A Broom of One's Own

Discovering, after all these years, the fine art of housework

| July/August 2001

In 1972, as America protested the Vietnam War and Helen Reddy’s 'I Am Woman' played endlessly on the radio, 21 students were embarking on a mission to put together a feminist art project. What they called Womanhouse was an installation piece, set in an actual condemned house in Los Angeles, that explored the ways that women are trapped by the home. There was the 'Nurturant Kitchen,' with egglike nipples applied to the ceiling and walls; the 'Menstruation Bathroom' with bloodied tampons; and the 'Bridal Stair-case,' featuring a new bride in her new home/prison.

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.

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