Women's Liberation Through Housework

By Rena Corey
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, October 8, 2007

Each time I feel a sense of satisfaction at how my Magic Eraser is removing the smudges from my white kitchen cabinets, whenever I smile to see all the dirt and dust clinging to my Swiffer, I realize I am a traitor to the cause. Betty Friedan must turn over in her grave, I think, to see me derive gratification from such menial (and unpaid) labor.

As a girl growing up in the '70s, I learned to view with condescension women who cared whether their floor wax had yellowed or whether their hubbies' shirts bore the dreaded ring around the collar. Obviously, the conventional feminist wisdom went, these women did not have a satisfying life; instead of winning boardroom battles, they settled for such fleeting victories as a shiny floor or a ringless tub. Why didn't they get themselves real jobs?

A lot of girls in my generation took to heart this message of liberation from the perceived drudgery of housework and grew up to have careers that our mothers never even dreamed of. But apparently, even with the monetary and psychic rewards of paying jobs, we still yearn for that cozy, clean nest. How else can one explain the appeal of someone like Martha Stewart?

Myself, I am not a Martha fan. I could never hope to replicate the perfection of her housescapes -- not with six kids and a pack-rat husband. Towels never will stay draped elegantly on the towel rings; more often they're pulled off by toddler hands and left on the floor in a soggy heap. Wicker baskets scattered around the kitchen aren't content to hold only a few polished apples or a still-life arrangement of bananas and grapes. No, they attract all manner of household detritus, until they overflow with old mail, unsigned school papers and the latest pizza coupons (what does Martha do with her pizza coupons, anyway?).

But whether I can -- or care to -- emulate Martha, I understand why she has a large following. In the land of the Living, maintaining a home is a worthwhile and creative pursuit, not just a series of menial tasks best contracted out to a weekly maid service. Keeping a tidy house needn't be an exercise in pointless, mind-numbing tedium, regardless of what girls of my generation were taught. Many of us for a few decades there refused to admit it, but deep down, we have a perfectly respectable desire to create an attractive, peaceful haven for our families and ourselves.

Call it gender-typed indoctrination, if you will, that impels me to hang fresh towels every day or to buy matching bedspreads for all my daughters. I call it having pride in my work. Is it really pointless to remove the ketchup stains from the cabinets and to wipe the toddler drool off the storm door glass? Perhaps, as an end in itself, the work can be meaningless and soul-sapping. But when the purpose is to provide a restful place where our families can recharge their batteries and enjoy time together . . . well, that elevates housewifery to the status of a vocation.

The problem with our liberation from housework is that it left no one at home to create such a haven. My generation of women threw out the baby with the bathwater, as it were -- and now we're scratching our heads and wondering what's missing.

I'm sure we all remember that the guys were supposed to pick up the slack. But that idea really didn't seem to catch on, did it? Yes, we all are acquainted with a Mr. Mom or two who can watch the kids, do the laundry and bake a mean batch of brownies, but those guys are the exception. Study after study has pointed out that, although men are helping more around the house than they did a generation ago, women are still the ones pulling the "second shift" after coming home from a full day at the office.

And for some reason, be it genetics or societal brainwashing, 40 years of liberation has not changed the fact that the female of the species is most often the one who cares about matching towels and well-equipped kitchens. Case in point: My husband and I rented a furnished house for the summer once from a confirmed bachelor. His kitchen had three -- three -- corkscrews, a couple of martini shakers, a well-used (read dirty) microwave and not a heck of a lot else. The stove didn't even work properly. And don't get me started on the bathrooms (a word to the wise -- do not sit on a toilet seat without first inspecting it for cracks). My husband, incidentally, thought the place was just fine. Though I hate to come across as a biological determinist, despite decades of attempts to reeducate men, you simply cannot make one of them care about how the towels are folded.

So there you are, Betty -- despite your best efforts to raise our consciousness and liberate us from the broom and dust mop, there are renegades among us who insist on liking housekeeping. Oh, I don't enjoy the minute-to-minute minutiae of the job, any more than someone in the corporate world enjoys time-wasting meetings or bureaucratic directives. But I like the results -- a refuge for everyone to come home to, with a nice meal on the table and clean linens (well, most of the time) on the beds. My home is my little kingdom where, on a good day, with a lot of organization and a little bit of elbow grease, things run as smoothly and peacefully as I wish the big outside world did.

And on the bad days? Well, I confess to sometimes looking at those help-wanted ads.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company