When Care is Violence

The dedication to Martha Stewart’s manual, Martha Stewart’s Homekeeping Handbook, reads, “To all mothers and daughters and fathers and sons who have a room, an apartment, or a home to care for.” The manual is 500+ pages-worth of tedious instructions on everything from how to clean and organize a closet to how to refurbish metal furniture. Like the 19th– and turn-of-the-twentieth-century texts Stewart’s mammoth manual revives, Stewart’s 21st century iteration gives daily, monthly, seasonal, and annual instructions on the science of maintaining a household. All the while, it frames these activities as vital expressions of care for any woman. While this text may seem a laughably anti-handbook to a feminist ethics of care, it illustrates the continuation of sentimentalism’s hold in the present, and offers a way into considering how “care” so easily slides into enacting violence. Indeed, as revealed in another of Stewart’s texts, entitled Living the Good Long Life: A Practical Guide to Caring for Yourself and Others, discourses on care are one of the key spaces through which sentimentalism sustains itself.

The cover of Martha Stewart's Homekeeping Handbook, showing her with blonde hair and a light blue button up shirt, smiling, and holding a spray bottle of blue liquid and a roll of paper towels.

Stewart’s handbook is a throwback to the turn of the 20th century journals such as “Good Housekeeping” and mid-19th century texts such as Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. And like these books, the Homekeeping Handbook is designed to reinforce white women’s maintenance of good racial hygiene through physical hygiene. These older texts outline the steps white women must take to give white family an appearance similar to the “big house” under slavery so that, even though slavery had legally ended and many white women no longer had access to Black women’s unpaid labor in the ways slavery had permitted, white families could use the aesthetics of their homes to evince “natural” superiority. As Thavolia Glymph points out in Out of the House of Bondage, many white women, former slave owners were disgusted at having to take on the work that Black enslaved women formerly did for them. It seems fair to say that this disgust remains one of the impetuses behind white women’s feminist agenda to get out of the house. Despite this initial reaction by some, the desire to maintain the appearance of classed racial superiority drove the market for texts on how to care for one’s home.

Stewart’s manual is, above all else, about how (white) middle class women or those aspiring to achieve this status should spend their time. It is a manual with instructions on how to keep time with proper (white) womanhood. While this carefully-regimented template professes itself as a helpful problem-solving aid for middle class women, it can be best understood as a set of directions for bodies to achieve a certain level of legibility—and therefore value—through performing what Elizabeth Freeman has called “family time.” According to Freeman, family time embodies “secular rhythms of capital, feminized temporalities considered to be outside of the linear.” It is a coordinated, syncopated series of actions designed to keep the mechanics of family reproduction well-oiled and functioning. It is the coring of apples to pack for lunch, the folding of clothes for the next week, it is the loading and unloading of the dishwasher. And, as Freeman points out, it is this feminized temporal rhythm and the adherence to temporal precision it requires that masquerade less as an overt form of racial performance and more as a display of intimacy. In its turn of the 21st century, neo-liberal context, Stewart’s manual does not hinge on overt white supremacy. It stakes its value on a performance of care.

The irony is, of course, that despite the handbook’s cover featuring a textless image of Stewart cleaning the glass on some French doors, this kind of intensive work is not done by the audience to whom the handbook supposedly appeals. Given how many (white) middle- and upper-class women charter women of color—particularly immigrant women—to clean their houses and to serve as domestic workers, Stewart’s text can be seen less as a mandate for (white) middle- to upper-class women and more as a mechanism to obscure the material conditions of what “keeping a home” has entailed, both currently and historically. Black feminisms, women of color feminisms, and post-colonial feminisms have thoroughly demonstrated that white domesticity—affectively coded as a caring, cozy, and familial atmosphere—is in fact a racialized and classed disciplining tool. White domesticity is a primary site of the carceral state serving to hold women of color within white homes in economic precarity so they may be exploited for their material, energetic, and emotional resources as a means of ensuring the reproduction of the white family and household. The rates of sexual assault domestic workers face within middle- and upper-class homes is just one data point making this case.

This historical and contemporary context of white domesticity illuminates a politics of care designed to enact racial, classed, and sexual violence in the name of white supremacy. Many of us who consider ourselves feminists were raised within homes that—to some degree or another—bought into this vision of care. This means not simply that we were taught, but that our senses were cultivated to recognize care as a practice of maintaining power relations. A reeducation is necessary, not only for what we think care means, but what we sense care to feel like. We need a reeducation of our senses away from sentimentalism’s version of care and its 21st century afterlives and toward a care that in all likelihood, will not feel very good. I do not advocate here for enacting harm to one’s self or others, but rather a kind of reprogramming of our sense to feel care as the work of making the world more livable for everyone, not just those who own a home to live in.  In order to transform care into a practice with the potential of answering the calls of those such as Audre Lorde (“We Must Learn to Mother Ourselves”) and Alexis Pauline Gumbs (Revolutionary Mothering), we must turn against what feels good and trade it in for a deeper, more sustaining kind of love.