By Kathleen Quaintance
“What makes a house a home? Unfortunately: revolution alone.” –Sophie Lewis
Everyone of every gender recognizes “home.” Must we continue to conflate domesticity and womanhood? Because we need to redefine domesticity in order to separate it from outdated gendered boundaries, how might we engage in this redefinition? I must first clarify the usage of the terms “domestic(ity). I am not referring to a specific space or set of relations, which are bound to notions of heterosexual family, reproduction and marriage, but rather grasping at “multiple experiences founded in emotions, kinship, friendship, homeslessness, care, and different flows of power within and beyond the household.”  When called to “stay at home,” what are you supposed to do if you don’t have a home? Even if women want to forgo domestic labor in the vein of seventies feminist declaration, the laundry still has to be done – who is going to do it? For how much money?
Marxist feminist scholarship on home divisions reveal that domestic divisions don’t just play out within boundaries of gender. Class and race both impact home-spaces, and the right to have a home-space in the first place. It may be a good time to re-address the legacy of a white feminist refusal of housework: the Marxist feminist scholar Silvia Federici wrote in 1975 that becoming a housewife would be a “fate worse than death.” She has since re-defined her position, asserting that, without a doubt, “the immense amount of paid and unpaid domestic work done by women in the home is what keeps the world moving.”
Following Federici, we must begin to imagine alternative domesticities. She has proposed a movement called Wages for Housework. I am constantly mis-reading the acronym for this movement, WfH, the cutesy acronym for “Work From Home”, a privilege granting safety that is not available to service workers, grocery-store workers, and, of course, domestic workers themselves.
Now is an opportune time to position ourselves towards a future with more just forms of domesticity. Research by queer theorists has proposed and interrogated ideas of alternative forms of kinship in the home-space – as the family structure changes, so does the home. In repairing our personal relationships to domestic labor, we need to refashion our relationship to labor itself towards collectivism. For after the revolution, if and when it comes, domestic labor will definitely still exist. It can’t be willed away, but it can be reconstrued. It cannot disappear, but it can be made fairer and more efficient. Even though it has been around forever, we must understand that it has shifted dramatically throughout centuries – thus, we must imagine how it might shift productively in the future. There are plenty of people normally concerned with reforming waged labor who have yet to seriously consider the problem of unwaged labor. In creating an alternative domesticity we must be careful to not make the same mistakes that have troubled past lived definitions of home life. We must work against the glorification of domesticity, taking care to remember that it has often been considered the product of women’s biological prowess – this is part of why it is difficult for people to imagine an alternative domesticity, because it has so long been defined as a task engrained within women’s DNA. When considering home-space, it’s crucial to affirm the impossibility of spatial purity. Things spill, dishes break, drains clog. Home is not always a refuge, and in plenty of cases, home is where daily violence and abuse occurs. “Home” may be permanent and real, but it doesn’t have to be the oppressive force that it is right now. As it stands, the practice of claiming a “home” has been a very effective vehicle for imperialism, as it was in the log-cabin fairytale of American destiny. Oppression based upon homes and the lack thereof lives on today in the practice of gentrification; its unstable, unjust nature is glaringly obvious in evictions proceeding during a pandemic.
In an ideal world, home could be a base for organizing, for love, for revolution. Everyday life is the arena in which power relations play out, and so it is the space which epitomizes the everyday which undoubtedly requires transformation. It isn’t as if an attempt to enact alternative domesticities has never been made. Indeed, there is a long and rich history of women’s interventions into reforming domesticity. In 1960s America, Black mothers organized to demand wages from the state for their domestic labor in the form of fair and sufficient welfare payment. We can turn to history for ideas about how an alternative domesticity might work in practice: women have organized successful collectivized domestic labour initiatives in the past. This has been done before. Some of these women, outspoken advocates for universal public housing, designed and built homes, kitchens, and entire apartment complexes based upon these principles. Free laundromats, kindergartens, massive communal kitchens with high-tech equipment (for the era), were all amenities advanced by women mostly in the Interwar period in America, Britain, and across Europe.  They imagined a new version of the future on the brink of twentieth-century modernity: they hoped, perhaps naively, that a technologically savvy, modern and efficient society would involve reformed practices of domesticity which involved communalism and universal, equal access to “home,” as a place and a resource.
As we cook dinner together, my archaeologist housemate tells me that woodhenges around ancient Britain served as sites for meal-sharing. In June and July, our communities stockpiled pallets of water to sustain protests and brought hot meals and tents to sleep in to makeshift communes in cities across America. Angela Davis’ words provide a succinct description of the situation we find ourselves in, and what we might do about it: “One of the most closely guarded secrets of advanced capitalist societies involves the possibility – the real possibility – of radically transforming the nature of housework. A substantial portion of the housewife’s domestic tasks can actually be incorporated into the industrial economy. In other words, housework need no longer be considered necessarily and unalterably private in character.”  Now is the time to examine our own attitudes towards home-space while it is so present in our lives, and use the call to stay at home as an opportunity to begin to imagine new ways of sustaining domestic life.
- Pilkey, Brent & Scicluna, Rachael Marie & Gorman-Murray, Andrew. (2015). Alternative Domesticities. Home Cultures. 12. 127-138
- For more on this, see Orleck, Annelise. Storming Caesars Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty. Beacon Press, 2005.
- For more on this, see Delores Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities, and the writings of the women themselves, including Edith Elmer Wood, Elizabeth Denby, and Catherine Bauer. After the second world war came, these exciting potential new ways of doing domesticity were nipped in the bud, as nationalist fervor re-cemented the home, once again, as a site of individualism and the bastion of the nuclear family.
- Davis, Angela Y. Women, Race and Class. Penguin Modern Classics. London, 2019.
Sophie Lewis, “The Coronavirus Crisis Shows It’s Time To Abolish The Family” https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/oureconomy/coronavirus-crisis-shows-its-time-abolish-family/
Victoria Mycue and Kathleen Quaintance, On Moles, December 2019
Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle,
Delores Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities
Sophie Lewis, Houses Into Homes https://uchri.org/foundry/houses-into-homes/
Pilkey, Brent & Scicluna, Rachael Marie & Gorman-Murray, Andrew. (2015). Alternative Domesticities. Home Cultures. 12. 127-138.
Kathleen Quaintance (SLC class of 2020) is an interdisciplinary humanities student and artist pursuing a master’s in Women’s Studies at the University of Oxford. Kathleen’s interests include crafts, theory, and little-known histories.