Clio Talks Back

I.M.O.W.'s debut blog, Clio Talks Back, will change the way you think about women throughout history! Be informed and transformed by Clio Talks Back, written by the museum's resident historian Karen Offen.

Inspired by Clio, the Greek muse of History, and the museum's global online exhibitions Economica and Women, Power and Politics, Karen takes readers on a journey through time and place where women have shaped and changed our world. You will build your repertoire of rare trivia and conversation starters and occasionally hear from guest bloggers including everyone from leading historians in the field to the historical women themselves.

Read the entries, post a comment, and be inspired to create your own legacies to transform our world.

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Solving the Paid Work-Family Conflict for Women

There has been a great deal of stir in the American media lately about how women who work for pay and are mothers can balance career and family, without an extended family – or a village – to help out. One solution proposed is “Getting to 50/50” in the household, with husbands and fathers taking more responsibility for raising children and sharing household work.

During the last two centuries other solutions for the rearrangement of domestic economy have been proposed. Clio brings to your attention one of these, a communal, cooperative solution that later inspired the kibbutz system in Israel. Early in the nineteenth century, the utopian thinker Charles Fourier elaborated such a system at great length. His ideas were taken up by many others. One of the more successful experiments of this type took place in France – the Familistère at Guise (Aisne), under the direction of a disciple of Fourier, Jean-Baptiste Godin.

Jean-Baptiste Godin (1817-1888) had made a fortune in ironworking. He was the founder and guiding spirit of the most important French worker-city and industrial complex, which he established in northeastern France in 1859, based on Fourierist principles. The Familistère supported its activities through pioneering the manufacture of cast-iron stoves. The facilities included hundreds of family lodgings, stores, a restaurant, a workingmen’s club, a library, covered courtyards, vast gardens and agricultural plots, professional and primary schools, and a nursery for infants and pre-school children. It was among the first planned communities.

Many visitors from other European countries and North America attested to the success of the project, which lasted until 1968, when it was acquired by a German firm. It is now open as a tourist attraction.

In this published letter to Theodore Stanton (son of the American suffrage leader, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and compiler of an important work on the woman question in Europe, Godin describes the arrangements made at the Familistère to free women for productive labor through the socialization of household labor and childcare.

This is Godin’s description, as translated and published in Stanton’s essay on France in The Woman Question in Europe (New York & London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1884), pp. 307-309.

“The foundation of the Familistère reposes on principles which are a synthesis of the practical ideas forced upon the attention of the world by the St. Simonian, phalansterian and communistic schools of the early part of this century. But it is above all for women and children that our creation at Guise has proved a happy event. The Association of the Familistère is, I think, the only institution which has, up to the present time, put into practice respect for the rights of women, who are treated as the equal of men in all the affairs of life. This idea of the equality of the sexes was borrowed from Fourier. The Familistère could not change the laws of French society, but as members of the Association, women enjoy all the rights of men. They may aspire to all the honors at the disposal of the Association; they are electors and eligible [Ed.: to run for office]; they may form a part of all committees and councils. They perform these duties with faithfulness, and have shown themselves inaccessible to cabal, which has not always been the case with the men.

“In order that women may profit by the social liberty to which the present current of ideas is leading them, a change must be made in the system of family life: domestic economy must be modified and perfected. The emancipation of women will remain in the domain of speculation, as long as our institutions and customs impose on the father and mother the entire responsibility of the care of the family. The Familistère has solved this problem by assuming the bringing up of the children from the moment of their birth, so that the mother has to bestow on them only her milk and caresses, and the family, its tenderness and affection. But even in the absence of mother and family the children are not neglected. They always receive the closest attention. At every stage of their growth the children are under the eye of the Association. Separated into nine divisions in nine different rooms, each division has its nurses and teachers, who give instruction in keeping with the age of their pupils. In this way the mother and father can confer on their offspring the delights of family life, without inflicting on them, at the same time, any of its discomforts. The care and education of the children – which are the same for both sexes – being thus assumed by the Association, the duties of maternity are reduced to nursing during the early months of the child, and the mother is not hindered from attending to her other occupations. Women, therefore, find themselves emancipated, in so far as they desire it, from one of the most monopolizing obligations; they recover their liberty and may devote themselves to work and culture.

