The home has historically been the central site of women’s labor, and as I have described before, the home has often been the necessary site of women’s scientific and technological practice when they were excluded from the spaces of institutionalized science. There has been an understandable pushback against this association of women with the home, as it has been used by a patriarchal society to limit the activity and mobility of women for centuries. But women themselves have leveraged this association as well as a related association of women with nature to justify their involvement in science, technology, and medicine. In the case of the nascent eco-feminism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the association with home and nature lent women an authoritative voice in activism and Progressive politics
One of the central concerns of American Progressives around the turn of the century was the increasingly severe pollution of the urban environment as a result of industrialization and the density of population in urban areas. The municipal housekeeping movement argued that Progressive women who agitated for sanitation and pollution reduction were doing so from their legitimate role as homemakers, albeit with a slightly expanded definition of home. The city itself was their home, they argued, and if the care and keeping of the home was women’s job, then so was the care and keeping of the city.
Framing an environment, from a city to the whole planet, as ‘home’ is a key strategy for cultivating environmentalist attitudes and activism, and for women, it has historically provided a way into politics and activism. Justifying their work as part of their natural and proper role, Progressive women developed the first tenets of an eco-feminism that would flourish in the mid 20th century after the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962. Eco-feminism is, generally, the efforts taken by women to protect the earth and their own environments, especially in the context of gendered ideas that identify women with nature and in conjunction with activism for women’s rights.
Municipal housekeeping, like domestic engineering and scientific home management, are practices that reveal the ways that science and inquiry are shaped by their context and the roles assigned to their practitioners. Women are responsible for caring for the home, and by extension the environment. This expectation is deepened by widespread scientific ideas that associated women with nature itself. This intersection of associations and roles for women, and the shifting scale of the ‘home’ for which they were responsible, is explored in a cosmic way in science fiction. A perceptible thread of the eco-feminism that the municipal housekeepers of the Progressive era would have recognized runs through the science fiction novel Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. In the novel, “home” is an individual dwelling, a carefully managed artificial biome, a massive and complex starship, the earth, and our solar system itself.
The smallest home in Aurora is a home for dolls, described in a small scene near the beginning of the novel as we get to know the characters. Devi and Badim are the caregivers of a child, Freya. All three live on a generational starship bound for a new star system. They were born on the ship in one of the last generations, so none of them have ever seen earth. But they will see the new star system and the moon that is supposed to be their new home. As the characters assemble the doll house, Freya says that she wishes she lived in a house like it, and Devi responds that she already does. The ship itself is a kind of dollhouse, a microcosmic environment, built by people of earth.
In this story, the special care of the home at every scale belongs to women, first to Devi and then Freya. The ship is so large and so complex that it contains 12 complete ecosystems, each 4 kilometers long, which function in a carefully maintained economy of essential elements: light, water, power, and life. Though the ship contains an artificial intelligence and extremely advanced technology, it is widely agreed that Devi and her special skills as an engineer and an ecologist keep the ship alive. Devi is a mother figure in her own home, but also for the entire ship. Further, the gendered connotation of a dollhouse as a toy made explicitly for girls should not be overlooked. The responsibilities of the chief engineer, and its leadership and motherly connotation, pass to Freya after Devi’s death just before reaching the new solar system.
Like many of Robinson’s other works, Aurora is a pointed environmental polemic. Ultimately, the mission to another star fails, and Freya’s generation is forced to return to diseased and damaged earth that has been squandered by its inhabitants. Having lived inside a ship her whole life, whose protection and stewardship was her life’s work, earth for Freya is seemingly endless, miraculously self-regulating, and tragically wasted by its human inhabitants. She and some of the others from the ship find occupation and comfort in the work of rebuilding drowned beaches.This type of environmental work restores Freya to her role as homemaker and housekeeper in the dramatically enlarged scale of her new home. Throughout the story, the women characters assume the stewardship of their home at every scale.
The eco-feminists and municipal housekeepers of the Progressive era understood their roles and leveraged them for political capital. Are the women in Aurora constrained by circumstance and gender roles in a way that truly limits their power? Certainly, the stifling ethical and moral ambiguity of a generation ship itself, wherein all but the first generation crew is deprived of the choice of completing the mission to a new star, lends itself to this interpretation. But the powerfully polemic nature of Robinson’s work leads me to believe that the associations with Progressive activism are not coincidental. Devi and Freya are not necessarily to be regarded as victims of circumstance or regressive gender roles, but rather we might see them like the municipal housekeepers who were inventive and empathic activists. Devi and Freya are engineers and leaders who are deeply sensitive to the ecology of all their varied homes, and who subvert the gendered expectations of home and care to wield political and technical power in space and on earth.
Susan A Mann, “Pioneers of U.S. Ecofeminsim and Environmental Justice,” Feminist Formations vol. 23, no. 2 (2011): 1-25.