In Defense of Domesticity [REPOST from]

Note: This article was originally written on July 03, 2005 as a Article. In my process of switching all articles over to this blog, I will be reposting old entries. What follows is in its original form without any editing.

Because of some crossed wires, I’m taking this month instead of johnmoon (he’ll be up for August). Since I’m in the middle of moving, I’m going to shamelessly plagiarize my own comment from a thread over at reappropriate. On our blog, I argued for the ability for people to choose what, if any, parts of traditional femininity and masculinity are right for them. Taking the argument to its logical conclusion, everyone should have the right to choose what kind of life is right for them whether it be working a job or taking care of the house and kids.

When I was younger, I was pretty much against anything feminine. My personality, combined with my having a backlash against what was expected of me, caused me to get into a “male-normative” mindset (meaning that I thought that traditionally male things were “normal” and traditionally feminine things were “bad”): I hated makeup, and “girly” clothing like dresses and skirts, and, yes, I looked down on people who aspired to the domestic. It took me a long time to step away from that mindset but it wasn’t until I got a big dose of feminist theory that I really understood why it’s so important to see things such as domestic labour as valuable.

Now, I can understand fighting hard to give people a true choice in what they want to do with their lives. I understand that, right now, domestic labour is de-valued and, in many cases, can make a woman into nothing more than a domestic slave. However, I don’t think the solution is to further degrade that labour but to show society how valuable it is. To show society that “womanly” things are just as good as “manly” things.

The facts are, not everyone wants to aspire to a male-normative life. Some people, women and men, want to raise a family and keep their home functioning properly. And, frankly, that should be seen as a good thing. Homemakers, unlike the stereotype, don’t sit on their asses all day eating bonbons and watching soap operas. They do work: they can clean, they can cook, they can garden, they can decorate, they can be in charge of the finances, they can have time to have hobbies that they enjoy, if there are children around they can take care of them, too. Society is built not only by the breadwinners, but also on the backs of people (historically women) who have kept the less visible parts running smoothly.

These are people who have given all their time to making sure the people around them are healthy, happy, and in good order. These are people who have sacrificed much of themselves in order to benefit their families. Desiring to be a homemaker is, for many people, about loving one’s family above everything and wanting to be the domestic backbone that keeps things going.

Saying that these people have no ambition, degrading the valuable work they do… that’s what’s been done to them for ages. Calling their valuable labour worthless is calling them worthless for wanting to do that labour. And that is an anti-feminist value. To work for equality, we need to see the value in the traditionally feminine and not just try to make everyone into “men”.

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7 thoughts on “In Defense of Domesticity [REPOST from]

  1. Tekanji,

    Taken in and of themselves, your discrete assertions make sense, but I’ve concerns about the conclusions you draw. It’s been my observation that the effort required to keep most households running smoothly is a part time job that is made up largely of tedious work. I’ve always suspected that these tedious tasks were traditionally assigned feminine qualities largely because of the bias that a woman A) would be unable to perform higher order tasks well and B) would be unlikely (or unable) to enjoy anything higher order. Traditionally female roles and traits aren’t inherently bad simply because they’re traditionally female – the reverse is true: many were traditionally assigned to women because they were undesirable and even damaging.

    While no one should be condemned for enjoying such tasks, I do wonder if it’s wise to place more value on the work then one would on any other essentially unskilled labor. Like any other unskilled labor, domestic work IS critical to the functioning of society and a person CAN distinguish themselves in it – if only by way of showing an exemplary work ethic. That said, it seems patronizing to treat a fulltime homemaker’s work as any more or less valuable then, say, a fulltime gardners work.

    I also worry that fulltime homemaking can be damaging to an adult’s mental health. It’s an isolating sort of work, that cuts people off from adult interaction. It’s also unlikely to fully realize a person’s esteem needs, as performing such work effectively doesn’t really stretch most individuals’ intellectual capacity. While people shouldn’t be condemned for wanting to do such work, I do think people should be encouraged to look beyond homemaking. It may serve as a nice sabatical for a few years, but I have difficulty believing that a person could spend their whole career’s as a homemaker without battling a variety of mental health issues along the way. People who spend too much time in a repetetive, tedious task become more susceptible to depression, malaise, and the like.

