Many of us have been stuck inside our homes for over a year now. What, if anything, did we learn from the experience? As we are about to return to the world outside the home, I suggest we get philosophical and explore what the home means to us, through the eyes of the women philosophers of the past.
A lot of us have been stuck inside our homes for over a year now – those of us, that is, lucky enough to have a home and a job we could work at remotely. These homes had to be kept clean enough to be lived in – or else we came up close and personal with piles of laundry, spider webs, and grimy baths. What, if anything, did we learn from the experience? According to studies conducted during the early months of our confinement, some couples reverted to gender stereotypes, with women doing the majority of the housework. While this – rightly – sparked outrage among feminists, some women reveled in this enforced domesticity, and took this opportunity to re-enact a version of the Fifties white suburban way of life, arguing that they could only be fulfilled when submitting to their husbands, and posting photos of themselves wearing pretty aprons, feather duster in one hand, while the other hand places a dinner roast in the oven.
Citizens of countries who have the vaccine are now about to return to the world outside the home. Perhaps those final few days or weeks or months of confinement would be a good time to turn inwards, get philosophical and explore what the home means to us, not just now, but in our lives before COVID-19. And because we see the return to domesticity – whether positive or negative – as a step into the past, I suggest we reflect on it by asking what the women philosophers of history had to say about the home and the work that goes into its upkeep. We’ll start with Simone de Beauvoir, and travel back to the nineteenth century with Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Frances Harper, and then to the eighteenth century with Mary Wollstonecraft.
Simone de Beauvoir: Domesticity and Bad Faith
For Simone de Beauvoir, author of The Second Sex, there was no question that domesticity was a restraint specifically designed to hold women back while facilitating men’s advancement in life.
The home, she argued, is absolutely central to the life of a couple or family, it is what defines the couple or the family. But a man’s function is more than that of a husband or father, because he works, and because he has a life outside the home, whereas a woman is supposed to be, first and foremost, a wife and mother – even if she works outside the home – and these are functions which tie her to the home. Given this, Beauvoir argues, it is natural that the woman should seek some pleasure in her occupations, and that she should try to better her own life at least by taking pride in the surroundings she is responsible for and that often confine her:
Man has only a middling interest in his domestic interior because he has access to the entire universe and because he can affirm himself in his projects. Woman, instead, is locked into the conjugal community: she has to change this prison into a kingdom. (1)
But domestic occupations are not inherently rewarding, according to Beauvoir. She describes domesticity as akin to the fate of Sisyphus:
Legions of women have in common only endlessly recurrent fatigue in a battle that never leads to victory. Even in the most privileged cases, this victory is never final.
Few tasks are more similar to the torment of Sisyphus than those of the housewife; day after day, one must wash dishes, dust furniture, mend clothes that will be dirty, dusty, and torn again. The housewife wears herself out running on the spot; she does nothing; she only perpetuates the present; she never gains the sense that she is conquering a positive Good, but struggles indefinitely against Evil. It is a struggle that begins again every day. (1)
How did Beauvoir reconcile her claim that women found pleasure in housework with the idea that housework was inherently unpleasant? Beauvoir not only thought that domestic work was a form of drudgery, but choosing housewifery, and sometimes motherhood, struck her as examples of bad faith. Women, she argued, don’t really enjoy doing the housework or changing diapers, or if they do, it is because they have forced themselves to stop looking for enjoyment in more rewarding places.
