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Domestic Ecology and Autoimmunity: Eugenic Feminism in the Sixth Extinction

Initially hailed as an ur-text for feminist scholarship upon its first reprint in 1973, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (1892) has undergone a significant historicist reevaluation, beginning in the 1990s, which condemned the story on behalf of its author’s investments in eugenic feminism, the view that women’s reproductive roles should be weaponized as a tool of white supremacy through the enforcement of “racial hygiene.”[1] Central to these revisionist accounts is the claim that Gilman’s racism hinges upon an appeal to purity, what Jennifer Fleissner calls “the obsessive demarcation of boundaries,” wherein whiteness figures as an immaculate, sterilized sanctum threatened by incursions from an unclean milieu of less-evolved lifeforms.[2] Contemporary with new historicism, the burgeoning fields of science and technology studies, posthumanism, and ecocriticism were pursuing a complementary though reverse line of thinking: that challenging anthropocentric understandings of the human as ontologically distinct from nonhuman nature (through concepts such as hybridity, nature-cultures, and intra-actions) was both a necessary precondition for and, in some cases, coextensive with, antiracist theorization.[3] Both presumptions require rethinking. First, purity is an inaccurate rubric for understanding Gilman’s eugenic feminism, which is better characterized by its ecological orientation, wherein the human subject is ineluctably enmeshed with and co-constituted through its nonhuman environment. For Gilman, white supremacy was sustained rather than threatened by such a relational ontology. And second, by virtue of Gilman’s continued influence today, humanities scholarship needs to abandon the assumption that appeals to an entangled world of human and nonhuman actors is necessarily the foundation of progressive politics.

This argument unfolds through an analysis of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and its remarkable attention to the ecological conditions of its domestic setting. I read these details through two complementary historicizations: the emergence of what I call “domestic ecology” in the late nineteenth century and the present crisis of autoimmunity in Western countries that has gone under the name of the “Hygiene Hypothesis.” While the scientific study of the home as an ecological space begins with reforms that thinkers like Gilman helped inaugurate, empirical attention to the biodiversity of domestic space is only reaching its apex now, as the United States experiences the belated aftereffects of the public health and sanitary initiatives begun at the turn of the twentieth century. These shifts enacted a widespread program of microbial eradication and containment—an offshoot of what Elizabeth Kolbert and others have called “the sixth extinction” of planetary biodiversity—that appears to have compromised the immune health of specific global populations.[4] In direct response to this perceived crisis, a number of popular science texts have begun to represent the American bourgeois home as a diverse ecological milieu populated by a host of parasites, viruses, insects, and bacteria whose populations, for the sake of western immunity, must be cultivated and repossessed rather than expunged and eradicated. The hygiene hypothesis, I argue, tells a story of whiteness under siege from its own prophylaxes, desperate to reestablish kinship with its “ancestral” microbial milieu. Addressing the topic of extinction in two distinct but related senses, this essay shows how one form of mass anthropogenic destruction engendered a set of cultural anxieties about a different form of ecological threat—namely, to white reproductive futurity. Reading Gilman’s domestic ecologies through the present moment of western autoimmunity reveals a prescient account of the way interspecies entanglements in the home occasioned a new vision of white precarity and neocolonial revanchism based on a “microbial” account of selfhood.

This reading of Gilman is thus a refinement rather than a refutation of the accounts of eugenic feminism offered by the new historicists and later critics. As long as “purity” is viewed as the de facto metric of racist ideology, we miss how white supremacy—in Gilman’s moment as well as our own—is underwritten by an absorptive (rather than prophylactic) logic that depends upon the extraction, consumption, and metabolization of so-called “primitive” bodies and environments. Taking stock of Gilman’s ecological orientation does not—as some accounts of the nonhuman turn have suggested—subvert or undermine her racial logics but rather extends and complicates them.[5] When interspecies interactions are viewed as biopolitics’ conditions of possibility rather than its disruption, we gain better purchase, in Neel Ahuja’s words, on the ways in which “politics . . . is embedded in living bodies and planetary environments, which are themselves constituted as objects of knowledge and intervention for imperial science.”[6] Following work by scholars including Ahuja, Kyla Schuller, Mel Y. Chen, Stacy Alaimo, Zakiyyah Jackson, and others, I take the nonhuman turn as an occasion to analyze US biopolitical history anew, as “that which we do not yet already know.”[7] Finally, this essay’s juxtapositions help us see the present differently, from the perspective of a past that has never disappeared. In the contemporary move toward “rewilding” the home with microbial life, we find echoes of the white supremacist discourse of “overcivilization” at the turn of the twentieth century rearticulated in a biological register. The stakes of reading Gilman in the sixth extinction, then, are less to question her place in the feminist canon but rather, and more urgently, to stop repeating the eugenic logic of her feminism even today.

