The Politics of Housework by Pat Mainardi (1970). A widely read article from a member of the NY Redstockings Group about the savage inequalities in domestic family labor.
(Editors Note: This article was originally published by Redstockings in 1970. Redstockings was an early women’s liberation group centered in New York and was responsible for a number of influential writings.)
Though women do not complain of the power of husbands, each complains of her own husband, or of the husbands of her friends. It is the same in all other cases of servitude; at least in the commencement of the emancipatory movement. The serfs did not at first complain of the power of the lords, but only of their tyranny. -John Stuart Mill On the Subjection of Women
Liberated women-very different from Women’s Liberation! The first signals all kinds of goodies, to warm the hearts (not to mention other parts) of the most radical men. The other signals-HOUSEWORK. The first brings sex without marriage, sex before marriage, cozy housekeeping arrangements (“I’m living with this chick”) and the self-content of knowing that you’re not the kind of man who wants a doormat instead of a woman. That will come later. After all, who wants that old commodity anymore, the Standard American Housewife, all husband, home and kids? The New Commodity; the Liberated Woman, has sex a lot and has a Career, preferably something that can be fitted in with the household chores-like dancing, pottery, or painting.
On the other hand is Women’s Liberation-and housework. What? You say this is all trivial? Wonderful! That’s what I thought. It seemed perfectly reasonable. We both had careers, both had to work a couple of days a week to earn enough to live on, so why shouldn’t we share the housework? So I suggested it to my mate and he agreed-most men are too hip to turn you down flat. You’re right, he said. It’s only fair. Then an interesting thing happened. I can only explain it by stating that we women have been brainwashed more than even we can imagine, Probably too many years of seeing television women in ecstasy over their shiny waxed floors or breaking down over their dirty shirt collars. Men have no such conditioning. They recognize the essential fact of housework right from the very beginning. Which is that it stinks.
Here’s my list of dirty chores: buying groceries, carting them home and putting them away; cooking meals and washing dishes and pots; doing the laundry digging out the place when things get out of control; washing floors. The list could go on but the sheer necessities are bad enough. All of us have to do these things, or get someone else to do them for us. The longer my husband contemplated these chores, the more repulsed he became, and so proceeded the change from the normally sweet, considerate Dr. Jekyll into the crafty Mr. Hyde who would stop at nothing to avoid the horrors of-housework. As he felt himself backed into a comer laden with dirty dishes, brooms, mops and reeking garbage, his front teeth grew longer and pointier, his fingernails haggled and his eyes grew wild. Housework trivial? Not on your life! Just try to share the burden.
So ensued a dialogue that’s been going on for several years. Here are some of the high points: “I don’t mind sharing the housework, but I don’t do it very well. We should each do the things we’re best at.” MEANING: Unfortunately I’m no good at things like washing dishes or cooking. What I do best is a little light carpentry, changing light bulbs, moving furniture (how often do you move furniture?). ALSO MEANING: Historically the lower classes (black men and us) have had hundreds of years experience doing menial jobs. It would be a waste of manpower to train someone else to do them now. ALSO MEANING: I don’t like the dull, stupid, boring jobs, so you should do them.
“I don’ t mind sharing the work, but you’ll have to show me how to do it.” MEANING: I ask a lot of questions and you’ll have to show me everything every time I do it because I don’t remember so good. Also don’ t try to sit down and read while I’M doing my jobs because I’m going to annoy hell out of you until it’s easier to do them yourself.”
“We used to be so happy!” (Said whenever it was his turn to do something.) MEANING: I used to be so happy. MEANING: Life without house work is bliss. No quarrel here. Perfect Agreement.
“We have different standards, and why should I have to work to your standards? That’s unfair.” MEANING: If I begin to get bugged by the dirt and crap I will say, “This place sure is a sty” or “How can anyone live like this?” and wait for your reaction. I know that all women have a sore called “Guilt over a messy house” or “Household work is ultimately my responsibility.” I know that men have caused that sore-if anyone visits and the place is a sty—they’re not going to leave and say, “He sure is a lousy housekeeper.” You’ll take the rap in any case. I can outwait you. ALSO MEANING: I can provoke innumerable scenes over the housework issue. Eventually doing all the housework yourself will be less painful to you than trying to get me to do half. Or I’ll suggest we get a maid. She will do my share of the work. You will do yours. It’s women’s work.
“I’ve got nothing against sharing the housework, but you can’ t make me do it on your schedule.” MEANING: Passive resistance. I’ll do it when I damned well please, if at all. If my job is doing dishes, it’s easier to do them once a week. If taking out laundry, once a month. If washing the floors, once a year. If you don’t like it, do it yourself oftener, and then I wont do it at all.
“I hate it more than you. You don’t mind it so much.” MEANING: Housework is garbage work. It’s the worst crap I’ve ever done. It’s degrading and humiliating for someone of my intelligence to do it. But for someone of your intelligence….
“Housework is too trivial to even talk about.” MEANING: It’s even more trivial to do. Housework is beneath my status. My purpose in life is to deal with matters of significance. Yours is to deal with matters of insignificance. You should do the housework.