Bad faith for Beauvoir meant something different than what it meant for Sartre. Sartre saw bad faith as using one’s situation as an excuse for one’s life – “I am a wife, I can only obey my husband” or “I am a mother, my nature dictates that I should care for my children.” Sartre, rejecting essentialism, believed that one could always choose to react differently to one’s situation, except for one odd essentialism of his own: human beings, he thought, were bound to fall into the category of dominator or dominated. Beauvoir rejected this essentialism too:
If Sartre thought human beings were by nature doomed to desire domination, then there really was no exit from living our own oppressors. Beauvoir’s philosophy, by contrast, refused “the consolations of lies and resignations” – it was an excuse to think that it’s just human nature to dominate or submit. (2)
This was an ethical disagreement: for Sartre, a woman’s bad faith is measured according to her failure to participate in male projects of seduction. (3) Beauvoir’s ethical stance was, like Sartre’s, underlain by a metaphysical one. Sartre believed that we became free through a situation, that we could realize our freedom by transcending that situation. But Beauvoir objected that women’s situations were not and could not be transcended, because they were part of the world that made them who they were, and in many cases, that world made it impossible for them to assert their freedom. Turning away from Sartre’s analysis, she went back to Heidegger and the idea that human beings are at one with their world (Mitsein) and to Husserl’s phenomenology in order to make it clear that it is the lived experience of women, rather than their situation, that we need to focus on in order to help them achieve freedom. (2,4)
So how does this help us understand women’s relationship to the home? Women, for Beauvoir, cannot simply transcend their situation, nor should they accept it as inevitable: there is something that can be and should be done. Resistance to any given aspect of women’s lives, whether it is domesticity, motherhood, or subservience, is hard, but not futile, and it involves turning the world around, one meaning at a time.
But what singularly defines the situation of woman is that being, like all humans, an autonomous freedom, she discovers and chooses herself in a world where men force her to assume herself as Other: an attempt is made to freeze her as an object and doom her to immanence, since her transcendence will be forever transcended by another essential and sovereign consciousness. Woman’s drama lies in this conflict between the fundamental claim of every subject, which always posits itself as essential, and the demands of a situation that constitutes her as inessential. How, in the feminine condition, can a human being accomplish herself? What paths are open to her? Which ones lead to dead ends? How can she find independence within dependence? What circumstances limit women’s freedom and can she overcome them? (1)
Beauvoir’s account is in some ways outdated. The situation of a woman in a marriage is not what it was in 1949. Women often have careers that are as valuable in economic and personal terms as men, and there seems no reason why they should seek value for their lives in a beautiful home. Yet, women still perform most of the housework, and it is often they, rather than men, who still care that the home should be pretty and comfortable as well as clean and functional: it is mostly women, not men, who plump the cushions. So the question is whether this is a harmless leftover from a time when women were confined to the home, and could not find value for their lives outside what they did there, or whether there is something more sinister at stake, and whether we should fight our urges to straighten the throw on the sofa.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman – Domesticity as a cure for feminism
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was a feminist novelist, journalist, and social philosopher, known for her science fiction feminist novel, Herland, her short story about a woman suffering from post-natal depression, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and a series of treatises and articles on social reforms, including The Home, its Work and Influence (5,6,7). Homes, she argued, although they are necessary to human flourishing, need a thorough rethink, as in their present form they cause more harm than good and help perpetuate oppressive myths about gender. One of her pet peeves was the kitchen, which she regarded as a source of oppression for women and poor health for the whole family. Much better, she argues, to have food prepared by professionals, and a home that is kept clean and free of disease.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Perkins Gilman’s reflections on domesticity is that she links it to a concerted effort to prevent women from realizing their potential. Domesticity was perceived as the natural state for women to be in, and pursuits that took away from it, especially intellectual or artistic pursuits, were seen to have a negative effect on women’s health. Perkins Gilman found this out first hand when she experienced post-natal depression and was sent to consult the famous physician Silas Weir Mitchell, a pioneer of neurology who specialized, among other things, in the treatment of “hysterical women”. Weir Mitchell’s mission, when treating a woman, was to help her become “more loving, giving, gentle with her family, and more peacefully content with herself” through overfeeding and oversleeping (8).
Perkins Gilman took Weir Mitchell’s rest cure, and of course hated it. Most of her difficulties with motherhood, on top of the hormonal issues that most sufferers of postnatal depression have to deal with, was the fact that she had less time to do the work or the physical exercise she thrived on. Like her aunt Catharine Beecher (1800-1878), a social reformer who advocated for women’s education but opposed their suffrage, Perkins Gilman was a fitness freak, going to the gym daily, taking classes, and running.
