Hysterical Domesticity

Dr. Helena Michie, English

When Martha Stewart went to prison, I rearranged my napkin drawer by color. It was– sort of– a gesture of solidarity for a woman who went to prison for something that a lot of men have done and remained free. While somewhat embarrassed both at the idea of standing behind such a woman, and at the pleasures always afforded to me by linens and color, I took refuge in the possibility of irony. See the “sort of” in the second sentence of this paragraph. I was not merely folding, sorting, and capturing these napkins into adorable baskets; I was providing a wry commentary on incarceration, gender, labor, and my own complicity in problematic versions of all of these.

Since the last presidential election, I have returned to the linen closet. I have folded not only napkins, but tablecloths (harder but still possible), and not only tablecloths but sheets (almost impossible, even with Martha’s video guidance.) I have tried endless new recipes (nothing particularly new) and have filed, rated, and kept track of them (unprecedented). I have rearranged my spice drawer by affixing color-and cuisine–coded labels to the top of identical spice bottles. (See image above)

There is, however, no irony in this second version of what I have come to call “hysterical domesticity.” I did not do any of these things with a consciousness of their political context, and it took me a long time to make the connection between my uptick in what it is now hip to refer to as “homekeeping” and the depression and anxiety produced by post-election world. It should have been obvious, of course. Facebook friends also note becoming enmeshed in a world of recipes, not feeling much like leaving home, becoming ever more protective parents.

For those of us lucky enough to live in houses or apartments and with enough money to buy even the small things that our culture says should go in them, home seems like a kind of protection from the world. This is not news. It is, however, is a fantasy. It goes something like this: I can’t control what goes on in the government or in the culture at large, I can’t really control what happens to my family, who are of course, implicated in all that goes on in the bigger world. I can however, learn to make a bed with hospital corners, to make fantastically healthy food, to learn how to use sour dough starter.

While most forms of self-protection are Ok with me, I think hysterical domesticity deserves a little scrutiny. I have already mentioned that healing through an elaborate homekeeping can make us forget that, increasingly under this administration, people are at risk of losing their homes. This happens through threats of deportation, decreased access t healthcare, through the proposed repeal of laws protecting people from redlining, from wage theft, and from safe environments.

The second issue with hysterical domesticity is perhaps even more fundamental: its celebration of the private can keep us out of the public places where we increasingly need to be seen and heard. We are told in told as if this is unproblematically positive that we can work, bank, watch movies “in our pajamas” –that is in the privacy of our own homes. Working at home used to be the provenance of exploited piece workers; it is now a professional aspiration. We can avoid other people on busses, trains, even on highways. We need not mingle in movie theaters, rub shoulders with fellow shoppers at the “brick and mortar” mall. We need (almost) never meet people markedly different from ourselves.

It is difficult, in the flurry of defensive baking, to remember that home has a history of being a problematic and unsafe place for women—and not just because most accidents take place within it walls. Home is, of course, the site of domestic abuse, the covering up of often gendered violence. It has also made women invisible. For two centuries (and differently in different decades) women were told that their place was in the home; they were often told this in the name of protection. In the 1893 George Gissing novel, The Odd Women, the feminist heroine tells her friend and partner that she wished the poor women who crawled into their garrets to stave would die instead in the street, where everyone could see them. My fear is that today, the streets of many cities, including Houston, would be empty of potential witnesses.

I am heartened of course, to see so many women marching, visiting town halls, calling their political representatives (from home, work, or elsewhere), but I am a little leary about the retreat I feel in my own life and in the explosion of consumer items and media that celebrate home. I remember, with some nostalgia, a button I once refused to wear because I was scornful of electoral politics. It said: A Woman’s Place is in the House . . . And in the Senate.” The House is not the only alternative to the home, but it is one great place for feminists to make a presence for themselves.

I am currently writing book called “Homing” about current and historical debates that center on whether a particular activity—birth, schooling, labor—is best done at home or elsewhere. I am trying to write much of it in public, partly because it feels right to do so, and partly because despite what I’ve talked about before, I confess that my house is always a mess. I don’t want to stop writing to clean the kitchen, or to pick dog hair from the couch.

While I would be the last person to deny anyone the pleasure of domestic activities, I think we should understand these pleasures as part of a construction of borders. We should think about the walls around our home as much as we think about the Wall that is part of Trump’s explicit message.