“As far as I am concerned the ‘house-wife’ does not exist. She is a patriarchal wet-dream, designed (albeit unconsciously) to curb the pleasure and jouissance of the woman and to remind her that enjoying her baby is all very well, but her real task is to be a wife-in-a-house”
Jane Graves, The washing machine: ‘Mother’s not herself today’, in Pat Kirkham (ed.), The Gendered Object, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1996, p32
Susan Moller Okin in her lucid introduction to John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women (Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, 1988) puts the work into historical context, painting a bleak, yet entirely accurate, picture of the prospects awaiting women following conjugal union: “In the 1860s, married Englishwomen had virtually no rights under the common law. Upon marriage they entered into a legal condition called ‘couverture’, in which they could not own property (even the wages they earned if employed), make a contract or a will, nor sue or be sued. (The wealthy avoided the loss of their daughters’ property upon marriage by establishing trusts for them, as the law of equity allowed). Wives had few custody rights to their own children, and almost no legal protection against sexual or other physical abuse by their husbands. Not only was the marital tie deeply oppressive; it was virtually indissoluble. Until 1857, divorce was obtainable only through the (extremely expensive) passage of an act of Parliament; only four women had ever acquired such a divorce. After 1857, a wife who could afford it could seek a civil divorce, but the sexual double standard still prevailed. A wife could sue for divorce on the grounds of adultery only if her husband had also committed bigamy, incest, or severe cruelty, whereas a husband could obtain a divorce on the ground of a single act of adultery by his wife” (ppvii-viii; Mill catalogues these disadvantages on pp31-5. Cf. also Helena Kennedy’s excellent Eve Was Framed, Chatto and Windus, London, 1992, pp24-5). As Mill himself acknowledges: “If married life were all that it might be expected to be, looking to the laws alone, society would be a hell upon earth” (p35).
Mill originally wrote his impassioned and exquisitely argued plea in 1861, although publication was delayed until the most opportune political moment, which came in 1869. His adamant stance that one sex should not be permitted to reign supreme over the other was motivated by his commitment to the progress of mankind: “That the principle which regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes – the legal subordination of one sex to the other – is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement; and that it ought to be replaced by a principle of perfect equality, admitting no power or privilege on the one side, nor disability on the other” (p1).
He was fully aware that the prevailing weight of opinion against him: “(…) for a cause supported on the one hand by universal usage, and on the other by so great a preponderance of popular sentiment, is supposed to have a presumption in its favour, superior to any conviction which an appeal to reason has power to produce in any intellects but those of a high class” (op. cit, p3). It possessed such a firm hold on the mind that it had taken on the semblance of being “natural”: “So true is it that unnatural generally means only uncustomary, and that everything which is usual appears natural. The subjection of women to men being a universal custom, any departure from it quite naturally appears unnatural. But how entirely, even in this case, the feeling is dependent on custom, appears by ample experience” (p13).
Its origin was to be sought in the exercise of brute force: “In the first place, the opinion in favour f the present system, which entirely subordinates the weaker sex to the stronger, rests upon theory only; for there never has been trial made of any other: so that experience, in the sense in which it is vulgarly opposed to theory, cannot be pretended to have pronounced any verdict. And in the second place, the adoption of this system of inequality never was the result of deliberation, or forethought, or any social ideas, or any notion whatever of what conduced to the benefit of humanity or the good order of society. It arose simply from the fact that from the very earliest twilight of human society, every woman (owing to the value attached to her by men, combined with her inferiority in muscular strength) was found in a state of bondage to some man. Laws and systems of polity always begin by recognising the relations they find already existing between individuals. They convert what was a mere physical fact into a legal right, give it the sanction of society, and principally aim at the substitution of public and organized means of asserting and protecting these rights, instead of the irregular and lawless conflict of physical strength. Those who had already been compelled to obedience became in this manner legally bound to it” (op. cit, p5).
Mill endeavours to account for the stubborn persistence of oppression, its robustness: “(…) this dependence, as it exists at present, is not an original institution, taking a fresh start from considerations of justice and social expediency – it is the primitive state of slavery lasting on, through successive mitigations and modifications occasioned by the same causes which have softened the general manners, and brought all human relations more under the control of justice and the influence of humanity. It has not lost the taint of its brutal origin. No presumption in its favour, therefore, can be drawn from the fact of its existence” (p6).
Although nothing more than an anachronistic remnant, its persuasive grip was further tightened by our unfortunate capacity for unreflective self-deception: “We now live (…) in a state in which the law of the strongest seems to be entirely abandoned as the regulating principle of the world’s affairs: nobody professes it, and, as regards most of the relations between human beings, nobody is permitted to practice it. When anyone succeeds in doing so, it is under cover of some pretext which gives him the semblance of having some general social interest on his side. This being the ostensible state of things, people flatter themselves that the rule of mere force is ended; that the law of the strongest cannot be the reason of existence of anything which has remained in full operation down to the present time. However any of our present institutions may have begun, it can only, they think, have been preserved to this period of advanced civilization by a well-grounded feeling of its adaptation to human nature, and conduciveness to the general good. They do not understand the great vitality and durability of institutions which place right on the side of might; how intensely they are clung to; how the good as well as the bad propensities and sentiments of those who have power in their hands, become identified with retaining it, how slowly these bad institutions give way, one at a time, the weakest first, beginning with those which are least interwoven with the daily habits of life; and how very rarely those who have obtained legal power because they first had physical, have ever lost their hold of it until the physical power had passed over to the other side. Such shifting of the physical force not having taken place in the case of women; this fact, combined with all the peculiar and characteristic features of the particular case, made it certain from the first that this branch of the system of right founded on might, though softened in its most atrocious features at an earlier period than several of the others, would be the very last to disappear. It was inevitable that this one case of a social relation grounded on force, would survive through generations of institutions grounded on equal justice, an almost solitary exception to the general character of their laws and customs; but which, so long as it does not proclaim its own origin, and as discussion has not brought out its true character, is not felt to jar with modern civilization” (pp6-7).
Entrenched resistance to change arose from defending a vested interest, which did not represent an exclusive prerogative of the rich: “Whatever gratification of pride there is in the possession of power, and whatever personal interest in its exercise, is in this case not confined to a limited class, but common to the whole male sex. Instead of being, to most of its supporters, a thing desirable chiefly in the abstract, or, like the political ends usually contended for by factions, of little private importance to any but the leaders; it comes home to the person and hearth of every male head of a family, and of every one who looks forward to being so. The clodhopper exercises, or is to exercise, his share of the power equally with the highest nobleman. And the case is that in which the desire of power is the strongest: for every one who desires power, desires it most over those who are nearest to him, with whom his life is passed, with whom he has most concerns in common, and in whom any independence of his authority is oftenest likely to interfere with his individual preferences. (…) We must consider, too, that the possessors of power have facilities in this case, greater than in any other, to prevent any uprising against it. Every one of the subjects lives under the very eye, and almost, it may be said, in the hands, of one of the masters – in closer intimacy with him than with any of her fellow-subjects; with no means of combining against him, no power of even locally overmastering him, and, on the other hand, with the strongest motives for seeking his favour and avoiding to give him offence. In struggles for political emancipation, everybody knows how often its champions are bought off by bribes, or daunted by terrors. In the case of women, each individual of the subject-class is in a chronic state of bribery and intimidation combined. In setting up the standard of resistance, a large number of the leaders, and still more of the followers, must make an almost complete sacrifice of the pleasures or the alleviations of their own individual lot. If ever any system of privilege and enforced subjection had its yoke tightly riveted on the necks of those that are kept down by it, this has” (op. cit, pp11-12).
Other factors operated to perpetuate the situation. For example, women were trapped in the state of matrimony with precious little by way of “respectable” alternatives to support themselves financially. Against this backdrop it was relatively easy to extract compliance. Their position was further complicated by the emotional bonds between them and their husband-masters, a formidable array of incitements, intimidations and prohibitions as well as deeply rooted cultural archetypes: “It is a political law of nature that those who are under any power of ancient origin, never begin by complaining of the power itself, but only of its oppressive exercise. There is never any want of women who complain of ill usage by their husbands. There would be infinitely more, if complaint were not the greatest of all provocatives to a repetition and increase of the ill usage. It is this which frustrates all attempts to maintain the power but protect the woman against its abuses. In no other case (except that of a child) is the person who has been proved judicially to have suffered an injury, replaced under the physical power of the culprit who inflicted it. Accordingly wives, even in the most extreme and protracted cases of bodily ill usage, hardly ever dare avail themselves of the laws made for their protection: and if, in a moment of irrepressible indignation, or by the interference of neighbours, they are induced to do so, their whole effort afterwards is to disclose as little as they can, and to beg off their tyrant from his merited chastisement [The force and relevance of this point remains undiminished today in the case of battered women].
All causes, social and natural, combine to make it unlikely that women should be collectively rebellious to the power of men. They are so far in a position different from all other subject classes, that their masters require something more from them than actual service. Men do not want solely the obedience of women, they want their sentiments. All men, except the most brutish, desire to have, in the woman most nearly connected with them, not a forced slave but a willing one, not a slave merely, but a favourite. They have therefore put everything in practice to enslave their minds. The masters of all other slaves rely, for maintaining obedience, on fear; either fear of themselves, or religious fears. The masters of women wanted more than simple obedience, and they turned the whole force of education to effect their purpose. All women are brought up from the very earliest years in the belief that their ideal of character is the very opposite to that of men; not self-will, and government by self-control, but submission, and yielding to the control of others. All the moralities tell them that it is the duty of women, and all the current sentimentalities that it is their nature, to live for others; to make complete abnegation of themselves, and to have no life but in their affections. And by their affections are meant the only ones they are allowed to have – those to the men with whom they are connected, or to the children who constitute an additional and indefeasible tie between them and a man. When we put together three things – first, the natural attraction between opposite sexes; second, the wife’s entire dependence on the husband, every privilege or pleasure she has being either his gift, or depending entirely on his will; and, lastly, that the principal object of human pursuit, consideration, and all objects of social ambition, can in general only be sought or obtained by her only through him, it would be a miracle if the object of being attractive to men had not become the polar star of feminine education and formation of character. And, this great means of influence over the minds of women having been acquired, an instinct of selfishness made men avail themselves of it to the utmost as a means of holding women in subjection, by representing to them meekness, submissiveness, and resignation of all individual will into the hands of a man, as an essential part of sexual attractiveness” (pp15-16).
This artificial subservience runs counter to the spirit of modernity: “For, what is the peculiar character of the modern world – the difference which chiefly distinguishes modern institutions, modern social ideas, modern life itself, from those of times long past? It is, that human beings are no longer born to their place in life, and chained down by an inexorable bond to the place they are born to, but are free to employ their faculties, and such favourable chances as offer, to achieve the lot which may appear to them most desirable. Human society of old was constituted on a very different principle. All were born to a fixed social position, and were mostly kept in it by law, or interdicted from any means by which they could emerge from it” (p17).
Such an objection is inextricably bound up with Western individualism, expressed in the notion of liberty, with choice constituting a further essential ingredient: “The old theory was, that the least possible should be left to the choice of the individual agent; that all he had to do should, as far as practicable, be laid down for him by superior wisdom. Left to himself he was sure to go wrong. The modern conviction, the fruit of a thousand years of experience, is, that things in which the individual is the person directly interested, never go right but as they are left to his own discretion; and that any regulation of them by authority, except to protect the rights of others, is sure to be mischievous” (p18). Mill here propounds a somewhat idealistic view, which overlooks the social inculcation of predispositions together with other less visible impediments to opportunity, such as unequal access to resources and power disparities. Whereas the latter must be factored in by way of a corrective, it is still useful to bear in mind that only Western tradition has thus far paved the way for a modicum of female emancipation.
It would be misleading to suggest that Mill’s vision included a radical overhaul of the social structure in terms of advocating wholesale female gainful employment. This crucial aspect of latter-day feminism did not did not form part of his programme, as we shall see. Instead, his primary concern was, as we have noted, that of eradicating legally hallowed subjugation: “In consonance with this doctrine, it is felt to be an overstepping of the proper bounds of authority to fix beforehand, on some general presumption, that certain persons are not fit to do certain things. It is now thoroughly known and admitted that if some such presumptions exist, no such presumption is infallible. Even if it be well grounded in a majority of cases, which it is very likely not to be, there will be a minority of exceptional cases in which it does not hold: and in those it is both an injustice to the individuals, and a detriment to society, to place barriers in the way of using their faculties for their own benefit and for that of others. (…)
…if the principle is true, we ought to act as if we believed it, and not to ordain that to be born a girl instead of a boy, any more than to be born black instead of white, or a commoner instead of a nobleman, shall decide the person’s position through all life – shall interdict people from all the more elevated social positions, and from all, except a few, respectable occupations” (pp18-19).
His conclusion: “The disabilities, therefore, to which women are subject from the mere fact of their birth, are the solitary examples of the kind in modern legislation. In no instance except this, which comprehends half the human race, are the higher social functions closed against any one by a fatality of birth which no exertions, and no change of circumstances, can overcome” (p20).
He hits the nail on the head with his ironic comment on the weakness of the case for preserving the status quo: “The general opinion of men is supposed to be, that the natural vocation of a woman is that of a wife and mother. I say, is supposed to be, because, judging from acts – from the whole of the present constitution of society – one might infer that their opinion was the direct contrary. They might be supposed to think that the alleged natural vocation of women was of all things the most repugnant to their nature; insomuch that if they are free to do anything else – if any other means of living, or occupation of their time and faculties, is open, which has any chance of appearing desirable to them – there will not be enough of them who will be willing to accept the condition said to be natural to them. If this is the real opinion of men in general, it would be well that it should be spoken out. (…) ‘It is necessary to society that women should marry and produce children. They will not do so unless they are compelled. Therefore it is necessary to compel them’. (…) Those who attempt to force women into marriage by closing all other doors against them, lay themselves open to a similar retort [having drawn comparisons with slave owners and press gangs]. If they mean what they say, their opinion must evidently be, that men do not render the married condition so desirable to women, as to induce them to accept it on its own recommendations. (…) I believe they are afraid, not lest women should be unwilling to marry, for I do not think that any one in reality has that apprehension; but lest they should insist that marriage should be on equal conditions; lest all women of spirit and capacity should prefer doing almost anything else, not in their own eyes degrading, rather than marry, when marrying is giving themselves a master, and a master too of all their earthly possessions. (…) I agree in thinking it probably that few women, capable of anything else, would, unless under an irresistible entrainement, rendering them for the time insensible to anything but itself, choose such a lot, when any other means were open to them of filling a conventionally honourable place in life: and if men are determined that the law of marriage shall be a law of despotism, they are quite right, in point of mere policy, in leaving to women only Hobson’s choice” (pp28-30).
