Writing Home into Environmental History

Nearly 20 years ago, Virginia Scharff noted that environmental historians have commonly found “forest fires more fascinating than cooking fires.”[1]

This continues to be the case. Yet Scharff’s insistence that the home and practices within it (domesticity) should be matters of concern for environmental historians seems even more pertinent today. During the current COVID-19 pandemic, homes have assumed intense political salience as places of safety from our biological frailties. They have also been revealed as places of violence, as Breonna Taylor’s murder and the deaths of innumerable Black, Indigenous, and People of Color have shown. Domestic violence grows to new heights, fed by stay-at-home orders. Labor structures send people into the virus-producing maws of meat packing factories, hospital hallways, and public transportation. Some of us can work from home, those who cannot have an increased risk of getting sick and even death.

I recently searched Environmental History for “domesticity.” The results included references to domestic policy (of a nation) and domestic architecture. The preponderance of articles, however, dealt with the realm of domesticated animals, from “canine revolutions” to “capitalist pigs.”[2]

Have environmental historians truly skipped over the domesticated woman for the domesticated bovine? And, what does the space of the home have to offer the discipline of environmental history?

It is not that environmental historians have failed to include women. They have written about Progressive Era women and “municipal housekeeping,” women’s involvement in outdoor clubs, women protesting bird hats, and women who embraced radical separatist lesbian lands, to name just a few examples. Nor have they ignored planning, suburbia, or rural spaces, all amalgamations of the home.

However, we need to ask how and why domestic practices shape our environmental relationships. While we have asked about the histories of urban pollution, questions regarding pollution in homes remain unexplored. According to the World Health Organization, close to 4 million people (mostly women and children) die from illnesses related to cooking over solid fuel or kerosene stoves, and have their lungs destroyed by particulate matter and their bodies worn out by the labor of gathering fuel.[3]

A poem displayed in downtown Corvallis, Oregon, suggests one way of knowing nature through domestic labor. Photograph by author.
[Image description: A poem appears on a marquee sign under a neon sign reading “Midway Theater,” the poem reads: Winter longing I long for summer – freshly washed linens, drying on lines strung between oaks, white sheets and mismatched socks, fresh from the wash, absorbing the sun, then releasing their sweet, fresh scent, into my eager embrace once again.]

Questions of materiality and embodiment are currently all the rage and gendered natures have been a part of this historiographical trend. While men and women are literal and figurative beings, western cultures have primarily made women into the humans that combine both nature and culture in their bones and flesh. Women are too natural to be granted a place in rational science, technology, or politics; (Black) women are too natural to be granted a place in (civilized) homes; while (white) women are so civilized that their mere presence indicates that nature has been conquered and progress made.

Bodies, though, need a space to be transcribed and transposed into the body politic. The inside needs to be related to the outside. Domestic finances turned into national economies. Home structures such transformations.

Yet there has been no sustained engagement with the home in environmental history. For a discipline that embraces the myriad ways place forms histories, the field has essentially erased the home from its ranks. Home is placeless, no-place, nothing. Practices of domesticity and the spaces of homes must be included in our conversations of place and environment.

The space of the home may provide an entry into many of the topics that environmental historians care deeply about: nationalism, landscape, labor, and economy. Ideas of nature and ideas of culture. Production and consumption. Colonialism and state control. Indeed, including home could help environmental history become relevant to those historical fields that have not yet embraced nature. As Neil Maher argued, environmental historians need to make their work speak to broader historical narratives.[4] Thus, home offers a great place to start. 

Here are four ways we might begin looking at home in environmental history.

One. Homes as National Territories.

Questions concerning the relationship between state governance and environmental change have stood at the center of environmental history for decades. Historians look at the politics of property regimes, concepts of public ownership, and national economic development to explain change and continuity in human relationships with the non-human world.

We might want to begin looking at how homes form national territories by looking at the home as the rehearsal for the nation. We would then have other questions to ask: What do literal and figurative homes have to do with national territories? National borders? Frontier settlements? And, how has home affected ideas of landscape, colonization, settlement, and race? Indeed, work done by feminist postcolonial scholars indicates that concepts of home radically influenced the economic development of colonial regimes.[5] In settler colonialism, you need settlers.

“Negro tenant’s home beside the Mississippi River levee, near Lake Providence, La.” Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott, June 1940. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information color photographs, National Archives, LC-USF35-109 [P&P].
[Image description: A color photograph shows a tin roof house and outbuildings among lush fields with open blue skies filled with billowing clouds.]

