Michelle Christine Smith, “Utopian Genderscapes: Rhetorics of Women’s Work in the Early Industrial Age” (Southern Illinois UP, 2021)

Utopian Genderscapes: Rhetorics of Women’s Work in the Early Industrial Age (Southern Illinois UP, 2021) focuses on three prominent yet understudied intentional communities—Brook Farm, Harmony Society, and the Oneida Community—who in response to industrialization experimented with radical social reform in the antebellum United States. Foremost among the avenues of reform was the place and substance of women’s work. Author Michelle C. Smith seeks in the communities’ rhetorics of teleology, choice, and exceptionalism the lived consequences of the communities’ lofty goals for women members.

This feminist history captures the utopian reconfiguration of women’s bodies, spaces, objects, and discourses and delivers a needed intervention into how rhetorical gendering interacts with other race and class identities. The attention to each community’s material practices reveals a gendered ecology, which in many ways squared unevenly with utopian claims. Nevertheless, this volume argues that this utopian moment inaugurated many of the norms and practices of labor that continue to structure women’s lives and opportunities today: the rise of the factory, the shift of labor from home spaces to workplaces, the invention of housework, the role of birth control and childcare, the question of wages, and the feminization of particular kinds of labor.

An impressive and diverse array of archival and material research grounds each chapter’s examination of women’s professional, domestic, or reproductive labor in a particular community. Fleeting though they may seem, the practices and lives of those intentional women, Smith argues, pattern contemporary divisions of work along the vibrant and contentious lines of gender, race, and class and stage the continued search for what is possible.

Jeannette Cockroft is an associate professor of history and political science at Schreiner University.

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