Review of Domestic Occupations: Spatial Rhetorics and Women’s Work

Review of Domestic Occupations: Spatial Rhetorics and Women’s Work

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 3 Spring 2020

Author(s): Sarah Walden

Sarah Walden is an Associate Professor of Rhetorical Criticism and Theory in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core at Baylor University. Her research interests include domestic and maternal rhetorics, both historical and contemporary. She is the author of Tasteful Domesticity: Women’s Rhetoric and the American Cookbook, 1796-1940 (Pittsburgh, 2018).

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Enoch, Jessica. Domestic Occupations: Spatial Rhetorics and Women’s Work. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2019. 260 pages.

I finished reading Jessica Enoch’s Domestic Occupations: Spatial Rhetorics and Women’s Work a few weeks before the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak caused a majority of cities and states to issue shelter-in-place orders that closed schools, colleges and businesses, and most people worldwide found themselves suddenly living and working at home. The rhetorics of domestic labor changed almost overnight. As our worlds became isolated, I thought often of Enoch’s discussion of space and gender, and specifically about how domestic spaces function in our patterns of life and our patterns of thought. While Enoch examines nineteenth-century schoolhouses, turn-of-the-century domestic science home laboratories and public kitchens, and childcare centers during World War II, her arguments and methodology are also immensely relevant to the current moment. Her book is essential to feminist rhetorical scholarship for its insight that as we shape our spaces, our spaces shape us. Enoch issues a charge to pay attention to space and a guide for how to do so.

Domestic Occupations considers the ways in which rhetoric constructs and reconstructs the spaces in which women live and work. Using a variety of archival materials, Enoch recovers and reconstructs their dynamic spatial histories, demonstrating how rhetoric shaped the material space, the bodies that could enter and inhabit that space, and the values and patterns of movement associated with that space. While I will focus primarily on the content of each case study in the paragraphs that follow, I want to begin by saying that Enoch’s discussion of method is what makes this book an essential text for any feminist scholar. In chapter one, “Contending with Home: Spatial Rhetorics and Women’s Work,” Enoch describes her project and sets out key premises that will inform her case studies. She establishes that her project is to explore how women’s relationship to home and work spaces has changed over time, writing that “this relationship is created, sustained, and reshaped through rhetorical operations that are crafted in response to particular constraints and that capitalize on specific opportunities” (5). She defines spatial rhetorics as the arguments made by the spaces themselves, which include the function of the space, the bodies and objects that can inhabit that space, and the values conferred upon them by that space (6). She also clarifies her choice of the word “space” as opposed to “place,” noting that her discussion is of the general types of spaces (schoolhouses, childcare centers) rather than specific locations. Enoch sets out three premises that guide her study and that should guide any exploration of spatial rhetorics: that “spatial (re)construction occurs through a variety of means and agencies,” that we must consider power as central, and that the meaning of any space confers meaning on bodies and objects within that space (10). Finally, she notes that her goal is to understand the construction of the white middle class through spatio-rhetorical discourse, but that this discourse inevitably reveals what it excludes from consideration: race, ethnicity, culture, and class. Enoch works to give special attention to these exclusions at the end of each chapter, and then devotes all of chapter five to a discussion of how feminist scholars might recover these spatial histories. Enoch ends her first chapter with a discussion of her personal stake in this issue, reminding readers that while her case studies are historical, her methods are relevant to contemporary discussions of women and work by writers such as Anne Marie Slaughter and Sheryl Sandberg. Additionally, she notes that the spaces we inhabit make demands of us and arguments about us, and it is our job as feminist scholars to be attentive to those arguments. Enoch offers three case studies as examples of this project.

In chapter two, “From Prison to Home: Spatial Rhetorics Regender the Nineteenth-Century School,” Enoch examines how spatial rhetorics allowed women to enter the teaching profession by altering the traditionally masculine space of the schoolhouse to resemble the feminized, nurturing space of the home. Using a variety of materials, from women’s magazines to newspapers and architectural plan books, Enoch constructs for readers the space of the early nineteenth-century schoolhouse as dirty, violent, and immoral, and the space of the home as nurturing, well-decorated, and virtuous. This distinction is necessary in order to demonstrate that the values and behaviors associated with both spaces derived from the material construction of those spaces and were at the center of educational reform. Spanning roughly from 1820-1870, this “radical renovation” of the schoolhouse took place as a response to the push for educational reform by educators such as Horace Mann and Henry Barnard, who believed that in order to train engaged citizens, schoolhouses should more closely resemble the tasteful, pleasurable, comfortable space of the white, middle-class home (33). Enoch uses Sarah Hallenbeck’s concept of “nondeliberate rhetorics” to argue that the introduction of female teachers was not the intended outcome of this reform, but that the design and location allowed for different bodies to inhabit that space (34). Enoch also points out, however, as she indicated in chapter one, that power is often central to these spatial transformations, and that, as spatial transformation allowed for women to enter the teaching profession, the profession was also changed such that women were rarely afforded the power and pay of their male counterparts.