His verdict on the likelihood of overcoming male resistance to the slightest erosion of their privileges is gloomy: “I believe that their disabilities elsewhere are only clung to in order to maintain their subordination in domestic life; because the generality of the male sex cannot yet tolerate the idea of living with an equal” (p53).
As Okin judiciously remarks: “For all his insistence on the legal rights of married women, Mill (…) never questioned their traditional responsibility for the unpaid labour of the family” (op. cit, px).
For Mill, housework is one of the main “feminine blandishments”, which temper the husband’s autocratic power: “The real mitigating causes are, the personal affection which is the growth of time, in so far as the man’s nature is susceptible of it, and the woman’s character sufficiently congenial with his to excite it their common interests as regards the children, and their general community of interest as concerns third persons (…); the real importance of the wife to his daily comforts and enjoyments, and the value he consequently attaches to her on his personal account, which, in a man capable of feeling for others, lays the foundation of caring for her on her own” (p40). The logical order he posits is revealing: she must dutifully carry out the care-work in order to solicit his affections.
The clearest illustration that he sees nothing inherently objectionable in confining a woman to the domestic sphere is to be found in the following passage: “When the support of the family depends not on property, but on earnings, the common arrangement, by which the man earns the income and the wife superintends the domestic expenditure, seems to me in general the most suitable division of labour between the two persons. If, in addition to the physical suffering of bearing children, and the whole responsibility of their care and education in early years, the wife undertakes the careful and economical application of the husband’s earnings to the general comfort of the family; she takes not only her fair share, but usually the larger share, of the bodily and mental exertion required by their joint existence. If she undertakes any additional portion, it seldom relieves her from this, but only prevents her from performing it properly. The care which she herself is disabled from taking of the children and the household, nobody else takes; those of the children who do not die, grow up as they best can, and the management of the household is likely to be so bad, as even in point of economy to be a great drawback from the value of the wife’s earnings. In an otherwise just state of things, it is not, therefore, I think, a desirable custom, that the wife should contribute by her labour to the income of the family. In an unjust state of things, her doing so may be useful to her, by making her of more value in the eyes of the man who is legally her master; but, on the other hand, it enables him still farther to abuse his power, by forcing her to work, and leaving the support of the family to her exertions, while he spends most of his time in drinking and idleness. The power of earning is essential to the dignity of a woman, if she has not independent property. But if marriage were an equal contract, not implying the obligation of obedience; if the connexion were no longer enforced to the oppression of those to whom it is purely a mischief, but a separation, on just terms (I do not now speak of a divorce), could be obtained by any woman who was morally entitled to it; and if she would then find all honourable employments as freely open to her as to men; it would not be necessary for her protection, that during marriage she should make this particular use of her faculties. Like a man when he chooses a profession, so, when a woman marries, it may in general be understood that she makes choice of the management of a household, and the bringing up of a family, as the first call upon her exertions, during as many years of her life as may be required for the purpose; and that she renounces, not all other objects and occupations, but all which are not consistent with the requirements of this. The actual exercise, in a habitual or systematic manner, of outdoor occupations, or such as cannot be carried on at home, would by this principle be practically interdicted to the greater number of married women. But the utmost latitude ought to exist for the adaptation of general rules to individual suitabilities; and there ought to be nothing to prevent faculties exceptionally adapted to any other pursuit, from obeying their vocation notwithstanding marriage: due provision being made for supplying otherwise any falling-short which might become inevitable, in her full performance of the ordinary functions of mistress of a family” (pp50-2).
Although I do not agree with his point concerning under-achievement, he does freely recognise that women have several extra sets of obligations from which their menfolk are exempt. He retains a staunchly middle-class perspective throughout – working class women were even less likely to make an impact in the literary salons. In the context of his argument concerning the dearth of woman philosophers, painters and so forth as well as the relative lack of attainment in these fields on the part of the few women able to venture into them compared to their male rivals, he does, however, admit to the unremitting drain on a woman’s time and creative energy of running the household, diverting her from other – more artistic and contemplative – pursuits: “The time and thought of every woman have to satisfy great previous demands on them for things practical. There is, first, the superintendence of the family and the domestic expenditure, which occupies at least one woman in every family, generally the one of mature years and acquired experience; unless the family is so rich as to admit of delegating that task to hired agency, and submitting to all the waste and malversation inseparable from that mode of conducting it. The superintendence of a household, even when not in other respects laborious, is extremely onerous to the thoughts; it requires incessant vigilance, an eye which no detail escapes, and presents questions for consideration and solution, foreseen and unforeseen, at every hour of the day, from which the person responsible for them can hardly ever shake herself free. If a woman is of a rank and circumstances which relieve her in a measure from these cares, she still has devolving on her the management for the whole family of its intercourse with others – of what is called society, and the less the call made on her by the former duty, the greater is always the development of the latter: the dinner parties, concerts, evening parties, morning visits, letter writing, and all that goes with them. All this is over and above the engrossing duty which society imposes exclusively on women, of making themselves charming. A clever woman of the higher ranks finds nearly a sufficient employment of her talents in cultivating the graces of manner and the arts of conversation. To look only at the outward side of the subject: the great and continual exercise of thought which all women who attach any value to dressing well (I do not mean expensively, but with taste, and perception of natural and of artificial covenance) must bestow upon their own dress, perhaps also upon that of their daughters, would alone go a great way towards achieving respectable results in art, or science, or literature, and does actually exhaust much of the time and mental power they might have to spare for either. (…) But this is not all. Independently of the regular offices of life which devolve upon a woman, she is expected to have her time and faculties always at the disposal of everybody. If a man has not a profession to exempt him from such demands, still, if he has a pursuit, he offends nobody by devoting his time to it; occupation is received as a valid excuse for his not answering to every casual demand which may be made on him. Are a woman’s occupations, especially her chosen and voluntary ones, ever regarded as excusing her from any of what are termed the calls of society? Scarcely are her most necessary and recognised duties allowed as an exemption. It requires an illness in the family, or something else out of the common way, for her to give her own business the precedence over other people’s amusement. She must always be at the beck and call of somebody, generally of everybody. If she has a study or pursuit, she must snatch any small interval which accidentally occurs to be employed in it” (pp79-81).
In order to assess whether much has changed since Mill’s day as far as women’s unremunerated labour in the home is concerned, I would like to examine two important contributions separated by almost thirty years, Ann Oakley’s The Sociology of Housework, from 1974 (edition used, Martin Robertson, London, 1974) and Susan Maushart’s Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women (Bloomsbury, London, 2002).
Oakley’s aims were to describe the housewife’s work situation and her attitudes to housework; to examine patterns of satisfaction and dissatisfaction with housework in relation to certain variables, including social class, education, the division of labour in marriage, technical equipment and social interaction and to formulate hypotheses directed towards explaining the differences between housewives emerging from her study sample of forty London housewives aged between twenty and thirty, all of whom were mothers (p30). Interviews with them were conducted in early 1971 (p30). Half of the women selected were working class and half middle class, with class being “assessed in the conventional way, on the basis of husband’s occupation” (p37). She justifies this approach by the need to test the assertions in the literature on women’s domestic roles to the effect that middle-class women are unhappier about their confinement to the home than their working-class sisters (p37). As six of the women were also engaged in part-time employment outside, Oakley felt duty-bound to emphasise that this did not exclude them from the category of “housewife”: “The addition of paid work to the housewife’s activities does not mean she is no longer a housewife. The definition of housewifery is cast in terms of responsibility for the running of a home” (pp38-9).
She begins by lamenting the ingrained bias amongst her (primarily male) colleagues in the discipline of sociology, which has consistently marginalised women whilst professing rigorous gender-neutrality: “In much sociology women as a social group are invisible or inadequately represented: they take the insubstantial form of ghosts, shadows or stereotyped characters” (p1). Indeed: “Sociology is sexist because it is male-oriented. By ‘male-oriented’ I mean that it exhibits a focus on, or a direction towards, the interests and activities of men in a gender-differentiated society. The social situations of men and women today are structurally and ideologically discrepant, and the dominant value-system of modern industrialized societies assigns greater importance and prestige to masculine than to feminine roles” (p2). Furthermore: “The concealment of women runs right through sociology. It extends from the classification of subject-areas and the definition of concepts through the topics and methods of empirical research to the construction of models and theory generally” (p3). Nowhere is this tendency more blatant than in the case of housework: “”The conventional sociological approach to housework could be termed ‘sexist’: it has treated housework merely as an aspect of the feminine role in the family – as part of women’s role in marriage, or as a dimension of child-rearing – not as a work role. The study of housework as work is a topic entirely missing from sociology” (p2).
She exposes the flawed logic behind this outlook: “…a general set of axioms is responsible for the place of women in the two areas of family and marriage, and industry and work. The neglect of housework as a topic is also anchored in these axioms. They can be stated thus:
1 women belong in the family, while men belong ‘at work’;
2 therefore men work, while women do not work;
3 therefore housework is not a form of work.
The third appears to be a deduction from the first two, but the syllogism is false. Its falsity hinges on the fictional nature of the dichotomy between ‘family’ and ‘work’ and on the meaning of the term ‘work’. Although the work/family distinction expresses the separation between these two spheres of life brought about by industrialization, it does not follow that one is the world of men while the other is the world of women. Many women go out to work; many women (and some men) work in the home” (p25).
Oakley then turns to the issue of what can be encompassed by the term work: “What is ‘work’? According to one definition, a work role has five properties. It requires the expenditure of energy; it permits a contribution to the production of gods or services; it defines patterns of social interaction; it provides social status for the worker, and, lastly, it brings in money. The only difference in this definition between employment and housework is housework’s lack of pay. But because work is not a component of the feminine stereotype housework lacks any conceptualization in sociology as work” (p26).
The “woman’s place is in the home” mentality will not be easy to dislodge: “Despite a reduction of gender differences in the occupational world in recent years, one occupational role remains entirely feminine: the role of housewife. No law bans men from this occupation, but the weight of economic, social and psychological pressures is against their entry into it. The equation of femaleness with housewifery is basic to the structure of modern society, and to the ideology of gender roles which pervades it” (p29).
Oakley launches into an analysis of her findings by looking at the perceived positive and negative aspects of being a housewife: “Autonomy is the most valued quality of the housewife role: housework is the worst” (p42). However: “In the housewife’s case autonomy is more theoretical than real. Being ‘your own boss’ imposes the obligation to see that housework gets done. The responsibility for housework is a unilateral one, and the failure to do it may have serious consequences. As itemized by these women, such consequences include the wrath of husbands and the ill-health of children (through lack of hygiene) (…)
What this means is that the taking of leisure is self-defeating; the fact that one is one’s own boss adds to, rather than subtracts from, the psychological pressures to do housework” (pp43-4).
She carefully evaluates the statements made by her respondents: “Housework is described as a never-ending job – in the stock phrase ‘a woman’s work is never done’. It is said by some to be more tiring physically than a paid job, by others to be less tiring: some women say it takes a greater emotional toll, others that the drain is less than other work. Reference is made to the unconstructive nature of housework tasks, to the emotionally frustrating sense of being on a treadmill that requires the same action to be repeated again and again” (pp45-6).
All of the women were anxious to emphasise that their chores comprised of real work. Oakley makes sense of their insistence as follows: “This defence of housework is all the more necessary because housework passes unmentioned in the predominant stereotype of the housewife as a leisured homemaker. Yet another reason why the women’s comments are phrased in this way derives from the low social ranking women see as attached to the occupation of housewife” (p46). Moreover: “(…) whatever their level of personal identification with the housewife role, the denigration and trivialization of housework is such a pervasive cultural theme that the message is likely to have filtered through to the housewife in some form or other. The need to dissociate oneself from it then follows” (p47). One image that cropped up frequently was that of stay-at-home wife as cabbage, vocabulary reminiscent of the more recently coined medical term “persistent vegetative state”: “A ‘cabbage’ housewife is someone entirely immersed in domestic affairs, a colourless personality, a drab, uninteresting automaton” (p47).
In reality, housework calls for a multitude of proficiencies, the implicit denial of which forms part of the downgrading process: “Another message that comes over clearly is the need to separate out the different tasks that make up housework. Housework is not a single activity. It is a collection of heterogeneous tasks which demand a variety of skills and kinds of action. Washing a floor contrasts with shopping for groceries: peeling potatoes with washing dirty socks and planning a week’s meals. To call all these jobs by the same name is to disguise their differences, to reduce them all to the same common denominator. In fact, some are more liked than others; some are more repetitive, some less tiring, some more potentially creative and so forth. Each of the tasks that the housewife does – cooking, laundering the clothes, cleaning the house and so on – can, after all, constitute a paid work role in its own right. The role of chef is very different from the role of commercial laundry operator or the job of ‘domestic help’” (p48).
Oakley identifies the six core housework tasks as cleaning, shopping, cooking, washing the dishes, washing clothes and ironing, ranking them in order of how liked or loathed they were by the women questioned. Perhaps unsurprisingly, ironing proved the least popular (“It is disliked because it is physically an exhausting activity; more than any of the other tasks it consists of actions which have to be repeated time and time again with little variation”, p49 and: “Ironing consists of repetitive actions which tire specific muscles without engaging the attention of the mind or the concentrated energy of the whole body. The obvious comparison here is with the assembly line worker in a factory, tied machine-like to a mindless and endlessly repetitive task”, p50). It is followed by washing up (a dirty job, p50) and cleaning (a lonely job, p52). Doing the laundry comes next (“Although both washing and washing up are activities in which dirt is removed from objects, the pleasure inherent in washing seems to be greater. Possibly this is because of the personal associations that clothes have. The clothes that are washed belong to and are used by someone, normally the housewife, her husband and children. It depends, of course, on the particular item”, p54 and, in the case of a sink full of greasy plates: “The unpleasantness is stressed because it is usually preceded by an enjoyable activity – eating a meal”, p50). One of the elements elevating shopping above the average is its location: “(…) the housewife’s role as a consumer is a more public one; it requires an absence from her work-place – the home” (p55). The current connotations of shopping in today’s later stage of consumerism are hedonistic (“retail therapy”; “shop until you drop”; the “sex and shopping” genre of women’s literature), which is why two types of shopping excursion must be distinguished between – the “necessity” shop (driving to the local hypermarket and shoving a trolley round the aisles and the “indulgence” shop (treating oneself, spending money on non-essentials). At the same time it is worth noting that they have never been entirely mutually exclusive and increasingly tend to merge (supermarkets now stocking all manner of non-perishables from discount paperbacks to bargain DVDs), as Oakley realised: “…another merit of shopping is that it can be expanded to include (or even defined to consist of) window-shopping. This is self-consciously an escapist activity, its main value being that it avoids the careful budgeting and penny-counting which shopping itself entails” (pp56-7). The creative potential of cooking sets it apart, accounting for its place as the least onerous duty (cf. p58). Even this is not as straightforward as it seems at first glance, however: “In reality husbands demand meals at specific times, small children cry when their stomachs are empty, the hour that might be spent cooking competes with the hour that ought to be spent washing the floor or changing the beds. ‘Thinking what to eat’ is an endless duty, however creative the actual task may be. Thus one latent function of the creative cookery ideal is the production of dissatisfaction. Standards of achievement exist of which the housewife is permanently aware, but which she cannot often hope to reach due to the other demands on her time” (p59).
