Discovering, after all these years, the fine art of housework
This house has haunted me. I was raised on Betty Friedan–style feminism. Growing up, I wanted nothing to do with domesticity, motherhood, marriage, or anything else that reeked of traditional womanhood. My dream was to become a famous bohemian like the writer Anaïs Nin or the feminist artist Miriam Schapiro.
My attitude remained unchallenged throughout my college years. I was a women’s studies major at UCLA in the early ’90s, and my professors, like the artists who created Womanhouse, perceived the home and its accompanying activities as something that women needed to free themselves from. Smart, enlightened women had little time for silly things like cooking, sewing, knitting, or cleaning. And it all made sense to me. After college, bad-ass and ambitious, I hopped from job to job, working as a filmmaker, a video editor, and a Web producer. My focus was becoming successful. As a result, I never learned how to save money or create a nice home.
Then, at age 28, I crashed. Sure, I had built a 'career' for myself, but I also had a huge debt, a crappy apartment with the requisite futon on the floor, bad eating habits, worse boyfriend choices, and no real clue as to how to be a grown-up. I began reevaluating who I was and what I wanted, including many of the things that I had always dismissed because I didn’t want to be one of 'those' women. After all, I reasoned, what did I have to fear from domestic entrapment? I was a single girl with a job and a growing posse of girlfriends. I just wanted someplace nice to come home to.
Before I knew it, I was buying books on macrobiotics and natural healing. I also read about home furnishing and feng shui as I plotted out the new décor for my apartment. I took up knitting, crafts, and sewing. I bought overpriced glossies, 'cool' mags like Wallpaper and Nest. And I got secret subscriptions to Martha Stewart Living and Gourmet magazine.
And you know what I learned? All the stuff that I had always dismissed as stupid housework was actually quite complicated. There are also systems and rules for doing it well––and they are not obvious, nor are they being taught anywhere. Do you know the proper way to sew on a button or iron a shirt or bleach your whites? ’Cause I sure as hell didn’t––and none of my friends did, either. As I started experimenting with different domestic tasks, I discovered which ones I liked (cooking, woodwork, knitting), and which ones I hated (ironing, laundry, dusting). I learned that my favorite thing to do in the whole world is to grocery shop––I love to be around food, to smell it, touch it, and think about all the delicious things I’m going to make in the kitchen.
Yet even with all this joyous creativity, I still feel conflicted. After all, our culture continues to thumb its nose at domesticity. Even more troubling to me is that feminism also dismisses domesticity. When Betty Friedan searched for the cause of the 'problem that has no name' affecting middle-class white suburban housewives in 1963, she found it in housecleaning and caring for a family. According to Friedan, all things domestic were actually the root of women’s problems and depression. As I read through the book now, almost 40 years later, I have a lot of sympathy and admiration for Friedan, but I think her analysis is off. It isn’t the housework itself that is so stifling (although it may be to some), but rather the fact that at the time few other alternatives were available to women, and, perhaps even more importantly, that women’s work has always been devalued.
What if, instead, we thought of domesticity as our history, and therefore an important part of who we are? Don’t get me wrong––I’m not suggesting that all women quit their jobs, get married, and stay at home in the suburbs. But I am suggesting that we think of 'women’s work' as something viable, interesting, and important––like knowing how to play an instrument or speaking a foreign language. And what about the skill, love, and creativity that goes into raising children and running a home? It’s not stupid, and it’s not simple; it’s damn hard work that we as feminists need to start respecting.
Six months ago, I did something that I never thought I would do in a million years: I got married. The plan was that after the ceremony, my husband and I would live in separate apartments, the way we always had. I just couldn’t bring myself to cohabit with a man; I was afraid of losing my identity and having to 'look after' him. But in the end, after many conversations, we decided to move in together anyway.
It’s been difficult, but we seem to have established a pretty equitable system. I do most of the cooking and grocery shopping, he does all the ironing, clothes mending, and dishwashing, and we split all other tasks right down the middle. We fight over stuff like vacuuming and whether we should order in again. But we also have a blast together: We painted our apartment sky blue, avocado green, café con leche, and bright pink, built tons of shelves, and finished it with the finest thrift store finds to create a look that can only be described as post-French-neo-colonialism.
So here I am at age 30. My life is much more domestic and varied and interesting and creative and pastiche-like than I ever imagined. I didn’t become a feminist artist or a bohemian writer. Instead, I practice my feminism in the way I live my life, the clothes I wear, the home I live in, the food I eat, the company I keep. It’s not glamorous, but it’s fulfilling. As it turns out, my experience is the opposite of that of the women who built Womanhouse: Embracing domesticity and women’s work has freed me from depression and a feeling that my life is meaningless. Best of all, I have discovered simple ways to give myself and others the gift of living well.
From Bust (Spring 2001). Subscriptions: $11.95/yr. (4 issues) from Box 1016, Cooper Station, New York, NY 10276.