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A Christian at the “Final Feminist Frontier”—Housework

by Melanie Springer Mock

(With responses from Kendra Weddle Irons and Letha Dawson Scanzoni)

Woman with Cleaning SuppliesAs I write this from my office on a Friday afternoon, with next week’s classes to be planned, a ton of grading to grind through, and a book review to write, my thoughts have turned to housekeeping. More specifically, the keeping of my house, since we are having dinner guests, and I haven’t been home since early this morning, after my boys were awake but before they’d climbed from beneath their warm covers to wreck havoc on our home.

What will I find on the floors and couches and hallway table after I get home and before I start cooking dinner? Why will I be the one in our family who takes to tidying the house? And why, for the love of God, will I be the one judged negatively if the bathroom floor isn’t properly cleaned?

Because current writing on housework argues, convincingly, that a wife will still be blamed for a messy house, not her spouse or other family members. It’s an argument I’ve been having with my husband for years: when he has buddies over for a game night, and claims I don’t need to clean up, I do anyway, certain that if I leave stray little boy socks in the hallway or toys cluttering the stairs, I will take the fall for detritus that is not, after all, mine.

And now research supports my assertion. According to a recent article in the New Republic, house cleaning is “The Final Feminist Frontier.” Jessica Grose provides evidence there showing that Arlie Hochschild’s Second Shift is alive and well; and that moms employed outside the home still do at least 1.5 weeks of housework per year more than their male partners. While men are still doing more household chores than previous generations, they do not contribute what we would assume their fair share, and—Grose argues—are more likely to complete tasks considered more palatable: playing with the kids, making dinner. Meaning, I guess, women are still relegated to cleaning the toilets.

Grose offers several suggestions in her article about what men and women can do to make housecleaning less “the final feminist frontier” and marriages as egalitarian in deed as they now are in name. Her advice? Apply economic theory to household chores, dividing up tasks according to competitive advantage. Or, women might lower their “filth threshold,” rather than holding their partners to higher standards. Finally, her article suggests making cleaning more “fun” for men by providing gadgets that make tasks more interesting.

Which makes me wonder: When do women also get gadgets to make cleaning more fun? (Or maybe the automatic dishwasher was supposed to do that?)

In a response to Grose’s article, New York’s Jonathan Chait expands on Grose’s idea about filth thresholds, saying women just need to get over their cleaning fetishes, lower their standards, and do less housework. He writes, “Women in general just have higher standards of cleanliness than men do. People who care a lot about neater homes spend more time cleaning them because that makes them happy.” His answer seems to be that women need to leave the socks and toys and dirty dishes where they land, because women who want true equality need to “try living like men” and “put down the duster.”

Chait’s generalizations about men and their messes not withstanding, he forgets an important component of the housework “frontier.” As Slate writer Emily Shire points out, women will often be blamed for a house in disarray, arguing “Before Chait begins telling women how easy it is to let go of their uptight tidiness and lower their standards for clean living, he should think hard about who’s going to be judged for all that sloppiness. And then maybe he should pick up the duster.”

This is a point Grose also explores in her article. Although men and women may share household duties (or the lack of same), a woman will be more likely blamed for the state of her home. According to Grosse, this reality actually dissuades men from wanting to share the load because the converse is also true: if a man cleans the entire home top to bottom, the woman is more often credited.

What seems to reside at the heart of these arguments, and the multitude of responses they inspired, is the perception that the domestic realm remains a woman’s, even in egalitarian marriages, even in marriages where a man actually does most of the housework. This perception is fueled by a number of forces, including traditional understanding of gender, but also popular culture; as Grose argues, advertisements for cleaning products are overwhelmingly pitched to women, so much so that a commercial about Tide, starring a man, is lauded for its unique casting.

As a Christian, a spouse, and a mother who longs for her family to be happy, healthy, and comfortable, I suppose I should see the house tasks I complete as a servant’s work, part of the way I express love to those I care about most. At least I think this is what I should do, which makes me feel extra doses of guilt each time I begrudgingly shove another load of clothes into the wash, or pick up shoes from the hallway for the zillionth time—shoes my husband and my boys have walked right over without really seeing or caring that they are a potential stumbling hazard.

