Sunday, July 06, 2008
Just a Housewife
I recently read a book about cooking contests, specifically the Pillsbury Bake-Off. The book was interesting, except in the places where the author thought she had to defend women's reputations. She talked about how men generally denigrated traditional women's work (which is a dubious claim, though I can see how it was taken for granted, much the way women take for granted the hard work and paycheck earned by their husbands), then proceeded to do so in a far worse manner. After explaining that the contest was initially geared toward homemakers, she then went on to justify the contestants by saying that these women weren't "just housewives," they were doctoral candidates, neurosurgeons, authors, etc.
It seems that just being a housewife wasn't good enough for this woman who thought men denigrated traditional female roles so much. Why is it so much more significant/better that these women were these other things? Why does it matter that they weren't just housewives? Doesn't it feed into the stereotype that women's work isn't valuable enough when these statements are made? Isn't this buying into the "masculine" idea that women's work isn't valuable enough on its own?
Interestingly enough if a woman is a fabulous cook at home for her family it doesn't bring the same respect as if she's a caterer or chef. Martha Stewart built her empire on marking up and yuppifying traditional women's work and crafts. Wives and mothers used to make table settings, arrange flowers, make interesting meals, decorate their homes, make pillows, work in their gardens without spending all that money. That was supposedly what they all wanted to be freed from, but now, so long as they buy the expensive magazines, marked up craft supplies and wealthy suburban luxuries, it is a worthwhile endeavor. Or maybe only for Ms. Stewart who makes a paycheck off of it.
When I was only a knitter, the general public seemed to think it was a quaint thing I did. Traditional. Matronly. When I was published, then it was a serious thing. I always wonder why my work with my hands gained so much meaning from a simple paycheck. The first thing people say when they see what I make or taste what I cook is "You could sell these!" They mean it as a compliment, so I don't comment, but they show an ignorance of what kind of pay would be required for handmade/homemade work, and imply that the worth is in the cash.
I do not see it that way. When academics fight so hard for quilting/knitting/sewing to be recognized in the academy, I see it as pandering to the stereotypical male view that women's work only matters if it matters to those on high. Why do they need the validation of the grey headed men on their work? I know that my work is valuable to my family and to me. It extends to our community, our church, our friends and family, and, in some way, to the outer world as well, but my self-worth is not tied to my employment or earnings.
I have a good friend who was looking for work that would be flexible enough for her to set her own schedule so she could be a mother to her son. She thought of doing housecleaning. Nearly everyone she worked with tried to talk her out of it, because it was menial labor, because it would be hard on her feet and back, etc. They then suggested she get a job as a waitress or bartender. She was astonished that they didn't see their own prejudices. Restaurant work is just as menial, and certainly as hard on the body, but one was seen as respectable work (at least in the interim) and the other was seen as lower class and less worthy. In this case the hierarchy was such that it was worse to be paid for housewifely work than for outside work.
In my experience, and that of the women I know who are in traditional roles, it is women and not men who are patronizing and denigrating. They are the ones who sneer about our luck to be able not to work, who make snide comments about our pride in our families, who shriek in disbelief about our having FOUR CHILDREN! (as happened at one of Rich's work parties - imagine what she'd think now?), who accuse us of setting back women's rights and betraying the "sisterhood." It always makes me think of Animal Farm and how the pigs rallied the animals against the farmers and their injustices and ended up looking, and behaving, just like the farmers by the end of the book.
Amazingly enough men do not seem as threatened by my choice to work for my family instead of a paycheck. You could argue, I suppose, that it is because they benefit from it, or see it as my rightful place, but that has not been my impression or experience. It comes from men who gain nothing from my work, and who are quite comfortable with women in the workplace. These men are also the first to help out, ask to learn more about, and praise the kinds of things homemakers do. So often, it is the women who dismissively say they don't have time for things like cooking, that they'd get bored all day with nothing but children to talk to (and so would you, if you had as much intelligence as they did), that their outside interests are so much more important than keeping a home relatively clean. I especially appreciate the assumption some make that women who work as I do must do it because of pressure from their husbands. I've far more often met women who stayed in jobs they hated because their husbands insisted they keep working so he could afford more things. There was a time when a man worked harder himself to be able to purchase more, and thought his job was to support a family, rather than making his wife feel like she ought to earn her keep.
I am by no means a perfect housekeeper, I don't cherish every diaper I've changed and I do actually read books and talk to other adults without feeling guilty or being upbraided by my husband. This idea that women who do traditional women's work are somehow lower or lesser is insulting, but particularly when it comes from other women. One of our friends, a priest's wife, told how she hid her goals of becoming a wife and mother when she was in school in the 70s, because of how much flak she got for betraying the women's movement. The priest who married us told the story of how he pushed his wife out the door to work because he had been so convinced that no woman was ever fulfilled in the home, and he didn't want to be a chauvinist, keeping her chained to the stove. It apparently took quite some time for her to convince him that she wanted to be home, and that her degree and intelligence weren't being compromised by her being a homemaker. So, it is especially frustrating to read a woman spouting the same trope about how men didn't value women's work, then making sure the reader knows that the women who were doing women's work weren't wasting their time just being housewives, they had jobs and talents, educations. Not like those housewives whose work we value so much.
I think, sometimes, that there's a certain amount of guilt talking. Moms feel guilty for working outside of the home, and so they have to paint the world so that their choice is the logically better one.
And I hope everything goes well with the birth!
(Becky suggests it's a good thing for my health that you cannot reach me through the computer.)
Actually, for the record, I learned to knit from Ranee, and I DON'T sell what I knit!
I do, however, sell some of what I sew, so that makes it all right.