Questioning the ways homes structure national territories could also provide avenues for grappling with racial difference. As Patricia Hill Collins argued decades ago, the space of the nation emerges from specific kinds of families and homes: “By relying on the belief that families have assigned places where they truly belong, images of place, space, and territory link gendered notions of family with constructs of race and nation.”[6] Who is included in the nation depends on spatial differentiation, often occurring through the space of the home. For example, in her work linking health rights to civil rights, Jenna Loyd argued that women’s activism arose from state failures to protect homes from nuclear radiation. While this activism could, for a time, cut across racial lines, Loyd noted that “White peace mothers destabilized terms of state protection undergirding militarized domesticities, while only sometimes challenging the white supremacist terms through which they could invoke ‘the home’ as a political platform. Black and Latina women found that their bodies and homes were different battlegrounds.”[7] While white women could claim unequivocal right to the protection of children and homes, racist discourses of “population bombs” and urban unrest undercut Black women’s claims to maternal care. Their motherhood, unlike white women’s, represented a threat to the racial status quo and the social power structures it upheld.

Ring Around Congress, June 22, 1972. Photograph by Dorothy Marder. Swarthmore College Peace Collection, Prints D 273 – 278.
[Image description: A woman rides on the subway with a baby strapped on her back, carrying a poster that reads: No Funds for Death, Vote Funds for Life: Ring Around Congress Washington D.C. June 22, 1972.]

Along with radioactive pasts, histories of oil reveal the uneven protection granted to homes by national governments. In 1977, the Berger Inquiry in Canada analyzed effects of the oil pipeline development through the Canadian arctic. While portions of the report dealt with aspects we might consider the usual suspects of environmental history—caribou, oil spills, economic livelihoods—it also argued that the presence of short-term homes for white construction workers could have long-term, violent repercussions for Indigenous women. As primary caretakers of the home, women who responded to the inquiry argued that development would “aggravate the housing problem,” and the burden of managing an increased population with fewer resources would fall on women “who, during the long northern winters, are often alone at home.” Fears of sexual violence, unwanted pregnancies, and economic distress accompanied concerns over increased domestic labor.[8]

The historical relationship of homes and nations must be considered at all scales from isotopic harm to petrocapitalist development projects. Such examples demand historical questions that link bodies in homes to national and global spaces. How can we narrate bodily harm in accounts of ecological-economic change?[9] When and why do nations choose to protect some homes in the name of nature, while disregarding, disavowing, and destroying others? Such questions would prove generative, provocative new methods of dealing with nature in history.

Two. Do You Work for a Living?

In Richard White’s seminal essay, “Are You an Environmentalist or Do you Work for a Living?” he noted that “there is no avoiding questions of work and nature.” He continued, suggesting that “herders, farmers, hunters and industrial workers have deeply influenced the natural world.”[10] Environmental history’s focus on outdoor and industrial labor neatly eradicates women’s unpaid domestic labor from historical narratives.[11]

We rarely deal in the unpaid work of women, work that supports all the paid labor most narratives grapple with. What is it about sweaty men that supersedes women in the kitchen, themselves sweaty and tired?

A woman gathers water in 1935, Washington, DC. Photo by Carl Mydans for the US Resettlement Administration, Library of Congress.
[Image description: A black and white photograph shows a woman outside a brick building dipping a pail into a larger bucket of water.]

Women (of all stripes and colors, races, and ethnicities) have worked to change their relationship to market forces and unpaid work. In the 1970s, a Wages for Housework campaign argued for “expand[ing] the Marxian analysis of unwaged labor beyond the confines of the factory and, therefore, to see the home and housework as the foundations of the factory system.”[12] Such a movement, according to Angela Davis, erases the fact that “women of color—especially Black women—have been receiving wages for housework for untold decades.”[13] She argues that demanding wages for housework becomes a source of continued economic and racial oppression for women that have no other option. If economic regimes (and capitalism in particular) remain central to environmental history, homes must be included in our accounts.

Analyses of labor, property, and governance form the bedrock of conventional environmental history. These must include gendered divisions of work and work that exists beyond the wage economy. Without it, our histories can only be partial renderings of White’s injunction: “there is no avoiding questions of work and nature.” Yet somehow the field has managed to do exactly that.

Three. Consuming Home.

Environmental history, according to Adam Rome, should spend more time asking questions of consumption and its relationship to ecological change.[14] To do this well, domesticity must be a part of such questions.

Take the post-WWII United States, which, according to cultural historian Lizabeth Cohen, was marked by the insistence that economic consumption facilitated democratic practices. The home—white flight to suburbs, 50s housewives, electrical appliances for every room—drove consumption.[15] This “Consumers’ Republic” faced dissolution in the economic and energy crises of the 1970s, crises often linked to the planetary finitude of “Spaceship Earth.” While historians have explored the geopolitical, technological, and national aspects of ecological limits, they have not looked at how governments and individuals managed homes for the good of the planet.