    I tend to view homemaking as a responsibility of the whole family. Every member of a family should be involved in maintaining the smooth functioning of a household. Delegating the work to one fulltime homemaker will tend to devalue the work in the eyes of the rest of the family, encourage taking the homemaker role for granted, and (by extension) encourage taking the person filling that role for granted.

    Part of giving people a true choice in what they want to do with their lives is education. A thorough education should familiarize people with the risks of voluntarily assuming a role that doesn’t sufficiently stretch their mental capabilities. At the same time, it should provide them with the logical tools to be able to both identify the needs that attract them to the role of homemaker and to locate innovative ways to satisfy those needs through more challenging roles.

    As always, I’d love to hear others’ takes,

  2. First off, I recommend that you read a related post I wrote, Feminism is about Choice. It goes into a bit more depth on my thoughts on free choice and our current lack of it.

    While I’d be interested to see the studies you’ve read that examine a correlation between repetitive tasks and damage to one’s health, I feel like you’re oversimplyfing domestic labor. While it undoubtedly includes tedious tasks, so do most paying jobs. Frankly, I believe how much one engages their mind is more of an individual issue (or perhaps a class, or overall education one) than it is a public sphere versus private sphere one. And I find the current reality, that of the hierarchy of public over private, to be a lot more patronizing (in the full sense of the word) than believing that domestic, unpaid labor is no more inherently better or worse than other forms of labor.

    An aspect of my argument that you’re missing (which is not focused on in this piece, but represented in my blogging as a whole) is that I believe that education and awareness are some of our best tools for deconstructing the patriarchy. But, my point here was that we cannot judge someone simply because they enjoy doing something we find to be boring/tedious/stupid. Attacking them is not the way to improve their situation, but improving the way we view and treat their interests can go a long way.

    In terms of domestic labor, putting a value on it and treating it as equally as valuable as tasks in the public sphere is the first step of education, which would hopefully be followed by things like equal participation in domestic tasks, parental leave, better support for parents (especially single ones) in the workforce, etc. In that case, both people who have the luxury of being a stay-at-home person and those who don’t will benefit, and as a result I believe everyone’s standard of living would improve. And, if you look at countries like Sweden, it seems that my theory isn’t too far off its mark.

  3. I *heart* you.

    I have a long involved set of reasons for supporting a similar position — mainly the importance of understanding the importance of such work so, in the so-called “public sphere,” we can have a better understanding of, not just what it takes to run a household, but what it takes to “run” a society. In a world where we consistently devalue the work we do in the home, is it any wonder we devalue it, marginalize it, etc in the public world?

    I think not.

    And there’s so much more, e.g., the concerns that it’s mindnumbing aren’t necessarily supported by research. What causes most problems in terms of the work is the combination of the work being devalued _and_ the social conditions under which the work is done Being dependent on someone for money causes huge problems in most relationships. The privatized nature of the family in contempoary US life places burdens on our expectations of family life. Then there’s the way we conceive of the career trajectory, which caters entirely to employers: many careers expect you to start out rather poorly paid, working your butt off to prove yourself, etc all during our “child bearing” years. You are penalized for being out of the paid workforce for more than a year, hell 6 months is too long for some employers who start to wonder, “What kind of loser are you that you weren’t employed?”

    That’s just a few things we might also change to take away any so-called tediousness.

    And I agree with you Tekanji: i love doing housework, cleaning. But maybe that’s a function of the fact that, well, most of my life was, ’til I had that brief two year stint at home, I was already doing the tedious crap as a job. It really incenses me to no end to learn what sh*t people think my life was.

    …. because it didn’t sufficiently stretch my mental capacities! Geez!

