CLIO TALKS BACK: Solving the Paid Work-Family Conflict for Women

There has been a great deal of stir in the American media lately about how women who work for pay and are mothers can balance career and family, without an extended family – or a village – to help out. One solution proposed is “Getting to 50/50” in the household, with husbands and fathers taking more responsibility for raising children and sharing household work.

During the last two centuries other solutions for the rearrangement of domestic economy have been proposed. Clio brings to your attention one of these, a communal, cooperative solution that later inspired the kibbutz system in Israel. Early in the nineteenth century, the utopian thinker Charles Fourier elaborated such a system at great length. His ideas were taken up by many others. One of the more successful experiments of this type took place in France – the Familistère at Guise (Aisne), under the direction of a disciple of Fourier, Jean-Baptiste Godin.

Jean-Baptiste Godin (1817-1888) had made a fortune in ironworking. He was the founder and guiding spirit of the most important French worker-city and industrial complex, which he established in northeastern France in 1859, based on Fourierist principles. The Familistère supported its activities through pioneering the manufacture of cast-iron stoves. The facilities included hundreds of family lodgings, stores, a restaurant, a workingmen’s club, a library, covered courtyards, vast gardens and agricultural plots, professional and primary schools, and a nursery for infants and pre-school children. It was among the first planned communities.

Many visitors from other European countries and North America attested to the success of the project, which lasted until 1968, when it was acquired by a German firm. It is now open as a tourist attraction.

In this published letter to Theodore Stanton (son of the American suffrage leader, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and compiler of an important work on the woman question in Europe, Godin describes the arrangements made at the Familistère to free women for productive labor through the socialization of household labor and childcare.

This is Godin’s description, as translated and published in Stanton’s essay on France in The Woman Question in Europe (New York & London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1884), pp. 307-309.

“The foundation of the Familistère reposes on principles which are a synthesis of the practical ideas forced upon the attention of the world by the St. Simonian, phalansterian and communistic schools of the early part of this century. But it is above all for women and children that our creation at Guise has proved a happy event. The Association of the Familistère is, I think, the only institution which has, up to the present time, put into practice respect for the rights of women, who are treated as the equal of men in all the affairs of life. This idea of the equality of the sexes was borrowed from Fourier. The Familistère could not change the laws of French society, but as members of the Association, women enjoy all the rights of men. They may aspire to all the honors at the disposal of the Association; they are electors and eligible [Ed.: to run for office]; they may form a part of all committees and councils. They perform these duties with faithfulness, and have shown themselves inaccessible to cabal, which has not always been the case with the men.

“In order that women may profit by the social liberty to which the present current of ideas is leading them, a change must be made in the system of family life: domestic economy must be modified and perfected. The emancipation of women will remain in the domain of speculation, as long as our institutions and customs impose on the father and mother the entire responsibility of the care of the family. The Familistère has solved this problem by assuming the bringing up of the children from the moment of their birth, so that the mother has to bestow on them only her milk and caresses, and the family, its tenderness and affection. But even in the absence of mother and family the children are not neglected. They always receive the closest attention. At every stage of their growth the children are under the eye of the Association. Separated into nine divisions in nine different rooms, each division has its nurses and teachers, who give instruction in keeping with the age of their pupils. In this way the mother and father can confer on their offspring the delights of family life, without inflicting on them, at the same time, any of its discomforts. The care and education of the children – which are the same for both sexes – being thus assumed by the Association, the duties of maternity are reduced to nursing during the early months of the child, and the mother is not hindered from attending to her other occupations. Women, therefore, find themselves emancipated, in so far as they desire it, from one of the most monopolizing obligations; they recover their liberty and may devote themselves to work and culture.

“In order to introduce this innovation, it is indispensable that the isolated habitation give place to the common dwelling, the phalanstery or social palace, so that the bringing up of children may be made a distinct organized part of the family system. The commune, therefore, must be architecturally reformed, and all the common household duties be placed in proximity to the home. It is necessary, furthermore, to bring about the division of domestic labor; to establish for the children a nursery, infant schools, primary schools, etc; to organize kitchens, laundries, public halls, etc. Only in this way is it possible to reconcile household duties and family cares with the exercise, on the part of women, of civil and political rights and lucrative employments.”

Clio wants to hear your views on the Familistère solution. Do you think it is possible still in our own time? Can a solution like this work in other parts of the world? What are the essential elements? Must the community be relatively small? What, indeed, do women want, especially mothers who also seek economic independence and fulfilling work outside the home?

Suggested further reading:

Theresa M. McBride, “Socialism and Domesticity: The ‘Familistère’ at Guise,” International Labor and Working-Class History, no. 19 (1981), pp. 45-46.

Solutions Sociales de J. B. A. Godin, ed. J. F. Rey and J. L. Pinol (Quimperle: La Digitale, 1980; orig. publ. 1871).

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