Domestic Ecology

The discipline of ecology begins in the home. This is immediately true in the etymological sense: Ernst Haeckel coined the word “oekology” in 1866, defining it as “the whole science of the relations of the organism to the environment,” with the Greek root oikos signaling a reference to the common metaphorical expression of the “household economy” of nature.[8] But it is also true in the historical sense: the first individual to introduce the term to a mass audience was Ellen Swallow Richards—noted chemist, MIT’s first woman graduate and faculty member, and founder of the Home Economics movement.[9] Richards had visited Haeckel’s Jena lab in the 1870s, and on December 1, 1892, she announced her strategic repurposing of the term in the Boston Globe, whose front-page headline read, “New Science: Mrs. Richards Names it Oekology.”[10] “As theology is the science of religious life,” she wrote, “and biology the science of [physical] life . . . so let Oekology be henceforth the science of [our] normal lives” (Richardson, “Humanistic Oekologist,” 27). By “normal life” Richards meant domestic life, the totality of interactions that comprise the social reproduction of the modern home: food preparation and storage; air and water quality; heating and ventilation; plumbing and sanitation; hygiene and childrearing; dusting and laundry; the placement of windows and doors, etc. This new science would study these processes with an eye towards their multifarious effects on the human and nonhuman residents within. For Richards, along with many of the Progressive women reformers who participated in what Dolores Hayden calls “the grand domestic revolution,” the aim of household ecology was ultimately control: it was only by first immersing oneself in the home’s chemical, biological, and thermodynamic systems that one might subject them to scientific rationalization.[11]

The same year Richards’s proclamation appeared in the Globe, New England Magazine published what is perhaps the most famous description of an unmanageable domestic ecology in American literature: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” The story’s neurasthenic narrator provides a now infamous catalogue of domestic details worthy of Richards’s fastidiousness, including vivid descriptions of how the various agencies at play in the “colonial mansion” interact with one another.[12] Readers learn of the breeze in the bedroom, the position of the sun and moon as they cast light through the windows at different times of day, the “smouldering, unclean yellow” of the paper and the way it smudges on people’s clothes, the eroded “smooch” in the wood along the mopboard where the narrator fits her shoulder, and of course the strange biodiversity of the wall-paper itself: its unending fungal growths, “wallowing seaweeds,” “toadstools in joints,” “bulbous eyes,” and the “peculiar” smell that accentuates as the fog descends (Gilman, “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” 5, 15, 9, 12, 7, 14).

While domestic ecology remains an understudied element of this hyper-analyzed work, I want to suggest that drawing attention back to the story’s domestic details opens up new possibilities for reading “The Yellow Wall-Paper” as a eugenic feminist text in which the environmental space of the home becomes a key site of racialization.[13] As a number of scholars have pointed out, a Lamarckian belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics inflected evolutionary theory in the late nineteenth-century US.[14] As the thinking went, not only did species evolve phylogenetically, over the long arc of evolutionary time, but ontogenetically, over the course of a single generation. At the center of this theory was the notion of the impressible organism that acquires its physical, cognitive, and social characteristics through repeated exposure to its immediate sensory stimuli—characteristics it could then transmit to offspring. Expose an organism to the proper environment and it would become strong, keen, and virile; expose it to an improper environment and it would become weak, dim, and sterile. As Kyla Schuller points out, this figure of the pliable, porous organism was a crucial technology of nineteenth-century biopolitics. Impressibility, the capacity to be affected by and respond appropriately to stimuli, was a both a gendered and racialized category: “Impressibility came to prominence as a key measure for racially and sexually differentiating the refined, sensitive, and civilized subject who was embedded in time and capable of progress, and in need of protection, from the coarse, rigid, and savage elements of the population suspended in the eternal state of flesh and lingering on as unwanted remnants of prehistory” (Schuller, Biopolitics, 8).

Crucially, at the turn of the twentieth century, the bourgeois home was being steadily reimagined as a space of countless, often invisible, stimulations.[15] Alongside a dramatic expansion of state-sponsored initiatives including municipal sewage systems, water purification technology, garbage collection, and food inspection, Americans witnessed an explosion of mass-marketed literature promoting what Nancy Tomes calls “the private side of public health,” a “gospel of germs” that figured the home as a microcosmic forest of wildlife, toxins, and miasmas that were everywhere impressing upon the vulnerable bodies within (The Gospel of Germs, 6). Tales of experiments in which “3000 living organisms” were cultivated from “a pinpoint of dust” were common, and books with titles such as House Fly, Disease Carrier: An Account of Its Dangers and of the Means of Destroying It (1911) circulated widely (quoted in Ehrenreich and English, For Her Own Good, 144).

For a domestic ecologist such as Ellen Swallow Richards, the premise that human environments were simultaneously sites of “race progress” made the home’s eugenic potential a central feature of her work. In a follow-up to her writing on “oekology” called “Euthenics: The Science of Controllable Environment” (1910), she announces that while “[e]ugenics deals with race improvement through heredity,” “euthenics deals with race improvement through environment.”[16] Central to Richards’s study is the figure of the impressible child, whose capacity for development she depicts through metaphors of cultivation: “Let the furrows be plowed deeply enough while the brain cells are plastic, then human energies will result in efficiency and the line of least resistance will be the right line” (“Euthenics,” 82). And as the brain of the child is like a field or garden in Richards’s estimation, so too is the home itself: “The ideal of ‘home,’” she writes, “is protection from dangers within—bad habits, bad food, bad air, dirt and abuse— shelter, in fact, from all stunting agencies, just as the gardener protects his tender plants until they become strong enough to stand by themselves” (73). This metaphorical overlap, in which both domestic subjects and domestic spaces are figured as gardens in need of tending, gestures toward a key premise of nineteenth-century domestic ecology that we will see even more explicitly in Gilman’s writings: the home, far from a space of withdrawal from nature’s incursions, is one where nature’s “outside” is already within, awaiting cultivation. The project of promoting “national vitality,” which Richards’s ideal home is in the service of, involves the correct adequation between bodies and environments through the cultivation of nonhuman agents.