Oakley summarises the results with a list of the properties enhancing or detracting from the work experience:
“Attributes referred to as promoting a positive attitude include (in order of importance):
1 Being able to talk to other people while working;
2 Being in the ‘right’ mood;
3 Having enough time;
4 Having the right work environment or tools of work;
5 Having enough housekeeping money;
6 Having one’s work appreciated.
The following factors are mentioned as associated with a negative attitude:
1 Monotony and repetitiveness;
2 Having the wrong environment or tools of work;
3 Being in the ‘wrong’ mood;
4 Children getting in the way;
5 Not having enough time;
6 Social isolation;
7 Having to think about work” (pp59-60).
She concludes that housewives themselves look upon housework as “analogous with any other kind of job” (p60), exploding the myth of their membership of a leisured class.
In assessing the link between social class and domesticity, Oakley addresses the issue of satisfaction levels amongst middle and working class housewives as regards two discrepancies, namely “that between the status of housewife and the status of the husband’s work, and the discrepancy between the status of the housewife’s own present or previous employment work and her status as housewife” (p71). While the former did not have a discernable impact on contentment, the same was not true of the latter. “Status” was measured according to the criteria of skill, training and social prestige (whereby Oakley concentrated on what she terms “‘feminine’ rewards – that is, those dimensions of a job that have relatively high prestige within the feminine job world. These include ‘glamour’, the opportunity to mix with high status men and women, and the intrinsic reward of doing a ‘worthwhile’ job”, p72, a focus, which could be considered of questionable validity nowadays). Her evaluation is as follows: “in part, the housewife’s dissatisfaction with her work is a function of downward social mobility” (p73) and “there may be regret for the loss of the rewards of professionalism” (p73). Whereas the “connection between high status employment work and present dissatisfaction with housework holds only for the middle-class women”, there is “evidence that the tendency to be dissatisfied with housework in relation to the status of one’s previous job may involve the question of a ‘reference group’. There are no women with high status previous jobs in the working-class group, so that those with an intermediate status job hold the highest status jobs in the working-class group as a whole. Among the working-class women, eighty-eight per cent of those with jobs whose status is ‘high for class’ are dissatisfied with housework; in the middle-class group, the figure is a hundred per cent. Conversely, of those women with jobs whose status is ‘low for class’, a lower proportion is dissatisfied with housework (…). Thus, while middle-class women are more likely to object to the label ‘housewife’ on grounds of its low status, there is a general tendency for downward mobility on the status dimension – from paid work to the job of housewife – to be associated with present dissatisfaction” (pp74-5).
Significantly: “Beyond this particular question of status, middle-class and working-class women in this sample have in common a deep-seated appreciation of the rewards experienced in outside work. The resultant comparison with housework persistently brands it as a less enjoyed and less enjoyable occupation. This is all the more remarkable since many of the jobs held by these women are not, at first sight, particularly rewarding ones. Nearly a quarter of the forty were in unskilled factory jobs and over a third have done typing or general office work. Thirty of the forty fall into the four occupations of factory work, retail sales work, domestic work, and office or secretarial work. All, with the exception of (…) an ex-computer programmer, were engaged in occupations stereotyped as feminine and thus traditionally low paid.
Housework contrasts with employment work in its lack of economic reward, its isolation and the lack of social recognition accorded to the responsibilities carried by the housewife” (p75).
I would add that the assumption that middle-class women are less likely to be satisfied with housework is an expression of institutionalised discrimination against their less privileged companions in fate, as if the mind-numbing toil common to both categories somehow “goes with the territory” of being working-class, the encumbrance were intrinsically less painful or exacted a less pitiless personal cost and were somehow therefore easier to condone or shrug off. Oakley’s reasoning challenges this conventional “wisdom”.
Oakley goes on to scrutinise the characteristics deemed conducive or detrimental to a sense of fulfilment within the remunerated employment sector, comparing the results in terms of job satisfaction with levels of contentedness within the unpaid realm in the home (thereby demonstrating once again that housework is indeed labour). Monotony is a “definite source of job dissatisfaction” within both spheres (p81). The picture proved more complex in the case of fragmentation (defined as “the experience of work subdivided into a series of unconnected tasks not requiring the workers’ full attention”, p82), since it represented “an expected and accepted quality of housework” (p82). As Oakley elaborates: “This is an instance of the general finding that aspects of work activity have the capacity to satisfy or dissatisfy people only in relation to the personal value put upon them. Job satisfaction or dissatisfaction is a function of the perceived relationship between what one wants from one’s job and what one sees it as offering or entailing. Since women do not see housework as a coherent, meaningful structure of tasks demanding their full attention, they are not made dissatisfied by its fragmented nature” (p82).
On the time pressure front, the “finding is inconsistent with the conclusions of various surveys of job satisfaction in industry, according to which a feeling of excessive pace is a potent cause of dissatisfaction. For the housewife the situation is complicated. Apart from the deadlines created by husbands’ and children’s’ needs, she imposes her own time pressures; these follow from the way she organizes her work and the kind of standards she sets herself. The interviews suggest that satisfaction or dissatisfaction are the prior conditions here, and that the feeling of having too much to do or not to do flows from them. A woman who is generally satisfied will organize her days so that she is not overcome by the many demands on her time” (p85).
Nevertheless, deadlines do have an effect: “So far as the housewife is concerned, time limits imposed by factors outside her control mean that the pace of work is too fast for each task to get the attention she would like to give it. Unlike many jobs, housework can often be done in a very short space of time without actually failing to be done at all. Cleaning may consist of a quick dust or ‘whip round’ for the harassed housewife (…). However, it is the housewife’s ultimate responsibility to see that all tasks get done properly. Neglect or minimization of a task is at best only a short-term expedient, and the housewife’s awareness of this fact causes time pressures to be felt possibly more acutely than they are in other kinds of work” (p87).
One area where a structural difference exists between work in the home and that performed in another setting (factory, office, etc.) is that of relative social seclusion: “Some degree of isolation is entailed by the housewife role, simply because housework is ‘home’ work, privatized and solitary. The housewife’s only faithful companions are her children. Satisfactory social relationships with adults thus have a heightened importance. But for some women, seeing and exchanging a few words with a number of other people during the day may actually be a source of negative feelings. The superficiality of these ‘social contacts’ acts to remind the housewife how critically important to her are the deep and meaningful relationships she lacks” (p91).
The housewife’s working hours are not subject to the strict regulations governing outside employ. Oakley calculated working hours on the basis of the description of the daily routine provided by her respondents. She excluded time spent in leisure pursuits, such as watching TV or reading as well as time spent outside the home in visiting relatives, neighbours or friends. Looking after the children did feature, however: “The care or supervision of children, though not strictly speaking housework, is included because in practice it was impossible to make an adequate distinction between the two activities of housework and childcare. (…) While doing housework they are responsible for children and must know what the children are doing: while looking after children they are almost always involved in housework activities. Changing a baby’s nappies involves washing those nappies [the disposable variety not yet having been invented]: feeding children entails (eventually) tidying up, cleaning, and washing up” (p92). Although she acknowledged that when visiting meant taking the progeny along it did strictly speaking fall under the heading of child care, Oakley did not count it. Likewise, although the children taking a nap did not absolve the housewife of her responsibility for them, the daytime hours they spent snoozing angelically was not comprised, unless the mother made use of the “interval” afforded by their slumber to catch up on other chores. The result: “The average working week of housewives in this sample is seventy-seven hours – almost twice as long as an industrial working week of forty hours” (p93). And, discouragingly: “Comparing urban Britain in 1950 and 1971, housewives have added seven hours a week to their working time during this period” (p93). Oakley then ventures a reply to the puzzling absence of a correlation between long hours of graft and resentment: “First of all, it seems that the housewife’s resentment of her long working hours is located by her in the context of a comparison between hew own and her husband’s situation. (…) the assertion that women work harder than men is part of a constant dialogue between husband and wife. A second answer is that long working hours are not a cause of housework dissatisfaction because they are an expected part of the housewife’s role. Like its fragmented nature, housework’s ‘never-endingness’ is so much bound up with the idea of housework that the two are not conceived apart. Housewives simply do not expect to work the same hours in the home as they would in an office or factory” (p95). One further qualification merits mention: “…working hours are more important to employed married women than to employed men, since they have the double burden of employment and housework” (p95).
A further facet of the concept of work relates to standards: “…for most people the idea of work contains some notion of externally imposed constraint. Even if one’s occupation is freely chosen, it usually carries with it a certain set of rules about what should be done, when, how and to what standards” (p100). To contend that housewives are exempt from such strictures is short-sighted to say the least. Although they are not formalised or regulated, standards of cleanliness assail the housewife from television advertisements depicting gleaming surfaces and pristine tablecloths fluttering in the breeze from the washing line above the trimmed lawn with scarcely a blade of grass out of place to the imperious mother-in-law running a critical finger over the top of the wardrobe to check for accumulations of dust. Oakley initially prefers to place the stress elsewhere, returning to her argument concerning independent organization of the tasks: “Housewives (…) are impressed by the freedom from the constraints of externally set rules and supervisions. However, a consequence of this autonomy is their responsibility for seeing that housework gets done. The housewife is her own supervisor, the judge of her own performance, and ultimately the source of her own job definition” (p100). The downside is that: “Gaining coherence and self-reward in their work, autonomy is relinquished and creativity constrained” (p112).
The psychological gratification emanating from observance of self-set standards and routines compensates for the stony silence of the spouse: “The husband is one potentially appreciative figure in the housewife’s landscape – but does he play this role effectively? Among these forty women none referred spontaneously to her husband’s comments as a source of personal reward for doing housework” (p104). Ironically, a wife-batterer is more likely to pay attention to the care and efficiency with which housework duties have been discharged, such as residue of dinner on a fork or dog hairs on the carpet, albeit as a pretext for lashing out with his fists.
Oakley then considers socialization and self-concept, highlighting the impossibility of disentangling the housewife role from the self-definition as female: “(…) the lessons of childhood, when girls learn to equate their femaleness with domesticity and female identities are moulded round the housewife role” (p113).
And: “The performance of the housewife role in adulthood is prefaced by a long period of apprenticeship. Housework is not unique in this respect: other occupations also have apprenticeship schemes. But a female’s induction into the domestic role – unlike these other schemes – lacks a formal structure, and consequently is rarely seen as an occupational apprenticeship. A main reason for this is that preparation for housewifery is intermingled with socialization for the feminine gender role in the wider sense. Neither in theory nor in practice is one process distinguishable from the other” (p113).
The outcome is predictable: “Through the integration of feminine role learning with self-definition, housekeeping behaviours tend to be developed as personality functions. There may be very little awareness of their connection with sex status” (p114).
Mothers function as role models, either positive or negative – their housework behaviours being emulated or rejected accordingly (pp115-7). Strikingly: “There are no social class differences in this crucial area” (p117). Where the family unit is composed of dual earners the woman is likely to succumb to “overconscientious adherence to conventional gender role stereotypes in domestic areas. The woman responds to the negative image of the cold, ‘masculine’ competitive female, and her enduring dedication to the ‘responsible housewife’ pattern is a denial of gender role deviation and an affirmation of women’s domesticated conditioning” (p119). Moreover: “(…) there is little support for the view that the domestic theme in women’s general situation has been substantially muted over recent decades. Employment figures show the continuing ‘domesticity’ of women’s work roles: the bulk of women workers in all industrialized countries are in teaching, nursing, shop work, clerical work and factories making domestic products like clothes and food. In Britain the concentration of women workers in traditional female occupations has increased, not diminished, over the last ten years or so. The expansion of educational and professional training opportunities for women has done very little to alter the concentration of female professionals in ‘domestic’ professions: most professional women are still teachers or nurses – both jobs closely allied with the traditionally ‘nurturant’ role of women” (p119).
When asked to jot down a list of ten qualities describing them as individuals (“I am –“), working-class women were twice as likely to portray themselves in terms of roles as opposed to personality traits (p125). Oakley attributes this marked propensity to the fact that such a test taps into two dimensions. Firstly, identification: “Identification is a profound conformity-base, a fundamental and enduring facet of personality. According to the classical definition, identification is the major process leading to internalization, and internalization is ‘a condition of incorporation of norms and/or roles into one’s own personality, with a corresponding obligation to act accordingly or suffer guilt’. When a norm is internalized, it is part of a person, automatically expressed in behaviour, rather than regarded in a more detached way as a rule external to the self” (p125). Statements about the self might not pertain to this, relating instead to second dimension, that of “the psycho-linguistic question of the extent to which self and (housewife) role are differentiated in the self-concept” (p125).
The self-definition as a housewife is likely to influence behaviour in a variety of ways: “For example, it is probably important in relation to educational or occupational choices; it may affect the nature of the marriage relationship, and also, very possibly, the way in which a mother brings up her daughters” (p127). The significance of this intergenerational effect cannot be stressed enough. Ultimately: “A fundamental challenge to the traditional equation between femininity and domesticity is hardly possible so long as the roots of domesticity remain firmly embedded in female personality and self-image” (p133).
Oakley devotes a chapter to a consideration of marriage and the division of labour. The entire structuring of society conspires to keep women chained to the kitchen sink: “Legal definitions current in our culture tie the status of ‘wife’ to the role of unpaid domestic worker. The husband is legally entitled to unpaid domestic service from his wife, and this is a right that courts of law uphold. National insurance and social security systems are based on the presumption that married women are financially dependent housewives, and income tax regulations take the same view; for example, because ‘wife’ means ‘housewife’, neither partner in a marriage can claim against tax the cost of paying a housekeeper. These legal constraints are, of course, supported by other economic, social and psychological pressures which weight the balance firmly in favour of the equation ‘wife equals housewife’” (p135). Less immediately obvious forces may also be at play here. Her husband’s career prospects may hinge on her compliance, for example: “…if a wife fails to play the supportive domestic role, the man may be handicapped in the demanding world of industrial management. Female domesticity is a necessary condition here. The pressures exerted on the organization of roles in the home by the husband’s involvement in his career are also pressures acting to confirm a woman’s identification with housewifery: this identification, laid down in childhood, is reinforced rather than eroded” (p152).
