Does it really come as a surprise to anyone that, a quarter-century of agitation to the contrary notwithstanding,cooking and housework are still assumed to be -- and in actuality are -- woman's work? That is what The New York Times reported last week, after surveying 1,870 men and women by telephone in the autumn of 1987. The respondents said, in overwhelming percentages, that even though more and more women now hold full-time jobs, women still do the cooking, shopping and housekeeping, and men still expect them to.
This was presented by The Times as front-page news, but with all due respect to my friends at that venerable institution, it really isn't. Human nature and behavior may change, but the means by which they do is incremental and the pace is so slow as to be nearly immeasurable. The more things change, the more they remain the same: The feminist movement may have put the spotlight on various inequities in the treatment of women, but it is one thing to get most people to agree that inequities exist and quite another to get them to alter their behavior.
What The Times learned was that 91 percent of the married women with whom it spoke claimed to do most of the food shopping for their households, by comparison with 18 percent of married men; that 90 percent of the women claimed to do most of the cooking, against 15 percent of the men; and that only 4 percent of the women and 6 percent of the men said they shared the cooking with someone else. The survey also found that the difference between cooking responsibilities assumed by housewives and by women who work outside their residences is not significant: 93 percent of the former, 86 percent of the latter.
Is all of this to be taken as a repudiation of feminism? Evidence elsewhere in society suggests not; the rise of women in areas of the work force previously dominated by men is strong testimony to the contrary, as is the increasing role played by women in political and cultural affairs. What the kitchen survey suggests, rather, is that it is difficult for people to get rid of traditional obligations and expectations even when they recognize the injustice of those traditions.
Painful though it may be for many feminists to acknowledge it, the truth is that the most powerful force keeping women in the kitchen is women themselves. Most certainly it is true that millions of husbands complacently assume that the stove and the vacuum cleaner are their wives' department, but it is equally true that millions of wives -- including millions who are out of the house, working for someone else, from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. -- regard the household as their domain and expect to be in charge there, even if that means standing over the stove after a hard day on the job.
This is because the trouble with people is that they resolutely refuse to do what do-gooders would have them do. The exhausted woman spooning out Hamburger Helper after eight hours in an office may dislike her household obligations and resent her husband's expectation that she fulfil them, but she also thinks of the kitchen as the place in the house that is indisputably her own; if she is reluctant to forfeit this territory, it seems to me that what we owe her is not condescension or dismissal but sympathy and understanding. After all, men are every bit as territorial about the workroom and the garage, every bit as convinced that in these rooms their word is law; the woman who comes into the workroom to fix the toaster is likely to get a reception every bit as hostile as does the man who enters the kitchen to make tomato sauce.
When you come right down to it, it's all pretty silly, which is to say human, but it seems to me especially silly on the part of men. Women may be fools for demanding territorial rights to the dishwasher and the food processor, but men are even bigger fools for assuming that the tools of the kitchen are somehow beneath them. I say this with some authority, as for more than a dozen years I have been what seems to be called a "househusband"; in our household the traditional roles are substantially if by no means entirely reversed, and at the risk of embarrassing myself among the rest of the boys, I'll admit that I like it just fine.
This arrangement came about in 1975, when for various reasons I began doing less of my work at the office (The Miami Herald, then) and more of it at home; suffice it to say that reading and writing about books, my principal occupation, is most efficiently done in solitude. At first, when I was still putting in two or three office days a week, my wife and I more or less split the cooking and dishwashing obligations; but now that I'm mostly at home and she's entirely at her office, it makes perfect sense for me to cook during the week and for her to take the weekends.
The shameful fact of it is that I like to cook: not just showy meals for company, but regular old weeknight meals of pasta and hamburger and salad. I also -- this confession no doubt will get me read right out of the boys' club -- like to do the dishes; over the years I have in fact become obsessive about them, to the point that while guests linger at the table over their wine, I'm out there in the kitchen scrubbing away. To my mind there is no lovelier sight on earth than that of a perfectly packed dishwasher, each glass and plate in its exactly appointed place. Anal compulsive? Who, me?
As for the grocery store, it's an utter mystery to me that my fellow men -- or is it mice? -- deny themselves the glories of this stately pleasure dome. Early each Saturday morning my wife and I descend on either Super Fresh or Giant -- the choice is a matter of regular and heated debate -- to lay in the week's provender, and it is the high point of my week. Parmesan! Red peppers! Glamour Kitty! Minute Maid! White Cloud! Cycle 4! Indian River! Friskies Buffet! Reynolds Wrap! -- It's a total bliss-out, and for my money the guys who prefer the Sharper Image or the Pep Boys are out of their gourds.
It occurs to me, this eventful season, that perhaps we should have housekeeping competitions in the Olympic Games; that ought to get the guys' interest. Perhaps there could be Shopping Center Parking Lot, in which two cars equidistant from the only available spot in the 47th row at Tysons Corner compete to claim it; the obstacles might include teen-agers cruising in Trans Ams, little old ladies going two miles an hour in reverse, shopping carts upturned at strategic corners and housewives in curlers driving the wrong way on one-way lanes. Or there could be Checkout Counter, in which two contestants start at the produce section, fill their carts with exactly $78.49 worth of goods, then compete to get out of the store first: No cheating in the checkout lines, fellas!