In an article published in the October 1913 issue of The Forerunner, “Why I wrote the Yellow Wallpaper,” Perkins Gilman describes her experience with Weir Mitchell’s rest cure:
For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia – and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still-good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to “live as domestic a life as far as possible,” to “have but two hours’ intellectual life a day,” and “never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again” as long as I lived. This was in 1887. I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over. (9)
For Perkins Gilman, the enforced domesticity of women was harmful, not just socially or ideologically, but because it affected women’s health. The idea that a happy woman was a domestic woman was, as far as she was concerned, propaganda designed to weaken women politically, intellectually, but also physically.
Frances Harper: Domesticity as an aid to emancipation
Frances Harper (1825-1911) was a free-born abolitionist poet and speaker. A contemporary of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, she also wrote about the home and its place in human progress. Unlike Perkins Gilman, she believed that domesticity was an aid to women’s emancipation. Perkins Gilman, a racist, regarded black people as inferior, and therefore did not concern herself with any particular issues that black women might face. Harper argued that black women faced the same problems that white women did, but that as black women, and women who had often been born into slavery, they also faced a number of other issues. Harper was not merely agreeing with the likes of Catharine Beecher who promoted a difference feminism – that is, a form of feminism that valorizes the differences it recognizes between men and women; differences often drawn, but not always, from an essentialist view of gender. Beecher believed that women were particularly fitted to domestic work and that they drew strength and power from the good management of home and children. For Harper, part of the defense of domesticity was not merely supposed to help women, but aimed at the betterment of the life conditions of the black people of America.
In a letter to a Philadelphia correspondent, Frances Harper wrote the following:
While I am in favor of Universal suffrage, yet I know that the colored man needs something more than a vote in his hand: he needs to know the value of a home life; to rightly appreciate and value the marriage relation; to know how and to be incited to leave behind him the old shards and shells of slavery and to rise in the scale of character, wealth and influence. Like the Nautilus outgrowing his home to build for himself more “stately temples” of social condition. A man landless, ignorant and poor may use the vote against his interests; but with intelligence and land he holds in his hand the basis of power and elements of strength. (10)
Part of Harper’s concern is with men and drinking: as a temperance activist, she feared that the whole human race was at risk of hereditary depravity and that black people, more vulnerable to social ills because of their recent insertion in free American society, were particularly to be protected. A good home, where you can come home to after a day’s work, where you can be happily surrounded by a loving family, and where churchgoing and Bible reading are common pastimes, is the best remedy against alcoholism.
She also knew from her own experience that it is hard for a black female to maintain a home without a husband. Having lost her own husband to premature death, she found herself kicked out of her home and all her possessions reclaimed. “I did not feel,” she recalled in a 1866 talk to a National Woman’s Rights Convention in New York, “as keenly as others, that I had these rights, in common with other women, which are now demanded.”
But why should the home be a priority for someone who has had no freedom of movement, someone who was forced to live and work on the land of a man who had the right to beat, rape, or sell her? Why should such people, upon becoming free, seek to live in the way of their oppressors, adopting the same notions of respectability, the same structures, and the same values? Why should they, to recycle Audre Lorde’s words, use the tools of the master, not to dismantle the master’s house but to build a similar one for themselves? (11)
A slightly more nuanced interpretation is needed here. Harper’s arguments came from a different position than Catherine Beecher’s. Beecher believed that domestic women held a position of power in society, and that to relinquish that for equality and the vote would mean losing important influence in the various charities they controlled. Harper’s position takes into account the lives of black men and women, their attempts at making a place for themselves in American society, and the backlash they were confronted with from people who had agreed they should be free, but nonetheless did not want them to live among them as equals and looked for every opportunity to show that they were not. So, a non-domesticated, alcohol-addicted black man was not just that, but also an indictment against all black men and women. On the other hand, a home meant a way of entering society from a stable position, which includes not only a home and a church, but also a school district, a job, shops, and access to medical care. For that reason, it is wrong to read Harper as moralizing even if we can question her actual allegiance to the value of domesticity.
