13 February 2009


Hmm. . . I should look up the original Greek for thesis and make the verb form that way but I'll save that fascinating information for the next post.

I'm in thesis-land for the weekend. I'm writing my thesis on the non-fiction works of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Most people know her from her short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," which is far and away the best piece of fiction she ever wrote, but hardly anybody reads her non-fiction anymore. I'm interested in placing her in the Pragmatist tradition alongside Dewey, James, DuBois and company. She is often claimed as a sociologist but she called herself a philosopher and due to her total lack of quoted statistics, I am inclined to think that she designated herself correctly. Those sociologists: they claim Durkheim and DuBois and Weber and almost any philosopher from 1850 on who wrote about social philosophy. Very naughty of them to poach so.

Gilman's major non-fiction work is "Women and Economics." In this book she puts forward the still startling idea that women have a right to specialized labor outside the home. A right, not a privilege. She supported universal kindergarten, early childhood education, and daycare. She, having been deprived of it herself, said that women must have the same opportunities for formal education as men and then the same employment prospects. She very strongly emphasized the importance of the nature of the work over the amount of pay.

Gilman thought it immoral that anyone should have to do work that they were not suited for because they needed more money. She thought it immoral that women were kept in the home to cater to the needs of its habituants exclusively, conducting endless undifferentiated labor (i.e. switching from cleaning to mending to teaching to cooking and back and forth all the day long.) Women, she thought, had as much right to be a part of the world, voting and working, as men did because they were human also. Too much emphasis had been placed on sex characteristics rather than human characteristics and we had forgotten that women were human before they were women.

This resulted in an excess of romanticism, poor female physiology, prostitution, disease (venereal) and the immolation of half of the world's abilities on the altar of the idea of home. To replace what Gilman considered to be an archaic idea of the home, she proposed the construction of apartment buildings with communal gardens, day care centers, exercise centers, restaurants and apartments with no kitchens. She thought that the kitchenless home would be a healthier place, freeing women from the labor of preparing food or having to fix two dinners, one for children and one for the husband, and also make the home easier to clean. Everyone must have a room of his or her own: privacy was essential to humanity and women, in particular, had been too long denied any such sanctuary.

Gilman was sufficiently well known in her time that several such apartment buildings were actually constructed and a few still exist in the Northeast. Her ideas were similar to those of Melusina Fay Peirce, a philosopher in her own right married to Charles S. Peirce the pragmatist philosopher, but she was more radical in that she suggested that women should be allowed to have the same kinds of work as men while Peirce took women out of the home to work co-operatively but also to work at women's labor (sewing, cooking and so on.)* Both put forward the idea of sharing the labor of the household communally in order to save expense and women's time.

I could go on and on, which I suppose means that I have done my research and that is a good, but I shall stop here for now and in the next post or so I'm going to dig in to the problem of work with reference to Gilman, having been inspired by this post of Kate's on the Agonies and the Ecstasies.

*See "Co-operative Housekeeping," Peirce, Mrs. Charles S. It's out of print but can be found on Google books. A fascinating read.


  1. That was an interesting post and thankyou for the mention. Obviously this is a matter close to my heart as a worker, a mother and someone who runs a household alone. I often feel very sad and frustrated with the increasing privatisation of domestic/family life and the alienation many in situations such as mine can experience. I have attempted to organise informal networks with other single parents -based on fairly simple and obvious principles of sharing labour/resources (child care, cooking etc) but am mostly greeted with horrified looks. It is sad that we seem to have lost the communal ethic. Government and advertising's promotion of the cosy nuclear family closed in and competing with others just reinforces what to me is a very 'unnatural' state of affairs. In the UK social housing and communal living is increasingly neglected and underfunded in favour of private ownership and consumption - particulalry at times like now when we could most benefit from a greater collective effort. Anyway, this isn't my space to go on a socialist rant! I shall kep my eye open for your next post!

  2. Socialists rants are welcome! I'm afraid that your eyes must be propped open a little longer, though, because I must finish the thesis today. I have written this on notecards and posted them around the house to guard against procrastination. I'm five pages farther than when I woke up but I don't think I shall have the time or leftover concentration to write that post until tomorrow.
    I'm going to be thrilled to finish this darned paper.