Domestic ecology and autoimmunity: eugenic feminism in the sixth extinction
Initially hailed as an ur-text for feminist scholarship upon its first reprint in 1973, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (1892) has undergone a significant historicist reevaluation, beginning in the 1990s, which condemned the story on behalf of its author’s investments in eugenic feminism, the view that women’s reproductive roles should be weaponized as a tool of white supremacy through the enforcement of “racial hygiene.” Central to these revisionist accounts is the claim that Gilman’s racism hinges upon an appeal to purity, what Jennifer Fleissner calls “the obsessive demarcation of boundaries,” wherein whiteness figures as an immaculate, sterilized sanctum threatened by incursions from an unclean milieu of less-evolved lifeforms. Contemporary with new historicism, the burgeoning fields of science and technology studies, posthumanism, and ecocriticism were pursuing a complementary though reverse line of thinking: that challenging anthropocentric understandings of the human as ontologically distinct from nonhuman nature (through concepts such as hybridity, nature-cultures, and intra-actions) was both a necessary precondition for and, in some cases, coextensive with, antiracist theorization. Both presumptions require rethinking. First, purity is an inaccurate rubric for understanding Gilman’s eugenic feminism, which is better characterized by its ecological orientation, wherein the human subject is ineluctably enmeshed with and co-constituted through its nonhuman environment. For Gilman, white supremacy was sustained rather than threatened by such a relational ontology. And second, by virtue of Gilman’s continued influence today, humanities scholarship needs to abandon the assumption that appeals to an entangled world of human and nonhuman actors is necessarily the foundation of progressive politics.
Hollingshead, D. (2022). Domestic Ecology and Autoimmunity: Eugenic Feminism in the Sixth Extinction. Modernism/modernity Print Plus, Vol. 7, cycle 2. https://doi.org/10.26597/mod.0236
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