The Housewife Theory of History

Photography by Bettman/CORBIS, used with permission

ON THE WEST COAST OF MADAGASCAR, there’s a tribe called the Sakalava, who are theoretically monarchists, loyal to a line of male kings. Their loyalty, however, is to dead rather than living kings, and the wishes of the dead kings are made known through spirit mediums who are, according to David Graeber in his wonderful Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, “usually elderly women of common descent.” Which is to say that, officially, the Sakalava are governed by elite men, but ordinary elderly women are the literal voices of authority.

I’m not sure we’re much different. We are governed mostly by elite men, quite a lot of them seemingly dead, and everything in our culture encourages us to regard these rulers not just as the central but the sole source of power. But history is changed again and again by people who are supposedly powerless, including the women veiled by the dismissive moniker housewife.

When Kristen Breitweiser, Patty Casazza, Lorie Van Auken, and Mindy Kleinberg, widows of men killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center, started doing research and demanding answers from elected representatives, they gave rise to the 9/11 Commission. Nicknamed the Jersey Girls, they became experts on national security and terrorism. A year after the towers collapsed, one of them spoke forcefully to Congress about what had really happened. A year and a half after that, the 9/11 Commission issued the official verdict that there were no ties between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. By that time, the Jersey Girls were campaigning against Bush’s re-election.

They didn’t win that one, but they won’t go away, any more than the Seattle-area mothers of mentally disabled children did when they ran into roadblock after roadblock to getting their children public school educations and other basic rights. Those three mothers, Evelyn Chapman, Katie Dolan, and Jane Taggart, went, as my friend Susan Schwartzenberg says in her forthcoming book, Becoming Citizens: Family Life and the Politics of Disability, “from outraged mothers to sophisticated activists utilizing a well-honed network of politicians, labor leaders, legislators, judges and the media.” In 1971, Washington State passed the law that paved the way for the national Education for All Act of 1975, renamed the IDEA — Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — in 1990.

I think of Lois Gibbs in Love Canal in upstate New York, who started investigating the rash of illnesses in her working-class neighborhood, founded the Love Canal Homeowners Association in 1978, and continued connecting the dots and fighting the power until she became a founding figure in the environmental justice movement. Today she is director of the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, helping people find the voice to oppose their own destruction and fighting to reduce human exposure to poisons like dioxin. Her work helped generate the Environmental Protection Agency. I think of Las Madres de Este Los Angeles, who succeeded in keeping a succession of toxic dumps, incinerators, and a chemical treatment plant out of their East L.A. neighborhood in the 1980s and 1990s.

I think of Women Strike for Peace, who faced down anticommunist authorities at the height of the Cold War to protest the nuclear arms race, nuclear weapons, and the nuclear testing that was causing catastrophic damage to the environment and human health — particularly that of infants and children. They started in November of 1961 with a one-day strike in the mode of Lysistrata, more than a hundred thousand of them in cities across the country leaving their homes to stand up against arms and war. The members of WSP subversively used their gender and their genteel, housewifely image to suggest that being against what the government was doing wasn’t radical but sensible, motherly, and kindhearted.

This might be the secret of the housewife theory of history: These women take the qualities that are supposed to render them irrelevant and use them defiantly as well as strategically. Starting with what they love, they cut straight through the quicksand of motives and purposes to point out that harm has been done and should be stopped. In some sense, they depoliticize politics, which is what makes them so politically potent. When asked whether they were in cahoots with the Soviets, WSP activists said that they thought perhaps Soviet mothers didn’t want their children afflicted by fallout either.

Women Strike for Peace achieved two signal victories. One was their contribution to the end of aboveground nuclear testing with the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, a huge step forward in limiting the arms race and its environmental damage. The other was the decline and fall of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Homeland Security Grand Inquisition of its day. When interrogated, the WSP women on trial so mocked and exposed the heavy-handed fearmongering of the HUAC that they helped to destroy it, making possible far freer political expression. They opposed the Vietnam War early on. And so the 60s, that era often associated with young men, was jump-started by women who used hats and gloves and baby carriages as part of their arsenal.

You could go farther afield to Buenos Aires, where the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo became the most fearless and visible opposition to a terrifying regime by organizing women across Argentina and contacting international human rights organizations. They still walk in protest in the Plaza de Mayo, the center of the nation, every week. They used their status as mothers to reject the definitions the government offered for those who had been “disappeared”: These were not terrorists, they were beloved children who could not be erased. You could look to the women of the Niger Delta, who since 1986 have repeatedly shut down Shell and Chevron’s oil facilities. But even here at home the history is clear: the 9/11 Commission, the EPA, the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Education for All Act. That’s a radically different landscape than we might have occupied had these activists not stood up for themselves and their clan.

The typical cinematic consequence of personal injury is the outraged paterfamilias avenging his family with a gun, a role played by Charles Bronson, Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood, and George Bush. These killers don’t pursue principles or seek to prevent further harm; instead they inflict it in revenge. Silkwood and Erin Brockovich are anomalies. They illustrate how the housewife-become-activist shifts from defending her own tribe to defending the principle that everyone should be free from fallout or dioxin, that everyone should have an education or know the truth about what the government is doing. She fights not for revenge, but for rights. The community she develops generates organizations, legislation, laws, education, and awareness. It’s a saga of expanding connections, while the killer heroes in the movies remain strikingly isolated. One of the problems for unions and organizers in America is that our dominant stories about how the world gets changed feature lone heroes, not collectives and associations. The unsung builders of those associations make a shift from the personal and local to the national and the principle, which becomes the only way to continue taking care.

The Greek word oikos, meaning house, is the root of the word ecologist, which could be defined as, among other things, housewife. It’s not that I’m so fixated on housewives, who are one among many categories of individual that have taken power to change the world, and it’s not that I believe that the category housewife is so compelling a definition of women who have other lives before and after and often during staying home with kids. It’s that, just as the Sakalava are officially ruled by kings while elderly commoner women do the talking, so are we officially rescued by action-hero loners while others do the real work of organizing to save the world (from, among other things, action-hero loners).

Rebecca Solnit’s father was a pretty good urban planner, but it was her mother who did volunteer work for fair-housing rights during the Civil Rights era. Solnit’s latest book is A Field Guide to Getting Lost.