What does a home for the modern woman look like? For Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a feminist intellectual and utopian thinker active during the late-19th and early-20th centuries, that meant creating a new physical environment that challenged the structure of families and division of household labor, thereby enabling women’s liberation. Her ideas would go on to influence generations of architects trying to answer the same question for their own times.
In 1898, Gilman published Women and Economics, a book that outlined her brand of feminist activism, which focused on enabling women to be economically independent—an argument many material feminists and utopian socialists before her, like Melusina Fay Peirce and Marie Stevens Howland, had made.
Gilman believed that society confined women to the home and to childcare, hindering their strength and intelligence and actually holding back human evolution. Gilman advocated for professionalizing domestic work so women were free to leave their homes, to earn their own money, and to fully participate in society. Only then could the human race advance, as historian Dolores Hayden writes in The Grand Domestic Revolution, the definitive book on Gilman’s attempts to reshape architecture for her social purposes.
To enable her new world order, Gilman proposed the “feminist apartment hotel,” a type of semi-communal boarding house attuned to the needs of working mothers. Composed of kitchenless private units, the apartment hotels had shared, centralized cooking and dining facilities, roof gardens, and professional nurses and teachers taking care of the residents’ children in a nursery or kindergarten within the building.
The idea rankled the design establishment, which lambasted Gilman’s ideas as socially irresponsible and immoral. (Boarding houses were very common at the time, but stigmatized and bore tremendous amounts of criticism for their poor conditions.) In 1903, Architectural Record called apartment hotels “the most dangerous enemy American domesticity has yet had to encounter.”
The feminist apartment hotel was a new type of building for urban settings, specifically oriented around the needs of working women. Gilman also adapted her ideas for the suburbs: a group of kitchenless single family houses all connected by walkways to a shared “eating house” that was kind of like a community center and collective meeting space. Gilman wrote:
Meals could of course be served in the house as long as desired; but when people become accustomed to pure, clean homes where no steaming industry is carried on, they will gradually prefer to go to their food instead of having it brought to them.
Gilman’s ideas were tailored for women who were like her: white women with families and careers, a very small fraction of the population at the time. (She did not appear to consider how race and class might intersect with women’s lives; in fact, she believed in eugenics and the supremacy of white people.) Her own experiences with a mother who wasn’t loving and nurturing influenced her ideas about professionalizing childcare. She still believed women should be primary caregivers, just that it should be outsourced.
A feminist apartment hotel was never built, but Gilman’s evangelizing influenced many. She was a gifted speaker and Women and Economics was translated into seven languages within a few years of publication. Even though the ideas of kitchenless houses and collective kitchens pre-dated her, she made the concepts popular and widespread. Women and men working in architecture and planning took note.
She influenced Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City plans, which included kitchenless houses, and Alice Constant Austin’s conceptual plans for Llano Del Rio, a utopian socialist community in which houses were connected by underground service tunnels that ferried meals and laundry from centralized facilities directly to houses so that housework was kept to a bare minimum. (While the colony existed, the underground network never did.)
Today, Gilman’s ideas about homes and domestic work aren’t so radical. It’s now common for people in cities to order take out or delivery. Amenity-packed, community driven condos and apartments abound—for those who can afford it. Tech startups are putting a new spin on single-room occupancy hotels as housing type for professionals. And WeWork is banking on a balance of privacy with communal spaces in its WeLive concept. Paying $2,400 a months for a room with a shared bathroom down the hall seems to be a far cry from a utopian apartment hotel, but if you squint hard enough, you can see traces of Gilman’s influence.
Listen to the complete first season of Nice Try! on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or in your favorite podcast app.
Season 1 of Nice Try! may be over—but we have something special planned! Join us on Tuesday, August 6, at the 92nd Street Y in New York City for a bonus live taping of our hit podcast. Host Avery Trufelman will be in conversation with Caity Weaver of the New York Times as they explore humanity’s perpetual search for utopian living. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased at 92y.org/curbed.