On the basis of the interviews, Oakley’s overall verdict is that: “(1) Only a minority of husbands give the kind of help that assertions of equality in modern marriage imply. (…) (2) Patterns of husbands’ participation are class-differentiated. (3) There is a greater tendency for men to take part in child-care than in housework” (p138). Exploring these in more depth brings out some hidden inequities: “Half the working-class husbands are low on their participation in both housework and child-care. The social class difference is greater in the case of housework than child-care, indicating a generalized preference for involvement in children as against the alternative of more washing up, shopping, cooking, washing or cleaning. For fifteen of the forty husbands there is, in fact, a discrepancy between their participation in the two areas. This means that a man’s performance of housework tasks cannot be predicted from his record in child-care and vice versa” (p139). Delving even deeper, however, reveals that men tend to monopolise the fun aspects when they look after the progeny (“The physical side of child-rearing is a mother’s responsibility. Fathers are there to play with children”, p154, handing baby over when a nappy has been soiled).
As Oakley clarifies, the division of labour is but one component of the marital relationship. Others may have potential to increase or decrease the housewife’s definition of and satisfaction with her daily round. At this juncture, Oakley introduces Elizabeth Bott’s notions of “segregated” and “joint” roles: “In the former, husband and wife have precisely defined and differentiated roles. Their division of labour separates male and female tasks; they also have different leisure interests and activities. In a joint-role marriage, on the other hand, there is a minimum of task-differentiation. Interests, activities and decision-making are likely to be shared” (p142). It emerged that: “Husbands and wives who share in one area also share in the other, and the same symmetry holds when the accent is on separation” (p142). Whereas in Bott’s estimation segregation and jointness extended to the marriage relationship as a whole, Oakley’s data did not paint such a harmonious picture: “(…) marriages characterized by jointness in leisure activities and decision-making are not necessarily those where husbands help a lot with housework and child-care; in a segregated marriage the husband may, conversely, participate domestically to a considerable extent. This is an interesting and crucial finding. It highlights the importance of taking into account the domestic task area where assertions of equality are concerned. Modern marriage may be characterized by an equality of status and ‘mutuality’ between husband and wife, but inequality on the domestic task level is not automatically banished. It remains; there are still two marriages – ‘his’ and ‘hers’. Not only is the level of masculine participation in domestic tasks generally low in the present sample, but an atmosphere of shared roles outside the housework/child-care sphere in some cases gives quite a false impression of sharing within it” (pp145-6). Oakley’s stance is corroborated by other research, leading to the conclusion that Bott has been successful in gauging perceptions as opposed to actual conduct (pp147-8): “It could almost amount to a process of double-think. Both husband and wife may believe that the man does more domestically than he actually does; in any case there is likely to be a gap between the general attitude and actual task-performance. (…) The distinction between attitudes and behaviour in this area is clearly of immense importance, since arguments about husband-wife equality in modern marriage are not only arguments about egalitarian attitudes, but about changes in behaviour which make new life-styles possible. The significance of married women’s increasing employment outside the home must, for example, be seen in the context of women’s role in marriage generally; if husbands do not in fact share domestic work equally with their wives then all that has happened is that women have acquired a new work role – employment – in addition to their traditional domestic one. In the present study, only a minority of husbands participate domestically at the level implied by the term ‘equality’, and the lack of congruence between the patterning of the division of labour and other areas of marriage suggests that a large pocket of domestic ‘oppression’ may be concealed in what could otherwise be described as ‘egalitarian’ marriages” (pp148-9). In short: “(…) the temporary rise in male domesticity during the period of dual-employment does not signify a basic egalitarian philosophy. There is a discontinuity between the division of labour in a marriage before there are children and the division of labour between husband and wife where the woman is not employed. When the wife ceases to work outside the home, the willingness of the man to help declines and the division of labour reverts to a more traditional pattern. The couple’s basic beliefs about male and female roles have not altered” (p159). Once again, “responsibility” rears its ugly head: “The question of responsibility is a critical one. As long as the blame is laid on the woman’s head for an empty larder or a dirty house it is not meaningful to talk about marriage as a ‘joint’ or ‘equal’ partnership. The same holds of parenthood. So long as mothers not fathers are judged by their children’s appearance and behaviour (and in dual career families it is the mother’s responsibility to find substitute child-care) symmetry remains a myth” (pp160-1).
Satisfaction with marriage is higher amongst women whose husbands are prepared to lift a finger rather than burying themselves in the armchair behind a newspaper (p149). As Oakley points out: “The housewife’s resentment of her husband’s non-domesticity is common: a corollary is that domesticated husbands are highly valued” (p150).
Her penultimate chapter focuses on children. A fundamental incompatibility exists between the role of housewife and that of mother: “The servicing function is basic to housework; children are people. Child-care is ‘productive’, housework is not. Housework has short-term and repetitive goals (…) Motherhood has a single long-term goal, which can be described as the mother’s own eventual unemployment. A ‘successful’ mother brings up her children to do without her” (pp166-7). A similarity in approach to the two roles was more pronounced amongst working-class women: “In part the equation between housewife and mother roles can be considered as a simple response to the situation in which women find themselves. The two jobs are carried out simultaneously, and there is a general lack of differentiation in social attitudes to women: ‘housewife’ means woman, wife and mother, and the separate components are rarely spelled out. The occupational description sanctioned by society for a woman who is at home looking after the children is not ‘mother’ but ‘housewife’. However the confusion between housewife and mother is also tied in with other facets of the – more typically – working-class orientation to children. Working-class women less often mention interest in the child as a unique individual (which does not of course mean in practice that the child is not treated as an individual). A greater importance is attached to the child’s public appearance and behaviour” (pp172-3). I would ascribe this concern with “respectability” to the tight budgets within which working-class women have to operate. They are not as well-off, yet strive to demonstrate that their children are fed and kept clean as well as any others (“dirt”, “lice” and other forms of “pollution” attaching themselves conceptually to the less favoured and the outcasts). To resurrect Victorian terminology, they may be poor, but they are deserving; their pride remains intact. Being poor is not synonymous with neglecting the children. The honesty and/or indolence of the underprivileged is continually judged by their “superiors” on the basis of signs such as dirt under the fingernails.
According to Oakley, in the middle-class group: “(…) there are many references to the pleasure in children as personalities that develop before one’s eyes, as active and independent people in the making, rather than as passive objects to be decorated and controlled” (p173). In her appraisal: “Such an approach is only possible where child-care is clearly seen as different from housework” (p173).
The aforementioned willingness of men to step in to pitch in when this does not entail excessive inconvenience can end up making matters worse: “Social isolation and constant responsibility bring about discontent. Competition with the demands of housewifery means that to the mother as houseworker the child is sometimes seen as an obstacle to job satisfaction; for the child, the need to juxtapose its demands with those of housework cannot but be experienced as frustrating. Although (…) men do something to remedy this difficulty by involving themselves in child-care, the trend could be seen as a retrogressive one from the women’s point of view. Playing with children, taking them out, and putting them to bed, are the child-care activities that men prefer. There is, apparently, a strong feeling against involvement in the work-like, routine, less pleasant aspects of bringing up children. This kind of enlargement in the father’s role is an unfortunate development for women, who stand to gain little from it but temporary peace to do household chores (…). At the same time, they lose some of the rewards parenthood offers. Satisfaction with housework may be increased, but only at the expense of satisfaction with child-care” (pp179-80).
Oakley does not view remunerating women for housework as a magic bullet: “The arguments seem to be that women should be paid for housework, and that if they receive a wage they would then be in s position to take further action to improve their situation. This seems to be false reasoning; a demand for wages is a move to affirm, rather than reject, the identification of women with housewifery. It is difficult to see how such a move would increase awareness of the many interconnected ways in which women are led to accept a secondary status” (p196).
What then is the way forward? Oakley’s closing words set out her stance: “The systematic correction of sexism in our society is an operation which has to proceed on many different levels simultaneously. Theoretical analysis constitutes one level; another level consists of the practical measures which must be taken towards institutional equality; yet a third is concerned with the erosion of biases against women in social attitudes. To argue that a greater emphasis should be put on the need for women to amend their own gender-divisive notions of a ‘woman’s place’ is not to deny the appropriateness of action on other levels. But, beyond these kinds of action, it remains true that one major limit to the possibility of change is the capacity to envisage it” (p197).
In the years that elapsed between Oakley’s brilliant investigation and Maushart’s secondary literature-based clarion call, external conditions (such as fiscal provisions, rules governing the workplace from prohibiting sexual harassment to outlawing overt discrimination) had improved. Indeed, housewives have become something of an endangered species. Surely we live in more enlightened times, reducing the relevance of the interrogation? Idleness is now the preserve of the super-rich and celebrities (little wonder that so many trapped in the daily grind aspire to fame – dreams, which certain of our “betters” continue to begrudge us).
Maushart wittily summarises the apparent seismic shift in attitudes: “Wives, it seems, have gone the way of patterned lino, fondue pots and ironed sheets – a cultural collectable now viewed with amused disdain” (p1). Once a woman does enter into a marriage, however, disillusionment quickly sets in. His marriage is still not the same as hers, in spite of all the media’s assurances: “Ironically, our belief that the two marriages should coincide, indeed that they must do so, has grown even stronger. Our new egalitarian convictions have made it even harder to penetrate beyond the veil, as it were. Both males and females in our society publicly profess their dedication to the ideal of what social researchers call ‘companionate marriage’ – a covenant between two equally loving and nurturant partners, in which the division of labour and leisure are negotiated rationally, equitably and, above all, without reference to gender.
But when a woman marries, what she sees is not what she gets. The exterior architecture of the contemporary marriage emphasises fluidity, simplicity and light. No wonder it’s got such fantastic street appeal. Venture inside, however, and you’re in for a nasty shock. Notwithstanding the tastefully renovated façade, the interior of today’s marriages remains as dusty, cramped and overelaborated as a Victorian drawing-room. It looks awful. And it feels worse” (pp2-3).
For all her effervescent humour, Maushart’s book makes for sobering reading: “Beyond the lip service paid to ‘equal marriage’ by both men and women, the contemporary family remains primarily, and profoundly, organised around gender. Beneath the veneer of its sleek post-feminist contours, the divisions of labour within the family remain rigidly gender-specific. Females within marriage are strenuously, overwhelmingly, outrageously responsible for the physical and emotional caretaking of males and offspring. (…)
Research conducted throughout the English-speaking world continues to show that wives, whether employed or unemployed, perform 70 to 80 per cent of the unpaid labour within families. And husbands whose wives work full-time for pay do no more domestic labour than husbands of women who are not in paid employment at all. What such dreary and familiar statistics conceal, however, is that wives also contribute 100 per cent of the husband care – the myriad tasks of physical and emotional nurture that I call ‘wifework’.
By anybody’s reckoning – if only somebody would reckon it – wifework is a time-consuming, energy-draining and emotionally exorbitant enterprise. Centred primarily on the care and maintenance of men’s bodies, minds and egos, wifework is a job that violates every principle of equal-opportunity employment – often, chillingly, in the name of ‘love’. For there is no counterpart to wifework, no reciprocal ‘husbandwork’ driving males to provide caregiving to their female partners at the expense of their own well-Being” (pp9-10).
Maushart sets out a comprehensive definition of what wifework entails, much of which sounds familiar from Oakley’s more dispassionate examination:
Performing a disproportionate share of unpaid household labour (by conservative estimates, at least two-thirds of it, irrespective of Her occupational status – or His, for that matter).
Assuming total responsibility for His emotional caretaking (from organising His underwear drawer to arranging His social life).
Maintaining His intimacy needs at the expense of Hers (including relating sexually in a way that responds to His libidinal timetable and otherwise privileges His preferences).
Taking full responsibility for child-care drudgework (laundry, meals, tidying, homework supervision, shopping) so that He can enjoy quality time (games, sport, watching television with the kids).
Monitoring His physical well-being (providing a healthy diet, encouraging and supporting fitness activities, organising medical treatment, etc.).
Preparing meals tailored specifically to His taste, appetite and schedule.
Deferring to His agenda in day-to-day conversation (women initiate more topics, but men choose which ones will be pursued, demonstrating their conversational dominance by completing women’s sentences, interrupting and withdrawing attention when it’s the woman’s turn to speak).
Maintaining His extended family relationships (ringing, buying presents, sending thank-you notes, staging and catering family gatherings – and, most important of all, allocating mental space to remember all of the foregoing).
Laughing at His jokes. (I’m serious. People have studied this).
Wifework includes what Virginia Woolf called ‘reflecting a man at twice his normal size’” (pp10-11).
Clinging to the belief in equality in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary has now been given sociological recognition in the shape of a technical term, “pseudomutuality” (coined by Michael Bittman and Joyce Pixley): “A state of affairs in which both parties profess egalitarian ideals, and pretend that they are sharing equally, while still conducting their married lives according to more or less rigid gender-typed roles. Pseudomutuality is not simply a public pretence – not just a ‘front’ married people adopt to impress researchers or friends or neighbours. It is, rather, a front we adopt to impress ourselves, to convince each other that our marriages are fundamentally different from our parents’ marriages, that what seem to e enormous contradictions between thought and action aren’t, really” (p23). In other words, it denotes a form of denial, which, in common with its other manifestations “makes us feel more comfortable – at least over the short-term – by reducing the unbearable tension of collapsed boundaries, or shuffled priorities, or any other formerly stable structure in our lives that has begun to sway, buckle or disintegrate. We are most vulnerable to denial, in other words, whenever we are most caught up in change. Whenever the demand to adapt to a new set of conditions either outstrips our capacity to do so fully, or compromises our ability to do so without pain or awkwardness” (pp23-4). Pseudomutuality is adopted by both men and women “as an unconscious way to protect consciously and genuinely held beliefs. If those beliefs – beliefs about justice, equity, intimacy, sharing – were not important to us, we wouldn’t need to bother about subterfuge. The incongruities wouldn’t get to us” (p24). Far from being an aberration, Maushart considers pseudomutuality as the most widespread strategy for alleviating accumulated frustrations amongst middle-class men and women over the age of twenty-five (p24).
