Erin McKenna (Pacific Lutheran University)

The Possibilities of Democracy: Dewey's Community, Gilman's Home, Young's City

            John Dewey, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Iris Marion Young all believe that the possibilities of democracy are rooted in our models of community life.  Where and how we live with others are formative for individuals and their sense of connectedness to, and obligations for, others.  Dewey's call for us to return to face-to-face communities in which we can regain a sense of our connectedness is probably familiar to most of us.  I will briefly describe his idea here.  Then I will show how the feminist theories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Iris Marion Young both support Dewey's notion of the Great Community and challenge it by raising concerns about gender and diversity.  Gilman addresses issues of gender inequality which she sees rooted in our model of the home and neighborhood; Young discusses the possibilities of city life for promoting and respecting diversity.

Dewey's Great Community

            Dewey believes that since much of the world is no longer divided into local, stable communities where family ties and long-time friendships connect people to one another in a direct and perceivable way, the necessary awareness of our connectedness has been lost.  For Dewey, lived experience requires an understanding of our connectedness; it requires truly associated living.  True association, however, is not simply a matter of being within a family, group, or society.  It is a matter of how one is in that family, group, or society.  Associated living requires that a person realize that her growth is interdependent with the possibilities of growth for others.  One can live in society with others and not truly be engaged with them or with one's self.  In society where there is not recognized interdependence and interactionwhere there is not associated living, no communitythere can be no lived experience.  As lived experience requires our participation with our environment, associated living is a form of association of individuals who participate with their physical and social environments.  To live in community is to be engaged with society.  This engagement enables us to make sense of and organize society to some purpose and so move experience forward in a cumulating and fulfilling way.  It is by being in community that lived experience becomes possible and intelligent imagination and reflection can be applied to the future.

            Dewey calls for the recovery of the "unified individual"an individual attentive to its context.  This is an individual who acts more that it is acted upon; it is involved in, and responsible for, its own creation.  It is not thrown around by any "natural forces," but uses such forces with intelligence and purpose.  Using education to teach individuals to be critical and constructive, by giving them a role to play in formulating their own direction, one obtains an ethic of social responsibility consistent with the individual.  For Dewey, there is no primacy to either the individual or society.  The best that can be hoped for is socially embedded individuals capable of sympathy with others as well as independent and critical thought.  Getting past the idea of isolated individuals, and beyond a mere aggregate of individuals into a society, we approach the possibility of communityintegrated individuals acting conjointly with intelligence and foresight.

            This call to regain and act on our sense of interconnectedness is very appealing.  However there are some dangers to elevating this sense of connectedness and community which Dewey did not directly address.  Gilman and Young can help him here.

Gilman's Model of the Home and Neighborhood

Gilman's model for the professionalization of the domestic sphere, and her plan for neighborhoods modeled on the idea of the organized resort, address many of the feminist concerns that calls for community come at the cost of valorizing traditional gender roles.  Gilman argues that an androcentric culture has created a public-male/private-female split that makes the notion of face-to-face communities dangerously limiting for women.  Gilman argues that the androcentric home must change if we hope to produce people capable of becoming democratic citizens.  Not only are women and girls hindered in their development, but fathers and sons are perverted by their power.

For each man to have one whole woman to cook for and wait upon him is poor education for democracy.  The boy with a servile mother, the man with a servile wife, cannot reach the sense of equal rights we need to-day.  Too constant consideration of the master's tastes make the master selfish; and the assault upon his heart direct, or through that proverbial side-avenue, the stomach, which the dependent woman must make when she wants anything, is bad for the man, as well as for her (1911, 42-43).

If we want to produce people capable of looking to the needs of others as well as their own, the model of men in competition for personal ownership must give way to the model of women in cooperation for the individual development of all.