According to Gilman’s 1903 treatise The Home, Its Work and Influence, the existential crisis of modernity was precisely such a misalignment between the lived practices of domesticity and their cumulative effects on domestic subjects. Gilman believed that the modern home existed in a stage of “arrested development,” a primitive holdover of premodernity that stubbornly refused submission to the rationalizing forces impacting every other feature of US life.[17] Like Richards, she viewed the effects of this institutional failure to evolve as a threat to white supremacy. While the modern home keeps women isolated, conscripted into a multitude of tedious and inefficient tasks, and unable to derive satisfaction from their unending labor, it simultaneously enervates the impressible bodies and minds of its inhabitants. “It hinders,” she writes, “by keeping woman a social idiot, by keeping the modern child under the tutelage of the primeval mother, by keeping the social conscience of man crippled and stultified in the clinging grip of the domestic conscience of the woman” (Gilman, The Home, 315). As Gail Bederman has shown, contrary to the dominant white views of the period, which aligned heightened sexual difference with civilizational progress, Gilman understood the separation of spheres and the reinforcement of women’s “domestic conscience” as having an evolutionarily degenerative effect on the Anglo-Saxon body and mind, and correspondingly, the race.[18]

What has gone underexamined in Gilman scholarship, however, is the extent to which this critique unfolds through an insistently ecological emphasis on the various forms of stimuli to which women were exposed in their domestic environments. Indeed, to a degree not seen even in Richards, Gilman viewed the home as a space of strange intertwinings between its human and nonhuman residents. “Humanity is a relation,” she announces; “[t]he human being, to be really human, must be associated in various forms” (The Home, 189). For Gilman, these constitutive “associations” span the ontological spectrum: everything including clothing, furniture, food, air, dust, microbes, and animals impinge upon the home’s human inhabitants, molding their behaviors, habits, and bodies. Being fully human, for Gilman, is the effect of integrating a range of nonhuman forces and actors. Thus the home “absorbs pale cultures of tuberculosis and typhoid fever” through its milk, wives become “cowardly” through their rooms and dress, “whitened and softened by [their] houses,” and “the house life, with its shade, its foul air, its overheated steaminess, its innumerable tiring small activities, and its lack of any of those fine full exercises which built the proportions of the Greeks, has not benefited the body of the lady thereof; and in injuring her has injured all mankind, her children” (132, 209, 211–12). The claustrophobic atmosphere of the white bourgeois home conjures for Gilman a host of racial others: “the prehistoric squaw,” “the harem system, and the crippled ladies of China” (84, 208). Unlike some of her Victorian peers in the cult of domesticity, for whom a housewife’s whiteness and softness might be viewed as a mark of civilization, Gilman saw in such bodies the unnatural effects of improperly managed domestic ecologies.

And yet, “nature” and “civilization” maintain a complementary rather than antagonistic relationship in Gilman’s work. If, according to her thinking, white women have been forced into unnatural isolation at the expense of their duties to the race, it is precisely nature that must be reintroduced into the home to bring it back from the precipice of “savagery.” Dana Seitler has written compellingly about Gilman’s investment in white feminist “regeneration narratives,” offshoots of turn-of-the-century antimodernism whereby “flirtation with ‘the racial primitive’ and their landscapes may be momentarily imagined and always seem metaphorically available as a therapeutic resource for white health.”[19] Domestic ecology seeks to bring such therapeutic resources indoors. “Among our wisest parents,” Gilman muses, “there is to-day a new custom, happily increasing, of barefoot freedom, of dirt-proof overalls, of a chance for a beautiful, unconscious growth; but this does not reach the vast majority of suffering little ones” (The Home, 240). Insects, mice, mushrooms, and microorganisms make appearances throughout The Home, sometimes as instructive analogies (Gilman was especially fond of entomology to exemplify “rationalized” households), sometimes as metaphors for personhood (she referred to housebound wives as “rising under the enormous pressure that keeps them down like mushrooms under a stone”), and sometimes as literal examples of domestic co-inhabitants whose presence indexed the failure of human bodies to respond to them properly (267).[20] That this array of nonhuman agents are saddled with both positive and negative connotations in Gilman’s imagination speaks to the ambiguity of nature’s therapeutic role in feminist regeneration narratives. Home to both the “unclean” bodies of “primitive” persons and the “barefoot freedom” of healthy white children, Gilman’s nature was simultaneously a space of regression and rejuvenation, requiring perpetual administration to become beneficent.[21] Unsurprisingly, given its associations with both rustic dirt and carefully managed vitality, the metaphor of the garden suffuses Gilman’s writing, too. In her introduction to The Home, Gilman reassures her reader that she approaches its subject “as one bravely pruning a most precious tree. . . . [W]ith such and such clinging masses cut away, the real home life will be better established and more richly fruitful for good than we have ever known before” (The Home, 13). The home’s imbrication with nonhuman life functions as a foundational tenet of her eugenic theory.

How might understanding “The Yellow Wall-Paper” as part of this historical reorientation help us read it differently? The first step is to dispense with the logic of purity that has tended to ballast accounts of Gilman’s eugenic feminism. Domestic ecology, as we have seen, does not purify; it integrates, cultivates, and extracts. Agnes Malinowska theorizes what she calls Gilman’s “fungal femininity,” referring to the way the figure of an originary, undifferentiated organism—manifesting most concretely in the image of a mushroom—inflects the writer’s corpus as the recurring sign of both women’s natural vitality as well their need for perpetual cultivation.[22] But if all women, according to Gilman, are “fungal” from the outset, then nonhuman life cannot simply be excised in the quest for eugenic improvement. Indeed, one of Malinowska’s key insights is the insufficiency of traditional accounts of liberal humanism—in which the autonomous and self-generating subject emerges through the exclusion of animality or the materiality of embodiment—to explain away Gilman’s interest in a variety of forms of nonhuman life. Rather than excluding these excesses, Gilman’s fungal femininity “encounters the nonhuman first and foremost as resource,” a revitalizing object of introjection (Malinowska, “Fungal Female Animal,” 270).

