Over the last couple weeks there has been an interesting gaggle of columns and blog posts on the lack of women in the audiophile hobby. For those of you more comfortable with terms like “post-depositional processes,” audiophiles are folks who are really into their stereo gear and producing good sound. Generally, this has been a male dominated hobby, and as the traditional customers for this gear gets older, the industry and industry media has become concerned about the hobby’s future.
The industry and audiophile media have been quiet self congratulatory when it comes to attracting young people to the hobby through “head-fi” (that is audiophile quality headphones and related gear). With the youth market more or less covered, audiophiles have turned their attention toward the lack of women in the hobby. So far, the reasons put forward range tend to focus on the broadly cultural (women are raised differently).
A number of posts have focused on the rather unfortunate phrase “wife acceptance factor.” When I read this post by Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenny, I was up to my chest in reading about masculinity and suburbia (starting with John Higham’s classic article) as I work to revise an article on domestic space in the Bakken oil patch. So I posted a rather lengthy response exploring the relationship between audiophile gear, gender roles, and domesticity from a historical perspective. My blog today is an expanded version of that comment.
According to The Wikipedias, the term “wife acceptance factor” first appeared in Stereophile magazine in 1983 but its origins appear to date to the 1950s. This makes the idea of the “wife acceptance factor” is so old school to almost be vintage. This notion has clear roots in the idea that women are in charge of the house and play a key role in establishing domesticity in the American home.
Domesticity represents the opposite of male encoded space of work, and this division first developed in the context of the industrial revolution when the workplace shifted from the home to the factory. With the rise of the middle class, people constructed homes that did not serve as workplaces and, more importantly for us here, conformed to different standards of presentation and decor than factories or offices. In fact, guys like Henry Ford went to great pains to distinguish the life of work from domestic life and created model towns to house their workers and families. These “Fordvilles” provided a space for the playing out middle class values and “civilizing” men who carried out the “brutish” work of industrial labor. For Ford and other early 20th century industrialists, the domestic represented the civilizing the domain of women, and stood as a civilizing counter point to the industrial.
So “wife acceptance factor” evokes the traditional domain of women: the home. The home, and the traditional middle and upper class house in particular was the place where the civilizing influence of women and family overwrite the dirty and competitive world of work (and perversely, make that work more efficient by maintaining the moral order and health of the men responsible). Most middle class homes went to great lengths to disguise the working parts of domestic life. The walls hid electrical cables, heating and cooling ducts, and water and sewage pipes, as well as the structural components to the house. More than that, the organization of the house hid the places where the real work of domestic life took place. In traditional homes from the first part of the 20th century, garages, carriage houses, boiler rooms, storage, butlers’ pantries, and above all the kitchen were located out of sight from the main living spaces. Upper class homes developed parallel service areas that allowed maids, butlers, and other domestic personnel to move unseen between living spaces. By hiding the working parts of a home, the serene and effortless nature of domestic life was insulated from “working,” industrial life. This had the additional effect of occluding the role of women and their role in maintaining domesticity from the public view, and this allowed men to claim control over the economic productivity and public life. The home was not a place for wires, cables, ugly black boxes, protruding tubes, knobs, industrially inspired speakers and the like.
Today, of course, we can roll our eyes at these traditional ways of organizing house and home. My wife and I have generally lived in 19th century or turn-of-the-century homes variously modified in various way to accommodate “modern life.” For example, our first house had the wall between the kitchen and what had been the formal dining room removed and the wall between the dining room and the front parlor removed to create a more open plan. We added to this by removing an unsightly fake wall to expose a forced-air heating duct. We joked about adding some industrial chic to our home. Industrial lofts in major cities now fetch top dollar. Kitchens have become areas for display and socializing. Many new homes have even adopted the “two car garage with attached home” appearance that is the bane of so many suburban subdivisions. Many homes now have “home offices” designed to allow the laboring classes to bring work back to their previously serene domestic bliss.
What’s interesting to me is that while our ideas of domesticity are changing (as our notions of work and life are changing) why have views founded in traditional notions of domesticity continued to persist in audiophile circles? Well, some of it must have to do with demographics; audiophiles tend to be older and (let’s say) more thoroughly invested and steeped (nostalgic for)?in traditional gender roles. Audiophiles also tend to me upper middle and upper class which tend to be more conservative groups within Western society.
I wonder, though, whether there’s more than that playing out here. First, I’d argue that notions like the “wife acceptance factor” are cut of the same cloth as the “man cave.” Audiophile gear is part of the changing discourse of domesticity: the notion that stereo cables, crudely functionalist industrial design (like my Audio Research VSi60 integrated amp), are the violation of certain norms of proportion and effortless propriety have located the audiophile home stereo to the realm of the industrial and, by extension, the masculine. Women, in our historical and stereotypical treatment, become the guardians of an effortless domesticity that carefully guards the working interior of the home from outside eyes. Men, with their industrial, non-domesticated tendencies (born, I’m sure, by their longs hours in the factory), are relegated to specific places: the garage, the “den”, or the “man cave” where they watch sports, behave in uncivilized ways, and ignore aesthetic traditions of the home.
The curious irony is this: we know that the idea that “man stuff” is relegated to the “man cave” is bunk in a modern domestic context. Since the 1960s, modern homes have celebrated industrial design elements, kitchens are no longer hidden, but prominent social spaces, and traditional differentiation of spaces has given way to a proudly functional aesthetic. In other words, the tradition of relegating men to (or the need for men to claim) some kind of designated space is rhetorically and architecturally outmoded as hiding the kitchen behind a swinging door. Stereo equipment has likewise enjoyed this shift toward the functional in their design with elegantly constructed, furniture grade cabinets giving way to exposed tubes, grill-less speakers, and cables too bulky (and expensive) to hide from view. So rather than stereo equipment lagging behind modern domestic expectations and requiring an adjustment to gain “wife acceptance factor,” most high end gear (and big box gear as well) has long adopted the industrial design standards appropriate for the modern, functionalist home.
We continue to use this language, however, because entire structure of work and life among the American middle class has become unsettled. This nostalgia for a long ago abandoned architectural and design vocabulary represents a persistent unease with changing gender norms, dual incomes, domestic partnerships, and increasingly blurred lines between work life and home life. As the life of the American middle class is eroded by shrinking incomes, volatile labor markets, new expectations, and work cultures, we stick to these traditional stereotypes (see my pun there) and revel in our man caves, wife acceptance factors, as we beat back the work life from the tempting expanse of the formal dining room table.
Our concern with women in the audiophile hobby is not just the late arrival of the audiophile media and industry to modern conceptions of domestic space, but the flailing of a culture that finds its basic structures and expectations increasingly out of sync with economic and social realities. That we’re having this debate at all reveals its ultimate irrelevance. Women and men will enter the hobby and industry (or not) based on their resources, aesthetics, and interest rather than some kind of gendered notion of the home or overdetermined nostalgia. All this is to say, that we should invest more time in being inclusive rather than attempting to justify the exclusivity of our hobby. Treat women who are interested in sound and music just as you’d treat men interested in sound and music.
More on this conversation here.