So I probably should be more of a joyful servant. But then I get irritated when I read things like this: an article from Prodigal magazine, castigating “feminist sisters” for being “too angry to serve others.” According to the author, Emily Wierenga, we are to bless others with our service, including our housework, because Jesus modeled true servanthood for us. In reading her article, my skin crawled, in part because I wondered: should our Christian brothers be called to the same kind of service? But then maybe my feminist anger makes it hard for me to read with clarity.

So here we are, at what is apparently the “last feminist frontier.” Should this Christian feminist just suck it up and put another load in the laundry? Should she find ways to make cleaning more “fun” for her family? Lower her cleaning threshold, and accept whatever judgment may come? Or swallow her anger and bless her family with service to them?

What say you, Letha and Kendra?

 

Fear Sustains the Housekeeping Myth, but It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way — A Response by Kendra Weddle Irons

Dirty Dishes in a Kitchen SinkWhile Melanie may have written her post from her serene office wondering what state of cleanliness she would find her home to be in when she returned from her day on campus, I am writing mine from the my kitchen table that hasn’t seen a rag in I don’t know how long; the kitchen countertop is buried under a barrage of papers, electronic devices, my school bag, and who knows what else; the floor hasn’t been mopped in ages. I could go on, but you get the picture. My house is a veritable pig sty.

And truth be told, as Melanie lamented, house work is considered by most, even in the 21st century, to be women’s work. But more than that: God’s ordained women’s work. I was reminded of the power of this traditional framework this week when I flipped through the pages of Mark and Grace Driscoll’s popular book, Real Marriage: The Truth about Sex, Friendship & Life Together where they address the potential challenge of having frequent sex when the wife is exhausted, the demands of childcare and cooking and cleaning taking their toll. So, here is their advice to men in such a case:

“Men, we can also help our wives by serving them, especially if they are working outside the home or have children who can take forever to get down for bed. This may include, if finances permit, a housekeeper or other help to free up some of your wife’s energy. And if your spouse is willing to be together but very tired, you can be the one who does much of the work in lovemaking on those occasions.” (168)

Confirming Melanie’s assertion, the advice here is do anything except what would actually solve the problem: see housekeeping as a shared responsibility.

But while we expect this position by those promoting a complementarian approach to marriage like the Driscolls, the tacit endorsement of housecleaning and childrearing as women’s work obviously plagues our entire society, resulting in women bearing the continual brunt of this reality in secular and religious homes, in complementarian and egalitarian marriages. As Sheryl Sandberg writes in Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, many women have serious doubts about their abilities to “have it all” because they have grown up watching their mothers struggle to maintain family-work balance.

I’m sure there are several supposed “answers” to Melanie’s question, but truthfully, I feel ill-equipped to address them because I do not have children to add to the time demands that women have. And, knowing first-hand how much Melanie accomplishes any given day is so far beyond my comprehension I just feel at a loss to add anything worth noting.

On the other hand, I have recently been reading Sandberg’s book and her insight could be useful, at least as a place for further conversation.

The first assertion Sandberg and others make is that the United States is woefully behind most other industrialized countries in our family-leave policies and this essentially works to penalize women who are mothers. We need to continue to put pressure on politicians to change this system that is structured to reward men in their careers while punishing women both in terms of maternity leave but also in the day-to-day challenges of day-care or after-school care or “what-in-the-world-do-I-do-with-3-months-of-summer-vacation?”care. In this inattentiveness to the demands of a contemporary society built upon the working presence of women and men, the U.S. is reaping what we have sown: an abundance of male politicians who have failed to take seriously the lives and experiences of women, resulting in policies that largely reflect this indifference or lack of awareness.

And while it would be easy to place this blame entirely at the feet of our representative imbalance, there is additional blame to be placed squarely at the feet of our educators and of women in general who have failed to remember and to build upon the suffrage leaders who gave so much, who were willing to endure being ostracized, who were rejected by family and friends and who, in some cases, were jailed (and went on hunger strikes) for their activism. (By the way, if you have not watched the film Iron-Jawed Angels about the suffrage movement, I hope you will and will show it to as many young women as you can.) In our failure to remember by embracing our foremothers’ activism, we have essentially enjoyed the benefits they created without extending this legacy to those who will follow in our shoes.