To consider the home’s ecology as a resource for the maintenance of white supremacy rather than a threat to it is to discover the second insight of this rereading: that the account of personhood Gilman mobilizes in “The Yellow Wall-Paper” is one in which the human is differentially constituted through its relationship to the nonhuman environment. This is signaled immediately in the story’s reference to the narrator’s child as an “impressionable little thing” whose absence from the wall-papered room she considers a blessing (Gilman, “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” 10). Yet, as we saw in The Home, it is precisely such acts of quarantine that according to Gilman produce weak and vulnerable progeny. To understand that the quality of bodily impressibility was itself a sign of civilizational progress helps explain why Gilman’s narrator is described as being so sensitive to the wallpaper’s effects that they literally become her own.

                        It was moonlight. The moon shines in just as the sun does.

I hate to see it sometimes, it creeps so slowly, and always comes in by one window or another.

John was asleep and I hated to waken him, so I kept still and watched the moonlight on that undulating wallpaper till I felt creepy. (11)

The shift from the narrator’s perception of the “creeping” moonlight to the sensation of feeling “creepy” to what will eventually become her own act of “creeping” along the floor later in the story demonstrates the extent to which, in Gilman’s mind, human agency and interiority are assemblage formations deriving from a variety of nonhuman “associations.” In her compelling theoretical and personal account of Lyme disease, Kyla Schuller calls this assemblage the “microbial self,” “a notion of personhood in which the subject and its self-constituting sensations and affective states emerge within a spiral of interspecies entanglement.”[23] To read Gilman’s narrator as a kind of microbial self—everywhere affected by the room’s organic and inorganic minutiae—helps explain the homophonic echoes between the story’s use of the personal pronoun “I” and the visions of various “eyes” embedded in the wallpaper. In Gilman, white subjectivity is a fantasy of transcorporeal affiliations. Rather than view the wallpaper as a hallucination of the narrator’s illness, we might instead think of the narrator’s subjecthood as itself a fantasy hallucinated by its constitutive microbial interrelations.[24]

That this fantasy is racialized is evidenced not only in what Susan Lanser and others have identified as the correspondences between the wallpaper’s “repellant,” “unclean” yellowness, and “peculiar odor” and Gilman’s description of “alien” races in her other fictional and nonfictional writing, but—and more importantly for my argument here—in how the narrator’s entanglements with these unsavory features are, in fact, integral to the story’s account of white feminist agency. Taking seriously Gilman’s ecological vision of personhood allows us to explain a key detail in the story that resists easy assimilation into the genre of the naturalist “degeneration narrative” favored by the new historicists: namely, that it ends with the narrator’s ambiguous (if temporary) triumph over her domineering husband, who faints at the sight of his wife’s bizarre behavior. Gilman is at pains to underscore that the narrator’s physical trajectory at the close of the story—“I had to creep over him every time!”—is enabled by a strange confluence of human and nonhuman forces (“The Yellow Wall-Paper,” 19). Namely, the narrator follows the path of “a very funny mark on this wall, low down, near the mop-board” that resembles “a long, straight, even smooch, as if it had been rubbed over and over” (15). Given its proximity to the “mop-board” and its genesis through the act of repeated rubbing, it is clear that this “funny mark” is the result of cleaning; part of the wall has become abraded by housework seeking to eradicate the colonies of dust, bacteria, and fungal growths of interest to a new profession of domestic ecologists. The narrator articulates her body with this eroded section of wall: “here I can creep smoothly on the floor, and my shoulder just fits in that long smooch around the wall, so I cannot lose my way” (18). Thus, it is not only that “The Yellow Wall-Paper” depicts interiority as an epiphenomenon of nonhuman entanglements, but that the very possibility of white feminist resistance to women’s hyperdomestication is imagined through a proximity to the home’s ecological phenomena.[25]

Far from a fantasy of racial purity, “The Yellow Wall-Paper” must be read for its surprising investment in the notion that the introjection of a nonhuman outside is constitutive of rather than threatening to white health and subjectivity. As we will see, this premise is also the basis of the concept of autoimmunity, a current watchword of Western public health discourse that refers to the aberrant response of a body’s immune system against its own healthy cells caused by a failure to adapt to its environment. By turning now to the ways contemporary autoimmunity discourse re-entrenches the tenets of nineteenth-century domestic ecology, we get a clearer sense of how Gilman’s eugenic thinking endures into the present through a recasting of whiteness as microbially impoverished and in need of revitalization through its immersion in “primitive” environments.

The Racial Logics of Autoimmunity Discourses

According to a growing body of scientific research, modernization is making people sick. Proponents of the hygiene hypothesis in the fields of immunology and epidemiology argue that western autoimmunity is directly correlated to anthropogenic reductions in microbial biodiversity. Since the 1990s, scientists have linked the rising rates of autoimmune diseases (including diabetes and multiple sclerosis, allergies and asthma, as well as inflammatory bowel disease and Crohn’s) in rich, Western countries to a range of infrastructural and public health initiatives that have increasingly isolated human life from the microbial populations of bacteria, parasites, and viruses to which their homo sapiens ancestors were consistently exposed.[26] As the theory goes, these microorganisms play a crucial role in humans’ evolutionary and developmental history: their presence “educates” the immune system to differentiate between harmful and benign stimuli, and then respond accordingly. As one study puts it, “the mammalian genome does not encode for all functions required for immunological development . . . rather . . . mammals depend on critical interactions with their microbiome (the collective genomes of the microbiota) for health.”[27] But since Gilman’s era, when developments like municipal water treatment, industrial farming, mandatory vaccinations, and public sanitation began to limit specific populations’ contact with this microbiota, a dangerous untangling has occurred.