  4. I’m glad my post resonated with you, BL! And thanks for offering your own experiences. I often find it a bit weird to talk about these sorts of issues because I offer a completely outsider POV.

  5. I’d like to start by apologizing for any offense I may have given, Bitchlab (although my keenly honed intuition detected the slightest hint of a scoff in your indignation).

    Tekanji, you’re right. I’ve not been reading this blog long enough to view your post in the larger framework of your previous writing. I’d normally lurk quite a bit longer before actively participating in a new blog, but in the short time I’ve been here you’ve done an excellent job of bringing up points that I couldn’t resist discussing. Thank you for the additional link and calling me on my averment about repetition and mental health – between the two, you started me on a line of thought that’s helped me start rooting out a closely held bias of mine. And here I thought I’d seen the last of those!

    Before I go into that, however, I’m afraid that I wasn’t emphatic enough about one point – I don’t think that the public sphere should be valued over the private sphere. Rather, I think the private sphere should be evaluated at precisely the same level as the public sphere. As I said before, a homemaker shouldn’t be valued any more or less then someone employed as a gardner or landscaper. I don’t believe that either a gardner or a homemaker should be looked down on for their work, but I’ve always believed that the statements I made about a homemaker could just as easily be made about a professional gardner (to continue working with my public sphere example of what I perceive to be a tedious job).

    At this juncture, I was going to go on to make several points about my views on tedium and repetition. While I can’t show a causal relationship between tedium and depression I thought I could at least show a correlation between the two. As I considered other possible examples of work in both the public and private spheres that seem to share essential qualities with homemaking, I stumbled accross an example that showed a discrepancy in my thinking.

    I’ve always considered work that can be accomplished with minimal mental engagement to be a waste of a precious resource. Under this view, I’ve harbored the belief that the majority of repetitious work will eventually be automated out of existance and humanity will be better off for the loss.

    The one example that shows this thinking to be nothing short of bigotry is full-time atheletics. I’ve alwasy found it maddening anytime I’ve had to be involved in work which I could accomplish as well “zoned out” as I could paying close attention. Strangely enough, full time athletes (professional or otherwise) voluntarily involve themselves in the same mentally detached repetition that I’ve always been bothered by in any other role. I’ve never, however, viewed their effort as being wasteful. The more I considerd this example, the more I’ve realized that I was looking at gardening, homemaking, operating a cash register, stocking shelves, punching down cables, calibrating lens grinders, entering data, listening to political punditry, and driving a Zamboni through the lens of my own personal prejudice.

    Thanks for the thought provoking explanations,

    PS – Bitchlab, while I’ve always been a fan of mentoring and apprenticeship, I aggree completely about the corrupt nature of an environment in which aspiring specialists are exploited in what often amounts to wage-slavery for the more productive years of their lives, only to be rewarded with windfalls at the point once they’re so relieved to finally have a respite that they can’t bring themselves to question subjecting their successor’s to the same misuse.

  6. Perinteger wrote: “I’d like to start by apologizing for any offense I may have given, Bitchlab (although my keenly honed intuition detected the slightest hint of a scoff in your indignation).”

    I’m not sure what that means — the part in parentheses?

    Also, thanks for advice and offer to read log re: my q yesterday about Bitch | Lab. Very kind of you.

    Oh, and in my view, all of it’s wage-slavery. None of us ever escape it, unless you’re among the, what?, 5% of the world that doesn’t have to work to live but, instead, lives off the labor of others.

  7. Bitchlab,

    The parenthetical was my weak attempt at self-deprecating humor. I’m still not accomplished at identifying the sorts of situations in which my peculiar sense of humor fails to translate well into text.

    No worries about the logs – a large chunk of my job responsibilities for a few years involved parsing through web logs (I’ve already mentioned an aversion to repetitious work, right?), so a few unique scenarios manifest themselves more plainly (to me) through the logs then through external symptoms. I know how frustrating it can be to pick up that experience, so I don’t mind lending it out to people who are doing good work in other areas.


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