In 2015, I released a film called A Tour of the Self Cleaning House. You can read more about the project and watch a clip here.
This July, I received an email from Margalit Fox of the New York Times, informing me that Frances Gabe, inventor of the Self Cleaning House, passed away at age 101. Actually Frances died seven months earlier, but her death went unnoticed. Eventually a reader from Oregon tipped off the Times’ obituary section and they were the first to report it, “we will appear to have this obit exclusively, which pleases us very much.”
After hanging up the phone from an interview with Ms. Fox, I was truly perplexed that I was one of the few people asked to go on the record about Frances Gabe and the Self Cleaning House. I made a film inspired her invention, but our only direct interaction lasted for two hours, ten years ago. It suddenly occurred to me that Frances’ story and life’s work was far more obscure than I realized. But I have held her in my heart as a feminist icon and domestic savior since I was a child.
When I was about 8 years old, my mother gave me a book called something like “Famous Women in Science” or “Important Female Inventors,” to inspire me to be an accomplished woman of the future or something. I distinctly remember finding the book super boring until flipping to the chapter about The Self Cleaning House. I finally discovered the solution to never doing chores again! For years, I expected this technology to be installed in our neighborhood so I could stop wasting my time with petty endeavors like unloading the dishwasher. The automated system never arrived, but the invention permeated my subconscious and I perpetually await my own self cleaning home.
After the New York Times obituary was published, other news outlets requested interviews. These journalists approached me similarly; wanting to know exactly how the house was meant to work, asking me to agree with how preposterous it was as a concept, and requesting details about how badly the prototype functioned. Since I was one of the only people asked to speak on Frances’ behalf, I began to feel responsible to attest to the significance of her work. The film I made was inspired by my dismay at her defective prototype, but I had never bothered to think about WHY it had failed or WHY it had never gone mainstream. It dawned on me that Frances was significantly ahead of her time, since reporters in 2017 were still flabbergasted by her idea from 1963. I never bothered to consider that back then, venture capitalists weren’t interested whatsoever in liberating women from doing housework, in fact the second wave of feminism had only just begun the same year, with the publication of Fridan’s Feminine Mystique.
Despite the lack financial support, Frances just went for it and built the entire house with her own funds and her own hands. While the prototype didn’t function perfectly, it provided her with shelter and contained a lifesize model of her vision and dream. Her invention received some attention over the years, but often as a quirky aside on a talk show. But when you really think about it, The Self Cleaning House is not that weird of an idea at all- automation is one of the main buzzwords in contemporary politics and Ford’s assembly line is at the heart of American culture, and domestic labor was one of the central issues taken up by early feminists. Frances knew what was up way before we did, and I don’t think we’ve caught up yet- it took us all seven months to acknowledge her passing.
Recent Press for A Tour of the Self Cleaning House