“You Make Your Children Sick”: Domestic Ideology and Working-Class Female Identity in Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio and Sarah E. Wright’s This Child’s Gonna Live



Nineteenth-century domestic scientists such as Mrs. Henry Ward Beecher, Catherine Beecher, and Harriet Beecher Stowe believed that “God’s design” for the home had everything to do with God’s design for women.1 While the conceptions of home and family familiar to the Beechers and Stowe (and ourselves) did not develop until during what Lukács calls the “Bourgeois Age” (1450–1950), the seemingly natural connection between the maternal body and domestic space was and is compelling (624).2 Elaine Scarry’s celebratory description of “shelter” makes this clear: “an enlargement of the body,” the room keeps “warm and safe the individual it houses in the same way the body encloses and protects the individual within”; its walls prevent “undifferentiated contact with the world,” and secure “for the individual a stable internal space” (38–39). Scarry’s “body” is ungendered, but the imagery implies a maternal body, one that (like Mrs. Beecher’s homemaker) provides a “refuge” in her person and in her home. This slippage in the definitions of home and homemaker has great implications for female identity. Both physically and symbolically, the job of homemaker is to maintain order, purity, and comfort in the house and the family, to patrol the borders between home and the street (the dirty, menacing public world). This task is crucial, for a clean, pure, comfortable home “has served to represent the place in which to cultivate a refined sense of the self” (Ryan Women in Public 7).


White People Coal Dust Maternal Body Female Identity Domestic Space 
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© Kimberly S. Drake 2011

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