The return of the washerwoman

Posted on December 11, 2011 by


At Bonald’s place there’s been an interesting discussion all of us editors have been following concerning the critiques of conservatism. An especially interesting comment has caught our eye:

“They want what they’ve been conditioned to want. After forty years of propaganda representing homemaking and motherhood as degrading drudgery, its actually remarkable that any women find this work satisfying.”

I don’t think it’s that simple. Women look at the difficulties of homemaking today and assume those difficulties are eternal. If they think of the past at all, they tend to imagine it as “today’s difficulties + the additional difficulties of the past when women were more oppressed.” If nothing has been passed down, it’s very difficult to imagine a situation in which homemaking was radically different.

How many young women (or men!) consider stuff like:

– It is almost unheard of in human history for women to be stuck alone in an isolated house with young children, without either servants or extended family
– A couple of generations ago in America, you didn’t have to drag your screaming kids to a grocery store and pray they wouldn’t throw a tantrum. Essentials were peddled door to door. So were laundry services!
– ONE generation ago you could transport your children without strapping them into carefully regulated seats that won’t fit in anything smaller than a minivan
– Not long ago you could let your older kids loose outside and take a nap or nurse a baby in peace. Kids could basically run wild. Now it’s not safe, and you’ll get a call from CPS if one of those kids falls down outside and bruises himself.
– Technology might have reduced housework labor greatly, but standards and expectations for the home have risen accordingly.

Is any of this in the public awareness? No. Instead, today’s isolated, money-obsessed, paranoid, unsafe, overregulated, uncohesive America is implicitly presented as the eternal standard. Because God forbid that anything might have been better in the past! And on the other side, you’ve got socons that *won’t admit* that it’s unusually difficult to raise children in America today compared to other eras or other Western countries – after all, women have vacuum cleaners now, so they should quit complaining! It’s as if all women have to do is reject the leftist propaganda, get pregnant and stay home, and then everything will be okay. Young women have eyes; they can see how messed up things are.

This comment struck a cord with me because things like grocery shopping is such a torture with my kids — and I only have two of them! We are incredibly mobile now, and getting my children in and out of the car is so stressful that we need 30 minutes head-start in order to get everyone buckled in without a meltdown. There is one day in the week were we undergo that particular torture 4 times, and by the end of the day I’m exhausted even though I haven’t really done anything. I’m increasingly purchasing with local businesses, many of whom will deliver for a small fee, in order to spare myself a bit of that pain.

Visiting friends and relatives is equally grueling, as everyone lives at least 15 minutes drive away. We visit grandma at least once per week, and it’s a 1.5 hour drive in each direction, longer if there’s traffic. And there’s usually traffic. In my MIL’s homemaking days, everyone lived in the same neighborhood and visiting her sister entailed walking two blocks down the street. She was also never in the position of caring for her children while nursing a fever, or alternating making them snacks and vomiting up her own lunch.

I’m lucky that my husband supports me letting the children play outside, and that our house is small and sparse enough that cleaning it is short work, but other women aren’t so lucky. I know women who clean four bathrooms twice a week, as opposed to my 1.5 baths, and cleaning the floors takes them hours and involves lugging a vacuum cleaner up and down stairs to clean their wall-to-wall carpeting. The truth is, anyone who had a house larger than mine “back in the day” also had a cleaning lady or shared the house with other women who could help her.

Yes, you have a washing machine in your basement, but you used to only have three changes of clothes per person, and many had their laundry washed for them. I know this for certain, as my aunt’s family used to run a laundry service and she swears that her family washed the laundry for the entire urban neighborhood. Women bought washing machines, which killed the washerwoman business, but then everyone’s wardrobes grew exponentially.

For all of the talk of “pioneer women”, they were a small minority of women and tended to all be dead before they hit 50. Most women 100 years ago were doing a similar level of housework and homeschooling as I am, but they didn’t have to take on the additional chauffeuring duties, they weren’t as isolated, and they weren’t expected to look like a lingerie model and turn tricks in the bedroom that would put some prostitutes to shame. The workdays were also shorter before cheap electric lighting and most people got more sleep.

So spare me the rewriting of the past. Spare me the rewriting of the present, as well. Far from the “Desperate Housewives” meme, the majority of homemakers are in the lower and working classes. The equation has flipped precisely on its head: the middle-class homemakers are now middle-class workers and the lower-class workers are now lower-class homemakers. And the latter are increasingly male.

I’m not complaining, as I enjoy my life, just pointing out the obvious: then and now aren’t really comparable.

Posted in: Homemaking