Queens of the Iron Age
When i was 8, my father organized a present for my sisters and me to give my mom for Mother’s Day: a pressure cooker, wrapped up with other fun kitchen items like tea towels, pop-up sponges, spatulas, and an apron. It seemed like a good idea—Mom was the one who was always in the kitchen, and this was the day to celebrate her. But the minute she opened her present, even I knew we had the wrong idea. While she’d surely use these items in her role as mother, wife, and homemaker, this was no way to celebrate all the things she did for us, much less let her know how much her labor was appreciated. At that tender age I realized that while the work of cooking, cleaning, organizing, and managing a household should be valued and esteemed, it was in no way glamorous, nor the fun part of being a woman. The lesson I learned: Thank a woman for doing the housework, but don’t expect her to get excited over a spatula.
Which is why I find the rise of the neodomestic feminist difficult to swallow. The new domestic cool is turning housewares into fun, retro toys, and telling us (once again) that cleaning is a girl’s game. While this trend is being marketed in all the usual places—hip boutiques, popular magazines, the web—what is most disturbing is the mind-set’s infiltration of feminist subcultures. A rash of my fellow third-wavers see dressing up their kitchen in ’50s kitsch as a way to express their identities as independent, powerful women. A growing number of us are seizing up our vacuums, pot scrubbers, and irons—all in the name of feminism. Normally dull cleaning supplies are being revamped into must-have accessories for today’s thinking women, taking the items out of their usual context of drudgery and hard work and reappropriating them as part of some mythological female past. Ads for household products are strewn across the pages of young feminist rags like Bust, Venus, and, yes, Bitch, sometimes making these magazines look more like Martha Stewart Living than Ms. The Internet is filled with self-proclaimed feminist sites with names like Crafty Bitch, Not Martha, and Disgruntled Housewife, offering domestic advice and crafting tips; urban boutiques sell leopard-print ironing boards and Hello Kitty aprons. The fun-lovin’ lipstick feminist of the mid-’90s has become the home-obsessed Brillo-pad chick of the ’00s. Housework has wrapped itself in feminist packaging as part of a celebration of all things girl, and not only is it making me feel unkempt, it’s a retreat from the hard-fought and ongoing battle to separate gender from responsibility for household chores.
The legacy of the housewife/homemaker—as icon, symbol, role, and label—continues to resonate loudly in our culture, raising strong emotions about women’s worth, roles, and aspirations. In response to the all-work, all-the-time ethic of the booming ’90s, many working women have turned homeward, looking for reprieve from their hectic lives. A 2000 study by market-research firm Youth Intelligence found that of the 3,000 married and single women between the ages of 18 and 34 surveyed, 68 percent would opt for domestic life if money weren’t an issue. And a June 2000 Cosmopolitan poll found that two-thirds of the 800 women questioned said they would choose being a full-time housewife over working in the corporate world. (It’s well worth noting that although these researchers chose to put their questions in homemaking terms, many people would quit their jobs if they could, regardless of gender. The fantasy of being job-free and in charge of your own time—or having your dream job instead of your real job—is a powerful one.) Tempting as it is to dismiss the new wave of homemaking chic as yet another backlash-fueled attempt to convince women that we belong at home, the yen for the domestic is shared by many savvy feminists, third-wave rebels, and crafty gals, who see it as a feminist celebration of girl culture. The trend extends to thoughtful, progressive women who claim domesticity as part of their definition of feminism: Martha Stewart appeals to liberal and conservative women (and men) alike, and Cheryl Mendelson’s homemakers’ bible, Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House, which reached the bestseller list in 2000, was no doubt put there by people of all political stripes.
Indeed, this domesticity revival is in part an outgrowth of a feminist drive to reassess previously disparaged elements of girl culture and the accoutrements of femininity. Domestic arts are a classic example of something long devalued—by men and women alike—because of their female associations. “A certain amount of internalized misogyny has accidentally happened in our culture,” notes Debbie Stoller, editor and copublisher of Bust. The domestic realm has long been thought of as the female realm and thus the less valued one. In the 1960s and ’70s, second-wave feminists argued that there was nothing inherently female about the private, domestic realm. They staunchly rejected domesticity in all its forms, arguing that housework was the shit job that women always got stuck with. The classic antisexist children’s record Free to Be...You and Me indoctrinated a generation of kids into this mind-set as well, declaring that “housework is just no fun.” “I understand why [second-wave] feminists had to reject all that stuff,” says Stoller, “but the problem wasn’t with the stuff itself, but that that kind of work was imposed on women and [not] valued. If our culture embraces only the public sphere of life as the important aspect of culture, then it becomes a very lopsided culture.”
