Making Feminine Spaces: Steampunk Settings inspired by Domestic Rooms

Domestic places, like kitchens and laundries, have often been seen as strictly feminine arenas. This is particularly in private homes of the middle and upper classes. These houses would have a ‘cook’ in charge of the kitchen, who was female, and not a ‘chef’, who is generally understood to be a male (even in this modern era – look at the judges of Australia’s ‘MasterChef’ and ‘My Kitchen Rules’). Women did all the laundry, and if you didn’t have an actual laundress, it was part of the work of the maids or the wife. Please note, there isn’t even a masculine equivalent to the word ‘laundress’. In the public arena, kitchens and laundries were less gendered.

A modern reconstruction of a Victorian-era Kitchen

A modern reconstruction of a Victorian-era Kitchen

When writing in a Victorian-era setting, even in an alternative universe for a Steampunk genre narrative, this phenomenon should be kept in mind. When a woman is in charge of a domestic setting, it is automatically assumed the woman will be in charge of its cleanliness, and so the space becomes a ‘feminine’ space. An untidy feminine space – like a kitchen or a pantry – is considered to reflect poorly on the woman/women who dwelt and worked within it; it didn’t matter if she (or they) was ill, old, young or inexperienced, she was a ‘bad’ housekeeper. Only the rich Victorians could afford the few modern domestic appliances available, so keeping a house and cooking for a family was a full time occupation; if you were a wife or daughter, you weren’t working for a wage.

Places like studies, libraries, dens, and smoking rooms, where the man of the house was more likely to be found, were gendered as ‘masculine’, decorated with leather chairs and globes and serious desks, and often were ‘dusty’ and untidy as the wife/maids were refused entry into the space, even to clean; and yet this man would not be considered a ‘bad’ housekeeper. Indeed, he would be admired for keeping his women ‘in order’.

The copper in which laundry was boiled, no matter how hot the temperature a Queensland summer might achieve. Notice the open hearth under the copper.

The copper in which laundry was boiled, no matter how hot the temperature a Queensland summer might achieve. Notice the open hearth under the copper.

The glass washing board for stubborn stains.

The glass washing board for stubborn stains.

It seems unfair. But think about how that situation might have worked in a woman’s favour. Less work, for starters, if she doesn’t have to clean the lord-and-master’s rooms. She had domestic spaces where a man wouldn’t go, and so had the opportunity for some privacy, and privacy was hard to find in a Victorian household. Domestic spaces give a woman places where she can speak with other women, without male supervision. Women plotting to overthrow the patriarchal system would need such places. As a writer, I set a lot of my action in these places. Upper and Middle class suffragettes might have plotted in their drawing rooms, but working class suffragettes would have plotted in the kitchens, pantries, laundries, ironing rooms and sewing rooms.

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Filed under Setting, Steampunk, Steampunk Feminist, Steampunk Genre, writing

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