Social philosopher Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a contemporary of Shaw – Judith Allen said that 'she is the Bernard Shaw of America; or should we say that Bernard Shaw is the Charlotte Perkins Gilman of England?' (2009, 2) – wrote that :
every human being should have a home. The single person his or her own home; and the family their home. […] The home should offer to the individual rest, peace, quiet, comfort, health and that degree of personal expression requisite; and those condition should be maintained by the best methods of the time
Unfortunately, Gilman goes on to argue in The Home, Its Work and Influence, these conditions do not in general obtain for most people who do have homes. Homes as they were in nineteenth century North America did not provide much for children, especially in terms of health, education or personal development, no peace, rest or comfort for servants, who lived in a house that was not their home, but that of their employers, and very little for women, for whom the home meant first and foremost confinement, and domestic labour. The myth of the home, Gilman argued, was a dangerous one, which not only perpetuated misery for many, but also obscured the importance of the public sphere, in particular places of learning, for human progress and wellbeing.
The home, for Perkins Gilman, was a necessary part of human flourishing, but a very different institution from what it was perceived to be in the era of the Cult of Domesticity, where women were perceived as angelic creatures, making the home a place of health and virtue by drawing on their natural feminine character: nurturing, patient, and pious. So Perkins Gilman believed everyone ought to have a home, but not a 'home' in the full sense understood by many. Insofar as her work is a critique of the existing understanding and realization of the home (in early 20th century USA), it does not consider whether the home is in fact necessary for human fulfillment, and whether other ways of living might not work as well, or indeed better for some portions of the population, such as communal dwellings, movable monadic dwellings, or a series of temporary dwellings, whether hotel rooms, or the home of friends and family members, or indeed dwellings provided by the work place.
Yet nor does Perkins Gilman deny that these non-traditional (if tradition is late nineteenth century, early twentieth white, middle class America) types of home can bring about flourishing. In fact, her central argument, that the home's main function should be to complete and support the framework supplied by the states' institutions, in particular educational ones, would seem to favour a more minimal approach to the home. In that sense, Perkins Gilman's picture is very Athenian: it is the public life that shapes us and ensures our flourishing, the city is responsible for educating its citizens, and organizing their lives so they can make the most of what have. The role of the home is simply to keep us warm, fed and rested in between excursions to the public forum.
The main problem presented by the home, for Gilman, is that the home, such as it was at the time she wrote, fails to do even that, that it, it fails to keep its citizens healthy and safe. The American home, she says, exercises too much control over the health, nutrition and education of its inhabitants, with too little qualification to do it well. Home cooking, she says, is not by its very nature superior to food that be bought in restaurants or hotels – it is simply more convenient for feeding the young, but at the same time keeps a woman tied to her home. But unless each home cooking woman is educated on healthy diet and food preparation, there is no reason to think that home cooking will be anything else than 'slow-poisoning' of our bodies, resulting in 'Dyspepsia' and 'false teeth before they are thirty' (chapter 8). As far as safety of the young is concerned, she says, houses which serve as homes are not in fact designed with the safety or well-being of children in mind, they are out of scale for them, and inhospitable and dangerous. Because parents are not trained in the treatment of childhood ailments, she adds, when homes are considered the best place for a child to grow up, mothers will simply transmit and perpetuate the mistakes that were committed on them as a child, resulting in ill-health but more generally stunted development of children (ch. 12). Finally, she argues, the home, no matter how good a home it is supposed to be, cannot provide enough in the way of social progress, it cannot train citizens, nor make them fit into the society they are meant to help build or improve, if children are under the control of the home during the period where they should develop, and all their lives, if they are women.
What is most problematic about the home then, according to Gilman, is not only that it fails to keep its inhabitants safe, but that at the same time it blocks their access to the educational, health and civic resources that they would need in order to flourish and to contribute to human progress. The image of the home as the place where we can live safe, happy, and in privacy; a place where we can retreat from the world and at the same time be educated to live in it, she claims, is both a fundamental to what we understand the home to be, and deeply flawed. There is a feeling, she says, that 'home is more secure and protective than anywhere else', and that feeling, she claims is at the heart of whatever myths we still believe about the home. These myths, she concludes, must be dispelled, and the home must open up to social progress, and change to accommodate our real needs as human beings and citizens.
What shape should the new home take? Gilman doesn't say. But we can derive some possibilities from suggestions she makes. First, she points out that all homes are built according to a model that is nearly identical, and in particular, that those homes that are deemed unsuitable for families by landlords, are the very same as those in which families do live. So perhaps she would argue that families with children need to live in different sorts of buildings than families without children, and that these choices should be made not according to income size, as they mostly are, but need.
Secondly, she points out that we may be better off in many cases eating out than cooking in. And her arguments that women become slaves of domestic work seems to suggest that she would be a fan of take out dinners (though perhaps not daily pizza). Simone de Beauvoir, drew a similar conclusion, bypassing the question of health (perhaps because French restaurant food at the beginning of the century was no less healthy or balanced than what people prepared at home), when she pointed out that single working women often made life more difficult for themselves, compared to their male colleagues, by insisting on cooking their own meals instead of eating out at conveniently located restaurants and hotels (vol 2, part 4, ch 13, 593.) The point is that not all homes need kitchen, not all home-cooked food is better, and very little home-cooked food is better than the freedom of not having to cook everyday for your entire family. Kitchens are also dangerous places, where knifes and heavy objects are kept, intense heat, and of course, germs, which require constant and intensive cleaning.
The very realization that home life does not necessarily requires cooking may change our expectations as to the shape of the home. Unless cooking is something that is essential to one's flourishing, unless someone enjoys spending time preparing food on a large scale, there is not much need for a kitchen in a home. A kitchenette is sufficient, such as may be found in a trailer home, or a shared kitchen, as in students halls, or, if you don't cook at all and you live alone, a hotel room (which is Beauvoir's own recommendation) is even better, as you will not be required to do any housekeeping, but will be guaranteed a clean place to sleep every night, and somewhere safe to keep your things.
Perkins Gilman, as we saw at the beginning of this section, does not claim that we do not need homes. Rather, she argues for a twofold position. First, the home as her nineteenth century readers knew it, was harmful both because it didn't provide a safe or healthy environment for its inhabitants, but also because it promoted itself as an ideal, which could not and should not be modified. Secondly, she recommended that we recognize the cult of domesticity for the harmful myth it was and start thinking in terms of modifying the home, adapting it to a less dominant but still essential role, that of supporting human beings in their quest for flourishing in society. Taking up where Perkins Gilman left off, we can now ask whether the home, in this minimal role, must still resemble in any way what we now think of as a home.
This is where I blog about my new book project (under contract with OUP): a history of the philosophy of the home and domesticity, from the perspective of women philosophers.