As Leslie Kern describes it in Feminist City, the suburbs are anything but natural and have since the beginning been developed with social and economic agendas. They have played a big part in the social construction of society as we know it today. The study of the emergence and evolution of the nuclear family and the gendered division of labor it induces, allows us to understand the social constructs that shape the domestic space we evolve in today.

Origin of the Family and private property.

In the text Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State by Friedrich Engels arguments his theories by studying the evolution of the family from group marriage until patriarchal family. The concept of history of family was rather recent at the time Engels wrote this text, as society conveniently used to believe that the model of the patriarchal family was the only one that ever existed. Bachofen’s book Mutterrecht, published in1860, put for the first time the focus on a matrilineal model of descent, a model that had the advantage to put men and women in an equal situation regarding their sexuality within group marriage. The width of the group marriage was narrowed with the emergence of concepts of consanguinity or incest, until the apparition of the pairing family. In this system, one man lives with one woman but in communal households with communal housekeeping.

The emergence of private property, linked to the apparition of agriculture, cattle-breeding, metalworking and weaving deeply changed the family model by bringing a wealth that did not exist before, which also marked the apparition of slavery. That wealth led to the increasing importance of the man’s position in the family, overthrowing the traditional order of inheritance. The emergence of the patriarchal family indeed meant the enslavement of the woman. The word family itself actually refers to slaves – famulus meaning domestic slave and familia therefore referring to a group of slaves. Monogamy was introduced with, to insure the wife’s fidelity and therefore the paternity of the child, a life and death right on her. The supremacy of the man was launched by the need to produce children of undisputed paternity to insure natural heirs to their father’s properties, which induces that marriage laws have been introduced through architecture. According to Engels, it was the “first form of family to be based, not on natural, but on economic conditions”.

This shift in society came with a change in domestic spaces. The communal households were traded for private individual homes. Domestic work therefore lost its public character with the emergence of the patriarchal family. It became a private matter, which turned the wife into a servant, kept away from taking part to social production. In other words, as Engels writes it, the modern individual family is founded on the domestic slavery of the wife.

First wave of Housewifization.

At first only classes with property, the bourgeoisie, could afford to have a family, as we today define it, according to the bourgeois definition – “a combination of co-residence and blood-relationships based on the patriarchal principle”. The bourgeoisie created sexualized division of labor and privatized the home, inventing the housewifization of the bourgeois woman, while proletarian women were employed – woman and children being the cheapest labor force available. But working women constituted a threat to the ideal of the domesticated woman, which, linked to the worry that the proletarian class might not produce enough children for the next generation of workers to be exploited, lead to the necessity to domesticate the proletarian woman as well. The housewifization of working-class women happened through the legalization of marriage for proletarians, the criminalization of sexual intercourse outside the marriage and of abortion, while men started to get wages high enough to support their family on their own.

Corporate Single-Family Houses and Consumption – the second wave of housewifization

Material feminists witnessed during their period of action the emergence of corporate housing typical of monopoly capitalism. It made its apparition in the suburban area, supported by Hoover’s politics on Home Building and Home Ownership, advertising home ownership for white, male workers. But though the twentieth century house got all the new services a modern house could ask for, its interior organization did not change much.

The government-sponsored mortgages and tax deductions for home owners allowed speculative builders to build millions of poorly designed single-family houses filled up with mass-production commodities. Women, forced out of their wartime jobs, moved into suburban married life and birth rates exploded along mass consumption. Suburban homes ownership also increased the demand for own cars, benefitting automobile manufacturers. By 1970, seven out of ten families lived in single-family homes. This second phase of housewifization resulted in disastrous consequences for women: their access to housing was only possible through their husband, as national policies only supported men in the matter of home ownership, while its localization prevents them to organize child care or get paid employment without a car. The always more individualized home became the limit the woman’s freedom.

This policy of single-family home ownership shows how decisions about society organization are incorporated into the build environment. Urban space is indeed a social and economic product, as well as domestic spaces. The housewife became an interesting agent of consumption, as the atomized individual has been the focus of capitalist marketing strategies. Her home became a market for all sorts of new technological gadgets, which lead to the home-maker being the creator of new needs, taking part into the exploitation of Third World women. Her unpaid labor was still not considered work but consumption. Malls are incidentally the only public spaces where measures against sexual harassment were taken, since the target clientele was mostly constituted by women. However, the new electric appliances and other products of consumption did not fulfill their promises; the housewife’s hours of work actually increased after the 1920’.

The development of the suburbs was profitable to the government not only in economic terms but also fulfilled a social agenda about not only gender but also race segregation. In the post-war period a lot of African-American moved to the cities in the hope to find better opportunities there – the development of suburbs was the white reaction, sometimes called white flight, to the rapid increase of Black population in the city. Still today, suburban population is mostly white, carrying on the segregation agendas of private and individual housing.

Feminist response and conclusion.

Feminists, from material feminists to domestic feminists, have been criticizing the suburbs for what seems like forever. In 1963 Betty Friedman’s The Feminine Mystique diagnoses housewives’ depression with the formulation “the problem that has no name”. The source of that problem, according to feminist geographers that have attempted to answer that question is the design, architecture and geographical situation of the suburbs. As Leslie Kern explains it, “the suburban lifestyle both assumed and required, in order to function properly, a heterosexual nuclear family with one adult working outside the home and one inside.” Its isolation, the size of its houses, the need for multiple vehicles, the demands of child care make it impossible to imagine an alternative way for the family to function.

Nowadays lots of American families still live in single-family housing designed around the ideal of the full-time housewife, as domestic typologies have not been through real change since the Victorian era. As Hayden describes it, the suburbs have become inseparable from the American Dream; the single-family house seems to be what every North American person aspires to. “Their presence pervades every aspect of economic, social, and political life.” That being said, it is important to remember that, though it seems to be everywhere, the model of the family with one breadwinner and one unemployed housewife is present in a small proportion of households, mostly in white middle-class families.

Hayden states that in order to abolish the exploitation of women’s labor, it is essential to rethink not only the idea of woman’s sphere, the product of patriarchal capitalism, but also its spatial embodiment, the isolated home. Now that we have identified the family as a social construct, patriarchy as a part of capitalism and domestic space as a tool for women’s exploitation, we understand that challenging the suburbs means challenging capitalism, patriarchy, racism and class segregation altogether, inducing a deeper change in society. Let’s kill the suburbs.

Sources.

Engels, Friedrich, Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Translated by Alick West. Online Version: Marx/Engels Internet Archive (marxist.org), 2000.

Kuhlmann, Dörte. Gender Studies in Architecture: Space, Power and Difference. Translated by Peter Hessel. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Mies, Maria, Patriarchy & Accumulation on a World Scale: women in the international division of labour. London: Zed Books, 1998.

Hayden, Dolores, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1981. Kern, Leslie, Feminist City, Claiming Space in a Man-made World. London, Verso, 2020.