Our struggle, though, is not entirely to be embraced on the political field, it also challenges each of us within our own families and is individual and personal. Here, Sandberg says women need to acknowledge how often they are held back because of fear. This fear is the result of our own internalization of society’s stereotypes which we uncritically accept as a barrier to our success in the workplace. And so, we need to realize where these fears originate and decide to move beyond them. We can resolve that these (false) limitations will not hold us back.

It’s true that in our recognition of stereotypes, we often make them self-fulfilling prophecies: “I know people will judge me for our filthy home; I feel solely responsible for the cleanliness of this home; I am the one who failed to keep it clean; it is my fault.”

I think Sandberg would say: acknowledge this fear of disapproval and then decide you are not going to accept it as yours any longer.

This sounds pretty harsh, especially when surrounded by lots of people who you think are judging your clutter and store-purchased meals. However, I imagine that in many cases what one may think is a judgmental attitude is more likely someone feeling a little jealous; someone amazed like I am by the monumental amount of stuff women, like Melanie, accomplish each day all while rearing children.

My guess is that most people are not judging women for a messy house so much as wishing they would have considered the plethora of opportunities available to them had they not rejected such possibilities as incompatible with God’s plan.

 

Women and Housework: Understanding and Challenging the Expectations — A Response by Letha Dawson Scanzoni

Darning a SockWhen I was engaged to be married, my future mother-in-law sat me down one day and told me I must learn to darn my future husband’s socks. She said she would teach me how to do it (and she did!), since she was in essence passing him on to my care.

This was during the second half of the 1950s. A woman’s destiny was to care for “her man” and all his needs. The message came from religion, education, government, business and the professions, women’s magazines, advertisements, and just about everywhere else: a woman’s highest calling was to be a homemaker, keeping her home tidy and her husband and children happy. If she were poor and had to work in a factory or clean houses, she was still expected to keep up her own homemaking tasks. If she were middle-class, social norms dictated that she could be employed outside the home only to earn extra “pin money,”or for helping put her husband through college, or perhaps taking on temporary employment in an emergency situation. But always, she must remember that caring for her home and family must be primary.

During the 1960s and 1970s, we women began waking up to the unfairness of the setup; and even though some men joined in and talked about the inequities, all too little changed in the housework situation. So this “final feminist frontier” is still being discussed today, as Melanie pointed out in her opening post.

The “practical”side of the issue: who decides?
During the three years that I wrote another intergenerational blog called 72-27 with Kimberly George, we discussed this topic many times. (See, for example, “More about Gender-Based Division of Labor in the Home.”) In one post, I pointed out that any time two adults share a home and might also be raising children, those adults, (whether a gay or straight couple, or grandparents thrust into the responsibility of raising their grandchildren, or two friends sharing an apartment to divide up expenses) will have to work out a division of labor that keeps the household running smoothly. “It has to be something that works for them,” I wrote, “for their individual situation — not dictated from the outside” (from 72-27, “Work-Family Balance: 1950s and Now”)

But here’s the problem. It often seems easier to adopt a ready-made solution to how household labor is assigned than it is to work out an arrangement tailored to the unique situation of a particular family—especially if the “ready-made solution” from the outside is said to have originated in the “natural qualities” of certain categories of persons or because it was established by Divine decree!

What happens in families also happens in societies. If there’s a belief that certain categories of persons are born into a certain status for a certain purpose, that belief can be used to justify the assignment of drudge work to those who were “created to do it”— the serfs and slaves of a society. Think of India’s old caste system. Or think about the ideology of the “great chain of being,” which included assigning persons to higher and lower rankings on what was considered a “scale of nature,” a prearranged hierarchy ranging from angels down to the smallest particles of matter. It was a popular idea during the 18th and 19th centuries and was used, for example, to declare the innate superiority of white Europeans (higher ranking on the scale) and inferiority of black Africans (lower ranking), thereby justifying slavery.

Order is what matters in this way of thinking, and order is established by adhering to a preordained arrangement. When people know their places and their predetermined assignments, the work gets done and the status quo is maintained.

This hierarchical division of labor, based on one’s placement by birth according to a “natural” ranking, is today largely rejected in societies that at least give lip service to the idea of choice and social mobility . But, societies aside, when it comes to the smaller unit of heterosexual marriages, the belief of a predetermined natural order continues to prevail, with the wife primarily responsible for cooking, housecleaning, laundry, childcare, and the like.