Subsuming wifework under ‘love’ is an act of self-deception, albeit one supported by the dominant cultural schema: “Love may be a many-splendoured thing, but it’s surprisingly monovariate. What is immensely diverse and changeable is not love per se, but the ways we translate it into action. To argue, therefore, that women perform wifework (…) because they ‘love’ their husbands is to confuse chronicity with causality. Women may love their husbands, and they may also perform wifework: but the connection is purely incidental. Wifework is a behavioural repertoire that may or may not be associated with a feeling state called love. Indeed, some of the most conscientious performers of wifework are those who regard their partners with a feeling state more closely resembling contempt. (…)
Performing services for men has become a conventionalised way in which women show their love for them. Yet the connection between the inner state called love and outward and visible signs like the nightly preparation of a ‘proper meal’, or ironed shirts, or regular sex on demand is no more intrinsic than the connection between, let us say, genuine commitment and the arrangement of carbon molecules we call a diamond. A diamond does not equal a commitment. Rather, a diamond can be said to ‘stand for’ commitment because of its beauty, its durability, its capacity to reflect light, its rarity and, of course, its price. (…) The relationship is a conventionalised one because it depends on a shared agreement about meaning” (p34).
She turns the question round: “Does the fact that men do not express their love for women by performing such services mean they do not ‘really’ care? The very idea is absurd. Yet this is precisely the sort of logic women use to defend and rationalise the status quo in which they find themselves mired” (p25).
Thus: ”There is nothing foreordained in our nature that makes the servicing of males by females either desirable or necessary – although there is much foreordained in our society that makes it convenient. Wifework is, in other words, an artefact of culture – a behavioural adaptation that arose, as do all adaptations, as a way to enhance survival. In this case, the survival of females and their offspring.
In all likelihood, wifework evolved as a form of barter between males and females. Well, all right. A bribe. The provision of a wide range of caretaking services was how females persuaded males to stick around, to share resources and to provide protection to offspring – generally, from the marauding of other males. This remains, albeit in different form, a primary benefit of monogamy for women” (p36).
Maushart then muses on the origins of patriarchy: “The most basic asymmetry between the genders – indeed, perhaps the only basic asymmetry – is the one that discussions of ‘equal opportunity’ are most likely to ignore. I refer, of course, to the fact that females give birth and males don’t. From this single anatomical acorn has grown the mighty oak of patriarchy: a social structure that systematically privileges males and all things masculine, while controlling and constraining females and all things feminine. In this sense anatomy really is destiny. Among other things, it destines females to hold disproportionate reproductive power over males – and it destines males to do whatever they can to even up the score. Biologically, females have the upper hand. But under patriarchy – the macrocosm, of which marriage is the microcosm – males are compensated by social and economic advantages so enormous, and so deeply entrenched, that most of the time we forget they are constructions at all.
It’s important to recognise that patriarchy is not simply one social structure among many that human groups may adopt. It is the social structure that human groups adopt” (p41).
Having explored the idea of reproductive power and the advantages to be derived from cleaving unto a single sperm-donor, Maushart comes back to her central proposition: “Monogamy offered males plenty over the long haul of their reproductive destiny. But if the compromise was ever to prove viable, it also had to dangle some carrots that could be enjoyed in the here and now – a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine of monogamy go down. And this, I argue, was the evolutionary origin of wifework: the complex of services – sexual, social, emotional and physical – by which females have provisioned and protected males within the context of monogamous marriage” (p45):
Once the link between sexual activity and the reproductive burden had been severed, however, patriarchy’s days were numbered: “The Pill, which began by freeing sexual enjoyment from the spectre of unwanted pregnancy, ended up demolishing the biological bedrock of our entire social order.
Call it an unanticipated side effect.
Being female, post-Pill, means we are not who we were, who we have always been ‘by nature’. Our anatomy is still a good part of our destiny, but the twentieth century taught all of us that technology is destiny, too – especially when it enables us to exercise significant control over our bodies. It is almost impossible to imagine a biotechnology analogous to the contraceptive pill in its power to change our individual and collective destinies. (…) females who are able to control their fertility reduce their biological deficits drastically, while retaining all their former reproductive assets. Females who are able to control their fertility, in other words, tip the ages-old balance of gender interdependencies. Overnight (as it were) they need men a whole lot less than ever before. Eventually, and inevitably, they will need men a whole lot less than men need them. And when that happens, monogamy will tumble…cradle and all. Which is exactly what is beginning to happen.
Access to contraceptives has given females unprecedented power to break the endless reproductive cycling which has heretofore been their lot in life – and ultimately to disrupt the biological substrate from which patriarchy itself has grown. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that being female does not per se mean ‘weakness’ relative to males. It only does so in a species like our own – in which the processes of pregnancy, childbirth and lactation are so particularly depleting and in which newborns are so peculiarly helpless for such a long time” (pp53-4).
The “holy” state of matrimony was not immune to the assault either as an institution well past its sell-by date: “In the present circumstances, lifetime monogamy means females end up doing more provisioning, not less, assuming greater responsibility for the well-being of their mates than their mates do for them. Marriage asks women to spend the rest of their lives paying back a ‘debt’ that – thanks to contraception, formula feeding, child care and other key changes to the environment – no longer exists, or exists only to a trivial degree” (p55).
Maushart does not mince her words in demonstrating why marriage in its fossilised form exemplifies an increasingly raw deal for women: “Marriage is a contract. But no marriage is purely a legal agreement, or reducible to a set of religious prescriptions. Nor is marriage simply a covenant between two people – although in our romanticism we often tend to forget this. To us, it seems natural to imagine marriage as a highly individual enterprise and family life as something that, as we say, ‘goes on behind closed doors’. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Marriage is first and foremost a social contract, whose terms and conditions are determined neither individually, nor formally (that is, laid down by legal or secular laws), but collectively, within the context of culture. The most important sub-clauses of the marriage contract are surprisingly inflexible. You can bring your own agenda to marriage (…) but, in the end, the institution will exert its own imperatives. Some of these are as old as humanity itself; others are of much more recent provenance. Taken together, they ensure that marriage is quite literally bigger than both of you. It’s also stronger, older and incomparably uglier” (p58).
She reminds the reader of the historical background of the marriage covenant: “In the past, human society was constructed in such a way that females desperately needed to marry. Over many millennia, a social system evolved that institutionalised the dependency of females, investing males with hugely disproportionate power to control and direct resources. Under such a system, any woman who wants to survive, let alone to reproduce, has no choice but to marry. Not only to marry, but to stay married. Which is why ‘spinster’ is as much a socio-economic category as a socio-sexual one. Until well into the nineteenth century, any woman who managed to live outside marriage, or outside of service to a male-headed family, was by definition a woman of means. It is a sociological truism that unmarried males represent the dregs of society, and unmarried females the cream.
Conservatives who thunder that feminism has pulled the rug out from under family life are in many respects completely accurate. The fact is, what we are accustomed to call ‘family life’ – a monogamous unit designed to ensure the survival of offspring – has been predicated primarily on female enfeeblement, both biologically based and socially cultivated. Or, to put it even more bluntly, what keeps marriages together are wives who have no choice but to keep them together. What puts marriages asunder are wives with access to other options” (p60).
According to Maushart the incentives for getting hitched are still powerful: “In order to raise children, in order to obtain economic security, in order to establish adult identity in the community, and in order to experience love and companionship. These four needs – reproductive, economic, social and psycho-sexual – can be thought of as the pillars on which the institution of marriage rests” (p61). The grievances articulated by contemporary women, their sense of having been cheated arise from alterations in the wider social context: “The nature of our reproductive, economic, social and psycho-sexual needs has remained more or less constant. What has changed, at times dramatically, is how we prioritise those needs – which ones we tend to enshrine or celebrate and which ones we downplay or deny. Our needs are the same as ever. How we choose to assign meaning to them is not” (p61).
She then undertakes an architectural survey to ascertain the stability of each of these load-bearing pillars in the here and now. Firstly, the social and reproductive: “While it’s true that we of the middle-class no longer openly stigmatise single mothers, we do not really accept them as the social equals of partnered mothers. Even a child knows this. It’s the same with our attitude towards cohabitation. We see it as a kind of B-grade alternative to marriage, certainly not an equivalent” (p63). Single mothers have transgressed the norm and it is from this act of defiance that ambivalence flows. Cohabitation is still jokingly referred to as “living in sin”, but the tinge of disapproval intrinsic to this phrase is unmistakeable. It simply does not enjoy the same cachet as the ring and certificate authenticated relationship. Nevertheless: “Today, although I would argue that our attitude towards sole parents remains deeply conflicted, we increasingly ascribe [subscribe] to the notion that motherhood is the right of every female, whether married or unmarried. In the context of the history of human groups, a more revolutionary notion is impossible to imagine” (p63).
Single mothers do show that an alternative to marriage is viable, if not a bed of roses: “The gradual untethering of motherhood from marriage – and, by extension, of child care from wifework – is probably the single most explosive issue in the debate about the future of the family. It is a concept that has become even remotely thinkable only in the last thirty years or so, thanks to a convergence of technological innovation and economic upheaval. (…) To have babies without strings – i.e., men – attached is not simply a new lifestyle option. It is an almost unimaginably radical act of cultural subversion” (pp65-6).
In a nutshell: “the knowledge that women no longer need to be wives in order to become mothers (…) threatens to topple the last major power imbalance on which patriarchy still teeters” (p66).
The second pillar is the economic: “Ours is the first society in the history of human civilization in which marriage is pursued not out of need, but out of want – and which predicates family life not on the solid rock of reproductive necessity but on the gossamer wings of sentimental preference” (p78).
Returning to the social, there has been a steady erosion of the other “social dividends” (p83) of marriage: “(…) marriage has ceased to be the only or even the primary means by which females unambiguously attain adult status in the community. There are other paths to female adulthood now, other markers of social legitimacy. Entrance into paid employment, usually after a period of specialised study, is the most obvious one. So, too, is setting up one’s own home, particularly when it entails the purchase of real estate – milestones once inexorably tied to marriage for most women. Age is another factor in the changing status of marriage as a rite of passage. Even a generation ago, teenage marriage was commonplace. Today it has been relegated to a form of social deviance. (…) This dramatic demographic shift is more a consequence of social change than a cause of it; nevertheless, it is a by-product that has begun to function in its own right as a catalyst for further change” (pp84-5).
The final pillar is the psycho-sexual. Marriage is also failing to deliver what it promises, for example, intimacy where the gulf between His and Her marriage gapes wide (“As far as intimacy goes, men get what they need from marriage – either because women happen to give so much or because men happen to need very little”, pp81-2). Sexual activity has always been pursued outside of wedlock, although the penalties for breaking the Eleventh Commandment were severe. Now that “fornication” is no longer an unforgivable social trespass, sexual gratification can be indulged in without any formal ties uniting the partners. Marriage can douse the flames of passion rather than kindling them: “Erotic love, we are discovering, is not necessarily any more enduring within marriage than it is outside of marriage. Sexual desire fades, and it fades fast. And it fades faster still under conditions that are relatively predictable, secure and danger-free, and where partners enjoy unlimited and unfettered access to one another. And these are exactly the conditions created by any ‘good’ marriage” (p80).
In the chapter “Mars and Venus Scrub the Toilet”, Maushart dons her rubber gloves to wipe away misapprehensions about the sharing out of housework. Forty years ago: “Everybody knew that Her marriage was a site of on-going, unpaid domestic slog, and that His was a marriage of convenience” (p88). It would be more accurate to label a male spouse a source of “trouble and strife” than his mate: “According to Heidi Hartmann, a husband creates eight hours a week of extra physical labour for his wife. Beth Shelton’s 1992 study found that married women spend over five hours more per week on household labour than single women, whereas married men spend two fewer hours on household labour than single men. According to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, widows who are sixty and older do 25 per cent less housework than their married age peers – an awfully good reason to be merry. Widowers, by contrast, will find themselves doing 354 per cent more laundry, 226 per cent more cleaning and 208 per cent more cooking. Males who move in the opposite direction – that is, straight from bachelor pad to nuptial bliss – reduce the time spent on those tasks by 75 per cent, 40 per cent and 50 per cent, respectively.
Quite simply, the presence or absence of a wife is the main influence on the amount of domestic work performed by males” (pp90-1).
This impression is confirmed by Bittman and Pixley’s research: “According to their study of Australian households, wives do on average 90 per cent of the laundry and 82 per cent of all indoor cleaning and tidying. Figures from the US are very similar, with employed wives still performing an estimated 70 per cent of all unpaid labour around the home – and this in addition to as yet untabulated burdens of women’s mental and emotional responsibility for family maintenance, including but certainly not limited to planning and organising all this physical slog.
This is not to suggest that the division of domestic labour has been entirely preserved from social change, snap frozen like some kind of glacier pre-feminist beast. In fact, recent US research has found that wives have cut their average housework hours almost in half since the 1960s, while husbands have almost doubled their contribution. That’s the good news. The bad news is that even with these shifts, married women are still doing twice as much unpaid domestic labour as their male partners. And that is before factoring in time spent with children.
When it comes to child care, wives typically contribute five times more than their husbands do. At the same time, for every hour a husband spends cooking, his wife will spend three” (p91).
The sheer abundance of the available data is an indication of the extent to which the subject-matter has become a respectable object of sociological enquiry since Oakley’s day. We have not yet exhausted the available information by a long chalk: “Research compiled for the 1993 National Child Development Study in the UK showed that women do 77 per cent of cooking, 75 per cent of cleaning, and 66 per cent of shopping. A survey published in the same year found that only one British man in a hundred does an equal share to that of his wife. Figures from the US are very similar, with employed wives still performing an estimated 70 per cent of all unpaid physical labour around the home” (p92).
On the subject of the chores themselves, Maushart hangs out the dirty linen for public scrutiny: “…it is true that the least technologised household tasks – the most physically demanding and unpleasant ones – are also the least likely to be performed by males” (p93).
She begins with laundry: “British author Rebecca Abrams points out that even among dual-earner couples, 85 per cent of women do all the laundry and ironing” (p93). As she comments: “For my money, there is something distinctly maternal about the act of caring for someone else’s clothes” (p93).
This depressing statistic does not stand alone: “There are plenty of other unpleasant unpaid tasks which almost invariably ‘belong’ to women. Scrubbing the toilet, for example. In one recent study, 91 per cent of wives who described the division of household labour in their marriages as ‘fair’ took sole responsibility for this task. Appearances by the toilet fairy persist in nearly all marriages, regardless of spouse’s protestations of ‘equal sharing’ of tasks” (pp96-7).
