—indeed relied on it—for their power and unity. The idea of converting men to household labor is very rare in Hayden’s findings. Virtually all the proposals and schemes, whether for producers’ cooperatives or for cooperative living and dining facilities or for the professionalization of household services, assume that women will not just take the lead in reorganizing the domestic sphere but will continue to perform the work itself.
Hayden’s wish to emphasize how truly revolutionary might be women’s authentic control of their most familiar setting explains her obvious preference for Peirce, who most simply and uncompromisingly held that insight. Yet the power of the Cambridge husbands to put an end to their wives’ cooperative housekeeping project, and the similar collapse of Howes’s noble efforts in her Institute sixty years later, demonstrate a difficulty with this claim. How can feminist politics work from a base of unity in sex-defined functions without limiting women’s power to their “sphere” and that sphere only? That question is not answered here. During the fifty years since Howes’s experiments at Smith we have seen many of the material feminists’ ideas realized—from house-cleaning agencies to fast-food chains—but only as commercial enterprises strictly for those who can afford them, and not, of course, under the control of feminist women.
The reasons for these developments are complex, but there are hints of an explanation in Hayden’s narrative. When so-called “home economics” enters the picture—through the efforts of Ellen Swallow Richards and her colleagues—a contradiction in the material feminist tradition becomes clear, a conflict that the rest of Hayden’s book does little to reconcile. She writes of the professional home economists’ disdain for “untrained” women, their fear of unconventional ventures, their concern with “scientific” standards in housekeeping and food preparation, their shift of emphasis from collective production to efficient consumption and from personal self-help to providing services to the working class by professionals. We are far indeed from Hayden’s original definition of the material feminists’ analysis of women’s collective oppression and their methods of redress.
The diverse personalities Hayden confidently includes as members of the material feminist tradition also raise some doubts: utopian novelists, architects of apartment hotels, planners who envisioned model cities, entrepreneurs of cooked-food delivery services, trade unionists who established cooperative housing. Did they all really begin with a protest against the economic exploitation of women’s domestic labor in the isolated household? And, more important, did all of them see as their goal women’s economic autonomy? The answer must be no.
It is true, of course, that some who attempted to reform domestic organization were closer to material feminist ideas than others. To constitute a “tradition” Hayden has had to look selectively at certain people and practices, and naturally has had to include some reformers whose main interests were not feminist. What unites them is the usefulness, or potential usefulness, of their ideas to the central vision of material feminism. Hayden assesses the gains, the swervings, and the side steps of each successor in the heritage, and tries to specify the diversities and contradictions contained there without losing sight of her initial definition.
Unlike Leach, Hayden suggests that feminism in the late nineteenth century was not a single political entity and that it did not represent the perspective of a single class. The lack of ideological unity among Hayden’s subjects can be viewed as a strength of her argument, for it implies that the fundamental ideas of material feminism were widely diffused, not confined by class or political boundaries. On the other hand, combined with her tendency to recruit urban nonfeminist reformers to the cause, this heterogeneity tends to undermine her attempt to establish a tradition. For stunning as Hayden’s evidence often is, not enough of it is firmly linked to her initial definitions as would be necessary to show that material feminism was a unified tradition and not a short-lived though valuable minority view. And if the “tradition” of material feminism is really a series of disparate and recurrent voices with differing attachments to domestic revolution, then the “backlash” in the 1920s may also be much less solid than Hayden thinks. Perhaps, after much research, one could find people and groups after 1930 advocating domestic reform on behalf of women (but only perhaps).
Still, this is a book to startle and inspire feminists today. Hayden is nowhere more eloquent than when she urges that the social criticism and the utopian visions of material feminists, despite their limits and their blunders, be taken seriously. An architect herself, Hayden has brought history to life by insisting that social problems are also spatial problems, and must be addressed as such by feminists and nonfeminists alike. Not just ideas and attitudes, not just economic and labor organization, but the very rooms we live in must be changed.
March 17, 1983
See Ellen Du Bois, Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848-1869 (Cornell University Press, 1978), and Linda Gordon, Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: A Social History of Birth Control in America (Viking, 1976). ↩
Communitarian socialism, not incidentally, was the subject of Hayden’s previous book, Seven American Utopias: The Architecture of Communitarian Socialism, 1790-1975 (MIT, 1976). ↩