Gilman argues that we need women in a position of equality because she believes that women will be concerned with developing and promoting social arrangements which promote conditions for the best care, nurturance, and education of all children.  Further, she believes that humanity's proper concern should be with developing the social relationships and arrangements such that the improvement of the human race is promoted.  This is not possible on the patriarchal model.  Gilman believes her model of motherhood will provide a corrective influence and allow people to continue in their evolution.  For women to become mothers on Gilman's model, however, they most become self-governing agentsi.e. men must give up possessing women as their domestic servants. 

Women's condition, however, cannot change, and so society cannot improve, as long as individual, high maintenance houses remain.  There must be a re-structuring of the physical layout of society if women are to become equal partners in society.  What has been the domestic realm must come to be seen as a community concern and a public task.  Gilman calls for the professionalization and centralization of cooking, cleaning, and child-care.  Her ideal dwelling has no kitchen!  She believes everyone stands to benefit from such an arrangement.  Meals will cost less because the food will be bought in bulk; they will be more nutritious because they will be prepared by people trained in such matters.  The same applies to cleaning and child-darethey will be more cost effective and more efficient by virtue of being done by specialists and being centralized.  Further, her model for a home is not the isolated single family dwelling, placed in a neighborhood of similarly isolated and self-sufficient dwellings.  Instead, a neighborhood may consist of separate dwellings, or hotel like buildings, which share common facilities for cooking, cleaning, and childcare.

During Gilman's lifetime there were various attempts at communal living taking place.  She spent some time at Hull House, visited Fourierist communities, and looked at organized resorts.  Gilman wanted to make the reality of the resort the reality of the home and everyday life.  In her short story "The Cottagette," for example, we find two women taking up a small, private, isolated cottage.

There was one big room and two little ones in the tiny thing, though from the outside you wouldn't have believed it, it looked so small; but small as it was, it harbored a miraclea real bathroom with water piped from mountain springs. . . . You had to quite a way through the meadow, . . . to reach the town-connecting road below.  But in the woods was a little path, clear and wide, by which we went to meals (48).

Eating at the central meetinghouse with various and interesting people is a great pleasure to both women.  When one woman becomes interested in a man, they add a kitchen on to the cottage so she can cook for him.  Everything changes.  She becomes quite unhappy.  She has no time for her painting, as she is now busied with cleaning and cooking.  The level of noise and dirt is greatly increased by the addition of the kitchen, destroying their peace.  They no longer socialize at the meetinghouse and lose this vital contact with other interesting minds.  The relationship is endangered by these changes which affect the woman.  In the end, the man asks her to marry him.  He also asks that she return to her painting and never cook again.  She cannot be the artist she is meant to be if she tries to take up the burdens of a private domestic life.  Gilman's idea is that if people are weaned of the belief that the individual and private setting is the best or only way, a wide array of possibilities open up for everyone.  The needs of the human race now require a different kind of individualan individual who realizes her interconnectedness with others and is capable of independent critical thought and action.  Our models of the home and neighborhood must help create and support such Deweyan "unified individuals."  Only then is community, and so also democracy, a real possibility.

Young's Model of City Life

            Iris Marion Young's model of city life addresses concerns about combining community and diversity.  In Justice and the Politics of Difference, Young seeks a form of social life in which people can interact in a positive way to solve common problems, not in spite of their differences but because of their differences.  She does not find local face-to-face communities, or ideas of a global community, to be workable.  She believes that small face to face communities may entail too much social pressure to conform to a single standard, and the idea of a global community may require too much abstraction and the loss of individual and unique strengths.  Instead, she proposes city life as a possible model for a society in which people, complete in their variety, can participate together in making decisions and directing their future.  She argues that the anonymity of the city, rather than the close ties of a "village", will free people to explore their uniqueness and accept the differences of others.  With the distance of strangers living in a common space, people will not feel as threatened by what is unfamiliar because it does not affect their daily lives.  Secure in their own ways, they will be strong enough to have an open mind about others.