The emancipated career woman is not let off the hook by virtue of her toil outside the semi-detached: “There was no expectation that a woman’s paid employment would purchase her freedom from unpaid domestic drudgery. On the contrary, wives’ paid work was regarded as a kind of privilege, by women and men alike. The price of that privilege was continuing to accept full responsibility for what we have now learned to call ‘the second shift’ at home. Those who baulked at this deal – or even those whose frantic efforts to fulfil it fell short – were branded as ‘selfish’: the most unwifely stigma of them all” (p101).
Such a mindset might rightfully belong to the dustbin of history, yet someone has forgotten to take out the refuse: “But surely wives who work outside the home for pay do less housework than their stay-at-home sisters? As a matter of fact, they do. It is just that the slack is not being taken up by their husbands. According to Steven Nock’s figures, US women were doing 2.5 times as much housework as their husbands in 1976. Ten years later, that figure had dropped to 1.9. Yet in absolute terms, men were not doing substantially more, but women were doing less. Estimates suggest that about two-thirds of the reported change in the Who Does What? ratio is due to a drop in women’s participation. In 1992, for example, Australian women were spending an average of two hours less per week on cooking than they had five years earlier. Did men cook two hours more per week? No, they did not. In fact, there were no significant changes in men’s participation in cooking in that period – although the women increased the time they spent on home maintenance and car care, traditionally husband’s business, by twenty-one minutes per week. The decrease in time spent cooking reflected a change in consumer behaviour, not in gender roles, as working wives bought more prepared foods and takeaway.
Women are also doing less laundry now – about forty minutes a week less over the five-year period to 1992. Part of the reason, say researchers, is that ironing is now more likely to be outsourced to a paid worker. Another factor, I suspect, is that employed women are less fussy about laundry. Non-essential procedures like starching, bleaching, fabric softening and pre-soaking are now as vestigial as a hand-cranked mangle. So too are the days when a woman’s self-worth was reflected by the whiteness and brightness of the clothes flapping on her rotary clothes-line” (pp102-3).
In other words, as Bittman and Pixley state, greater parity has its origins in women behaving more like men rather than men discovering the delights of tying the apron-strings around their waists and softening their calluses with mild green Fairy Liquid (p103).
Discouragingly little progress has been made since Oakley put pen to paper: “For it is still the case that the unpaid labour a wife performs is taken for granted, almost as if dusting or vacuuming or laundering were the discharge of some natural and therefore unremarkable function. In this sense, women’s work remains ‘invisible’ – as unnoticed as it is uncompensated. And this is the case both in our own homes and in the wider society. Men’s contributions to domestic labour, by contrast, are in many households still greeted with awe and ceremony, as befits an occasion. At the very least, wives are expected to show gratitude for a husband’s efforts. We thank them – often fulsomely, as we would a child who has folded his first napkin, or surprised us by packing away her toys. By doing so, of course, we reaffirm the very gender divide we think we are eliminating. And that’s frustrating. Realising that one shouldn’t feel grateful when a man starts doing his own wifework, as it were, doesn’t change the fact that one does feel grateful. And what about supplying ‘positive reinforcement’? It works with dogs and kids and laboratory rats. Why not with husbands? The problem, of course, is not the ‘thank you’ itself but its subtext – a relationship message that reinforces the perception that when a man does work around the house he is doing a favour, yet when a woman does the same work she is doing her duty. In a more civilised world we would all be thanking each other. But as it stands, the gratitude runs in a single and utterly predictable direction” (p106). I often catch myself using that very term when asking G to bring me the salt from the kitchen: “Would you do me a favour, pet?” As if it were an exceptional act of “grace” instead of it being self-evident or taken for granted that G should lend a hand. When the Hungarian issues a bald and barked command, G drags his feet to spin the process out as long as possible by way of protest. I manage to extract compliance with my gentler style and it is usually cheerful at that. G often mutters about being a “slave” when all he has to do is fetch a bottle of water from the veranda or a glass for me to pour it in. He normally brings me the plate with hot food on it when we eat together, his most onerous task in normal circumstances. My Mother’s daily request “Would you nick [nip] down to the shops?” was one I responded to with mixed feelings, my reluctance due in part to the embarrassment of asking for twenty Benson and Hedges or Embassy Regal in the days before such sales were banned to anyone below a certain age.
The refusal to take housework seriously, which Oakley distilled from the women’s accentuation of its physical and mental demands, persists: “Researchers have observed that domestic wifework remains invisible because males trivialise it. They do this in both conscious and unconscious ways. Almost all men admit to having lower standards for household cleanliness than their wives. What’s more, most of them are proud of it” (p107). Some types of housework are culturally defined as women’s, particularly those carried out exclusively in the dwelling: “These strong gender associations, researchers say, help explain why the contribution of males remains relatively unaffected by changes in hours of paid employment – either his or hers. A number of studies have even found that, for men, hours of paid employment are negatively correlated with hours of unpaid work around the house – in other words, he actually does less the more free time he’s got. Unemployed men often do the least of all occupational groups. Researchers tell us this is an ego thing that cuts directly to the core of masculine identity, and its horror of dependency. To avoid adding private insult to public injury, so-called dependent husbands may refuse to participate in ‘home duties’ at all” (p108).
Maushart’s insight that the degrading of the meticulous performance of housework to a pathology and by extension the attitude that those who force themselves to do it have only themselves to blame also forms part of the marginalisation strategy is perceptive: “I find it fascinating that we accept without question that there is a right and a wrong way to perform traditional men’s work – say, to change the motor oil, or mow the lawn, or hang a cupboard. Yet to most men, the suggestion that there might be a right and a wrong way to vacuum or fold a nappy or hang out the laundry inspires eyeball-rolling, or even disbelief. To me, this is another way in which we betray the very deeply held assumption that what men accomplish matters, and what women accomplish doesn’t; that what men know is knowledge, and what women know is prejudice. As a result, a woman who persists in framing housework as skilled work, and who cares about the results obtained, is routinely stigmatised as ‘too fussy’ or – the ultimate marital put-down – a ‘control freak’” (p109).
We are stuck in a collective groove: “Intellectually, we rejected the concept of wifework a long time ago. Emotionally and behaviourally, we remain stalled within the old patriarchal paradigm: the one that warns us that a good man is hard to find and even harder to hang on to – so if a woman is lucky enough to snag one, she needs to keep those puddings coming, for life” (p115). It would not be too far-fetched to look upon this as internalised blackmail: the nagging little voice at the back of your mind warning you that if he can’t get it from you, he’ll bugger off and get it from someone else – especially if you’re wrinkling and sagging round the middle. Disposable relationships are the downside of women’s freedom to bail out and the consumerist way of life.
The patter of tiny feet confuses the issue: “I believe there are huge and substantive differences between mothering on the one hand and wifework on the other. Yet conceptually, as well as in our day-to-day lives, we are prone to blur the boundaries of these two aspects of ‘women’s work’ – at times to the point where it is almost impossible to determine where child care ends and husbandcare begins. Women’s commitment to mothering is a social privilege – with attendant social liabilities – built upon the bedrock of biological necessity. We have a moral responsibility to mother our young, an urge we experience not as the result of some kind of ‘false consciousness’ or patriarchal conspiracy, but simply owing to the immense honour of being female.
Our ‘wifing’ is another story, of course – especially when it involves a felt imperative to mother men. This imagined responsibility has nothing to do with women’s biology, let alone our destiny as females. In the present environment, it is maladaptive for everyone involved – the women who stagger under its emotional and physical toll; the children who see Daddy, in some ways correctly, less a man than an overgrown sibling; the men who are both prevented and prevent themselves from experiencing parenting at full throttle. (…)
The only real revolution is that we now envisage parenthood and partnership as separate entities – divergent paths into unknown territory, rather than a convergence towards a foreseeable future” (p119).
The stork’s delivery of a squealing bundle of joy turns back the clock: “As (…) marital researchers have stressed, parenthood exaggerates and hardens gender differences within marriage, pushing husbands to become more ‘husbandly’ and wives more ‘wifely’ – and then leaving them there to get on with it. After the birth of her first child, the research suggests, a wife will do even more housework, cooking and shopping than ever before, and she will also work fewer hours outside the home and for less pay. And all of this will be in addition to assuming major, and in many cases overwhelming, responsibility for child care. The new father, by contrast, will perform even fewer household tasks, and work longer hours for pay outside the home” (p123).
Maushart offers little comfort for new mothers, laying bare shared parenting as a myth, thereby echoing once again Oakley’s conclusions: “Researchers estimate that, in the US, women still do about 80 per cent of the child care – as much as in the 1960s. And most of the time men do spend with their children takes the form of what sociologists call ‘interactive activities’ rather than ‘custodial activities’. In other words, Dads play – and Mums pay. According to research published in 1997, the arrival of a first child more than doubles a wife’s domestic load, working out to an average increase of thirty-five hours a week. One large-scale study conducted in 1991 found the increase in domestic labour to be as high as 91 per cent for new mothers – while the fathers’ (lower to begin with, of course) did not increase by a single minute. To put it bluntly, Mummy becomes the work horse and Daddy the show pony” (p128).
Although they have come a long way since Oakley published her volume, researchers have still not sloughed off their bad habits completely: “It’s not just couples themselves who misrepresent the realities of family life. Researchers have been known to do it too – like the investigators who counted child care as ‘shared’ if the husband looked after his children without the wife present ‘at least once a week’. Or the ones who were so determined to find evidence of shared parenting that they analysed the total amount of time fathers spent in the same room with their children! Subtler forms of misrepresentation, part of the everyday reality of most families, are even more insidious. Like the woman who boasts to her mates about how ‘lucky’ she is to have a husband who’ll ‘babysit’ while she works shifts – yet never mentions what it’s like coming home to a scene of domestic devastation and wakeful, unwashed children. Or the man who ostentatiously changes a nappy, while his wife hovers to whip away the soiled wipes, find the pins and – ultimately – scrape it, hang it on the line to dry, and fold it up again for next time” (p130).
Moreover, fathering consists for the most part of following orders: “It is precisely this mental work – the ‘remembering, planning and scheduling’ thing – that is the most arduous of all parenting tasks. It also happens to be the work that married fathers steadfastly avoid doing. Married mothers not only carry out the lioness’s share of parenting work, whether they work for pay or not. They shoulder the additional burden of administering the endless minutiae if family life – a task which consumes untold gigabytes of a woman’s intellectual hard-drive. Husbands may go shopping, but wives still write the list, Dad may take baby to the playgroup, but Mum will enrol her, pack her nappy bag, organise her lunch, and settle her to sleep when she comes back home again” (p131).
Maushart adds to the list of wifely chores contained in Oakley’s pioneering work: “We are now able to discern that domestic labour and child care are things that women do, rather than expressions of what women are. We remain very far from the same insight about the emotional caregiving wives lavish on their male partners” (p145).
This part of the job description escaped Oakley’s attention and not without cause: “Emotional caregiving is a form of wifework that most women perform so spontaneously, so effortlessly (or so it seems) and so successfully that it is rarely seen as a form of work at all, but rather the expression of an innate quality, a way of simply ‘being’ in the world. Yet it is clear that the skills of empathy and listening, the eagerness – or at least the willingness – to be emotionally ‘on call’ as needed, are primarily learned. (…) Historically, women have needed to be more aware of men’s feeling states than men have needed to be aware of women’s. It was all a part of the biologically driven process of catching a man, and continuing to hold him captive. Women’s superiority in emotion-reading may also have once served an important survival function, as an acquired compensation for their relative inferiority in the brute strength department” (p146).
The expectations generated leave a profound imprint on recreation: “In a study of dual-earner families during ‘crunch times’ – in the hour before leaving for work and school in the morning, and the hour upon returning home again in the evening – researcher Susan Donath found that in the mornings, husbands slept later, watched more television, spent 28 per cent more time eating breakfast yet 34 per cent less time cooking it, and exerted 67 per cent less effort in caring for the children. At the other end of the day, the picture was just as skewed. For one thing, three-quarters of all wives were already home by the time their husbands arrived. Wives’ first activities upon arrival were equally divided between household work and leisure/eating. For their male partners, by contrast, 71 per cent engaged in a leisure activity first, while only 28 per cent performed a household task first. Overall, in the first hour following splashdown, husbands spent forty minutes in leisure activities – or 25 per cent more time than their wives did. This included roughly twice as much TV-watching, about two-thirds more eating and drinking, and a third more sleeping. Only 8 per cent of males did not participate in at least one leisure activity in that first hour at home, compared with 17.3 per cent of their wives” (pp156-7).
The unvarnished truth is harsh: “When women walk out on their families for five hours on a Saturday, it’s called abandonment. When men do it, it’s called entitlement” (p159). Maushart is under no illusions: “Most of the time, the inequities in the distribution of leisure by gender are subtler, or at least more artfully concealed. Often, for example, a husband’s ‘long day at the office’ incorporates a multitude of opportunities for leisure and socialising. One common scenario sees him scoring brownie points for working from eight to six – during which time he manages to read the paper, take several coffee breaks, eat lunch at a café and catch up with the latest office gossip. Her ‘part-time’ hours of paid work from ten to four sound like a comparative doddle – and they would be, too, if she didn’t have the sole responsibility for almost everything else that keeps the household running: getting the kids off to school, picking them up again, planning and shopping for dinner (which she does during her lunchbreak), cooking it, supervising homework, organising baths, folding the laundry, etc. etc. The opportunities for ‘concealed leisure’ in such a schedule are few indeed” (pp159-60).
In addition: “(…) married women more often find themselves in the role of leisure facilitators than leisure consumers. Their ‘fun’, in other words, typically consists of arranging or attending recreational activities for the benefit of other family members. In extreme cases, wives’ leisure may be little more than a by-product of overseeing or witnessing the leisure of others” (p162). Whenever we would pick up Granny Wilkie for a “run” in the car, my Mother would make sure that the picnic was ready before we set off for Campsie Road and beyond. She would boil the eggs and spread Shipham’s chicken paste on the plain bread sandwiches (cutting off the hard brown crusts from mine) and store them all in Tupperware containers to keep them fresh. On one occasion her sister and family had driven all the way from England and we had agreed to provide the refreshments. My Father had volunteered to pack the goodies into the car. When we pulled over into a lay-by with an appropriately spectacular view of mountains and heather, she handed out the “pieces” and announced: “I’m gasping for a cup of tea”. Having located the Thermos, milk, sugar, mugs and teaspoons, she rummaged around in the boot, but could not find the essential ingredient: the tea bags. It had slipped my Father’s mind to include them. We stayed parched. He never lived it down.
