Housewifely Virtues 1: Clothing Management

Sharon May 5th, 2009

I must thank a particular reader, who I will leave anonymous, for this series.  I got an email from a reader praising my work very kindly and in terms of great enthusiasm, and stating that she felt that various famous national magazines should be carrying my work.  This was all very flattering, until she got to the main point of her letter, which was to offer me constructive criticism about my “obsession with the housewifely virtues crap.”  She asked that I stop “wasting myself” writing about food storage and preservation, cooking and parenting  and write more of the “public intellectual” pieces that she so admires.  She cited several examples, and hoped that I’d take the message in the spirit in which it was intended, because, after all, it was for my own good.

I actually rather think I did take it as intended ;-) .  And I took it precisely as I take the largish number of emails I get from people who think I should stop trying to write policy, theoretical or intellectual pieces that were “too long” and “boring” and just concentrate on giving people practical advice that they can use, while leaving the big issues to the grownups - that is, I laughed.  And being contrary, I went off to write precisely the sort of piece my correspondent hates.  So I thank her for the inspiration.

The thing is, I am a housewife.  I like to think I’m a bit of an intellectual, but much of my day to day life is that of mistress of the house – co leader with my husband (whose title also implies binding to the home) of a household.  This is  true regardless of whether I work professionally or only in the domestic sphere – I believe that holding house, with all its connotations of making a comfortable place to live, thift and all that other stuff is good and important work, which I have to do no matter what else I do.  Yeah, I write, but I also do laundry.  IMHO, the idea that these things are fundamentally split – that the life of the mind happens at the computer, maybe in the garden, but never, ever, while folding clothes, seems wrong, and kind of demeaning to all of us, male or female, who would rather not have the laundry piled up on the floor. 

I think the choice not to find domestic life interesting is, in fact a choice.  That is, I don’t find that laundry or dishes are inherently less interesting than, say, the annual business report – we have decided they are, but because we have done so, there’s probably actually much more to be said about how to do the dishes quickly and well, or how to manage laundry well than has been.  The reality is that these things matter – they take up our time and energy and money, and the flow of those things – resources, time, personal and fossil energies, are important.  I keep waiting for permaculturists to start writing books about domestic management, because I think this is territory insufficiently explored and of a great deal of use.  Until they do, I’ll put it on my agenda.

So I thought I’d write about the problem of clothing management, which I must admit is one of the banes of my existence.  For a couple of adults with no children, this may seem like a minor task, although I hope I may have someting to offer even then.  But since I live in a house with four growing kids, a very limited clothing budget, no time to shop and not much inclination to do so, I’ve had to get fairly good at all of this, despite my inherent lack of organization.

I do all the laundry, and all the clothing management in our household – we share the domestic work fairly evenly, but I like doing laundry and Eric doesn’t, and he does floors in trade.  I also purchase all the clothing, almost all from yard sales and thrift shops – the only things I consistently buy new are pajamas for my oldest son, because footed fleece pjs (part of our “staying warm in a cool house” plan) in size 14 are hard to come by (although once in a while I manage to snag even these).  I also do all the mending, because I don’t like having to rip it out, and Eric is constitutionally incapable of not sewing the pants together or something.

Because sometimes the pickings in a particular size are abundant and sometimes not, I buy clothing three sizes ahead of my current maximum.  At the moment, my youngest son is wearing size 4T, and Eli is wearing size 12, and I have yet to pass on the 2T and 3T clothes, so I have clothing in sizes ranging from 2T to size 18, as well as a small stash of baby clothes that I have held onto for sentimental reason.  This is a lot of clothes.  I keep a list of current sizes (I can then pass this list on to friends and family who will keep an eye out for me), and the sizes I am looking for (which also include clothes for my nieces and some friends’ kids) – thus, I can immediately find out whether I need a pair of size six snowpants or not.

In addition, I have two kids using diapers at least part of the time, and my family lives on a farm, so I do *a lot* of laundry, folding, mending and putting away.  Because my annual budget for clothing is quite small (we clothe the kids on less than $300 per year for all four of them – many years much, much less), I need to keep the clothes in good order, and be reasonably careful about management.  I admit, this is not my favorite chore – but it is important because it saves us a *lot* of money, and time.