            To develop a sense of community, Young believes it is important for individuals to participate in the decision making process of the groups with which they associate.  However, Young is concerned about the tyranny of a majority, a minority, or a special interest group.  Participatory procedures of decisionmaking on their own do not eliminate the possibility of any particular group or point of view coming to dominate the discussion, effectively putting an end to discourse.  For example, the town meeting model of participatory democracy allows the more vocal, more powerful, more persuasive person to gain a privileged status. Young also believes the idea that there can be an impartial objective point of view really masks an attempt to reduce differences to some chosen unity.

The stances of detachment and dispassion that supposedly produce impartiality are attained only by abstracting from the particularities of situation, feeling, affiliation, and point of view.  These particularities still operate, however, in the actual context of action.  Thus the ideal of impartiality generates a dichotomy between universal and particular, public and private, reason and passion.  It is, moreover, an impossible ideal, because the particularities of context and affiliation cannot and should not be removed from moral reasoning.  Finally, the ideal of impartiality serves ideological functions.  It masks the ways in which the particular perspectives of dominant groups claim universality, and helps justify hierarchical decisionmaking structures (97).

            Participatory models that endorse impartiality (in the sense of a universal objective point of view) as a guiding ideal may limit the voices that can be heard in discussion.  As voices are shut out of the discussion, homogeneity rather than heterogeneity is encouraged.  Particular experiences, relationships and situations are reduced to some supposedly common core rather than approached as complex and rich opportunities for discussion and growth.  Young believes that variety is necessary if there is to be rich and meaningful experience; differences must be appreciated, not overlooked or discouraged if the possibilities of the future are to be kept open.  "To promote a politics of inclusion, then, participatory democrats must promote the ideal of a heterogeneous public, in which persons stand forth with their differences acknowledged and respected, though perhaps not completely understood, by others" (119).

            Democracy, as a method of living which demands that individuals participate in the directing of their lives can be effective, enabling, and educative only if there is an attempt to acknowledge and understand differences rather than gloss over them.  Young provides some guidelines for how a diverse public can recognize and address differences and still remain cohesive enough to make decisions.  Young states that "a democratic public should provide mechanisms for the effective recognition and representation of the distinct voices and perspectives of those of its constituent groups that are oppressed or disadvantaged" (184).   A method that acknowledges differences, listens to a variety of points of view, encourages deliberation amongst involved parties, and gives the people involved enough power to be able to demand attention be paid to their concerns is more likely, on Young's account, to result in fair decisions.  As it assures more voices will be heard, it is likely that more needs and interests will be taken into account.  Rather than a privileged view being taken as the public interest, we will see, through deliberation, how interconnected we are to one another, and how limited any one perspective, by itself is. 

            Inasmuch as Young's model of democracy requires that people acknowledge and address differences in discourse, she is suspicious of the call to return to small face-to-face communities.  She believes that the ideal of local community life is based on the drive to achieve unity in community. The unity, however, is a facade based on the belief that there is some impartial point of view on which all can agree despite their differences.  Such an arrangement silences or marginalizes voices that have different points of view.  In this way, the ideal of local community can deny and repress social differences and lead to the exclusion of some from social discourse (230).  Stable, unified, small communities, then, will not help us achieve Young's model of democratic discourse.

            Young believes that the ideal of face-to-face community has value, but believes it is dangerous if it is taken as the only ideal.   She agrees with Dewey that the ideal of face-to-face community encourages a recognition of our embeddedness and the corresponding need to balance multiple commitments in making choices.  It encourages a recognition of intimate relationships and the corresponding responsibilities of such relationships.  It encourages close interaction where one must acknowledge the effects of any given choice upon the people of the community, rather than providing a "safe" bureaucratic distance.  She also believes, however, that such communities also encourage social and personal pressure to conform to certain community norms.  They encourage one to suppress difference for the sake of others, failing to realize how the expression of difference could enrich the community.  Young believes that difference seems more threatening when it is expressed in a small, close-knit community because in such a community change and difference are seen as a threat to the order and stability of the community and so to the lives of each person in the community.  Being open about difference within a local community, then, can be seen as an irresponsible, inconsiderate, and threatening social act and so is opposed.