While the hygiene hypothesis’s causal framework links autoimmunity to a set of major developments in western governmentality that cut across demographic categories, its etiological implications have garnered a number of telling euphemisms in the scientific literature: “the twenty-first-century sickness,” “an epidemic of absence,” even “a disease of civilization.”[28] In their obvious chauvinism, these shorthand phrases invoke a familiar set of biopolitical coordinates that underwrite the racist logic of capitalist development: whereas the global North figures here as the unblemished bastion of civilization existing comfortably within the flow of historical time, the global South is a primitive backwater, lodged in a different century and marked by its stubborn resistance to modernity. These coordinates, too, provide a calculus of human worth that allows this biopolitical caesura within the planetary population to be perpetually reestablished at smaller scales: the country, the city, the neighborhood. The explicitness with which one early study expresses this logic while addressing the autoimmune differences between Métis and white populations in Saskatchewan is clarifying: “It is suggested that atopic disease is the price paid by some members of the white community for their relative freedom from diseases due to viruses, bacteria, and helminths.”[29] In the hygiene hypothesis framework, autoimmunity is metonymically linked to whiteness in ways that rhetorically recapitulate turn of the century associations between uncleanliness and race.[30] Moreover, by presenting autoimmunity as the “price” paid for “freedom” from other forms of sickness, the study reveals (in the form of a disavowal) how the privileges and immunities granted to those populations deemed worthy of health and survival are always earned at the expense of others, whose neglect and expendability underwrite the eugenic logic of development itself. Whiteness, here, needs to be understood not as a phenotype but as a structure of domination whose effects are felt at every level of planning and governance.

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that US popular culture has metabolized the effects of the hygiene hypothesis in two complementary ways that echo earlier discourses of antimodernist “overcivilization” prevalent at the turn of the previous century. The first of these strains is the revival of masculinist, neocolonial “errand into the wilderness” narratives oriented around the task of “rewilding” the Western microbiome by exposing it to foreign microbial landscapes. Thus, in Rewild (2015), the American researcher Jeff Leach, motivated by his daughter’s diagnosis with Type 1 diabetes, recounts his travels to north-central Tanzania, home of the indigenous Hadza people, with the intention of studying their “ancestral” microbiomes, “what a healthier microbiome might have looked like—before the comforts and medications of the current modern era whacked the crap out of our gut bugs.”[31] For Leach, uncolonized indigeneity functions as a literal and symbolic resource of Western biological rejuvenation, a vector of contact with a prelapsarian form of ecological harmony between humans and nonhumans (the Hadza, in his words, “becom[e] one” with their microbial outside) (Rewild, 36). As in the colonial “first contact” narratives of which Rewild is an updated version, the price of access to this microbial cornucopia is the threat of danger to the white body paid only through the courage of strenuous masculinity. In an on-the-nose synthesis of colonization’s multiple registers, Leach at one point self-administers a fecal transplant from a Hadza man in an attempt to “recolonize” his gastro-intestinal tract. “[H]ad I just unwittingly infected myself with some lethal bacteria or virus?” he wonders (62).

Where narratives of “rewilding” rehabilitate the trope of the heroic white man seeking physical revitalization in “underdeveloped” environments, a second cultural offshoot of the hygiene hypothesis locates the crucible of white immunological futurity squarely within the bourgeois home. In popular science works such as Rob Dunn’s Never Home Alone (2018) and Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes (2016), Western domestic space is transformed into a site of imperiled biodiversity, where vast and invisible microbial worlds are constantly flickering into view yet everywhere threatened with extinction at the hands of overzealous housekeepers. As the book jacket of Never Home Alone puts it:

From the Indian meal moths in the cupboard to the camel crickets living in the basement to the antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus waiting on the kitchen counter, every house is a wilderness—brimming with thousands of species of insects, bacteria, fungi, and plants that live literally under our noses. To regain control over our critter-filled quarters, we fight back by obsessively sterilizing our homes. However, in doing so, we are unwittingly cultivating an entirely new playground for evolution, enabling deadly bacteria to thrive instead of species that help our immune systems and add flavor to foods like beer, sourdough, and kimchi. The “healthier” we try to make our homes, the more likely we are to put our own health at risk.[32]

As we saw in Gilman, when the home is reenchanted as a wilderness, the homemaker must become a cultivator of domestic ecologies. “Rather than try to exclude microbes from our domestic spaces,” writes Ed Yong, “perhaps it is time to lay the welcome mat out for them.”[33] Both by virtue of the material conditions that continue to inform the distribution of housework in North America, as well as its figural alignment in these texts with reproductive futurity, this vision of hospitality toward the nonhuman is a gendered one. Yong describes a scientific study called the Home Microbiome Project, which seeks to document the changing biodiversity of US domestic spaces in the hopes of subjecting them to a similar form of the rewilding Leach sought in Tanzania, and for the same reason: the health of the (future) child. The study’s director envisions printing 3D “teething toys” for children, pre-loaded (or in his words, “impregnated”) “with useful bacteria” to aid in the child’s immunological development by “seeding” it with the microbiota otherwise lacking in the home itself (Yong, I Contain Multitudes, 259). Dunn’s text also links the injunction to cultivate new domestic ecologies with child rearing. Echoing Gilman’s invocation of the “barefoot freedom” lost to the children of modernity, he writes, “When I was a child, I grew up outside,” only to forecast by the end of the paragraph “a radical new stage in the cultural evolution of our species”: “Homo indoorus” (Dunn, Never Home Alone, 1). As was the case in Gilman’s work, the stakes of rewilding the home are nothing less than the future of the (human) race.