Religious reinforcement for a traditional division of labor
To drive home the point, many Christians emphasize that a wife’s household duties are assigned to her by God. They eagerly point to Scripture passages such as Genesis 2:20-24; 3:16 ; Proverbs 31:10-31 (especially verse 27: “She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.”); and Titus 2:3-5.

In their Ain’t I a Woman blog, Kendra and Melanie have often pointed out the misleading way many conservative Christians are using these and other Bible passages to buttress female subordination arguments by disregarding the historical/cultural contexts of such passages and ignoring other passages and interpretations that promote gender equality.

One way Christians have attempted to “sweeten” the expectation that women are the ones who will work a “second shift” of evening household chores after finishing an all-day “first shift” in paid employment, is to emphasize that by performing these chores a woman is following Jesus’ example of servanthood. After all, even the lowliest task can be done “for the glory of God” in the spirit of 1 Corinthians 10:31.

And yes, of course, there is great truth in viewing any kind of work as honorable and a means of serving God. With respect to taking her turns for kitchen duty, St. Teresa of Avila wrote that “God walks even among the pots and pipkins (small cooking vessels).” Brother Lawrence, in his 17th century Christian classic The Practice of the Presence of God, shared his personal habit of viewing everyday chores like cleaning, cooking, and washing dishes as a means of constant communion with God.

But these examples of voluntary servanthood are about the personal inner attitudes of individuals, not something imposed from the outside on a whole category of people based on their race, socioeconomic class, or gender. Yet, history provides plenty of examples in which those in power persuade those with little or no power that the drudge work they’ve been assigned is part of God’s plan for them.

During the period of slavery in the United States, preachers and masters alike made sure slaves heard Bible passages like Ephesians 6:5-6. And I’ve read that later on, these same verses were actually framed and hung on the walls of domestic servant quarters in homes that employed live-in hired help.

There were other reminders, too, that serving the wealthy in the right spirit was to be considered service for God. It is said that John D. Rockefeller Sr. especially liked a poem written in the 1920s from the standpoint of a maid who, lacking time for sacred practices and rituals such as early vigils and “storming heaven’s gates,” instead prayed that “the Lord of pots and pipkins” would “make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates.” In another stanza of the poem,”The Divine Office of the Kitchen,” the servant girl pretends she is making music for God as she scrubs a “so hard to clean” frying pan, pretending it is a violin.

By not questioning the setup, women can be enablers, perpetuating it
On the evening news last weekend, I heard about former volleyball star Gabrielle Reece’s public assertions that a woman’s strengths come through submission. Her statements have attracted considerable attention and discussion. According to the UK’s Daily Mail:

“Reece, who married surfer Laird Hamilton 17 years ago in Hawaii, says ‘I’m clearly the female; Laird’s clearly the male. I’m willing and I choose to serve the family, which means dinner and laundry and organizing his schedule as well as my schedule and other things.’”

She emphasizes she does all these things by choice.

I, too, did all the household drudgery tasks for more than a quarter of a century of marriage. Cooked every meal from scratch, did every load of laundry (including washing cloth diapers on an old wringer-washing machine and drying them outside on a line or on a wooden folding rack indoors), scrubbed and waxed kitchen floors, often on my hands and knees, and would have said sincerely that I did it all by choice and out of love for my family and as part of my responsibilities as a Christian wife and mother.

But I wonder now how much it really was by free choice. How much was it because of societal expectations (so strong in the 1950s and ‘60s) and the approval that comes from fulfilling those expectations? Was I convinced that only by fulfilling those expectations (reinforced by Christian teachings) could I give myself permission to devote time and energy to my writing and speaking career, which I loved so much, and allow myself to intellectually embrace feminist ideals without being concerned about being judged? Was I trying to “have it all” by “doing it all”?

I understand totally what Melanie was saying. I remember the pastor of the church we attended at the time stopping by to visit one afternoon . Looking around the home, he blurted out, “You’re the kind of woman other women love to hate—you carry on a writing career and yet keep a nice home.” He paused and then added, “But you could make it a bit more decorative. The mantel above the fireplace looks rather bare.” (He’s the same pastor who during a Mother’s Day sermon said he had figured out why wives were so happy to be taken out for dinner in a restaurant. “It gives them a chance to just sit there and be served for a change.”)