            Young believes that difference may seem less personally and socially threatening if people are connected, but have more individual space.  She proposes the model of city life to stand in the place of small face-to-face communities.

By "city life" I mean a form of social relations which I define as the being together of strangers.  In the city persons and groups interact within spaces and institutions they all experience themselves as belonging to, but without those interactions dissolving into unity or commonness.  City life is composed of clusters of people with affinities--families, social group networks, voluntary associations, neighborhood networks, a vast array of small "communities."  City dwellers frequently venture beyond such familiar enclaves, however, to the more open public of politics, commerce, and festival, where strangers meet and interact (237).

People, involved in this array of small communities, can gain from them the positive aspects of face-to-face community and retain a certain amount of individual space and distance from others.  They can be involved with other people without as much pressure to be like them.  People can come together to solve common problems (such as busing, sewer lines, waste disposal, education, drug trafficking, gun control) without having to agree on other issues, and go their own ways when and if the common focus fades away.  One can come to be in community with people of different political associations, different sexual orientations, different races, different religions, different educational backgrounds--all of whom share a common interest or concern.  Coming together with a shared concern one can learn about these differences but not see them as threatening or directly challenging to any particular way of life as a whole.

            With such experiences one is more likely, on Young's account, though not inevitably, to become open to learning about different perspectives as these perspectives can offer a variety of opinions and a greater breadth of knowledge and ideas about how to deal with the common problem or promote the common project.  Being immersed in a task one is more likely to see the educational aspects of plurality and not focus so much on any one perspective.  Given the fluidity of the groups and their transitory nature, it will be harder for any particular individual or group with deep seated prejudices to dominant multiple aspects of another's life, even if they are able to become dominant in a certain community.  The impact of individuals participating in decisionmaking who have not yet recognized their embeddedness will be more diffuse, as people are involved in a variety of groups, than if we simply return to stable local face-to-face communities where there could be an attempt to define a public interest--an impartial or unified position that excludes certain voices.   Young's communities of interest are dynamic, coming in and going out of existence as our needs and interests change.  Young's model of city life encourages participation in a variety of communities, a recognition of our interconnectedness, and a commitment to developing open and flexible habits of mind.  Young's model of the city encourages the development of Dewey's "unified individual."

            With such flexible communities we can learn to appreciate differences by coming together with others with a certain shared purpose.  This coming together is as important as achieving any particular goal as this task oriented community will help people realize their embeddedness, encourage their participation in directing their future, and make it possible for them to act with intelligence and foresight.  Acting with intelligence and foresight requires a community involved in conscious conjoint activity, and conscious conjoint activity entails the recognition and appreciation of differences as being what makes fruitful activity possible.  Young sees democracy as a method which appreciates and encourages differences within a variety of shared but shifting contexts.  In her model of city life, people involved in a variety of tasks become aware of a variety of perspectives, expand their horizons, and see community as a dynamic, interactive process.  Her model of city life creates dynamic and fluid associations that encourage people to become integrated individuals.  This is the basis for what she defines as a just society; this is the starting point for developing the possibilities of democracy.


            Dewey, Gilman, and Young all recognize the need for individuals to be active participants in their communities and to be aware of their interconnectedness with others.  Gilman and Young directly raise and address some of the obstacles in the way of such participation.  Gilman's proposals for re-modeling our homes are still relevant for us today.  Take-out food and microwaves may address some of her concerns about women's time being consumed by domestic tasks, but they do not address her hopes for building community by lessening our emphasis on the individual family home.  Women still carry the majority of the double burden of public and private work.  We still focus on the socially and environmentally damaging ideal of the suburban home.  We even surround these homes by fences and call them "communities"based on shared defense and rules about lawn care and house color.  Young's model of the city life challenges us to consider other possibilities.  Young's proposal for dynamic communities of interest embedded in the anonymous space of the city gives us more ability to move and change while remaining connected.  Young gives us a reason to reexamine the possibilities of city life.  All three theorists ask us to reexamine the possibilities of democracy and to think seriously about what is required to form democratic individuals.