Institutions for everyone! A feminist’s take on Utopian family structure

It says, “Down with the kitchen slavery! Demand the new everyday life.” The banner the woman is putting up is of a neighborhood that includes factory, nursery, and cafeteria. Soviet poster from 1931. (Thanks to EdgeOfTheSandbox for image and translation)

You find some interesting stuff while looking for something else. This morning I was looking for a link I’d lost about Betty Freidan. (It was an article outlining her communist/Marxist activities before she became a disaffected housewife.) After I found the article and finished my comment on another discussion, I decided to root around in the online magazine’s more recent issues to see what I could see.

Among a lot of Marxist discussion of current events, I found Materialism and Feminism: An Interview with Johanna Brenner, who is not exactly a household name. I Googled her, and at her Wikipedia article I found she was a graduate of Reed College and UCLA. In 1981 she began teaching in the sociology department at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon, where she served from 1982 to 2005 as coordinator of its women’s studies program, and is now emeritus professor.

Mike Davis, a self-styled “Marxist environmentalist” has said she “writes with a clarity of purpose that arises out of a lifetime of participation in the struggles of working-class women.” How her four years at the phone company, according to Wikipedia, translates to a “lifetime of participation,” I’m not sure, but then one must consider the source. Salon appears to question his credibility on other things.

There is also an absence of any mention of marriage or family in both the Wikipedia and her bio at PSU. I also looked at a couple of her other articles, and nothing in them suggests she has any personal experience of being part of a family, which is not unusual. Feminist academia is comprised mostly of single women. Yet they have no compunction in deciding for families how they should live.

That’s one thing that always stands out for me when I’m reading anything about feminist theories: they never seem to have asked anybody what they want, what would make them happy, or how they would prefer to live. It’s always about trying jam people into regulation-sized boxes that don’t take into account the reality of human differences.

She complains about 1950s-era public housing programs not being pursued, without apparently ever looking into why they failed. What she describes looks to me like a dormitory, and I can’t imagine living in a place like that! I know in some cities, public housing projects are being demolished, partly because they are old buildings that have structural problems that would be too expensive to fix, and partly because they had become places of concentrated crime, dangerous for the residents as well as the larger neighborhoods where they are located. I can’t see how projects of the sort would in any way be places where people would choose to live.

The article I found was a general interview with Brenner, so there is much more on other subjects at the link, but here are her thoughts on family caregiving:

So what would we put in place of the family as we know it? I argue for the importance of building democratic caring communities. These, I think are a more progressive grounding of relational life than family households (although I’m not opposed to family households being one part of such communities). Enlarging our affective bonds beyond a small circle whether defined by blood and kinship or otherwise is an essential part of any liberatory project.
From the early 20th century onward, feminist urban planners, architects, and academics have challenged urban policies that assume a male breadwinner household and the privatization of care work. They have envisioned new kinds of built environments that offer more collective alternatives for caring labor. In the 1950’s there were experiments with public housing that incorporated child-care centers, laundries, dining rooms and play spaces in order to meet the needs of working-women heading households. Instead of trying these sorts of models, after a long period of disinvestment, public housing in many US cities was actually demolished. Ironically, while public housing came under attack, professional-managerial class pioneers were organizing to create a new kind of built environment-cohousing projects that encourage caring community. Co-housing offers promise as a strategy for socializing care, because adults share caregiving in reciprocal relationships among an extensive group of people. While most co-housing projects in the US involve upper-middle class homeowners, cohousing could be part of the affordable housing policies that many cities are pursuing. For example, in 2013, the City of Sebastopol California built the first all-rental co-housing project for low-income seniors and families. The non-profit developer, AHA, funded a community organizer who worked for two years with tenants as they developed their community guidelines and norms and their consensus decision-making skills.
Beyond the built environment, we also need to create community-based, participatory, and democraticly run institutions providing care across the life cycle. When we talk about socializing responsibility for care, we need to think about how public services are organized. Just expanding current bureaucratic, centralized, and top-down forms for organizing public services will not be sufficient either to really meet people’s needs or to create lasting social bonds and community ties. I think we are all pretty aware of the ways in which Thatcherite, Reaganite, and other neo-liberal discourses about “consumer choice” through the market have been so effective in attacking the welfare state precisely because of people’s often alienating experiences with bureaucratic public services.
I would argue for locally-controlled institutions based on participatory decision-making. Through these institutions, such as schools, childcare centers, parks and recreation centers, neighborhood centers that offer classes, activities, and support for people of all ages, cooperatives of home care workers, social workers and other care givers, the work of caregiving can be both collective and democratic.

Of course all the funding comes from the magic money tree in the courtyard, and the people who actually participate and do the work (in most organizations that’s about 20%) are feeling quite liberated. The big thing Dr. Brenner fails to grasp boils down to two words: controlled and institutions. While there are people who would be happy living in a controlled environment like this, past experience has been that public housing is not a viable option for everybody as a practical application. No amount of tweaking the controls is going to change human nature.

Most of the time, the public at large only hears about the individual issues such as abortion or the “pay gap,” and don’t really get any exposure to the thinking behind the demonstrations and claims of “epidemics” of some problem or other. I thought it might be a good idea to show where some of this stuff is coming from.


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