I wonder how much we women ourselves contribute to the ongoing pattern of expectations by simply falling into the traditional housework-is-woman’s-work pattern, perhaps lacking the energy to resist —and giving in to the fears Kendra talked about. I wonder if we are sometimes enablers of the attitudes some men develop about expecting to have everything done for them—buttons sewn on, clothes washed and folded, meals cooked, house cleaned, children cared for, perpetuating the traditional gender division of labor. This can happen even though some husbands can talk egalitarianism very well, while closing their eyes to the practical implications of the concept.

That realization was driven home to me one day after the most excruciatingly painful two years of my life in which my husband had repeatedly told me he no longer loved me and wanted freedom from the confinement of marriage. He seemed like a different person from the one I thought I had married nearly three decades earlier. On the day he actually left, moving out his belongings and renting a truck to pick up some borrowed furniture to take to his new condo, he left me behind as a sobbing mess, having cried much of the day. When he returned to the house one more time in the early evening to pick up some odds and ends, he said, “I didn’t sort out any of my dirty laundry; I just left it in the hamper upstairs.” He suggested that I could sort it out or— better yet—I could just wash his clothes along with my clothes when I did the laundry. He said he could stop by in a day or two to pick it up.

A friend was standing there, giving me emotional support. She was aghast! As my husband drove off, she said, “You’re not going to do that, are you? Wash his clothes after the way he treated you? He has a new washer and dryer in his condo.” I said, “I don’t know. Maybe I should do it, not so much for him, but maybe just as a kindness— kindness to a human being?” At that, she grabbed my hand, marched me up the stairs, and stood me in front of the full-length mirror on the bathroom door. She said, “What do you see there?” I was completely puzzled and didn’t say anything. She said, “ Well, I see a human being.”

It was clear that I needed to learn how to set boundaries and to show some kindness to myself and rid myself of the idea that it was “selfish” to do anything less than self-sacrifice. It was a true “Aha” moment.

We women need to tune out the incessant cultural and religious messages that are all around us (and inside us, even when we know better) — internalized messages that attempt to convince us that, because we are women, we are not really the full, equal human beings that God created us to be. We need to value ourselves. We need to ignore some of the messages that have been drummed into us to persuade us that our purpose on earth is to serve others in ways men are not willing to serve.  Or that tell us our talents, gifts, and intellectual capabilities are less important than those of men and thus the time and energy necessary for developing and using our capabilities can instead be justifiably diverted into household tasks to a greater degree than would be true for men.

Two pieces of advice
I know I’ve taken up all this space analyzing the problem without giving any of the practical advice Melanie was hoping for, but maybe seeing this whole issue in a larger context can be helpful in thinking it through. I do, however have two pieces of advice.

1. Relax and don’t accept blame. I want to support all that Kendra said about being more casual about housework, not allowing fear of outside judgments to rule us. Apart from taking care of common sense concerns related to hygiene (bathrooms do need to be cleaned sometimes!) or removing hazards such as items left on the floor or on stairs that someone could fall over, I think we can be much more relaxed about whether or not the house is spotless, and we need to stop worrying about being blamed if it isn’t. I figure if people come to visit, they come to visit me— not to conduct what we used to call a “white glove inspection” of my apartment! If they’re my friends, they’ll understand if everything isn’t perfectly tidy. If they just came to judge and criticize, they’re not really my friends, and I don’t care about their opinions. I want to be remembered for something much more than whether or not there was dust on the book shelves!

2. Housework is a family affair.
If a family lives in a home together, all members are responsible for keeping it up. It’s important for children to realize that the careers of both parents are important, and that Mom should not ever be considered a kind of resident servant! Parents and kids can have a family meeting and work out ways everybody can pitch in to keep the home comfortably tidy, picking up their own stuff, making their own beds, and so on. One of my sons and his wife have four children (all grown now), and I have been thrilled over the years to see how, from the time they were quite young, each child learned to do his or her own laundry. They were also responsible for cleaning their own rooms, packing their own lunches before catching the school bus, and performing other tasks around the home. I’ve been so proud of the way each one, now grown, has developed the self-confidence and sense of independence so important in navigating the adult world of college and employment.

I’m sure we’ll be revisiting this topic on FemFaith at other times in the future just as we have in the past (remember our “Learned Helplessness” discussion?) but each time we seem to explore new angles that I hope will give us and our readers something more to think about.

 

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