While these popular responses initially appear to express divergent (bio)logics of US hegemony, their gendered associations reveal a chiastic convergence: the wild must be returned home, and the home must be returned to the wild. A closer look reveals that these seemingly opposed semantic registers consistently overlap.[34] For Leach, specifically, Tanzania figures throughout Rewild as an originary home, “the geographical cradle of humanity” (Rewild, 65). Indeed, it is possible to read the author’s self-administered fecal transplant, recounted in a chapter called “(Re)becoming Human,” as a fantasy of male pregnancy that symbolically circumvents the dangers he associates elsewhere with biological reproduction (particularly Caesarian births and decreases in breastfeeding rates, both of which limit newborns’ exposure to helpful microbes).[35] Leach’s anal assimilation of the Hadza microbiome offers a dream of a biological rebirth in which he acts as both the producer and the product of his own “humanity.” In this imagining, the Hadza people occupy a similar position to the figures of the “squaw” and “Chinaman” in Gilman’s domestic theories: signs of a threatening yet useful premodern vitality to be possessed and exploited; a resource for a purportedly endangered, enfeebled whiteness to renew itself.

What we saw as the beginnings of the microbial self in Gilman and Richards reaches its culmination in a modern form of eugenics that goes under the name of autoimmunity discourse. In her popular science introduction to the human microbiome, 10% Human: How Your Body’s Microbes Hold the Key to Health and Happiness, Alanna Collen expresses a sentiment that may as well have been ripped from the pages of Euthenics: “The beauty of the microbiota is that, unlike our genes, we have some control over it” (281). It is little surprise, then, that the book’s Epilogue, titled “100% Human,” is a discussion of good domestic practices for new mothers. “As I contemplate embarking on motherhood,” Collen writes, “it strikes me that I have more reasons than ever to look after all my cells, both human and microbial . . . before passing [them] on to my future children” (284). Like the “impressionable little thing” in “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” Collen’s imagined offspring resembles an object of biological cultivation. As to the best practices for delivering, feeding, and medicating this future newborn, Collen responds, “I’ll stick to nature” (284). And yet, again, the sign of “nature” here is freighted with neocolonial connotations, as the book’s jacket compares the human microbiome over an individual lifespan to “the equivalent weight of five African elephants.” “You are not an individual but a colony,” the book jacket states. Here, as in Leach and Dunn, a biocentric definition of humanity—implied in the logic of percentages of humanness corresponding to the quantity of microbes in the body—underwrites the global system of Western imperialism that partitions the population into categories of human, sub-human, and nonhuman. The threat of extinction haunts this appeal to a quantitative metric of species identity, while autoimmunity establishes the domestic logic by which “100% humanity” continues to be the province of whiteness alone.

From this vantage point, we might say that Gilman’s writings produce a theory of autoimmunity before the letter—which is to say, a theory of white vitality that depends for its perceived stabilization on immersion in a “primitive” environment. While the language of autoimmunity did not become prevalent until the 1950s, the epistemological conditions necessary for its emergence were already in place when Gilman was working.[36] By presenting the home and its inhabitants as sites of ecological cultivation, to be pruned and seeded as one might a garden, turn of the century domestic ecologists articulated the conditions that would come to inform the popular discourse of autoimmunity in the present. Drawing their eugenic feminism into conversation with the eugenic logics of our current moment reveals a striking continuity that countermands any easy dismissals of the past’s pastness or its actors’ irrelevance.


Special thanks to members of the 2020 First Book Institute Workshop who read drafts of this essay and offered extremely helpful feedback: Paul Nadal, Danica Savonick, Ana Schwartz, Faith Barter, and Justin Mann. Many thanks, too, to Cari Hovanec and Rachel Murray, the editors of this special cluster, for their excellent suggestions.

[1] On the first wave of feminist scholarship, see Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979), 89–92; Annette Kolodny, “A Map for Rereading: Or, Gender and the Interpretation of Literary Texts,” New Literary History 11, no. 3 (1980): 451–567; and Judith Fetterley, “Reading About Reading: ‘A Jury of Her Peers,’ ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’ and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” in Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts, and Contexts, ed. Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patroncinio P. Schweikart (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 147–64. Susan S. Lanser’s field-shaping study, “Feminist Criticism, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ and the Politics of Color in America,” Feminist Studies 15, no. 3, (1989): 415–41, inaugurates the second phase of scholarship, which shifts the analytical focus to the question of the tale’s racial politics. For writing that explicitly takes up the issue of eugenic feminism in Gilman, see Dana Seitler’s “Unnatural Selection: Mothers, Eugenic Feminism, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Regeneration Narratives,” American Quarterly 55, no. 1 (2003): 61–88; Asha Nadkarni’s “Reproducing Feminism in ‘Jasmine’ and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’” Feminist Studies 38, no. 1 (2012): 218–44; and Alys Eve Weinbaum’s Wayward Reproductions: Genealogies of Race and Nation in Transatlantic Modern Thought (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

[2] See Jennifer L. Fleissner, Women, Compulsion, Modernity: The Moment of American Naturalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 77. Asha Nadkarni offers an exemplary instance of the argumentative appeal to purity in the claim that “eugenic feminism shapes an identity in negative terms, repeatedly returning to raced and classed others to define them as precisely what must be abjected in order for a ‘pure’ feminist subject to emerge” (“Reproducing Feminism,” 219). See also, Alys Eve Weinbaum, “Writing Feminist Genealogy: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Reproduction of Racial Nationalism,” in Wayward Reproductions, 61–105.