Mary Wollstonecraft: The slovenly philosopher
Mary Wollstonecraft was not known for her dedication to domesticity. She is said to have once entertained the Marquis de Talleyrand in her lodgings on George Street, and served him tea, then wine, in a breached teacup. John Knowles, the 19th century biographer of a man who rejected Wollstonecraft in 1792, Henri Fuseli, described her as a “sloven,” citing the breached teacup anecdote as evidence.
Fuseli found in her (what he most disliked in woman) a philosophical sloven: her usual dress being a habit of coarse cloth, such as is now worn by milk-women, black worsted stockings, and a beaver hat, with her hair hanging lank about her shoulders. These notions had their influence also in regard to the conveniences of life; for when the Prince Talleyrand was in this country, in a low condition with regard to his pecuniary affairs, and visited her, they drank their tea, and the little wine they took, indiscriminately from tea-cups. (12)
Was she a sloven, or just poor? Her philosophical views are not overly concerned with domesticity: mothers, she says, must care for their children, but once the children are in school, if they can leave the running of the house to servants, so much the better, and then they can give themselves over to intellectual, political, artistic, or even scientific pursuits instead. Wollstonecraft, after a life of renting and traveling, finally did settle down to a house near Kings’ Cross, with her husband Godwin. But even then, their domestic arrangements were far from traditional, and they were apart more often than not during the day. According to Godwin, she did enjoy domesticity, but domesticity as family life, rather than housekeeping:
She was a worshipper of domestic life. She loved to observe the growth of affection between me and her daughter, then three years of age, as well as my anxiety respecting the child not yet born. […] It is perhaps scarcely necessary to mention, that, influenced by the ideas I had long entertained upon the subject of cohabitation, I engaged an apartment, about twenty doors from our house in the Polygon, Somers Town, which I designed for the purpose of my study and literary occupations. Trifles however will be interesting to some readers, when they relate to the last period of the life of such a person as Mary. I will add therefore that we were both of us of opinion, that it was possible for two persons to be too uniformly in each other’s society. Influenced by that opinion, it was my practice to repair to the apartment I have mentioned as soon as I rose, and frequently not to make my appearance in the Polygon, till the hour of dinner. We agreed in condemning the notion, prevalent in many situations in life, that a man and his wife cannot visit in mixed society, but in company with each other; and we rather sought occasions of deviating from, than of complying with, this rule. By these means, though, for the most part, we spent the latter half of each day in one another’s society, yet we were in no danger of satiety. We seemed to combine, in a considerable degree, the novelty and lively sensation of a visit, with the more delicious and heart-felt pleasures of domestic life. (13)
So what do women philosophers of the past teach us about domesticity? Possibly the strongest message is that no matter how much good homes can do for families, communities, and societies, they are so rigged with harmful gender prejudice that it seems almost inconceivable that homes will ever become a place where parity, justice, and respect flourish alongside health and cleanliness. This is a rather negative picture to take home (pun intended), but bear with me: Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex three quarters of a century ago. We have, since then, started to rethink some of our gender prejudices to the extent that it is no longer the case that all men who do their share of housework get described as ‘pussy-whipped.’ The very fact that the COVID-19 experience – which saw us reverting to older, gendered distribution of housework – was described by all as a step back is positive. We can be thrown back, temporarily, into a world where domesticity is toxic for women, but we have, on the whole, progressed.
- Beauvoir, S., “The Second Sex”, translated by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, 2009.
- Fitzpatrick, K., “Becoming Beauvoir”, 2019.
- Moi, T., “Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman”, 2008
- Garcia, M., “We Are Not Born Submissive: How Patriarchy Shapes Women’s Lives”, 2021.
- Perkins Gilman, C., “Herland”, 195l
- Perkins Gilman, C., “The Yellow Wall Paper,” 1892.
- Perkins Gilman, C., “The Home, Its Work And Influence”, 1903.
- Hill, Mary A., “Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Making of a Radical Feminist 1860-1896”, 1980.
- Perkins Gilman, C., “Why I Wrote the Yellow Wallpaper”, The Forerunner, 1913.
- Still, W., “The Underground Railroad”, 1872
- Lorde, A., “Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches”, 1984.
- Knowles, J., “Life and Writings of Henry Fuseli”, 1831.
- Godwin, W., “Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”, 1798.