“This problem of housework is not a man-woman problem. In any relationship between two people one is going to have a stronger personality and dominate.” MEANING: That stronger personality had better be me.
“In animal societies, wolves, for example, the top animal is usually a male even where he is not chosen for brute strength but on the basis of cunning and intelligence. Isn’t that interesting? MEANING: I have historical, psychological, anthropological and biological justification for keeping you down. How can you ask the top wolf to be equal?
“Women’s liberation isn’t really a political movement.” MEANING: The revolution is coming too close to home. ALSO MEANING: I am only interested in how I am oppressed, not how I oppress others. Therefore the war, the draft and the university are political. Women’s liberation is not.
“Man’s accomplishments have always depended on getting help from other people, mostly women. What great man would have accomplished what he did if he had to do his own housework?” MEANING: Oppression is built into the system and I, as the white American male, receive the benefits of this system. I don’t want to give them up.
Participatory democracy begins at home. If you are planning to implement your politics, there are certain things to remember.
1. He is feeling it more than you. He’s losing some leisure and you’re gaining it. The measure of your oppression is his resistance.
2. A great many American men are not accustomed to doing monotonous, repetitive work which never issues in any lasting, let alone important, achievement. This is why they would rather repair a cabinet than wash dishes. If human endeavors are like a pyramid with man’s highest achievements at the top, then keeping oneself alive is at the bottom. Men have always had servants (us) to take care of this bottom stratum of life while they have confined their efforts to the rarefied upper regions. It is thus ironic when they ask of women-Where are your great painters, statesmen, etc.? Mme. Matisse ran a military shop so he could paint. Mrs. Martin Luther King kept his house and raised his babies.
3. It is a traumatizing experience for someone who has always thought of himself as being against any oppression or exploitation of one human being by another to realize that in his daily life he has been accepting and implementing (and benefiting from) this exploitation; that his rationalization is little different from that of the racist who says, “Black people don’ t feel pain’ (women don’t mind doing the shitwork); and that the oldest form of oppression in history has been the oppression of 50 percent of the population by the other 50 percent.
4. Arm yourself with some knowledge of the psychology of oppressed peoples everywhere, and a few facts about the animal kingdom. I admit playing top wolf or who runs the gorillas is silly but as a last resort men bring it up all the time. Talk about bees. If you feel really hostile bring up the sex life of spiders. They have sex. She bites off his head. The psychology of oppressed peoples is not silly. Jews, immigrants, black men and all women have employed the same psychological mechanisms to survive’ admiring the oppressor, glorifying the oppressor, wanting to be like the oppressor, wanting the oppressor to like them, mostly because the oppressor held all the power.
5. In a sense, all men everywhere are slightly schizoid-divorced from the reality of maintaining life. This makes it easier for them to play games with it. It is almost a cliché that women feel greater grief at sending a son off to a war or losing him to that war because they bore him, suckled him, and raised him. The men who foment those wars did none of those things and have a more superficial estimate of the worth of human life. One hour a day is a low estimate of the amount of time one has to spend “keeping” oneself. By foisting this off on others, man has seven hours a week-one working day more to play with his mind and not his human needs. Over the course of generations it is easy to see whence evolved the horrifying abstractions of modern life.
6. With the death of each form of oppression, life changes and new forms evolve. English aristocrats at the turn of the century were horrified at the idea of enfranchising working men-were sure that it signaled the death of civilization and a return to barbarism. Some working men were even deceived by this line. Similarly with the minimum wage, abolition of slavery, and female suffrage. Life changes but it goes on. Don’t fall for any line about the death of everything if men take a turn at the dishes. They will imply that you are holding back the revolution (their revolution). But you are advancing it (your revolution).
7. Keep checking up. Periodically consider who’s actually doing the jobs. These things have a way of backsliding so that a year later once again the woman is doing everything. After a year make a list of jobs the man has rarely if ever done. You will find cleaning pots, toilets, refrigerators and ovens high on the list. Use time sheets if necessary. He will accuse you of being petty. He is above that sort of thing (housework). Bear in mind what the worst jobs are, namely the ones that have to be done every day or several times a day. Also the ones that are dirty-it’s more pleasant to pick up books, newspapers, etc., than to wash dishes. Alternate the bad jobs. It’s the daily grind that gets you down. Also make sure that you don’ t have the responsibility for the housework with occasional help from him. “I’ll cook dinner for you tonight” implies it’s really your job and isn’t he a nice guy to do some of it for you.
8. Most men had a rich and rewarding bachelor life during which they did not starve or become encrusted with crud or buried under the liner. There is a taboo that says women mustn’ t strain themselves in the presence of men-we haul around 50 pounds of groceries if we have to but aren’t allowed to open a jar if there is someone around to do it for us. The reverse side of the coin is that men aren’t supposed to be able to take care of themselves without a woman. Both are excuses for making women do the housework.
9. Beware of the double whammy. He won’t do the little things he always did because you’re now a “Liberated Woman,” right? Of course he won’t do anything else either….
I was just finishing this when my husband came in and asked what I was doing. Writing a paper on housework. Housework? he said. Housework? Oh my god how trivial can you get? A paper on housework.