[3] For example, see Donna Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (New York: Routledge, 1989); Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007); Timothy Morton, “Queer Ecology,” PMLA 125, no. 2 (2010): 273–82. For examples of Americanist literary criticism that take a deconstruction of the human/nonhuman divide as a foundational for antiracist methodology, see Monique Allewaert, Ariel’s Ecology: Plantations, Personhood, and Colonialism in the American Tropics (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2013) and Matthew Taylor, Universes without Us: Posthuman Ecologies in American Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

[4] See Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (New York: Picador, 2014).

[5] Sara Ahmed’s reading of Gilman in “Orientations Matter,” in New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, ed. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 234–57, is one instance of this. See, too, Kyla Schuller’s response to Ahmed in The Biopolitics of Feeling: Race, Sex, and Science in the Nineteenth Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017). For accounts of this tendency in the nonhuman turn more broadly, see Jordana Rosenberg, “The Molecularization of Sexuality: On Some Primitivisms of the Present,” Theory and Event 17, no. 2 (2014).

[6] Neel Ahuja, Bioinsecurities: Disease Intervention, Empire, and the Government of Species (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), ix.

[7] Jennifer L. Fleissner, “Is Feminism a Historicism?” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 21, no. 1 (2002): 45–66, 60. See also Kyla Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling (2017); Neel Ahuja, Bioinsecurities (2016); Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012); Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010); Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World (New York: New York University Press, 2020).

[8] Ernst Haeckel, quoted in Robert C. Stauffer, “Haeckel, Darwin, and Ecology,” The Quarterly Review of Biology 32, no. 2 (1957): 138–44, 140.

[9] A year after Richards’s introduction of ecology to an American readership, the term was “expropriated,” in Barbara Richardson’s words, by a group of British scientists intent on excising its enviro-centric implications. “Along with the eugenicists, the British journal editors believed the human species to be more profoundly influence by heredity than the environment.” See Barbara Richardson, “Ellen Swallow Richards: ‘Humanistic Oekologist,’ ‘Applied Sociologist,’ and the Founding of Sociology,” The American Sociologist 33, no. 3 (2002): 21–57, 27. Richards’s use of the term fell out of favor until its reintroduction and popularization in the middle decades of the twentieth century. This erasure of nineteenth-century women’s intellectual history from ecology’s metanarrative continues to inform the thought-styles of the contemporary “ecological turn” in humanities scholarship. See David Hollingshead, “Women, Insects, Modernity: American Domestic Ecologies in the Late Nineteenth Century,” Feminist Modernist Studies 3, no. 2 (2020): 180–204.

[10] Quoted in Robert Dyball and Liesel Carlsson, “Ellen Swallow Richards: Mother of Human Ecology?” Human Ecology Review 23, no. 2 (2017): 17–28, 22.

[11] Dolores Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs For American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1982).

[12] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” in The Yellow Wall-Paper and Other Stories, ed. Robert Shulman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 3.

[13] In both the earlier feminist recuperations of the story and the later historicist revisions, there is a tendency to rewrite Gilman’s attention to domestic environments as merely the manifest form of a different, submerged (and more fundamental) latent content. Thus, in Annette Kolodny’s analysis of the narrator’s plight, the wallpaper’s details are assimilated to the abstraction of “her own psyche writ large,” a text to be read and reread through interpretive acts of “decoding” (“A Map for Rereading,” 458–59), while Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar describe the paper as “otherwise incomprehensible hieroglyphics” (Madwoman in the Attic, 90). Similarly though in a different register, Lanser’s revisionist reading frames the wallpaper as “not only a representation of patriarchy but also the projection of patriarchal practices onto non-Aryan societies” (“Feminist Criticism,” 433–34), while Asha Nadkarni aligns the paper’s excesses with “difference” as such, reading the narrator’s eventual act of stripping it from the wall as an illustration of the way “feminist progress is obtained by radically excluding all difference” (“Reproducing Feminism,” 221). This tendency to insist that the narrator’s environment is not, in fact, an environment at all (but rather a symbol, projection, or abstraction), risks repeating the gestures of the narrator’s husband, John, whose attempts to circumscribe the reality of her experience is used as a tool of subjugation.

[14] See, in particular, Kyla Schuller, The Biopolitics of Feeling (2017), Dana Seitler, “Unnatural Selection: Mothers, Eugenic Feminism, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Regeneration Narratives,” American Quarterly 55, no. 1 (2003): 61–88; and Lynn Wardley, “Fear of Falling and the Rise of Girls: Lamarck’s Knowledge in What Maisie Knew,” American Literary History 28, no. 2 (2016): 246–70.

[15] See Nancy Tomes, The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, For Her Own Good: Two Centuries of Experts’ Advice to Women (New York: Random House, 1978); and Susan Strasser, Never Done: A History of American Housework (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1982).

