Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Defining Domesticity

The term domesticity hardly seems to need defining. It is not commonly used in everyday parlance, but can quickly be intentified as a derivative of "domestic," which is rather more commonly used. People talk about "being domestic" as in "I am going to be domestic this weekend and do some laundry." On the other end, domesticity as a concept and lifestyle seems to have been assigned solely to stay at home mothers and Martha Stewart disciples. Certainly, there is more to it than this.

Domesticity has a historical context. In the nineteenth century, domesticity was seen as the realm of middle and upper class white women in Britain and America. It indicated wifehood and motherhood as the management of the home as the role for women. Clearly, today, this is problematic, and helps to explain the knee-jerk reaction that many people have when they hear the term domesticity, equating it with oppression and sexism. As Nina Baym says in Woman's Fiction, "domesticity is equated with entrapment" (26). This short-changes the concept of home and family and how women can relate to them. In the nineteenth century, domestic fiction was actually empowering. Prior to the emergence of the genre, most fiction about female characters followed a common plot, one in which women were invariable made into victims; sentimental fiction or novels of sensibility focused on women who were innately good and pious but who are somehow abused, betrayed, seduced, and abandoned. While these novels were perhaps useful in illuminating the plight of women, the fates of these female characters was less than inspiring, usually involving insanity, death, or insanity and then death. In the best cases, the woman was able to reform the rake who was attempting to seduce her, although this makes for questionable husband-material (see Richardson's Pamela).

Domestic fiction, on the other hand, written by women, refused to imagine women as victims. These writers "were unwilling to accept, and unwilling to permit their readers to accept, a concept of woman as inevitable sexual prey" (26). Instead, women had power over the home, and the home was the center of the world. The domestic arrangement and the happy home was the "acme of human bliss." While domestic fiction is often linked to the concept of separate spheres, such a term is perhaps misleading. The home is not cordoned away from the "real world" of the market and public interactions, but instead "everybody was to be placed in the home, and hence, home and the world would become one." This has significant implications for female power: "to the extent that woman dominated the home, the ideology implied an unprecedented historical expansion of her influence" (27).

How does this function today? Do we see domesticity as oppressive? or is there something still empowering in domesticity? In a post-feminist society, does the concept of the domestic world raise hackles or are we seeing an increasing return to home as people become disenchanted with the public realm?

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