In chapter three, “The Domestic Scientist’s Home Experiment: Spatial Rhetorics and Professional Ethos,” Enoch explores the role of space in ethos, describing how transforming the home into a laboratory enabled domestic scientists to construct a professional ethos for women without threatening traditional gender roles, particularly in light of women’s increased access to higher education and a burgeoning feminist movement. Domestic scientists sought to reinvent the home as a response to its construction as a maternal idyll or a site of domestic drudgery by challenging the idea that instinct was at the heart of domestic success. They promoted this spatial transformation through public kitchens, such as the New England Kitchen in Boston and the Rumford Kitchen at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition. Enoch highlights the spatial rhetorics at play in the Rumford Kitchen in particular, as Ellen Richards, director of the exhibit, turned down a space in the Women’s Building and instead set up a public kitchen near the Anthropology building because she wanted to associate domestic science with professionalism rather than gender. This deliberate spatial choice clearly demonstrates the goals of the movement, and its success extended even beyond demonstrations of home kitchens. Its principles were soon enacted in many public spaces under the purview of “municipal housekeeping,” in spaces such as settlement houses, dormitories, asylums, etc. (111).  At the end of the chapter, Enoch offers an empathetic scholarly examination of the conflict between domestic scientists and feminists working for suffrage and women’s representation, noting that “[f]or many working women, to associate with feminist causes might have come at too high a cost,” and that it is essential that feminist scholars consider the variety of arguments and methods women used to gain access to education, ethos, and financial support of their families (116).

Chapter four, “The Motherless Home: Working Mothers, Emotive Spatial Rhetorics, and the World War II Childcare Center” is perhaps Enoch’s most compelling case study, as she describes not one shift in spatial rhetorics but two. These shifts occurred in quick succession in response to the same event. During World War II, federal and state governments, private industries, and individual communities spent over $75 million constructing childcare centers or “war nurseries” to allow mothers to work to support the war effort without fearing for their children’s (and future citizens’) wellbeing. Enoch examines the emotional rhetoric used to make the childcare center a home-like space, and therefore acceptable individually and culturally as a place that provides a mother’s care, in order to counter the negative associations of failed and delinquent motherhood that had previously characterized the use of outside childcare. What is unique about this case study is how quickly this rhetorical reconstruction (and actual construction) of childcare centers took place, but also how quickly it was dismantled, again literally and figuratively, after the exigence of women’s wartime service had passed. In 1945, officials used prewar rhetoric surrounding the childcare center as unsafe, unhealthy, and an impediment to children’s growth and wellbeing to quell support for their continued existence. Meanwhile, they constructed the suburban “victory home” as a site of middle-class achievement and a place where women could now focus on rebuilding the nuclear family. Of course, as Enoch notes, this rhetoric was heavily raced and classed, as childcare centers served many families but their dismantling disproportionately harmed women of color and lower socioeconomic status who did not have access to the new home space that promoted its own culturally acceptable version of motherhood and labor.

In her final chapter, cleverly titled “Home Work: Spatial Rhetorics and Feminist Rhetorical Scholarship,” Enoch opens with Joan Wallach Scott’s charge that feminist scholarship should not only examine the past, but offer pathways for the future. While I always appreciate a thorough “future research” section in any academic article or book, there is something special about how Enoch constructs her final chapter. Rather than feeling like the book was winding down, “Home Work” gives readers energy and drive to start applying her methods to spaces they inhabit or study. By focusing on the feminist interrogation of the everyday, it suggests that this is work we should all be doing in order to be fully present and aware of our own spaces, and how the behaviors, ideas, and principles that result affect those women who do not share or are not permitted to enter those spaces. Enoch develops a series of topics that her examination of dominant spatio-rhetorical discussions did not allow her to explore, but which are essential to a fuller understanding of this rhetoric: she suggests that scholars should examine “the workings of politics and power,” especially in these everyday spaces (175), including, for example, the roles of domestic violence, family relations, and sex and sexuality on home spaces. Each of these topics is thoroughly articulated through a series of insightful questions that make this chapter dynamic and exciting as Enoch prepares scholars to take up this work.

I am grateful that I had the chance to read Domestic Occupations, and I can only hope that Enoch will write a follow-up study that considers her argument in light of the upheaval of living and working patterns for women during COVID-19. The methods she offers and case studies she provides can serve, as Joan Wallach Scott suggests, as knowledge of the past, insight into the present, and imagination for the future (171). Living and working at home has exposed many complicated legacies of domestic labor, and as we navigate the political, cultural, and consumer discourses that offer suggestions for our spaces, we can look to Enoch as our guide to understanding the work we must do and the everyday importance of spatial rhetorics.