In the 1970s, people invited nature into homes to stave off energy shortages and worries over food shortages. Ursula Franklin Fonds, University of Toronto Archives, B1996-0004, box 27, folder 3.
[Image description: A visual produced by the Science Council of Canada shows the elevation of a house without exterior walls. In the basement, one person sits and fishes, on the ground level a woman cooks in the kitchen while a man reads the newspaper in a chair. Outside goats graze and a car is plugged in inside a garage with plants on the roof. On the top floor, children sit in the tub in one room and another young person reads on a bed in a bedroom.]

Home, once a place for consuming nature, became a place for conserving the limited, finite earth. Consequently, women bore the brunt of limiting human impacts on the finite world. As Michelle Murphy has shown, population concerns led to coercive government policies.[16] Women, more likely to be single parents and working, struggled more than men with rising costs and federal taxes on energy and resource use. Historical analyses that address state governance aimed at home consumption may be critical to situating political responses to climate change, the Anthropocene, and other global ecological matters that concern environmental historians.

Four. Homes as Citizenship.

Home determines the citizenship practices of men and women, therefore constraining and facilitating people’s actions in the public sphere. By structuring citizens’ responsibilities and shaping a nation’s responsibilities to its citizens, the political valences of home change landscapes and affect ecologies.

For men, home represents personal economic freedom, control of one’s piece of land, a control essential to owning one’s political independence and democratic acumen. Take the opening of a 1974 article about the reverberations of the OPEC oil embargo: “You’re sitting in your home, cold, hungry, and helpless. Staggered by the realization that you can’t provide food and warmth for yourself and your family. You’d worked hard, you’d made good money, and you thought you were self-sufficient. But now that you can’t buy what you need you’re a total loss.”[17]

This passage conveys a masculine identity threatened by energy limits, a sense of self that depends upon ideas of home. It links nature to masculine economic security, an independence predicated on the dependence of others. The yeoman farmer lives on.[18]

For women, domestic practices represent care for the nation and care for the public good. Domesticity embodies women’s efforts to raise new citizens, their role in the social reproduction of workers and fighters and all others that make up the body politic. Correct care for the home, not economic independence, has historically structured womens’ place as citizens.

For certain homes to provide access to economic citizenship, other homes need to be red-lined and kept separate and literally destroyed. Individuals must be refused access, racial outposts must be created. Homes make race. Homes make men. Homes make politics.

These forms of enacted citizenship have been overlooked in environmental history.

Environmental historians must begin to account for homes as spaces that organize individuals’ relationship to economies, politics, and labor. And through these relational structures, homes organize human relationships with the non-human world. Without domestic practices, dwellings, shelters, homes, houses, and the indoors, there can be no outside, no nature, and no environment. Opposites define one another.

It is time this field writes homes into being.

[1] Virginia Scharff, “Man and Nature! Sex Secrets of Environmental History,” in Seeing Nature through Gender, ed. Virginia Scharff (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2003), 9.

[2] Sam White, “From Globalized Pig Breeds to Capitalist Pigs: A Study in Animal Cultures and Envolutionary History,” Environmental History 16, no. 1 (2011); James Boyce, “Canine Revolution: The Social and Environmental Impact of the Introduction of the Dog to Tasmania,” Environmental History 11, no. 1 (2006).

[3] World Health Organization, “Household Air Pollution and Health” (May 8, 2018).

[4] Neil Maher, Apollo in the Age of Aquarius (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019).

[5] Ann Laura Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002).

[6] Patricia Hill Collins, “It’s All in the Family: Intersections of Gender, Race, and Nation,” Hypatia 13, no. 3 (Summer 1998): 69.

[7] Jenna M. Loyd, Health Rights Are Civil Rights: Peace and Justice Activism in Los Angeles, 1963-1978 (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 9.

[8] For a full text of the report, see here. Quote from page 156.

[9] This is part of the question posed by Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[10] Richard White, “’Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?’: Work and Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1996), 172.

[11] As Scharff put it, “feminist activists, labor historians, and feminist social scientists have demonstrated that industrialization and capitalist development led to the creation of all kinds of nonrationalized, nonmechanized, uncommodified (i.e., unpaid) productive work.” Scharff, “Man and Nature! Sex Secrets of Environmental History,” 12.

[12] Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012), 6.

[13] Angela Davis, Women, Race, and Class (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1981), 237.

[14] Adam Rome, “Fashion Forward? Reflections on the Environmental History of Style,” Environmental History 23, no. 3 (2018).

[15] Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003).

[16] Michelle Murphy, The Economization of Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).

[17] Barry Conn Hughes, “The World the Feeds Itself,” The Canadian Magazine (February 9 1974), 2.

[18] Walter Johnson points out that Jefferson’s imagined communities of “self-sufficient, noncommercial white households headed by the yeoman patriarch […] associated with republican virtue, a flowering of white equality and political independence” depended on “the proliferation of the gendered hierarchies of household social order.” See Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 3-4.

*Cover image: Augmented Domesticity from Archipelago Lab by Pedro Pitarch.

[Cover image description: black-and-white graphic with various shapes and dimensions.]