Born in Burlington, Vermont, Melusina Fay Peirce (1836-1923) developed a model for carrying out housework collectively, designed to free women from their daily chores in order to pursue other interests. She was motivated by what she characterised as the daily drudgery of women's lives and men's patronising attitudes towards those who tried to do other things. Another driving force was her belief that her mother, a skilled musician, died prematurely due to the pressures of housework which did not allow her to follow her ambitions fully. Peirce thus laid out a detailed critique of the domestic economy of the home, being as critical of bourgeois women's 'laziness' as she was of men. She coined the term 'cooperative housekeeping' for her proposal, which was published in the journal Atlantic Monthly from 1868-69.
A group of 15-20 women would organise and run a co-operative to carry out the common tasks of cooking, laundry and sewing. These would be done by skilled women on a wage, the goods and services being sold to members at a fair price with profits also being shared. Whilst women from richer backgrounds like herself would act as managers, it was the poorer women who would carry out the work. Although Peirce's scheme kept class divisions intact, it was radical for its time, bringing together women from hugely different backgrounds. It also did away with house-servants and she hinted at the working women eventually being allowed to become full members of the co-operative. However tentative, this was a suggestion at a classless society pioneered by women. In fact, her ideas on cooperative housekeeping were akin to the labour movements of the time, who had implemented consumer cooperatives such as farmers and mechanics stores. Peirce's contribution was was to extend such thinking to the domestic realm and for the benefit of women.
Forming the Cooperative Housekeeping Association in Boston in 1870, Peirce tried to put her ideas into practice, but her experiment was short lived, undermined by husbands not allowing their wives to participate fully. A communal kitchen was planned but it was never implemented and the collective buying of goods did not become profitable. Although the experiment failed, Peirce carried on with her theoretical work, imagining the consequences of her proposals on the design of houses. As the increase in land values made even bourgeois families consider living in apartment blocks, Pierce translated her initial proposal for communal kitchens and laundries from neighbourhoods of detached houses to apartment blocks. The precedent for such thinking came from Charles Fourier who had identified Parisian apartment blocks as an intermediate step between the individual family dwelling and the phalanstery. For Peirce, the changes to the home and neighbourhoods were something that women were best placed to design and in 1903 she patented her own design for a co-operative apartment building with communal kitchens. Her pioneering work later inspired others to imagine communities of collectivised domestic work, such as the Ruskin colony, or community dining clubs and kitchens.
Melusina Fay Peirce, Co-operative Housekeeping: How not to do it and How to do it (Boston: J.R. Osgood and Co., 1884).
---, "Co-operative Housekeeping," The New York Times, December 17, 1869.
Atkinson, Norma, 'An Examination of the Life and Thought of Zina
Fay Peirce an American Reformer and Feminist' (unpublished PhD
thesis, Ball State University, 1984).
Hayden, Dolores, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighbourhoods, and Cities (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981).
McFeely, Mary Drake, Can She Bake a Cherry Pie? (Amherst: Univ of Massachusetts Press, 2001).
Parker, Martin, Valérie Fournier, and Patrick Reedy, The Dictionary of Alternatives. Utopianism and Organization (London & New York: Zed Books, 2007).
Why will not women address themselves strenuously to the task of
studying and adapting themselves intelligently to their own era,
instead of drifting along and letting the era do with them what it
- Melusina Fay Peirce, Co-operative Housekeeping: How not to do it and How to do it (Boston: J.R. Osgood and Co., 1884), p. 5.
Agriculture and manufacturing were productive branches of the
economy already dominated by men. Distribution and service
industries were still developing, and Peirce believed thst women
could successfully take them over because of their role as
consumers. This was the economic basis of her proposal for
- Dolores Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighbourhoods, and Cities (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981), p. 68.
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