From the sexual reclamation of riot grrrl to the knitting needles of crafty bitches, a whole host of traditionally feminine items and activities are being rediscovered; some compare it to being let into a secret girl-cult that their mothers were a part of, but from which they were excluded. Young women are holding bake-offs, starting knitting circles, and trading cleaning secrets online.
As a result, companies large and small are peddling home-ec products with a feminist twist, selling the housewife as an icon of empowered glamour, and her cleaning props as the latest toys. Girl Babies, Inc., an independent, woman-owned business, is having great success with its Smart Women kitchen accessories, adorned with kitschy ’50s images and punny sayings: “Smart Women Seldom Stew” recipe cards and pop-up sponges that say “Smart Women Rise to the Occasion.” The girl-owned Pisces Soaps offers up soaps in every strong-girl theme imaginable—from rock ’n’ roll to vaginas—but makes sure to include a Soozy Homemaker collection featuring soaps shaped like spatulas and muffin trays.
By turning the accessories of the housewife into hip fashion items, these entrepreneurs are both idealizing and capitalizing on a role that once symbolized economic dependence. While marketing this stuff is nothing new—women’s magazines have always been filled with advertisements that claim to make housewifery easy—selling them as feminist is. When the old Sears catalog featured new items to make the housewife’s life simpler, the company was cashing in on the glamorization of the housewife and the notion of better results for less work (cleaner, brighter, whiter laundry!, sparkling dishes at the push of a button!), but women (and their husbands) weren’t buying their kitchen utensils in quotation marks. (Plus, as domestic historians have noted, these shiny new products did not actually make women’s lives easier but instead raised standards of cleanliness and thus the amount of work as well.) The kicky apron wasn’t a wry statement on the freedom to do the dishes—it was a way to alleviate the drudgery of obligatory servitude.
Just because women are now turning a profit by selling these items to other women doesn’t make the drive to domesticity inherently feminist. For centuries women have turned their domestic know-how into cash—as laundresses, maids, cooks, nannies, midwives, and (occasionally) small-business owners. But that doesn’t make these jobs politically empowering or highly valued, as is demonstrated by the minimal benefits and low wages offered to cleaning-service professionals.
Nikol Lohr is the quintessential postmodern homemaker. In her webzine, Disgruntled Housewife (http://www.disgruntledhousewife.com), she wraps the role up in as much retro-glam as possible. She reclaims and co-opts the role wholeheartedly in terms of the activities and accessories, but she rejects the familial and political ties and roles: Although she spends her time cooking, cleaning, and “nesting,” Lohr is unmarried and childless. She owns her own house and is dedicated to its maintenance for her own benefit and enjoyment rather than for a husband and children. For Lohr, being a housewife “is not about your philosophy and domestic disputes and getting joy out of that, it is about ownership of the term.”
At first glance, the site is a satirical look at the multiple roles women are expected to play—slut, goddess, maid, diva, and housewife. The Meals Men Like section is representative: “As every Good Little Wifey knows, the fastest way to a man’s heart is through his gullet. So tie on those aprons, put Wives and Lovers on the record player, and start cooking him up a fine little meal.” Yet despite the tongue-in-cheek sensibility, other parts of the site—such as the cleaning-product reviews—are sincere, as is Lohr’s associated store, which sells days-of-the-week glassware and grocery totes, aprons, and kitchen towels bearing the Disgruntled Housewife logo. Even though her ironic sensibility attempts to point out the pitfalls of the housewife myth, every jokey comment contains an element of truth. (Not surprisingly, Lohr has met with great criticism from homemakers who are also mothers and wives, who feel that she is belittling their duties and their hard work. “[Because] I’m not raising children...and taking care of a husband or whatever else I am supposed to do like Donna Reed, then people think that I am a fraud and overly indulgent. Like you are not allowed to nest if you don’t have a family. I guess it is a whole lot of hard work and people want their titles, and they feel like you should do the work to get the title.”) While she can poke fun at housewifely expectations, Lohr is still enamored with the role.
Lohr may have found a way to enjoy being a housewife without the responsibilities that can translate into political disempowerment, but this depoliticized embrace of homemaking erases the significance of the housewife—both her worth (as we forget that it is damn hard work) and its social and political importance in women’s lives. The struggle against the obligatory housewife role has always been situated in a middle- and upper-class, mostly white world, so it’s meaningless to hordes of women around the world who never had the luxury of “choosing” to stay at home. As many of our mothers and grandmothers would be happy to tell us, being a housewife isn’t about the martini-drinking, clean-apron-wearing, high-heels-in-the-kitchen diva we’re being sold. Being a housewife is, in reality, all about working your ass off for no pay, no recognition, and usually no appreciation.
