[(essay date spring 1999) In the following essay, Smyth discusses the sociological discovery of female homelessness during the 1980s and contends that Housekeeping reflects a redefinition of the home, wherein traditional domesticity is not merely juxtaposed with vagrancy, but rather shows the home to be a "transient structure" that is neither wholly secure nor permanent.]
Departing from a representation of the silent or inarticulate female vagrant as simply projection or scapegoat, Marilynne Robinson creates in Housekeeping an articulate first-person narrator who is also a female drifter. Although the novel begins with Ruth recounting her childhood years under the care of various female relatives--her mother, her grandmother Sylvia, her two great aunts, and finally her Aunt Sylvie--it eventually turns into a story of how she is forced to leave her grandmother's home in Fingerbone, Idaho, to take up a life of drifting with her Aunt Sylvie, and how her sister Lucille leaves that same house to live with her Home Economics teacher, Miss Royce. During the course of Ruth's narrative, the grandmother's house occupies a role as central as that of the many female inhabitants it shelters. As much as this novel is about the homeless condition, it is also about coming to a new understanding of shelter and the ideology of home. In that context, it is worth noting that although Lucille's departure is voluntary, Ruth and Sylvie's is not: If they want to keep their household intact, they must leave the home they have created.
The 1981 publication of Robinson's novel intersects with a historical moment when sociologists created a category for homeless females, and the media began to exploit and sensationalize the story of the "bag lady" (Golden 85-90). Since then, and in large part even today, female vagrants existed outside of a positivist category. For instance, female transients initially appear to offer a representation that is not dependent on the domestic; however, when woman, so deeply entrenched in the "cult of domesticity," is discovered outside of that realm, she is only made "real" by defining her against that realm. Without a tradition of female transients, vagrants, or tramps, there is only "female homelessness." In contrast to the lack of a clear category for female transients, a long tradition of male transients exists in the figures of tramps, hoboes, and railriders; and when the economy necessitates their mobility, male transients become cultural heroes.
In the 1980s, a number of sociological studies addressing female homelessness appeared. Lesley D. Harman's 1989 study questions the relentless connection between women transients and the home. Harman differs from other contemporary sociologists in that, rather than seeking the reasons for women's homelessness, she questions the status of the traditional nuclear family itself:
The attribution of deficiency, through which it is assumed that homeless women have failed their families, is precisely rooted in a conception of domesticity which is stubbornly inflexible. Perhaps it is the "nuclear family," as an obsolescent institution that is under considerable stress as increasingly unrealistic demands are placed upon it...