How is Gender Done in Your House?

a nuclear family

The Western distinction between the public and private spheres has been crucial in confining both the physical mobility and the identity of women throughout history.

By creating the domestic sphere as the place specifically of women, a joint control was exercised over the spaces they could inhabit and the ways they could identify and experience themselves.

Where you are and what you get paid

The spatial separation of home and work also performs a vital economic function; work is where labourers are paid for their time and exertion, the home is not.

Crucially, when the home is created as the place where women should be and where work should not just be done for free, but not be considered as work at all, a free and indentured labour force of millions can be perpetuated for the benefit of the dual powers of capitalism and patriarchy.

unpaid labour in the home

In this context,  it is obvious why women leaving the private, feminine sphere of the home and going into the public, paid workforce would cause anxiety; a source of independent income creates avenues of escaping compulsory heterosexuality and with it the free labour that men had benefited from for centuries.

Spatial control creates gender

Of course, women’s migration from public to private has not been simple or complete and is still met with resistance, control and violence today. The writing of Doreen Massey from the mid nineties rings as true today as it did then:

“In general terms what is clear is that spatial control, whether enforced through the power of convention or symbolism, or through the straightforward threat of violence, can be a fundamental element in the constitution of gender..” (Massey, 1994, p. 180).

Spaces are used today with great effect to communicate heterosexual cis male dominion over women and the natural world:

  • Playgrounds, school fields, and public parks that are given over to football
  • Top art galleries in any city you care to visit are filled with ‘The Great’ works of art – paintings of naked women by male artists
  • Statues that fill the streets of the cities you live in are predominantly of men who are being celebrated for violence and the furthering of colonialism
  • Massive obelisks and tributes reaching into the sky commemorating men’s contribution to war
  • Cinemas showing film after film adulating toxic masculinity and the subordination of women
  • Billboards that cover entire buildings and the shelves of the magazine racks in the supermarket that you pass by show you women who are always wearing makeup and posed coyly, sexily, subordinately, unlike their male counterparts. 

The list is long.

Women navigating through the world, quite literally walking down the street, are endlessly confronted with reminders of their place in the world and their status as second class citizens. 

Gender is different in your house

In the same way that gender roles and performances vary over time, they also vary across space.

So, what it means to be feminine in Edinburgh is not the same thing as it is to be feminine in London. And, to take a more microcosmic example, what it means to be feminine in a semi-detached house which you share with roommates is not likely to be the same as what is means in a tiny house which you live in by yourself.

This is very interesting to me. 

how is gender done at home

Tiny houses improve women’s mobility

Massey (1994, p. 179) argues that “The limitation of women’s mobility, in terms both of identity and space, has been…a crucial means of subordination.”

The examples I have collected over the last three years of my PhD research offer salient illustrations of these effects still at work.

Tina

I spoke with Tina, 38, who lives in Alabama. Her physical mobility, her identity, and her life was limited by an abusive ex-husband. 

“Four years ago I was in a bad marriage. And um and it was just one of those things I woke up one day and I walked out and literally left everything I owned. I packed a couple bags of my clothing and um I realised I didn’t need anything, it’s just stuff you know? My safety and my mental health were way more important. And I lived in um my Toyota Prius for close to a year.”

Tina now lives alone in a van that she bought for $900 and converted by herself into a tiny house.

a converted van

Ute and Amy’s identities as competent builders was routinely called into question as a means of othering them and exerting social punishment for not conforming to ideas about femininity.

Amy

Amy was 28 when we spoke, and was living in Missouri. Here she describes how her status as a knowledgeable and capable builder were doubted and undermined due to her gender.

“I wonder if people assume that it’s harder for me. Some of the questions I get are about the difficulty or the skill level behind it and I feel like there’s an unawareness of the ingrained kind of misogyny in those questions.

“It’s like all of us have like these inherent abilities and skills, or at least most of us do, to build our own shelters. That’s why we have hands like this and why we have strength like it and why we have brains; we need places to live that are warm and dry and can store food and all of those things.

“And I don’t really hear that often like my dad getting questions around like ‘where did you learn how to do this?’ ‘how did you acquire these skills?’. It’s like they just they don’t question where his skills come from but my skills get questioned every day.

women can buildUte

Ute was 25 when we met and was building her tiny house in The Netherlands. Here she describes how she experienced the DIY shop.

“When I would go out to shop for wood there there would only be men there and I would feel very uncomfortable. Like they would start lifting the stuff for me while I was perfectly able to do it myself. So yeah, it has a quite a stereotypical um feeling to it.”

Leaving traditional homes – leaving traditional femininity?

Women who can leave the traditional home and along with it traditional expectations of femininity are less easy to contain in compulsory heterosexuality and the rigid subservience to and financial dependence on men that it requires (Massey, 1994).

By living in their own tiny houses, women may still be associated with a domestic sphere. But perhaps rather than being segregated as a result of their gender into the private realm, women can better enjoy the kind of privacy that they actually want, when they actually want it.