Good Feminist Housekeeping

Yes, Martha, a feminist can aspire to dishpan hands

| March-April 2000

Untamed and bursting with berries and mushrooms, creeping and crawling insects, birds, and the occasional rabbit or moose, a generous patch of forest in Finland’s seemingly never-ending sprawl of lakes and trees filled me with childhood wonder.

As a young girl, I spent weeks and even months each year living with my grandparents in their mökki, a simple lakeside cabin with no electricity, toilet, telephone, or running water. Living in this setting imbued me with a deep respect for nature and the value of a blazing hot sauna, and, thanks to the influence of my Finnish grandmother, devotion to the art of housekeeping.

In Finland, the word emanta is used to convey respect for the eldest or most responsible woman of the house. Although it is crudely translated as “housewife,” the word carries a different connotation in the native language: An emanta is in charge of running things, assuring quality of life in the home or farm. Being an emanta doesn’t necessarily mean you have children, nor does it mean you work only in the home.

As a child, I aspired to earn the respect of my community by one day being a competent and tough-minded emanta. Years later, after the death of my grandmother, I would earn that kind of respect in the form of my grandfather’s praise. After I had served him a hearty Finnish breakfast, he smiled broadly and said to all present at the table, “What a good emanta we have.” The words, uttered many times since then, continue to resonate for me on a deeply emotional level.

With a master’s degree in women’s studies and a decade of feminist activism tucked under my belt, I’ll now readily admit there are few things in life that bring me as much pleasure as knowing that I can serve strong coffee and freshly baked dessert with the best of them, and that my home comes together in an ordered presentation. It is a home I would be proud to show to my grandmother, one I’ll proudly claim as an integral part of my multi-faceted feminist identity.

When it came to housekeeping, Irja, my grandmother, had a genuine gift—a level of devotion that sometimes seemed to border on obsession. Also a sharp businesswoman who ran her own clothing store for years, my grandmother would somehow still find the time to prepare fantastically delicious meals and desserts.