Some feminists argue that the whole difference between homemaking now and then lies in the issue of choice. Says Amy Richards, coauthor of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future, “The thing about girly culture in general, whether it is sewing...or whether it is being a stay-at-home mom in her thong underwear [who dresses her kids] all in pink, is that for our generation or a younger generation, those things are chosen.” However, she continues, “for anyone who was only allowed to be a housewife, it’s a prison.” But women’s responsibility for running their homes is still entrenched: According to the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, the world’s largest academic survey and research organization, American men do about 16 hours of housework a week, compared with the average 27 for women. Moreover, the type of work is divided along gender lines: According to the Census Bureau, men do most of the yard work and home maintenance, whereas women do 75 percent of the grocery shopping, cooking, laundry, and cleaning. Women around the world perform the much-needed domestic duties—some in their own homes, many outside of them, as a way to make ends meet. The International Wages for Housework Campaign, which argues that work inside the home should be financially compensated, had a recent victory in Taiwan when Parliament passed a law ordering husbands to pay their wives for housework—but this idea has all but disappeared from the American political agenda. “The idea that we’ve won and now we can play with all the things that we so blindly rejected is just counterproductive and counterrevolutionary,” says Georgetown University women’s-studies director Suzanna Walters, who is known for her critique of “feminism lite.” “There is a postfeminist myth out there that, aside from a few little things, we’ve made it. ‘Put down your battle swords because we’ve won!’ That is so patently ludicrous.”
Further complicating the perception of housework as a defiantly feminist undertaking is its recent conflation with a craft renaissance. Indeed, the craftiness uprising—a strong, persistent element of so-called girly culture—seeks to overthrow the notion that crafts are mere feminine hobbies, arguing that they are in fact art forms that should be valued and honored. While knitting may not be the path to revolution, turning our value system on its head helps to shake out all the dust that has been clouding our ways of thinking. Breaking down the art/craft binary is important, as is “losing the vertical hierarchies” between male and female, public and private, says Tsia Carson, editor of Getcrafty (www.getcrafty.com).
Knowing how to make and repair things is also a political stance. The punk/do-it-yourself ethos argues for self-sufficiency, rather than reliance upon the capitalist system to cater to your every need. “The resurgence of hand-made items has a lot to do with a kind of lack of intimacy with machine-made items and trying to reconnect with that sense of caring,” explains Carson. “For some people it becomes radicalized as a way of rejecting consumer culture.” But even for those who don’t see it as a conscious political act, the greater appreciation for the home-made, the self-sufficient, and the simpler route follows the same line, if not as overtly. Moreover, it just makes economic sense to be able to do these things yourself. But while the diy trend helps explain the rise in popularity of domestic arts, it doesn’t explain why women continue to choose traditionally feminine activities. Why aren’t more of us learning plumbing and auto repair? Why are we cleaning and sewing, not rewiring lamps and building radios?
Furthermore, although crafts may have traditionally fallen within the realm of domestic arts, the two are fundamentally different. Crafting involves creative activities with a tangible result. Feminist art historians have long argued that knitting, sewing, crocheting, and the like are no different from such art forms as sculpture and painting, except for the value they have been assigned. The so-called domestic arts, on the other hand, are all the activities involved in maintaining, organizing, and running one’s domestic environment—keeping house. And while crafting was traditionally an activity performed in the home, that does not automatically make other home activities—say, cleaning—crafts. Just when I start to get excited by the subversive possibilities of craft, it slips over that precarious edge into the realm of housework.
Craftygal (http://www.craftygal.com), for instance, offers articles like “Dressing for Kitchen Success,” “The Craft of Being a Great Hostess,” and “Everybody Must Get Sconed,” creating a definition of crafting that sounds more like housekeeping. And Getcrafty, a leading online source for crafty know-how and information sharing, also diverges from the typical diy subjects to delve into how to keep and clean house. But why does crafting have to lead to housework? Crafting is all about creativity and producing something that you put out there in the world. Housework is all about cleaning up afterward—organizing, scrubbing, and putting away your toys. If we claim cleaning as a cool feminine—and feminist—realm, we’ll only be ensuring that we’re stuck with the job forever. How is that liberating?
Stoller, Richards, Lohr, Carson, and others argue that it is women’s responsibility to start the process of revaluing the feminine—thereby strongly situating it on the feminist agenda. However, the fact that ironing, washing, and scrubbing have traditionally been female activities doesn’t make them feminist acts. It takes a feminist to realize that domestic chores are important, but even more of a feminist to realize that the commodification of these acts as a way to participate in girl culture is a deeply flawed strategy. Both men and women should take pride in the domestic, but women need to be able to imagine more than life in the kitchen. Rejecting feminist neodomesticity isn’t about devaluing work done in the home—it’s about daring to think beyond that work, and to expect that work to be shared across gender lines. A feminist may choose to keep her house clean, but that doesn’t make a clean house a testament to gender equality (particularly if that house has been cleaned for free by a woman). If I have to iron, I don’t want to be part of this revolution.
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