Patriarchy vs. the Co-op: Opportunities in the Housing Cooperative Movement

In today’s modern world of dishwashers and washing machines, it’s easy to think we have come a long way in regards to socialist feminism—and we have. In the past, women could not own property, join the workforce, or live on their own without damage to their reputations. By law they were forced into the “private sphere” of child care and housework. For childless women today, technology and hard-fought advancements in civil rights and social attitudes have allowed us to reach many of the goals of socialist feminists of bygone years.

But once a baby arrives, all bets are off. Child care for a newborn is 24/7. Even when they are older, caring for children and cleaning up after them is a large added burden. This extra work still falls primarily on women.

For heterosexual married couples, cooperative housing is one way of breaking down the patriarchal tendencies of the nuclear family and unequal redistribution of reproductive labor. As Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the novelist and social reformer, said in The Home, its Work and Influence (1903), “The home should offer to the individual rest, peace, quiet, comfort, health, and that degree of personal expression requisite; and these conditions should be maintained by the best methods of the time. The home should be to the child a place of happiness and true development; to the adult a place of happiness and that beautiful reinforcement of the spirit needed by the world’s workers.” Co-ops are a step toward this ideal.

In Women and Economics (1898), Gilman recommended the redesign of homes, eliminating kitchens and dining rooms to communalize meal preparation:.

If there should be built and opened in any of our large cities to-day a commodious and well-served apartment house for professional women with families, it would be filled at once. The apartments would be without kitchens; but there would be a kitchen belonging to the house from which meals could be served to the families in their rooms or in a common dining-room, as preferred. It would be a home where the cleaning was done by efficient workers, not hired separately by the families, but engaged by the manager of the establishment; and a roof-garden, day nursery, and kindergarten, under well-trained professional nurses and teachers, would insure proper care of the children.”

Her description above is closest to a description of co-housing today. Her goal was to remove the burden of home care and meal preparation from the exclusive purview of one woman per house, which is both sexist and inefficient. These goals and the ones I describe are in large part accomplished culturally in rental co-ops, without the need for entirely new architecture.

Housing co-ops today take many forms, from actual co-owned properties (a minority, since our legal and banking frameworks make it difficult to co-own property) to rentals. Examples of the former include co-owned houses, where many unrelated people live under one roof, and co-housing, where many small individually-owned units share large common areas such as industrial kitchens, dining halls, and play areas. Much more common are houses or apartments that are rented, but where tenants live in intentional community. This usually involves sharing food, splitting chores, co-hosting events, and often a shared set of values (such as vegetarianism, activism, or spirituality).

As socialists, we often focus on economic and ownership changes. This is where co-owned properties might normally fall under our purview, changing the fundamental ownership of property. But in my experience as a mother living in rental cooperative housing, the economic part of this relationship (whether the housing is cooperatively owned or simply rented) is immaterial; rather, it is the social relations of co-ops that can drastically improve these issues for mothers. Similarly, Friedrich Engels believed that a woman’s subordination is not a result of her biological disposition but of social relations like the nuclear family, and Heidi Hartmann argued that efforts like the Wages for Housework campaign “take as their question the relationship of women to the economic system, rather than that of women to men.” I believe the importance of these social relations is keenly felt today by mothers and can be resolved by making cooperative housing available to break down the institution of the nuclear family.

I’ve lived primarily in cooperative housing for over 20 years. My son (now four years old) was born in a co-op I started years earlier, and we have lived in co-ops both with other children and without. For decades I have said, “cooperative living is a luxury as a single person, but a necessity for parents,” and this sentiment has only solidified for me since having a child.

Every mother in a heterosexual marriage I know who is in her forties has the same issues: When they got married, there was an expectation of equal sharing of child care and housework, but the reality is starkly different. In my case, only three weeks after our son was born, my husband’s company got its first major client, and child care in our house went from somewhat equal to completely one-sided. This situation forces such women today to recede into the private sphere. This not only prevents women from earning a living and makes them financially dependent on men; it also removes them from their social support. One primary complaint of new mothers (and a major cause of postpartum depression) is isolation. The social removal from the public sphere can lead to emotional fragility and feelings of low self-worth, making re-entrance into the economic market more difficult. There are three specific social problems that cooperative housing can help solve with respect to motherhood (especially for those with very young children): isolation, self-worth, and housework.

Firstly, co-ops can help combat the isolation often felt by mothers with young children trapped in the private sphere of the nuclear family home. For obvious reasons, housing cooperatives are less isolating than nuclear families. In a sense, the private sphere is made more public as housemates and their friends spend time in common areas. For example, when my son was only a few weeks old, one of my housemates held a small party at our house. His friends asked if they could hold the baby, and they passed him around while I got to have a real, adult conversation that lasted more than 60 seconds about things not related to child-rearing.

Second, cooperative living can contribute to mothers’ sense of self-worth and dignity. My housemates were quite happy to hold a baby for a few minutes while I went to the bathroom or showered and had a moment of privacy. For them it was fun; for me it meant I had a few moments to myself each day and wasn’t just a slave to the baby. In another example, I first nursed “in public” at our house during a movie night that friends attended. Nursing was quite painful for me, so having a semi-public but safe space to do this allowed me to feel more confident nursing in public.

Finally, co-ops change the way that reproductive labor like housework and child care is handled. In a heterosexual nuclear family, it’s much easier for gender roles to creep into the relationship. All that has to happen is for the man to stop doing chores. But in a co-op, there is a chore wheel or chart and monthly meetings for accountability. There is a social expectation that each adult share equally in household chores. This social construct, in my experience, resists gender roles and thereby undermines the institutional patriarchy of the nuclear family.

As for child care, while multi-family co-ops may have overt babysitting trades, that is not always necessary. Now that my son is four years old, having housemates relieves much of the pressure that would exist in a nuclear family. Our housemates enjoy spending time with each of us, and so occasionally hang out with our son for 20 minutes or so, drawing, building with Legos, or just talking. For them, they are enjoying time with one of their housemates. For me, these 20-minute respites allow me to do things that are important to me as an individual—whether that’s something extra for work, something personal for me, or something I do for the house. Having other adults for my son to interact with also makes him generally less demanding of his parents.

It is worth noting that, for single parents, these aspects of cooperative housing may be even more beneficial, providing them with social and material support that is otherwise severely lacking in our capitalist society.

On a final note, as a lifelong housing co-oper, I can say from experience that many, if not most, co-ops have cultures that either subtly or overtly encourage progressive or socialist thought. Many codify environmental habits like buying organic produce and composting; some overtly request that new housemates be LGBTQ, people of color, and/or political activists; and almost all co-ops regularly exercise small group democracy and engender socialist, anti-patriarchal internal economics like sharing food costs and housework.

I believe this community to be one ripe for outreach from DSA. In many cities there are Facebook groups or email lists that serve this community. Occasionally posting relevant DSA meetings to these groups could bring in new members.

Additionally, it is quite difficult legally, financially, and architecturally to own any type of housing cooperatively. If DSA were to actively support the housing cooperative movement in policy priorities, it would likely lead to new DSA members. But not only that: increased access to cooperative living could lead many people to a more socialist lifestyle and mindset.