The keyword “domestic” conjures up several different yet linked meanings. It evokes the private home and all its accoutrements and, in a secondary fashion, hired household help. It also refers to the “national” as opposed to the “foreign” and to the “tame” as opposed to the “natural” or “wild.” American studies and cultural studies scholarship has only recently begun to think through the connections among these usages of the term and to make visible the racial and class bias of much of the scholarship on domesticity in relation to the United States.
Theorizing the domestic has been integral to many academic disciplines: architecture and design, anthropology, sociology, history, economics, philosophy, psychoanalysis, and literary and cultural criticism. Expressed in binary terms such as male/female, public/private, and production/reproduction, a relatively stable home/work dichotomy has formed the basis of scholarly writing on domesticity across these disciplines. Newer studies of domesticity are more attentive to its complex political entrenchment in the so-called public and private: to the entanglement of the domestic with nationalist discourses and, in feminist economic analyses, to the home as a workplace where industrial “homework” is done. Researchers such as Jeanne Boydston (1990) and Alice Kessler-Harris (1990) see the impact of domesticity on the determination of wages and on labor issues that were hitherto understood to be purely market driven. In studies of women’s labor history in the West and the reliance on domestic ideologies to buttress capitalist expansion, Eileen Boris (1993) notes that while a home/work split was an essential component for industrialization, the two arenas were also fundamentally constitutive of each other. Thus domesticity, in these discussions, has ideological functions that do not stop at constructions of the private life of individual persons, of homes and families.
Much work on domesticity has focused on the white middle classes. This work tends to trace what is essentially an Anglo history of the “American” home from its utilitarian use in the seventeenth century as an unadorned place for storage and shelter, to the emergence of the cult of domesticity or true womanhood in the mid-nineteenth century, to the mid-twentieth-century articulation of the home as a prison where countless white, middle-class women suffered unnamable sorrows (Matthews 1987). The prevalence and familiarity of this story index both the success and the limitations of liberal feminism as a social movement. Even as it sought to reformulate domesticity in relatively gender-equitable ways, liberal feminism failed to address other factors that shape the domestic arena, most notably the economic and racial connections that hold different domestic sites adjacent and yet unequal within a national or global framework.
A very different genealogy of domesticity in the United States can be traced through the history of the domestic (as household servant) over the same three centuries. This history moves from the seventeenth-century use of indentured servants and “hired help” who worked alongside family members in the household, to the use of servants and slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the centrality of domestic laborers in establishing US notions of ideal domesticity in the mid-twentieth century. It is worth speculating that what Betty Friedan referred to in the first chapter of The Feminine Mystique (1963) as the “problem that has no name”—the anxieties that beset countless white women in the late 1950s—arose in part because the era of ample, cheap domestic labor came to an end as women of color found other employment avenues open to them. In recent years, career women in the United States may be reversing this trend as they increasingly turn to nonfamilial domestic labor, provided mainly by a service economy made up of documented and undocumented immigrants and other women of color, in order to juggle the tasks of maintaining both a career and high standards of child care and home maintenance. A complex network of economic, racial, and gendered arrangements needs to be in place on a national and international footing before respectable middle- and upper-middle-class homemaking is successfully achieved in the United States (M. Romero 1992; Parreñas 2001).
Scholarship on European and US imperialism has also begun to examine the “spatial and political interdependence of home and empire,” what Amy Kaplan (1998, 25) has called “Manifest Domesticity.” Such scholarship demonstrates that the domestic sentimentalization of the white, middle-class home from the nineteenth century onward was intimately intertwined with the ongoing and violent expansion of US interests across the North American continent and beyond. One example of this work is Laura Wexler’s (2000, 8) notable study of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century women photographers and the multiple ways in which “nineteenth-century domestic photographs shaped the look and power of white supremacy at the century’s end.” Wexler argues that Frances Johnston’s photographs of Admiral George Dewey and his crew, taken in 1899 aboard the battleship Olympia after they had routed the Spanish forces in the Philippines, celebrate and consolidate the “American” heroism that Dewey and his band of sailors embodied even as these photos bear witness to the “American” domestic world that was re-created on the ship. Such “domestic images” function both to deny and to showcase the violence with which the differences between home and alien spaces or alien peoples are constructed, managed, and policed (21).