The first strategy I found useful in terms of time management, was to convert from dressers to open shelving in closets for all of our clothing needs.  I personally find dressers annoying – if they are full, it is hard to get the clothes in and the drawers shut, and kids are constantly pulling things out of them.  Because the dressers were in their room, they got climbed on, which is dangerous, and left open and emptied out, which is annoying.  Plus, that meant that I was bringing clothes upstairs to put them away, and then downstairs to wash, which meant there were always laundry baskets at the foot of the stairs.  Suddenly, one day, it occurred to me that we had a long row of shelving in the laundry room, that was holding up stored items, but that would fit the kids clothes.  Now, I use open shelving for their clothes and ours, and am finally about to move *our* clothing downstairs, out of our bedroom, and into a closet with open shelving (an old bookcase has been used for this) so that I can put it away more quickly and easily.  The only clothes that go upstairs are pajamas, and we come down in them to dress.  This means no more searching, and less time hauling.  Obviously, we have the space for this, and other people may prefer to use dressers, but I don’t like them – I find seeing everything useful, and things less messy this way. 

The second thing I do is to try and keep myself from going nuts and laundry from eating my life is to keep laundry to a minimum – even our minimum is a lot, of course, but if I can keep it down, this is more time for other things I like better.  That means that I double check my kids clothes before they go into the laundry – my kids have a tendency to throw things in even if they are rewearable.  My husband, on the other hand, has a tendency to overstate the rewearability of clothing, so the stuff he gives me to be put back on the shelf gets a quick look over and sniff test to see if I share his basic opinion that the pants will go one more day. 

We replace most disposable items with cloth ones, so this adds to the laundry.  To cut back on the laundry, we have oilcloth tablecloths, air out things that simply need a bit of airing and try to remember to change into work/play clothes before we start running about in the yard.  I really should become an apron person, but I haven’t been, but it is a wise habit to pick up.

Shopping at yard sales and thrift shops takes time, of course, so I try and plan for it, particularly since I don’t shop on Saturdays, our Sabbath, which is the biggest yard sale day here.  Many of my local sales have a Friday preview day, and I try and go then, and our area has a history of town-wide sales, often lasting a whole weekend, and these are great sources.  Sometimes we take the kids, but except for Isaiah, who has a natural talent for spotting bargains, they get tired quickly of sorting through unorganized piles of clothing, so I plan several times a year to go alone and leave the kids with Eric.  Although we’ve got a good local Goodwill, there’s much better thrift and consignment shopping near my mother in Boston, and I try and stock up there once or twice a year.  I also happily accept other people’s cast offs, passing on anything we can’t use to others. I occasionally shop at consignment stores, but these usually have higher prices, so I use them mostly for hard-to-find items.

Out of season and out of size clothes is kept in labelled bins, one for each size (18 mos, 12, etc…).  Shoes are kept by size on shelves – yes, we do pass on shoes here – the best research I’ve found suggests that the old “shoes are so personal that you can’t pass them on” thing is a myth.  Twice a year (usually April and August) I do a full sort out of the bins, a job I loathe, and reorganize the kids shelves.  I do a little of this at intermediate periods as they grow out of things. 

Having four kids, and also two farmworking adults, I’ve become passionate on the subject of buying clothing that really lasts.  Most children’s clothing lasts at most, through two kids (this is true of most children’s goods, too), but I’ve a few brands where I consistently am able to pass things on through all four.  Lands End sleepers, for example, don’t suffer regularly from either broken zippers or worn out feet.  While Hanna Andersson is mostly a girl’s supplier, the occasional boys item I’ve gotten from them just wears and wears.  It isn’t always a matter of high-end stuff lasting better, though – Gap clothing wears out extremely quickly, I find, while cheaper Carters stuff lasts and lasts.  When you shop, look at how it is put together – do you see any signs of fraying, or wear?  How are the zippers, buttons and seams?    When buying children’s pants, because my sons are all (except Asher) entirely buttless, I have learned that adjustable waists are essential – otherwise, they will be running around with their underpants hanging out.

Mens clothing tends to be tougher and more durable than most women’s clothing, and being six feet tall, I can wear a lot of guy’s stuff – in fact, because I have freakishly long arms, I find they fit better.  I no longer am sufficiently hipless to wear men’s jeans easily, but I routinely buy men’s shirts, and find they hold up to tough wear better.  Men’s t-shirts are often made of heavier cotten, their flannel shirts usually have heavier cuffs, and I find the buttons are even sewn on better – worth checking even for smaller people than I.  I can often find mens Carharts and other work clothes at yard sales and thrift shops, but almost never find women’s clothes.  I do find women’s surgical scrubs, though, and these make excellent (and comfortable) work clothes as well.