“In order to introduce this innovation, it is indispensable that the isolated habitation give place to the common dwelling, the phalanstery or social palace, so that the bringing up of children may be made a distinct organized part of the family system. The commune, therefore, must be architecturally reformed, and all the common household duties be placed in proximity to the home. It is necessary, furthermore, to bring about the division of domestic labor; to establish for the children a nursery, infant schools, primary schools, etc; to organize kitchens, laundries, public halls, etc. Only in this way is it possible to reconcile household duties and family cares with the exercise, on the part of women, of civil and political rights and lucrative employments.”

Clio wants to hear your views on the Familistère solution. Do you think it is possible still in our own time? Can a solution like this work in other parts of the world? What are the essential elements? Must the community be relatively small? What, indeed, do women want, especially mothers who also seek economic independence and fulfilling work outside the home?

Suggested further reading:

Theresa M. McBride, “Socialism and Domesticity: The ‘Familistère’ at Guise,” International Labor and Working-Class History, no. 19 (1981), pp. 45-46.

Solutions Sociales de J. B. A. Godin, ed. J. F. Rey and J. L. Pinol (Quimperle: La Digitale, 1980; orig. publ. 1871).

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(I'm a mother of five and have a degree in architecture.)

While this sounds like a quaint utopian way to solve the problem for the working mother, it does not address the health and development needs, emotionally and physically, of the child. Our modern society shows the results of attempts to fully socialize this system of childrearing. . . families are broken, individuals are disturbed - stressed - unhealthy, and I could on. Will adopting socialism truly free the individual to reach his or her potential? Ask the taxpayers. And then ask the individuals already benefitting from the socialism of our government policies. Even they are not free to reach their potential as they have been misled.

You also fail to mention how this benefits the industrial masters. . . In the United States, we can follow the development of the textile industry in the South and how the development of textile mills, mill villages and subsequently the system inspired by European ideas to produce more workers, lure them away from agricultural life with promises of material comfort and basic education for their children ("free childcare") basically rendered a human-worker factory where working families couldn't escape the "utopia" they were led to believe would bring them prosperity. The "utopia" was nothing more than a situation sold to workers to benefit themselves but truly benefitted the factory master(s) even more. The master got rich; the workers stayed put and didn't prosper or rise above the situation. Generations became ensnared in this pattern. The cradle-to-grave care promised by the factory master ensnared many individuals and provided continuous streams of workers.

We already have familistere creches in America. Ask any American public school teacher. Sometimes she or he feels more like a childcare provider than a teacher. And oftentimes, they are required to be social workers for broken families and broken children. And now we hear tales of: let's extend the public school day and calendar. And some of us embrace it as a freedom for women. Nevermind the scientific proof that children are more stressed (8 hours of school MORE each week than in 1981, double the amounts of homework, nature-deficit disorder, increases in ADD, ADHD, OCD, childhood obesity, etc.) and unhealthy.

The truth is women do have freedom already. Women have the choice to not bear children or to bear children. Women have the choice to get an education and a job or not to do that. Women must be careful not to be so selfish as to enslave the taxpayer to their own selfish desires. Women must also be careful not to sacrifice their own children to the goddess of self.

Socialism will embitter those who truly want to be free. Such ideas of familistere (the public school system) have already been implemented in America, and it's clear the ideas have failed. Children are no more healthy from the experiment, family conditions are generally no more improved, and the list goes on and on.

Let me add to my comment that capitalism is not fully to blame for this. A familistere-style utopia is a socialist experiment.

I personally made my free choice to be with my children, and I abhor the idea that another woman would enslave me to her choices. If she requires that I pay more in taxes to enable her to work and ditch her children in a familistere-style setting, I will be poorer and FORCED (no freedom there) to join her in the factory/workplace setting that I did NOT choose.

Feminists do not want to free us. They want to chain us to each other. That may sound humanitarian to you, but to me, it sounds cruel. Before I am a woman, I am a person.

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