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  • Conservation and Cleanliness:Racial and Environmental Purity in Ellen Richards and Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • Kristen R. Egan (bio)

Ellen Richards's 1910 scientific treatise titled Euthenics: the Science of Controllable-Environment promotes environmental cleanliness and the purification of American identity. Euthenics interprets race with a biological lens targeting foreign immigrants. "Contaminated" foreigners threaten much more than the physical health of the nation's citizens: in this text immigrants threaten to ruin the home, and synecdochically the nation, by carrying and spreading two dangerous and invisible perpetrators—germs and undesirable bloodlines. Richards depicts the immigrant body as jeopardizing the spaces of America, suggesting an association between environmental and racial purity that can also be found in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland ([1915] 1992). Herland establishes a female nation "pure" in race and space, an achievement established by executing the principles of sanitarianism and environmental conservationism, methods employed in response to a natural disaster and used to prevent future ruin. While critics have discussed how Gilman's female utopia promotes eugenics, few have linked how Gilman, like Richards, associates a clean environment with a clean race. Richards and Gilman wrote during the rise of sanitary science and environmentalism, and both participated in an ideological sanitarianism, a method of purification fed by nineteenth-century science. These texts illustrate how American women were called upon to secure the borders of the home, to sanitize and preserve this space for the future citizens of the nation, maintaining the "boundaries" of whiteness and the "purity" of the home.

By the early twentieth century, both sanitary science and environmentalism were on the rise. The work of Ellen Swallow Richards bridged [End Page 77] the concepts of ecology and home economics, and while these seem to be two very different fields, they were clearly connected in her work.1 In 1873 she was the first woman to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she studied chemistry and developed her own concept of environmental science (Clarke 1973, 37, 43).2 Richards saw environment as fundamental to one's potential growth or degeneracy. In an effort to enhance the likelihood of the former, she promoted sanitary science, advocating standards for clean air, food, and water.

While not a scientist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was part of the same conversation; taking a feminist standpoint, she believed women should be educated and paid to do domestic labor. Both Richards and Gilman lectured and published works in the field of home economics, and both women were well acquainted with Helen Campbell, another leader of the field.3 When Gilman and Campbell created what they called the Chicago Household Economic Society, they based the project on Ellen Richards's Rumford Kitchen, a model kitchen exhibiting how to make affordable, nutritious food through sanitary practices that Richards presented at the World's Columbian Exhibition of 1893.4 Gilman also advocated for education for women when it came to kitchen practices. In Women and Economics, Gilman writes, "The art and science of cooking involve a large and thorough knowledge of nutritive value and of the laws of physiology and hygiene. As a science, it verges on preventive medicine" (1898, 230). Both Gilman and Richards understood not only the nutritional necessity of better cooking but also the need for sanitary practices in the kitchen to prevent the spread of disease.

These sanitary practices promoted by the home economics movement as well as the public health movement were heavily influenced by germ theory. In The Gospel of Germs, Nancy Tomes explains, "Between the 1880s and the 1920s Americans of all ages were subjected to aggressive public health campaigns that taught them the new lessons of the laboratory: that microscopic living particles were the agents of contagion, that sick bodies shed germs into the environment, and that disease spread[s] by seemingly innocuous behaviors such as coughing, sneezing, and spitting, sharing common drinking cups, or failing to wash hands before eating" (1998, 7). Before germ theory, miasma theory pointed to the atmosphere as the source of disease. Since germ theory shifted attention from atmosphere to microscopic germs as the source of disease, one may assume that the environment was no longer identified as a source of contagion. [End...


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