A homeless woman stands with her two dogs at her encampment.
A homeless woman in Los Angeles stands with her dogs at her encampment. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

A recent book explores domesticity on the margins.

The term “domesticity” often invokes something created by middle-class women—a white picket fence archetype associated with “family values” and steeped in imagery of 1950s suburbia. Susan Fraiman, a professor of English at the University of Virginia, troubles this normative idea in her recent book, Extreme Domesticity: A View from the Margins. In it, Fraiman uses novels, women’s magazines and advice manuals, ethnographies, and first-person accounts to explore versions of home created by “outsiders” to the norm, including those who are working class, queer, trans, immigrant, and homeless.

CityLab caught up with Fraiman to learn about these versions of home and the assumptions they call into question.

Your work challenges the notion of domesticity as only applicable to stable, bourgeois situations. Can you say more about this notion and why we might wish to challenge it?

Normative ideas about domesticity lead us to overlook the dynamism, complexity, and diversity of domestic life. Conservatives celebrate the conventional, postcard version of home, while progressives generally criticize it. Yet both groups tend to assume that household concerns and routines are trivial, repetitious, unskilled, and not particularly interesting. The work of maintaining a household is scarcely recognized as work—which is why it’s either poorly paid or not paid at all. Likewise, the people who do this work (almost always female) are viewed condescendingly not only as unskilled, but also as passive and unthinking.

A major goal of my book is to push back against this negative stereotype. However, my point is not to glamorize housework or deny its oppressive aspects, much less to discourage women from involvement in the public sphere. My work supports and supplements feminist critiques of women’s confinement within the home.

I would also distance myself from what some have touted as the “new domesticity”—a return to labor-intensive, artisanal housewifery, in opposition to modern, high-tech culture. What I do share with this perspective is an appreciation for the hard work, competencies, and creativity involved in keeping house and caring for others, whatever your gender is and whether or not you take a DIY approach.

Your book has a chapter on homeless domesticity, which some might consider an oxymoron. But your research suggests that domesticity is still created—perhaps even highlighted—when people are homeless or insecurely housed.

The chapter looks at several first-person accounts, one documentary film, and numerous studies by ethnographers or journalists. One community was located under the bridges of downtown Los Angeles, another beneath the streets of Manhattan in abandoned train tunnels, and a third in a shelter near Washington, D.C. In every case, being insecurely housed did not mean the absence of domestic concerns but, on the contrary, an ongoing need to improvise aspects of home that most of us take for granted. How can I find a safe, dry place to sleep? Does my kid have cereal for breakfast? Where can I take a shower? How can I carve out a modicum of privacy and coziness in a public place? Domesticity for the homeless is never entirely missing, though it may certainly be shattered, incomplete, and cobbled together.

Indeed, accounts of homelessness serve to distill many of our basic needs as human animals, along with the daily actions, the domestic labor, necessary to supply these needs. Without question, these accounts document terrific trauma. But they also exemplify the way all of us, even or especially under dire circumstances, modify our environment to produce a degree of safety, comfort, and belonging.

What are some examples of domestic agency among the homeless? How might advocates and officials use these examples to promote affordable housing and other policies on their behalf?

A mother in a squalid New York City shelter cooked for her family on a hotplate, served dinner on a bed, and still managed to oversee homework. A man camping in the Austin area used discarded cooking oil to make a lamp. The “tunnel people” in Manhattan rigged up wooden houses, dragged in furniture from the street, tapped into the power grid, and took care of pets. Conditions were filthy and backstories harrowing, so I would never want to romanticize this or any other instance of homelessness. Yet these examples illustrate considerable agency, resourcefulness, and, in some cases, the establishment of communities operating something like extended families. One of my accounts concerns a New England city in which a group of homeless people staged a highly effective protest on behalf of the poor and insecurely housed.

I’m a literary critic, so I’m not directly involved in matters of policy. It’s nevertheless my hope that airing accounts of homeless women and men engaged in familiar domestic tasks—cooking, tidying up, caring for others, often with great creativity—can help to counter stereotypes of dysfunction and criminality. If those who are housed can recognize the homeless as similar rather than alien, and if we can support the efforts of homeless activists, perhaps we can generate the political will to make wages livable and housing affordable.

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