Good Feminist Housekeeping

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.

Was there stress involved in her superwoman effort? No doubt. But there was also a rhythm and logic to it all that I couldn’t help but admire. Breakfast made and dishwashing tasks delegated, my grandmother would continue to cook and clean until the early afternoon, when, on a sunny day, she would throw off her shirt and recline on our small, rocky beach, darkening her already bronzed, well-muscled body.

Feminism, as a word and as a concept, was alien to this woman, born in 1917, the year the Finns proudly gained their independence from Russia. A stylish, exotic-looking, and temperamental woman, my grandmother was nonetheless old-fashioned in her belief that women should know how to take care of their own homes.

To my mind, my grandmother’s ideology should apply to both genders. Reliance on frozen fast food and home delivery, and disregard for cleanliness haven’t ever struck me as particularly liberating, no matter what I’ve seen and been told about modern conveniences freeing us from the tyranny of housekeeping.

As a teenager in the 1980s, I often crashed at a boyfriend’s shared apartment in San Francisco, where I baffled and amused friends and new acquaintances with my insistence on making sure visitors were well cared for. Later, when I finally had a place to call my own with a new boyfriend (now my husband), I would find the cheapest and tidiest ways to organize our cramped studio apartment.

You might think of me as a kind of punk-rock Martha Stewart–less obsessed and more exciting to talk to, but similarly devoted to a level of domesticity that suits one’s personal circumstances. Aside from the immediate gratification of ordering an otherwise constantly unpredictable life, there’s the warm reward of coming home from an exhausting day to the sight of a pleasantly inviting home.

To those familiar with it, there’s an aspect of (uncoerced) housekeeping that allows for enjoyment, reflection, and even meditation. In the moment of scrubbing the kitchen sink, in the act of cleaning grime and dirt from the bathtub, I feel focused–and connected to all the women whose lives made it possible for me to be here today. Don’t misunderstand me. Beyond a basic level of commonsense housekeeping, it’s really a matter of each according to his or her own abilities. If you can cook the occasional pot of rice and steam a few vegetables, sweep your floors at least a couple times a month, and keep your toilet from looking like an X-Files alien nest, you’ve won Silja’s seal of elementary good housekeeping. And to clarify, Martha Stewart’s carefully constructed, psychotically flawless life is really nothing to aspire to, even if some of us might occasionally watch her show with slack-jawed fascination.

As long as I’m able to do it, I’ll always take pride in cozy, competent housekeeping that serves as a base from which my partner and I can face the challenges of the world. My grandmother would have been proud. Surely feminism has room for women like us.

From Fabula (Nov.-Dec. 1999). Subscriptions: $12.95/yr. (4 issues) from 55 Norfolk St., Suite 202, San Francisco, CA 94103.

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