This Holiday, Equality Is for the Birds

By Jill Hudson Neal
Special to
Monday, November 26, 2007; 1:47 PM

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year, though it shouldn't be. The tradition of joining family and friends to express appreciation for what we have never wears thin, and the meal itself always evokes warm, fond memories of past holidays. And although I don't buy into the myth of the peacenik Pilgrims communing with the native Indians over a hearty meal, I always welcome the feeling that Turkey Day leaves.

But let's be clear: for almost every woman I know, Thanksgiving meant work. Lots of work, concentrated into a 48-hour period of shopping, cleaning, prepping and cooking. I mean, it wasn't all drudgery; there was good eating, lots of laughter and more than a little bit of alcoholic revelry (at least in my house). And, truth be told, it was almost a luxury to have hours in my kitchen cooking all the Southern foods I rarely have time to prepare: biscuits, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, stuffing, ham and turkey.

I couldn't help noticing, however, how different the Thanksgiving experience was for my husband and children, both boys. Thanksgiving was a day off from school and work, 48 hours spent getting their relax on.

What is it about Thanksgiving that highlights to the unwritten, yet apparently universal, law that has ladies in the kitchen that day and men folk in front of the TV -- or being anywhere else besides the kitchen? Yes, there are more than a few guys who take an active role in preparing Thanksgiving dinner (thank God for deep fried turkey!).

Yet even in the most progressive households, the production that is Thanksgiving dinner manages to draw a distinct line between the sexes.

For me, Thanksgiving began the day prior, when I broke out stacks of clean pots and pans and hopped a ride on the Full-Fat Express. And except for a 30-minute break taken to ease the pain of a bit of carpal tunnel thumb picked up while cutting the ends off an enormous pot of fresh string beans, the hours whizzed by.

What's strange was how little it actually bothered me -- or anyone else, apparently. Like many other Gen X women who don't wear the Traditionalist label very often, Thanksgiving apparently brought out my inner June Cleaver and handed her a glass of Cabernet. The question was, "Why?"

"Thanksgiving is one day when it's okay to be traditional," says Jill Stewart, 37, a married mother of two who is an elementary school teacher in Reston, VA. "The women are actually getting a lot from the experience of being together without the guys. We're cooking and laughing and talking about life's ups and downs. We let our hair down -- it's a very comfortable place."

It's also a day when we can take our "Gender Politician" caps off, and stop worrying about what message it sends to our children, Stewart adds. "I love that my daughter [four-year-old, Ryan] is in there with us. She sees that we're there not because we're obligated but because we love it. I'm there not because it's my place but because it's my space. There's a difference. I've chosen it. You learn about your family or friends' culinary traditions, and I think the men stay away out of respect."

And if the men were in another room arguing about the Dallas Cowboys or Detroit Lions, so much the better, says 26-year-old Julia Mateu of Germantown, MD, who loves football as much as her nine-year-old son, Raphael. "I always volunteer to make the turkey so that I can sit in front of the TV with the guys while it's cooking.

"But the truth is, you can't really have the men help you do anything because they just get in the way," says Mateu, a hairdresser, with laugh. "So you can't fix the gender inequality issue because the dinner will just be a mess. We [women] complain because we have to do everything ourselves, but we don't really want the help anyway.

"You might as well enjoy it. Because we'll all go back to arguing about who does what the next day, anyway."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company