[16] Ellen H. Richards, Euthenics: The Science of Controllable Environment (Boston: Whitcomb and Barrows, 1912; Project Gutenberg, 2010),

[17] Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Home: Its Work and Influence (New York: McClure, Philips, 1903), 240.

[18] “Gilman . . . depicted sexual difference and racial difference as inversely related: As civilized races advanced, they grew ever more unlike their racial inferiors; but if sexual difference also increased, their racial superiority was likely to decrease, and they would degenerate back to the level of primitives”: Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880–1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 139–40.

[19] Dana Seitler, “Unnatural Selection: Mothers, Eugenic Feminism, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Regeneration Narratives,” American Quarterly 55, no. 1 (2003): 61–88, 80. On antimodernism, see T. J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

[20] Gilman, for example, offers the example of the homebound woman, “shrieking at that arch-terror of the home—a mouse” as evidence of her enervated condition. “Savage women are not weak. Peasant women are not weak. Fishwives are not weak” (The Home, 169).

[21] For a US history of the cultural associations between nonwhite persons and uncleanliness, see Carl A. Zimring’s Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States (New York: New York University Press, 2015).

[22] Agnes Malinowska, “Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Fungal Female Animal: Evolution, Efficiency, and the Reproductive Body,” Modernism/modernity 26, no. 2 (2019): 267–88.

[23] Kyla Schuller, “The Microbial Self: Sensation and Sympoiesis,” Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities 5, no. 3 (2018): 51–67, 54.

[24] Here I am playing off Schuller’s discussion of the role of spirochetes, the operative organism in Lyme disease symptoms: “It is not only that spirochete patients experience hallucination but that spirochetal relations hallucinate the subject” (“The Microbial Self,” 57).

[25] In a unique elaboration of this premise, Lynn Wardley identifies “the story’s half-hidden joke” as its reversal of the common Victorian claim that the home is an antidote to the poisons of commerce and industry with its suggestion that “the Victorian interior is literally toxic.” Drawing attention to widespread late nineteenth-century fears surrounding arsenic poisoning caused by dyes used in wallpaper coloring, Wardley argues that Gilman’s story uses the premise of toxic immunity as an “antipatriarchal strateg[y]” that is “intimately tied to the very body and particular environment Gilman seeks to transcend.” As two Victorian doctors put it, “although long use of arsenic had rendered many women immune to the mineral, their husbands occasionally came to untimely deaths as a result of a romantic embrace.” See Lynn Wardley, “Relic, Fetish, Femmage: The Aesthetics of Sentiment in the Work of Stowe,” The Yale Journal of Criticism 5, no. 3 (1992): 165–91, 184.

[26] See, for example, John W. Frew, “The Hygiene Hypothesis, Old Friends, and New Genes,” Frontiers in Immunology 10, no. 388 (2019): 1–3; Markus J. Ege, “The Hygiene Hypothesis in the Age of the Microbiome,” Annals of the American Thoracic Society 14 (Nov 2017): S348–53; Maria Yazdanbakhsh, Peter G. Kremsner, and Ronald van Ree, “Allergy, Parasites, and the Hygiene Hypothesis,” Science 296, no. 5567 (2002): 490–94.

[27] Mazmanian quoted in Graham A. W. Rook, The Hygiene Hypothesis and Darwinian Medicine (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2009), 4.

[28] See Alanna Collen, 10% Human: How Your Body’s Microbes Hold the Key to Health and Happiness (New York: Harper, 2015); Stephen T. Holgate and David Broide, “New Targets for Allergic Rhinitis — A Disease of Civilization,” Nature Reviews Drug Discovery 2 (2003): 902–14; Moises Velasquez-Manoff, An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Disease (New York: Scribner, 2012).

[29] J. W. Geddes et al, “Serum IgE levels in White and Métis Communities in Saskatchewan,” Annals of Allergy 37, no. 2 (1976): 91–100, 91.

[30] A 2003 study on asthma published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, for example, notes in passing and without evidence the “presumably unclean living conditions” of “US inner cities,” where asthma is most severe among the poor and those of “African American heritage.” Andrew H. Liu and James R. Murphy, “Hygiene Hypothesis: Fact or Fiction?” Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 111, no. 3 (2003): 476–77.

[31] Jeff D. Leach, Rewild: A Collection of Essays from the Human Food Project (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015), 64.

[32] Rob Dunn, Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live (New York: Basic Books, 2018), jacket.

[33] Ed Yong, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life (New York: Harper Collins, 2018), 258.

[34] For Dunn, the reconceptualization of home-as-wild is rhetorically linked with imperial science and anthropology abroad: “We began to study the life in homes in the way one might inventory a rain forest in Costa Rica or a grassland in South Africa” (Never Home Alone, 2).

[35] “Our children are no longer born in the microbe-rich dirt,” Leach writes, “but rather hyper-sterile rooms where even the air is scrubbed with mechanical systems. Furthermore, an increasing number of babies are born through an incision rather than the microbial-rich birth canal and the percentage that are still consuming microbial-rich milk from mom at 2 or even 1 [sic] year of age can be counted in the low single digits, depending on where you live and your lot in life” (38).

[36] The first of these conditions, the notion that health is a function of an organism’s relationship to its environment was, as we have already seen, a key component of nineteenth-century science, and did not disappear with the advent of the germ theory in the 1870s. The second condition, the notion that the human body is a site of biological self-defense, was already circulating in the laboratories of Europe in the 1880s. See Linda Nash, Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006); Ed Cohen, A Body Worth Defending: Immunity, Biopolitics, and the Apotheosis of the Modern Body (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).