Research of this type demonstrates that the domestic is a dynamic and changing concept, one that serves as a regulative norm that continually refigures families, homes, and belonging. In its early forms, the domestic was a primary site where modernity was made manifest; the concept of family changed from a largely temporal organization of kinship into a spatially organized sphere of activity. In narratives and practices of domesticity, the trauma of such transformation is absorbed (imperfectly at times), and the domestic is reissued as usable or, in rare cases, abandoned altogether. The wholesomeness associated with the domestic, as in Witold Rybczynski’s (1988, 217) assessment of “domestic well-being [as] a fundamental human need that is deeply rooted in us, and that must be satisfied,” is rarely discarded even when specific domestic arrangements are. Even liberal-radical accounts that seek to contest the mainstream-conservative reduction of domesticity to the nuclear family often remain firmly committed to family values. These values may be alternative, but they nonetheless retain the pleasures of the normative: private comfort, safety, exclusivity. And at the national level, the demand for the comfort and safety of the enfranchised citizenry has put into place a rigorous screening process that excludes from the “homeland” those who threaten “the American way of life,” even as it lets slip in an underclass whose labor is necessary for maintaining the domestic comforts of everyday life.
Much of the literary and cultural studies scholarship on the rise of these normative forms of domesticity focuses on the mid-nineteenth century, when a new ideology of the home and of women’s role in its maintenance took hold of the US imagination. Catharine E. Beecher’s A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School (1841) was a significant inaugurator of this ideology, since it newly venerated the white, middle-class home and placed central responsibility for it in the hands of the housewife. This widespread rhetoric sentimentalized both the home and the housewife as the sources and locations of national virtue and was manifest in a variety of cultural texts, including women’s magazines such as Godey’s Lady’s Book (published 1830–98), religious tracts, newspapers, home-design innovations, home-management guides, and the “domestic fiction” written in this period. In the late twentieth century, a whole generation of US feminists investigated the cultural impact of the latter phenomenon, produced by what Nathaniel Hawthorne famously called the “d—d mob of scribbling women” ( 1987, 304). Influential studies such as Ann Douglas’s Feminization of American Culture (1977) and Jane Tompkins’s Sensational Designs (1985) revised the US literary canon by insisting on the importance of mass culture in the nineteenth century and of women as powerful consumers and producers in this arena. David Reynolds (1989), Lora Romero (1997), and others have argued that “the reign of women [should be understood as] a cultural artifact produced by the antebellum period” (Romero 1997, 14) rather than as an accurate assessment of the power of middle-class white women in the antebellum years.
Regardless of the degree to which the nineteenth-century cult of domesticity authorized white women in the context of US cultural production, the “domestic fiction” formula reigned supreme. When African American women writers in the late nineteenth century utilized this genre, it was indicative of the different political charge of domesticity for a people struggling with the burden of slavery that had placed heavy prohibitions on both the means and contents of such pleasures. Denied access to reading, writing, state-recognized marriage, and homeownership and denied the luxury or right to play the pure lady of the house or even to be a child learning at her mother’s knee, these writers produced domestic fiction that revealed very little dissonance between attending to the claims and duties of domestic life (especially motherhood) and attending to those of activism on behalf of the race. The establishment and celebration of happy marriages within domestic havens in these black women’s writings did powerful political and cultural work in a period when the attainment of a private sphere, whether through homeownership or by other means, was something fought for daily even as it was recorded and celebrated in cultural texts (Tate 1992; DuCille 1993). More than a century later, welfare reform programs and policies, the recruitment of disproportionate numbers of people of color into the armed forces and police, and racially biased criminal sentencing and incarceration patterns all indicate that, in Aída Hurtado’s (1989, 849) words, “there is no such thing as a private sphere for people of Color except that which they manage to create and protect in an otherwise hostile environment.” Whether we look at housing-loan records, zoning laws, civic amenities in specific neighborhoods, the location of toxic industries, the differential funding to schools, or levels of prenatal care, we see that state intervention into domestic life continues to be systematically beneficial to white, middle- and upper-class citizens and detrimental to the everyday lives of lower-class whites and people of color.
Partly due to this complex history, “domestication” has often been deployed for metaphorical purposes in academic discourse, including feminist discourse, to signify the opposite of radical thought, a usage that draws on the opposition of the domestic to the wild. The literary and cultural critic Rachel Bowlby (1995, 73), for instance, notes that domestication “refers generally to processes of simplification, assimilation and distortion—any or all of these—to which the theory in question falls victim or which it is powerless to resist.” Yet if we consider the name chosen by the founders of Kitchen Table / Women of Color Press, we encounter a radical feminism that harnesses the wisdom and labor of this homely location to a far-reaching feminist politics. As in the nineteenth century, “marriage,” “family,” and “homemaking” continue to be differently inflected terms and spaces for different groups of people and are fabricated with local variations across national borders and social classes. What is truly remarkable are the ways in which dominant domestic ideologies and practices have become globally hegemonic as a result of colonial and capitalist expansion and modernization, even as they have entered into contestation with other local forms of domesticity. Class, race, and geographic location place heavy inflections on domesticity, and yet, like love, childhood, and death, the domestic is most often portrayed as transcending all specifics or, rather, as blurring all distinctions in the warm glow of its splendor. Ultimately, the enormous attention that domesticity has received and the enshrinement of heterosexuality therein have severely stymied the representation and even recognition of other forms of establishing intimacy and affiliation.