Women writers have long used home and hearth as an allegory for the alienation and oppression that was a woman’s lot. As technology has ushered the transformation of the home as an anytime, anywhere workspace, modern women, suffering similar anxieties as their foremothers, often find themselves looking for the exit.
“I have sometimes thought a woman’s nature is like a great house full of rooms: there is the hall through which everyone passes in and out and the drawing room where one receives formal visits … but beyond that, far beyond, there are other rooms, the handles of whose doors are never turned, no one knows the way to them, no one knows whither they lead; and in the innermost room, the holiest of holies, the soul sits and waits for …”
I had been working from home for two years when I realized it was beginning to scramble my thoughts and emotions. Originally, I blamed my anxiety and restlessness on living in a tiny studio apartment with no designated room for work. No separation between work and play meant the experience of both was diminished. I was sure this would change once I obtained that coveted extra space.
But when I moved, there it was: a room of my own that would be fully dedicated to all the work I believed the future held. I decorated the space to convey productivity—a calendar for efficiency, a couple of favorite art prints on the wall for inspiration, a plant and candle to make it cozy—and set to work.
Still, I continued to look for any excuse to dip out and work from nearby coffee shops—getting more done despite the persistent buzz of conversations around me, the predictable music, and the constant ebb and flow of people. When I did work from home, after the exacting ritual of setting up my office every morning, I would soon migrate to other rooms in the apartment, finding more success working from contorted positions on the couch or in bed—avoiding the little office space as if a curse had been placed on it.
In “The Poetics of Space,” Gaston Bachelard claims that the home functions as a “topography of our innermost being,” and its main role is envisioned as a protective space for the female body and mind, a haven from the dangers of the outside world (despite that fact that the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control lists domestic violence as one of the leading sources of injury to women).
But even when the home is far from being a source of physical danger, it can be a space of suffocating confinement as much as of comfortable privacy. Famously, Virginia Woolf wrote of a woman’s need to have “a room of one’s own” in order to be able to create on equal footing with men. But whenever Woolf’s piece is discussed, a mention of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” is almost sure to follow. For Woolf, the house served as a metaphor for female autonomy, but Gilman made domestic architecture the catalyst of madness. The unnamed narrator in Gilman’s tale, whose husband prevents her from working in an effort to help her recover from a “slight hysterical tendency,” descends into psychosis due to the lack of mental stimulation. To the narrator, the room’s wallpaper seems to mutate, and she comes to believe that there is a woman creeping behind the pattern. Gilman’s short story, which some critics have read as a rebuke of the controlling forces of the masculine over the feminine (through the lens of medicine—a predominantly male-dominated profession at the time), presents madness as a potential source of escape from physical and psychological confinement.
It is important to note that the representation of the home as a source of alienation from the outside world often springs up during periods where oppression of women was at its peak. Two such periods that have been extensively analyzed are the Victorian era and the post-World War II 1950s. In their celebrated 1979 book, “The Madwoman in the Attic,” Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar shone a spotlight on a generation of 19th century female writers, including Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and Emily Dickinson, who utilized imagery of entrapment in their work as they found themselves literally confined to the domestic interior.
More than a century since the lifetimes of the writers highlighted by Gilbert and Gubar, we find some of these same ideas in “The Problem That Has No Name,” the first chapter of Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking “The Feminine Mystique,” at a time when women “no longer left their homes, except to shop, chauffeur their children, or attend a social engagement with the husbands.” Once more, the home became a prison, not only in its architecture but in the geographical distancing of suburbia; and the dissatisfied woman, now no longer hysterical or mad, came to be considered neurotic. “The cage is now a modern plate-glass-and-broadloom ranch house or a convenient modern apartment, but the situation is no less painful than when grandmother sat over an embroidery hoop in her gilt-and-plush parlor,” Friedan wrote. “The chains that bind [the woman] in her trap are chains in her own mind and spirit.” In both the Victorian period and the post-war ’50s the danger came from outside, as women’s political and economic status was threatened, but suffocating architecture became the vessel through which these larger societal issues were experienced.
It is possible that today, despite the arc of progressivism of recent times, we are once again struggling to retain rights we previously took for granted, finding ourselves mired in the muck we thought we had escaped long ago. This feeling is no longer termed madness or neurosis, but a vague, throbbing anxiety. And, unsurprisingly, the home often manifests itself as the primary site of this anxiety. Although studies seem to suggest men work from home in equal, or even greater, numbers than women, research has focused overwhelmingly on women’s side of the story. Perhaps this is because women participate in part-time work in greater numbers than men or because the percentage of women working from home is on the rise, or for any of the historical reasons listed. The fact is, this type of female labor is garnering much attention as distinctions between home and work are blurring, and technology—which helped create communities free of spatial constraints—contributes to a sense of alienation.
As the nature of the workplace changes, these issues are bound to become more acute. Eager to cash in on workplace trends, websites such as PowerToFly connect women—specifically those in the tech world—with employers willing to let them work remotely. On the other side of the issue are initiatives such as The Wing, a women-only co-working space and social hub—and stereotypical analog to the archetype of the predominantly male startup culture (foosball and ping pong tables replaced by pajama parties and facials, all set against a powder-pink backdrop).
As Doree Shafrir argues in her article “Feminist Hypocrisy Is The New Trend In Startup Narratives,” the issue with this and similar efforts is how firmly they remain embedded in the capitalist system and co-opt feminism in the pursuit of moneymaking. But even if we were to disregard its broader economic implications, the very essence of The Wing lies in its exclusivity (the waitlist topped 2,000 just a month after the 400-member space opened its doors)—which means that for most women, The Wing will not be able to make good on its promise of providing them with a welcoming female community.
If broad cultural and political issues often play out within architecture, it is not surprising that the domestic interior amplifies the sense of restriction and limitation many women feel in their work lives. After all, women continue to struggle with the necessity of balancing ambition with niceness, the difficulty of shaking impostor syndrome, and the challenge of establishing a work-life balance, all under the shadow of the wage gap. For many women, the sheer availability of a personal home office is incredibly empowering. But sitting at your designated workspace also means having to face the weight of both personal insecurities and the remnants of a long history of the repression of female creativity.