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Women, insects, modernity: American domestic ecologies in the late nineteenth century

Faculty Advisor




domesticity, ecology, nonhumans, nineteenth-century literature and culture, feminism, biopolitics, race

Abstract (summary)

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, developments in the fields of public health and domestic science transformed the modern home into a space of dangerous multispecies entanglements. In response, state-sponsored hygiene initiatives aimed at the reproduction of white futurity recruited housekeepers as domestic guardians against nature's encroachments. However, a cohort of women writers and scientists had also begun to take the home's biological heterogeneity as the starting point for a new science that challenged these mandates. This essay introduces the term domestic ecology to refer to a minoritarian strain of US nineteenth-century material and intellectual history that grasps the biodiversity of the modern home as an occasion for novel scientific inquiry and critique that has gone underexamined in both cultural histories of domesticity as well as contemporary ecocriticism. Far from the prophylactic project of “keeping the world clean” ascribed to domestic workers in the wake of the germ theory, domestic ecology takes women's imbrication with the lively, messy materiality of the home as its vital principle rather than a relation to be sanitized or sublimated. This essay demonstrates how domestic ecology worked to circumvent the imperial anthropocentrism of domestic science and challenge its marginalization of women's labor.

Publication Information

David Hollingshead (2020), “Women, Insects, Modernity: American Domestic Ecologies in the Late Nineteenth Century.” Feminist Modernist Studies, 3:2 (180-204)


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