I thought that I would work out some of my ideas concerning Charlotte Perkins Gilman on this space, as a sort of rehearsal for my dissertation chapter that I am completing. There something inhibiting about putting the ideas there, so I thought this might be a good way of thinking through my project in a slightly less formal way. I want to make a particular argument about the relationship between race, labor, and consumerism within these pages. As I have previously noted, there is a considerable amount of revisionist scholarship dealing with the centrality of race and specifically a type of evolutionary racism in the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. This work was initially started by Gail Bederman in her text, Manliness and Civilization, but it was continued by Michele Newman in her text, White Women's Rights, and Alys Weinbaum in her text, Wayward Reproductions. Each of these texts places Gilman's racism at the center of her theoretical and political projects. Bederman does this through Gilman's focus on rewriting the dominant discourses on the concept of civilization, which allow for a change in status for white women, while reinforcing ways of naturalizing racial domination. Newman and Weinbaum each focus on the racial biopolitics implicit in Gilman's particular take on reform Darwinist project in conversation with both Social Darwinism and Eugenics. These projects succeed in placing this racism at the heart of Gilman's political projects, rather than acting as some sort of unfortunate accidental remainder that marked her as a part of her times. Instead, Gilman's racism and demands for gender reform share at their core, the same theoretical framework, one that constructs a hierarchy of races, and sees the need for more opportunities for women and a professionalized home economics as a way of fully bringing white women into modernity.
At the same time, I think that these engagements with Gilman are incomplete. Gilman is certainly drawing from a racialized notion of the biopolitical control of population, but as Foucault would note, the biopolitical is the borderline zone between a particular biological notion of man as species, and an economic conceptualization. What I want to argue is that Gilman imagines her biopolitical projects of reform in economic terms, emphasizing the need to bring the labor practices and consumption practices of the household into the modern processes of mass production that were just beginning to be introduced into the factories at a multiplicity of sources. My initial impulse to follow this train of thought came out of my reading of a short article of Gilman’s contained in the 1980 collection, The Politics of Housework. Gilman’s article, “The Home: Its Work and Influence” poses a substantial challenge to the 19th century cult of motherhood, but that challenge operates through her evolutionary, Darwinist framework. Gilman poses a need to modernize the ‘primeval’ labor of the household with the new forms of expertise developed in the disciplines of ‘Household Science’ and ‘Domestic economics.’ Building on this new disciplinary framework, she proposes the sweeping away of the amateur, sentimentalized labor of the isolate household replacing it with newer, efficient, scientific procedures and techniques. Critic Sally Stein amongst others has explored the impact of assembly line production techniques on the conventional structures of the household, bringing not only the new technologies of the era into the house, but also the techniques developed in the Taylorist division of labor. The same forms of time-motion study used in the workplace to economize the movement of the worker were envisioned and implemented in the transformation of household labor, producing an instrumentalized economy of the household. Despite Gilman’s ability to shock sensibilities, her new experimental household built upon the techniques of domination and exploitation developed in the workplace, rather than challenged them
It’s important to note that Gilman’s vision of the new, managed space of domestic and reproductive labor is not the privatized space of the household that eventually becomes the dominant post-war structure. Rather than translating the scientific management of Fordist modes of production to the privatized space of the home, Gilman proposes a far more direct model, proposing collective modes of daycare, cooking, and other aspects of domesticity. Unlike the later attempts to organize around the concept of wages for housewives who saw their campaign as a larger struggle to bring down the capitalist world system, Gilman was genuinely committed to these modes of collectivized, trained wage labor positions. However, her vision of modernizing the labor of the household presented a similar challenge to the erasure of that labor within the sentimentalized guise of motherhood. Although Gilman’s projection of the Fordist collective household draws upon and legitimates the apparatuses of expertise later to legitimate what Betty Friedan would later call ‘the feminine mystique,’ it cannot be read as a simple blueprint of the post-war economy.
Although it is perhaps unfashionable to mention this within current critical standards, it's important to note that Gilman's critique of the primitive nature of the household operates on a fundamental error. As Ruth Schwarz Cohen amongst other have noted, the notion of housework as a separate category of labor was only comprehensible quite recently. Before industrialization, the separation of household labor from other forms of labor was far less common. Cohen points out some of the mythic aspects of the funtionalist analysis of the household, of the totally sufficient large agrarian family. Earlier economic systems had specialized craftsman such as candlemakers, as well as servants. But the workplace and the household were interconnected. In truth the position of an isolated housewife arose with industrialization. As new technologies were developed in order to store food, clean, etc., housewives become increasingly isolated. On one hand, the workplace becomes increasingly disconnected, on the other hand, the middle-class household needs less servants. Increasingly the middle class household is one without servants. This affects both the middle class who are working on their own and working class who are no longer working in those households. Let's be honest, these relationships were often contentious and exploitative, but they gestured towards a different type of collective labor in the household. The lone housewife far from being a primitive hold over from an earlier era, was a carefully constructed function, through a combination of new consumer technologies which reached their height slightly after Gilman's height as a popular commentator, and a whole set of popular discourse disseminated in the form of books and magazines. This shift leads to an intensification of labor on the part housewives. The level of labor remains consistent, and that labor is tied to intensified emotional expectations on the part of the housewife, often symptomized in the form of guilt.
This process cannot be separated from the sorts of policies of racial assimilation that are also advocated by Gilman. To understand this, we need to look at the phenomenon of the settlement house, which Gilman was briefly apart of. Settlement houses were often seen as civilizing missions, equivalent to the missions in colonized countries. Instead of pacifying indigenous populations, these houses were in existence to assimilate recent immigrations, primarily from Southern and Eastern Europe. This work has ties to the attempts on the part of white women to provide forms of popular education to African-Americans. In both cases, the civilizing process was tied to the modern division of the home, educating women in hygiene, new consumption patterns, and childcare, while implicitly disciplining men to act as waged laborers. The empty homogenous field of the marketplace constituted the modernity that was needed to assimilate into the dominant society. It's notable that the particular emphasis on a kind of Lamarckian racial theory wasn't universal, but it certainly constituted the primary drive in the case of Gilman. Although she moved away from settlement work, she never moved away from these basic goals of assimilation, even as she became more skeptical of its prospects. (Another example of this process were the reform efforts to assimilate American Indians around the same period of time, reform efforts that still have devastating effects on those communities to this day.)
At this point, this is pretty rough, but I think it gestures towards a way of thinking through the complexities of biopolitics in a different way... a very initial step, to be sure....