Women are caught up in a Catch 22: “On the one hand, we live in a society which has constructed gender such that women are expected to find their primary gratifications through the gratification of others. Yet, on the other, we are quick to point the finger at women who have ‘made themselves’ subject to the ruling desires of men and children” (p162). Clearly, the same mechanism is at play as when the house-proud are construed as defective. “Doormat”, we sigh, shaking our heads with (condescending) pity.
Maushart breaks the taboo on discussing sexual servicing of males. Whilst the biological predisposition to be ‘in love’ for exactly eighteen to thirty months (p172), as Cindy Hazan ascertained in her major cross-cultural investigation into the phenomenon, the marriage vows are (in theory) sworn for life. Once love has evaporated, the attractions of carnal congress rapidly fade.
The proposition that intercourse could be an unwelcome obligation might elicit scorn in some quarters. The injunction “lie back and think of the Empire” ought to remind us that the idea is not novel: “Observers who use the word ‘work’ to describe the strategies used to manage a couple’s sexual relationship might in an earlier era have simply referred to a wife’s ‘duty’ to have sex with her husband or, conversely, to his ‘conjugal rights’ to have sex with his wife. Indeed, it is difficult to get one’s head round the notion that ‘wife rape’ was legal in the UK until 1991 [On the background to the landmark decision, see Helena Kennedy, op. cit, pp84, 112 and 130-3 as well as Jennifer Temkin’s Women, Rape and Law Reform, in Mary Evans (ed.), The Woman Question, Sage, London, 1994, pp276-302]. Prior to this (…) the marriage contract was seen as binding on women to provide sexual gratification to their partners. Refusal to do so was a breach of that contract, pure and simple. Under such circumstances, a husband’s resort to physical force was regarded as a legitimate measure. By contrast, British wives who have sought divorce on the grounds of their husbands’ loss of interest in sex have been laughed out of court on the grounds that such behaviour is ‘not unreasonable’” (p177).
Mill also broached the issue of marital rape, the delicacy of his phraseology not detracting from the vehemence of his denunciation: “Above all, a female slave has (in Christian countries) an admitted right, and is considered under a moral obligation, to refuse to her master the last familiarity. Not so the wife: however brutal a tyrant she may unfortunately be chained to – though she may know that he hates her, though it may be his daily pleasure to torture her, and though she may feel it impossible not to loathe him – he can claim from her and enforce the lowest degradation of a human being, that of being made the instrument of an animal function contrary to her inclinations” (op. cit, p33).
Even where abuse does not enter into the frame: “There is considerable evidence that the pressure on married women to ‘perform’ sexually may be greater today than ever. The ‘new’ sexual contract to which we are all now supposed to subscribe sees male and female erotic desires and entitlements as equal. In reality, however, that contract rarely extends beyond the courtship. (…) Almost all of us now believe that women, whether married or not, have at long last gained ‘permission’ to be sexual creatures. Yet for many married women, this gain translates into yet another obligation: a sort of imperative to be sexually assertive and orgasmic whether one really feels like it or not” (p180).
Sexologists offering counselling for couples whose sex lives have been “going through a sticky patch” have also in the past been blinkered by a male-centred bias: “In the 1970s, Alex Comfort’s hugely best-selling The Joy of Sex, for example, became the Bible for a whole generation of ‘adventurous’ married couples. Yet Comfort’s focus on male sexuality was relentless. He was forever admonishing readers to consider ‘what the male turn-on equipment requires’. It was as if the female ‘turn-on equipment’ somehow didn’t count, or maybe didn’t even exist. English psychologist and sex therapist Paul Brown recounts with appropriate horror some of the ‘good advice’ he and his colleagues were giving clients in the 1960s – like prescribing copious amounts of lubricants to combat vaginal ‘dryness’. Eventually, Brown reports, ‘we understood that to ask a woman to use cream to aid penetration when there was no excitement, and hence no lubrication…was much the same as asking a man to tie a splint to his penis if there was no erection’” (p183).
Whereas advances have indisputably been made in the realm of remunerated work, inequality has still not been eliminated altogether: “In our society, males remain not just slightly but quite significantly more likely to earn a higher salary than females. Despite our laws governing ‘equal pay for equal work’, the pink-collar ghetto is alive and well, and ‘women’s work’ continues to be systematically undervalued in occupations ranging from hairdresser and child carer (vis-à-vis, say, mechanic or plumber) to teaching, the ‘caring professions’ and the wide range of people-skill occupations in areas like human resource management, marketing and tourism and hospitality. Even in professions where women have made impressive inroads, such as medicine and law, females continue to dominate the ranks of the ‘unspecialised’ and command proportionately ‘unspecial’ salaries” (p194). The concentration of women in certain functions extends as far as ministerial posts. If this seems exaggerated ask yourself how many women Chancellors of the Exchequer you have ever seen holding up the briefcase on the doorstep of 11 Downing Street? Managing the economy is depicted as technocratic and male. Even the “environment” portfolio has caring, “feminine” connotations. Women ministers are most likely to put in charge of the family, women’s rights (equal opportunities), employment, health, social affairs, culture or development departments– seldom trade or industry. (Although it may be objected that development is equipped with a major budget, it can hardly be regarded as the government’s priority, nor is the money spent at home where votes are at stake). My boundless juvenile admiration for Thatcher was based solely on her attainment of power (to maintain that I was politically naïve at that stage in my life would be extremely charitable). However, her ascent was not without cost. The sobriquet Iron Lady betokened her defeminisation: such a creature could not be soft, tender, yielding, kind or maternal. The metallic, robot-like associations emphasised her hard, cold, ruthless, bossy, domineering side (as did her predilection for “handbagging” her opponents), the underlying message of her aberrant nature (having renounced all womanly attributes) that femaleness and power don’t mix.
Maushart fails to address the age factor as an incentive for “working at” a marriage, which to my mind further saps the will to fight for improvement: “For many women, the simple answer may be that they would rather live with wifework than without it – in the belief that living without it would mean living without marriage, and possibly without men, altogether. (…) it seems to me that so many women are willing to settle for the wifework contract not because they believe it’s fair, but because deep down they don’t believe there’s an alternative. Choosing to remain married, they may ultimately and not at all unwisely decide, is choosing to compromise” (p214). I would call this acquiescence, this “making do”, inertia (to which I am not immune). Inertia does have its compensations, especially where the relationship is not falling apart at the seams. It can be like settling into a comfortable old armchair. However, it can contrive to keep you in a relationship that has gone stale and brittle like old bread. The fear of being rejected, of being “past it” intensifies with the passing of the years. What can crudely be dubbed the “market value” (sexual attractiveness) of a woman diminishes with age, although, in theory at least, a “good worker” would be a “good prospect” at any age. Indeed, domestic responsibilities for the housewife do not miraculously disappear with age, not even on retirement from paid employment – when the husband might be “getting under her feet” (to quote my Mother’s lament, although she also complained bitterly about “the bloody ambulance” [my Father was a volunteer Red Cross trainer for 33 years and a St. Andrew’s Ambulance Association First Aid provider at outdoor and other events for the last seven] and my Father’s obsession with it, her being left alone in the evenings the result and his destruction of the front garden, digging up the lawn and replacing it with gravel so that he could park the vehicle without blocking the driveway shared with the neighbours) to a greater extent. One of her fridge magnets encapsulates the reality succinctly: “Just when a Mother thinks her work is done she becomes a Grandmother”. The exorbitant cost of child-care and chronic shortage of funded nursery places have forced many less well-off working mothers to rely on the family network. Where children can be dropped off in the knowledge that their well-being is not at risk, nursery opening hours do not take proper account of the length of shifts or that women too might have careers (as opposed to part-time, “pin money” jobs). I digress. Society deems that men and women age differently. This is at its most conspicuous in relation to fertility. To quote from Jenny Hockey and Allison James: “By contrast with older women, whose recent access to new reproductive technologies and post-menopausal pregnancy has attracted scathing criticism, the persistence of a sexualised identity into later life among men has been endorsed by Viagra. Indeed, this extension of a sexualised identity, including the capacity to procreate, is seen as a cause for celebration rather than concern, even though children born to men at the very end of their lives are unlikely to receive their social or emotional support as death may quickly intercede” (Social Identities across the Life Course, Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills, 2003, pp150-1). A famous example of paternity well into old age was that of Charlie Chaplin. Contrast this with the coverage of retired university lecturer Adrienne Iliescu’s delight at falling pregnant with twins after ten years’ worth of treatment at age 67 (The Times voiced the thought lurking at the back of many people’s minds when it recorded: “She added that she was optimistic about her future as a mother, claiming that her family had a history of longevity”). The assumption behind the unwillingness to embrace the new technology wholeheartedly is that the man is expendable – if he snuffs it, the children will still have someone left to tend to them. In other words, a woman is presumed to be hovering in the background – a younger wife ready to step in when baby gets too fractious or too heavy to dandle on his ancient knee. The repugnance at ageing females reflected in the imagery of drying out (wizened old crone, prune face) is bound up with the reproductive cycle. The deleterious effects on post-menopausal women’s sexual desirability is of course socially determined. Being surrounded by a gaggle of simpering, lissom blondes continues to be one of the trappings of success irrespective of a man’s chronological age, whereas a woman is “over the hill” at forty (if she’s lucky and is still fairly trim). The boundaries are slowly being pushed back, however, and the inversion of the demographic pyramid may yet act as an agent of change for the better. Sexual activity amongst the elderly is no longer frowned upon to the same extent (although sleeping arrangements in retirement homes usually segregate the sexes). Indeed, keeping fit and aerobics (which could easily be subsumed under wifework) prolong one’s sexual marketability by preserving a youthful body. All too often though frail old ladies are elbowed aside as a nuisance and greeted with unconcealed impatience in the post-office or checkout queue when they do not melt into invisibility altogether.
Maushart predicts that divorce rates will keep on soaring: “We are so accustomed to thinking of marriage as something women need to do, a favour that men might or might not bestow, that we have not yet assimilated how decisively the balance of power has shifted, how far the ‘economy of gratitude’ has been redistributed between the genders. If the institution is to survive, marriage will have to become ‘fun for the woman’ as well, in ways entirely unprecedented in human history. If men cannot manage that, then it will increasingly be the case that women cannot manage marriage” (p230).
As the comparison between Oakley and Maushart’s respective diagnoses of the phenomenon of unremunerated labour in the home shows we are – sadly – still waiting for the breakthrough in spite of the protestations of non-culpability on both sides of the gender divide.
Just how deeply unfashionable housework has become in the meantime is shown by its treatment in the media. For example, the results of a study carried out by Professor Daniel Kahneman, Princeton University, originally published in the journal Science (A Survey Method for Characterizing Daily Life Experience: The Day Reconstruction Method, Vol. 306) made it into the tabloids. The research involved 909 employed women filling in questionnaires in which they had to jot down a brief outline of what they had done the previous day. The average age of the women in the sample was 38 and the average household income $30,000 (note that no mention was made of how much she contributed to the total). Each activity was given a rating, from zero (not at all enjoyed) to six (very much enjoyed).
An article in the right-wing Daily Mail [which I occasionally dip into to remind myself of how precious my core values are by scanning a paper that glorifies their antithesis] summarised the findings as follows: “In an ideal world, a busy woman would love to spend more time with her spouse.
But in the real world, he falls well down the list.
When it comes to her favourite things to do, she much prefers socialising with friends [cf. Maushart’s observation: “In one study, wives were twice as likely as husbands to describe a relationship with a best friend as ‘the person closest to them’. In another, 64 per cent of married women said they were more emotionally intimate with other women than with their husbands. Other research has shown that wives are less likely to talk over problems exclusively with their spouse. Husbands, by contrast, are far more likely to name their wives as their best friends or most trusted confidantes. The conclusion is inescapable. As far as intimacy goes, men get what they need from marriage – either because women happen to give so much or because men happen to need very little”, op. cit, pp81-2].
Then there are eating, exercising and slouching [note the value-judgement laden choice of verb] in front of the TV.
Only then comes her husband or boyfriend – and that’s just because she prefers spending time with him to doing the shopping and working.
And it turns out she only marginally prefers spending time with the children to doing the housework or even commuting.
The findings suggest that while many women dream of domestic bliss, the reality of family life is often very different”.
And: “Being alone emerged as the least favourite way to pass the time (3.4), followed by commuting or being with the boss (both 3.5), working (3.6) and doing housework (3.7)”.
The word “housewife” conjures up an image of a 1950s-style perfectly coiffured, miraculously manicured woman clad in an apron with pockets, pushing the vacuum cleaner with a cheerful grin showing off her flawless pearly white teeth, brisk and efficient, mindlessly cheerful. I used to look down on housewives as pampered, lazy parasites who had never been required to develop their intellectual faculties (partly motivated by envy as I too had fallen under the spell of the dominant paradigm about housework not being work and knew that I would never be able to afford the luxury of releasing myself from the obligation to earn a wage). Brillo pads, Mr. Sheen, Brasso, scouring powder, bleach, chemicals poured down the plughole (the public information film admonition against putting Paraquat in lemonade bottles under the sink as baby might drink them replays in my mind’s eye) and disinfectants her paraphernalia. Nowadays clean is not clean anyway – the housewife must banish not only visible dirt, but menacing, unseen bacteria must be also be extirpated (cf. Germaine Greer’s wonderfully sardonic: “A mythical battle has to be waged by the houseworker against germs, depicted as intelligent beings of deviant appearance lurking under the rim of the toilet ready to infect helpless kiddies if the houseworker should be so remiss as to allow a single one to survive. There are more ‘germs’ in her mouth and under her fingernails and in her hair than there are under the rim of the toilet, but the houseworker is not told this. Her vocation is to rid the world of germs with the aid of a knight in shining armour, a genie in a bottle, a white tornado. This is housework as heroic exploit. The houseworker can only know that she has done her duty when she has squirted bleach-based agents into every nook and cranny of her house, even down the drains. Houses no longer smell of cooking; they smell of cleaning” in The Whole Woman, Doubleday, London, 1999, pp131-2).
I decided to subject our domestic idyll to critical scrutiny. The Hungarian oozes self-confidence, secure in his masculinity. Circumstances dictate that he must stay at home, thrusting me into the traditional breadwinner role. I do not want to fall into the trap of discounting his non-monetary input: he is far cheaper than G’s nanny could have been (purchasing the house was predicated on the massive saving made by having him around when G comes back from school).
We have “outsourced” (Maushart) most of the boring slog to our cleaning lady (funding her studies). The main drawback to relying on her services is that she does not rinse the dishes, leaving an unpleasant taste of washing up liquid on the cups and plates. I have no intention of wasting water or ripping out my fitted enamel cupboards by investing in a machine. Germaine Greer discusses another gender-based double standard with customary frankness in conjunction with this unavoidable chore: “The men who leave ziggurats of dirty dishes festering in the sink are actually involved in a power play which they have no intention of losing. All they need is to exploit inertia and wait it out. Sooner or later the woman will give in, because the squalor is not held against the menfolk but against her. A man who is slovenly and untidy is considered normal; the woman who is either is a slut or a slommack or a sloven or a slag. A woman who is dirty is dirt. The external attribute becomes a moral quality, as it does not for a man. This works both ways; a house-proud woman equates her spotless house with her virtuous self and derives her sense of self-worth from the orderliness of her cupboards rather than qualities of her mind or soul”, op. cit, p134). Whenever she is on holiday or sitting exams, the Hungarian relents and does the washing up (related to his cooking duties). In his words: “Washing the dishes doesn’t make me less of a man, it’s a question of intelligence”.
The cleaning lady also mops and vacuums the cherry-wood parquet in the living room and bedroom as well as the hallway floors. After her weekly visit the washbasins and bathtub gleam. The length of her absences can be read from the toothpaste stains, tidemarks and the build up of hair around the plughole. Yes, it’s true that plastic filters can be fitted to prevent such inconveniences, but then the cleaning lady would be deprived of the opportunity to squirt the notorious De-Stop, a liquid so noxious it was employed by a local serial killer to dissolve the hacked remains of his victims – bones, teeth, the lot, into the dark orifice. At his trial, forensic experts at his trial gave a demonstration to the jury using parts of a bovine carcass. The dust on TV screen and my brother’s “Wash Me” message on the living room window pane (written with a saliva-wetted finger in the first week of July) betray that we do not expect her to do everything.
I collect the empty plastic Coke and Irn Bru bottles as well as the Spa Fruits of the Forest mini-cartons with straws, which the Hungarian and G leave lying around – squatting next to the computer or the red top protruding from underneath the sofa – and deposit them in the blue bag for recycling when I cannot abide the mess any longer. My own still mineral water is always thrown out as soon as last drop is poured into my plump glass. They don’t really pay heed to tidiness and neither do I for the most part (I tolerate the disorganised stacks of DVDs in front of the player – though that is due more to my acute awareness of the chronic lack of shelf space).
I remember my trips to the launderette during my single mother years with a shudder. I would stuff the bags full of vomit-dribbled romper suits and musty socks on to the tray beneath the pushchair (my Grandfather’s last gift) and walk the twenty minute distance come rain or shine. On arrival I would cajole the machine into coughing up change for the tokens to buy sachets of powder and fabric softener (preferable to lugging a box, which might get soaked underway in inclement weather) as well as for the slot in the washing machine and tumbler drier. Although I never failed to arm myself with a tome, I rarely had the chance to read as planned. Many of the other women insisted on smoking (replacing the fragrance of flower meadows with eye-watering smoke) and chatting. I had to keep G entertained (a problem I also encountered every time I had to forage for food in the supermarket, all in all a physically arduous experience without a car). Now when the laundry-basket is full or when I need work clothes prior to departing on a mission, I pile the dirty clothes in, add the powder in the pull out compartment, choose the settings and switch it on. The Hungarian drapes the soggy garments over the clothes horse in the freezing hallway between the garage and the bathroom. I am always reminded of my Mother’s preference for fresh air over mechanical drying – it was not a superstition, she was right about the freshness. If he is distracted (you could be forgiven for mistaking him for a bio-extension of the computer, attached at the keyboard), I need to remind him, sometimes more than once when it has a stale, sour smell, having started to rot in the metal drum. He also has to remove the dry clothes to make space on the horse. It would never occur to him to fold or sort them; they are instead unceremoniously dumped in a massive heap on one of the chairs in the living-room (which nobody can use to sit in as a result). I retrieve my own tops, knickers and other items and assign them to the relevant mound in front of the bookshelves in the bedroom, folding the work ones. He and G haul items from the chair assortment as necessary – permanently creased and wrinkled. My Mother and Father splashed out on an ironing board and iron for me when I moved into my first flat in Waffleland. I never used them more than once or twice (I don’t wear blouses precisely because they require ironing) and when we escaped the city for the leafy suburbs we didn’t lug them with us. The Hungarian periodically complains (usually when G cannot find his gym kit or runs out of clean socks) that G should take his trousers, T-shirts and fleeces up to his room and put them away neatly in the drawers– blind to the inconsistency of his reaction (G is merely taking a leaf out of his book). We are very utilitarian when it comes to clothes. The Hungarian has two pairs of jeans, which he alternates until they split or wear out. I too have a limited number of outfits, which I swap intermittently. I have to dispatch G and the Hungarian to the casuals warehouse (less than five minute’s walk away) to ensure he has decent gear to put on, otherwise he would be perfectly unabashed about wearing tatty old rags, which the school authorities would interpret as a sign of neglect. Neither of them is fussy about how they dress. I spent a fortune on a beautiful tailored overcoat for the Hungarian and a pair of expensive brogues to match. Only once when we were invited to an ambassador’s party did he slip into them (in the case of the shoes I absolve him, as his feet bleed from a stray nail digging into his flesh, a condition exacerbated by tight footwear). They often seem allergic to smartness.
G wouldn’t even flush the toilet at one stage and I would be confronted by the unedifying sight of a brown aura of suspended particles around the deposit. Nor has his aim always been accurate: “Mindent össze-vissza huggyozik a gyerek!” [“The kid is pissing all over the place!”] the Hungarian would cry in exasperation. If the cleaning lady has not come for a fortnight it smells like a public convenience and I leave the disciplinary supervision of the wiping up to my other half.
The Hungarian also does the necessity shop. If I feel like a stroll by the wine racks and frozen peas I accompany him (very rarely the case). He brings in the carrier bags and he and G put away the spoils in the fridge or on the kitchen surfaces (never in the cupboards, although, to be fair, there isn’t much room next to the pots, pans and unused teapots).
He likewise deals with placating G’s teachers and representing the family at parents’ night.
We don’t make the beds because we each have a separate duvet (until very recently I snuggled beneath a Pierre Cardin sleeping bag with a broken zip). When I cannot endure looking at the patches of leaked menstrual blood and other unmentionable blotches any longer, I encourage the Hungarian to strip the sheet off the mattress and wash it.
As far as the dust under the futon is concerned (the acid test of who will crack first), the cleaning lady will vacuum it once a year or so. The reason why the bookshelves do not call for more than a swift running over with a cloth is that most hold a double row of volumes.
Cooking. For breakfast I usually wait until I arrive at work (an allongé and a couque au chocolat my staples), as I am seldom hungry on getting up (I have to leave before G in the mornings to catch the bus). The Hungarian used to make him bacon and eggs (it was a short-lived phase, as G takes after me– we have tried every means to coax him into eating, cereals of every description, from chocolate-coated flakes to sugar puffs, which he inevitably tires of within the space of a week). Currently he sets off with a multi-vitamin tablet and “fortified” juice to keep him going. We only ever breakfast together at weekends or during holidays. The Hungarian goes to the baker’s for fresh rolls and spicy tuna or whatever filling we ask for. I brew my own coffee – he can sometimes be persuaded to join me. When he does, the mug is filled almost to the brim with whole milk, leaving it colder in temperature than I can bear to sip it. This is how he copes with its weakness, an electric jolt of espresso his true preference. Dinner is the one meal we sit down together for on an almost daily basis. We do, however, have a higher proportion of take-aways in our diet than would be conducive to our health (a problem compounded in my case with regular work-dictated travel, necessitating reliance on hotel room service and restaurants in general). Whenever he is out repairing a computer or otherwise engaged (normally in game design) we are left to our own devices, which boils down to nagging him to pick up the phone and place an order with the Indian or the Thai once the rumbling tummy can be ignored no longer (the predilection for spicy dishes is something we have in common – G’s Ethiopian nanny was an excellent cook and spoiled us with her homemade n’gera and rich hot sauces).
I have eschewed all “feminine” handicrafts such as knitting, sewing and embroidery since Mrs. Clucky’s reign of terror in primary. Every time a lesson with the ill-tempered battle-axe was scheduled, I would come down with mysterious stomach aches or bronchitis attacks. She would rap your knuckles hard with a wooden ruler if you did not stitch quickly enough for her liking and she took it into her head that I was a shirker. I never did master the art of purl (as opposed to plain stitch) and developed a scathing contempt for all non-academic subjects. “Home Economics” (by which gender-appropriate behaviour and ambitions were bludgeoned into us) with its cooking and cleaning tips I dismissed as a particular waste of time once I reached secondary. Until then, my Father dutifully consumed the dishes I prepared (reheated omelettes, iced buns and flat sponges), feigning appreciation so as not to hurt my feelings. For a brief interlude in Primary Seven my teacher allowed me to do woodwork and I became quite handy with a fretsaw.
My Mother kept the house scrupulously clean. One of the indicators of her declining health in my Father’s eyes was that she had lost all interest in it. He didn’t mind that she had delegated the maintenance to him: it was more that it laid bare her state of mind. He tried to cajole her into tagging along with him on excursions to the supermarket for the sake of the exercise, but to no avail. I am deeply ashamed that I rarely lifted a finger to help her when she was still radiant with well-being until I was converted to Christianity as a teenager (in the sect’s parlance “born again”). My reasoning along the lines that if I were to set an example of ungrumbling virtue it might assist in converting them. So I would hang out and take in the washing, vacuum downstairs and help her to make the beds. She never uttered a complaint about the mind-numbing drudgery and always thanked me for drying the dishes. I used to joke that she had “asbestos hands” as she held them under the running hot water whilst peeling the tatties, carrots and neeps, a tape playing in the background, or a quiz on the local radio station. She was always on the go: dusting the glass-fronted cabinet with its glass shelves, ornaments and china, polishing, kneeling on a mat to scrub the kitchen linoleum. When the carpet was to be shampooed she rented the equipment. It was a treat to drive with her to “do the messages” [shopping] (or take the bus when I was younger). She always bought me magazines. Weeding the garden, watering the flowers, growing (and stewing) the rhubarb and the tomatoes in the greenhouse she counted as relaxation.
I was vehemently opposed to marriage and childbirth (to the extent that I refused my rubella vaccination when I turned 16 on the grounds that I had no intention of ever becoming pregnant), both of which I regarded as equivalent to a lobotomy. When my Father berated me for failing to do my share of the chores I retorted that in later life I would pay someone to do them for me, which is precisely how it turned out (although at the time it seemed like an impossible and therefore impertinent goal). I stuck to that line of defence and he eventually gave up – it became one of the yardsticks by which I measured my subsequent success (the other being the mortgage – my Granny Wilkie, Granddad, parents and brother all live(d) in rented accommodation).
The right to be exempted from housework is still very much a part of the cultural construction of (heterosexual) masculinity. The Hungarian voiced his scepticism over the “housework conspiracy” thus: “Don’t explain with sexism what you can explain with sheer laziness”. The impotent rage that filled me in the wake of THAK’s “drowning episode” has convinced me that the male refusal to intervene except under duress is nothing other than pure power play. He was pretending to watch a film on television as a pretext for ignoring my increasingly desperate requests to the effect that even if he did not want to bathe the bawling G himself he could at least take over for a minute or two whilst I organised the clean nappy and towels. Too frightened to take out his displeasure on me directly, he inflicted it on a helpless infant too young to support its own head, submerging him while his tiny limbs flailed and his face turned bright red. Appalled and terrified that he would drop G or bang his skull, I begged him to give him back. Once he had made his point, he relented. Our relationship died that afternoon.
To their credit, none of my gay friends suffer from the curious masculine aversion to housework. Whereas it is correct that they have a higher proportion of disposable income to spend on ladies to do the ironing and cleaning as well as on dishwashers, I have by the same token never heard any of them gripe and their dwellings are always immaculate. An article (A Neat Solution) in the Independent [my newspaper of choice] from 14th July 2004 corroborates my experience: “(…) a recent survey by Outlet, an accommodation agency targeted at gay and lesbian tenants, found that 67 per cent of landlords would prefer gay tenants to their straight counterparts. The landlords surveyed said gay and lesbian tenants were more ‘easy-going, clean and open-minded’”. The journalist interviewed John Wilson, a customer service assistant at London Underground, himself gay: “Wilson agrees that gay people make better tenants. ‘Because they’re quite image-conscious, they keep a tidy house. Gay people tend to be more sociable too, so when you bring people home you are very houseproud. Also, in financial terms, most gay people are professionals and only have themselves to support, so that’s a plus for landlords’”.
Who could forget the wonderfully subversive Freddy Mercury in the video for I Want to Break Free (the setting selected to go with the title no coincidence) as he pushed the vacuum cleaner in his curler-strewn wig, clinging pink top and false boobs, thigh-exposing skin-tight black leather miniskirt and fishnets – the perfect illustration of domination and its sexualisation? He winks at the camera, he can escape, he’s only playing at the role temporarily. Annie Lennox in the Beethoven video for the Eurythmics by contrast attempts to convey how being a housewife can drive a woman to distraction. In a plaited navy skirt, hideous (and frumpy) floral print blouse and drab, mousy wig she knits, folds a turquoise hand towel discarded on the bedcover, draping it over the rack in the bathroom, takes the Ajax to the washbasin, wipes the cabinet doors and the floor tiles, plumps the pillows, arranges the flowers in the vase, polishes the shelves, vacuums the rugs, chops cucumber and carrots and sticks skewers at weird angles into a corncob (all three phallic vegetables). In the meantime, a pre-pubescent girl smears lipstick on at the dressing-table before skipping around wreaking havoc, unpicking the knitting, knocking the record collection to the carpet, scribbling with crayon all over the cupboards. She symbolises the untamed anarchy of the rebellious little girl in all of us, whose naughtiness has been painstakingly suppressed. The inner tension of the housewife is expressed by Lennox rocking back and forth whilst clutching a cushion and wandering from room to room. The moment of meltdown is signified by her transformation into a disobedient sex goddess, her make-up employing the same colour-scheme of the girl and her new white-blonde shock of a wig set off by her low-cut, slinky, supremely impractical gown. Cackling with maniacal laughter, she empties the contents of the dust-bag everywhere, ecstatically tottering on her heels, scattering cornflakes from an open packet as if it were champagne froth. The clip closes with her walking along the street in her new garb, confident, sleek and feline.