I will say, however, I find skirts to be more comfortable than pants for many enterprises.  Wide ones have good stretchability, and I can even climb trees in them (if I wear a pair of cotton shorts underneath).  They are lighter and cooler than most pants in the summer, but more comfortable to garden in than shorts, since they provide some knee protection (here I am not speaking obviously of miniskirts).  In winter, layered over leggings or long johns or even light pants, they are warmer than pants alone and less bulky and more flexible than pants and long johns.  I have “work skirts” as well as dress ones – denim is good, as is heavy cotton, and find they last better than most jeans or work pants.

Eli, my oldest, is a magnet for stains.  Unfortunately, he also looks just gorgeous – I mean angelic and astonishingly handsome – in white.  Thus, I can occasionally be tempted into buying something white or cream for him, on the theory that I will keep an eye on him.  This is almost always doomed to failure, and I am trying to stop doing it.  Generally speaking, I rarely buy anything white, cream or pale yellow for any of my kids, except the occasional “shul shirt” which gets put on immediately before we depart for synagogue and taken off the minute we get home.  Eli, unfortunately, gets his prediliction for stainage entirely from his mother, who is a notorious slob, so this is good advice for me too.

This strategy for clothing management is almost certainly easier if you have children and a spouse who don’t care much about what they wear.  This is mostly true in my family.  Eli would prefer strongly to wear nothing, but if forced to wear clothing, will tolerate my choices.  Simon would prefer to wear his Harry Potter shirt (Goodwill) every day, but accepts that this is not an option philosophically, and doesn’t much care otherwise.  Isaiah does have strong opinions about his clothing, and insists on being involved in the selection process – but also is willing to do the work.  Asher has strong opinions about pajamas, which must be pink (not really hard to do at his size), and about underpants, which should meet the same criteria.  Eric doesn’t much care what he wears, although seems to have a preference for things with holes in them ;-) .  I realize that some of this will change as the first four hit their teen years, and anticipate this with some trepidation.  Those who have people who care will either have to teach them to find their own stuff, or prepare to spend more time or more money.

So far, my kids are pretty comfortable with passing things down to one another – they occasionally are disappointed when they outgrow a particularly beloved item, but generally we make a big deal about the fact that they are growing, and getting bigger, and everyone is excited about it.  The kids like to hear the lineage of the clothing they wear…
“This shirt came from cousin Jake, and then Simon wore it, and now…” or “Remember, you helped me pick out that jacket at…”  At one point, five year old Isaiah asked his GNew York City Grandmother, who is not a thrift shop shopper, “Wow, Grandma, did you get this at Goodwill?”  Despite the general laughter, I was glad that my son thinks that good things come from thrift shops.

I should add that the reason my kids are as well dressed as they are, and I am able to do this is also due to the kindness of family members, who often buy my children high quality new clothing for birthdays and holidays.  The kids do get a few new things every year, and are very excited by them.  My sisters and mother also track sales and visit consignment shops and yard sales and pick things up for my kids – more eyes help in this project.  We are also the recipient of a great deal of generosity from my mother’s neighbor, my step-sister in law, my friend Elaine and others. 

I hate to sew, and for a long time “mending” actually meant “taking the clothes and putting them on the mending pile and waiting for the child to outgrow the item while feeling guilty about not ever fixing them.”  This is not a good way of saving money or making good use of things.  I have now managed to mostly fix this problem, by making a simple rule – I cannot knit until I have mended one item in my pile.  Since I love to knit, this forces me to get the sewing over with, and mostly keep up with it.  I have tried to divide the work of mending with Eric, but he is so spectacularly awful at it that this does not work.  I do make him iron on patches on jean knees, which is lazier than proper patching, but does the job.

I do not do zipper repairs well, and it is astonishing how often zippers are the thing that fails on an item.  What I’ve gotten in the habit of doing is cutting the zipper out, adding a strip of some heavy fabric scavenged from another item of clothing, ideally a bit with a nice heavy seem on the edge anyway, and cutting button holes in it, and attaching buttons.  I find this much easier than replacing the zippers.  I’ve also gotten good with Rit and other dyes for white shirts that have permanent stains or yellowing on them.  Amy Dacyzyn’s _The Complete Tightwad Gazette_ has a number of wonderful strategies for repairing slightly damaged clothing, and making it look good.

Socks and underwear do wear out rapidly, and while I will darn homemade or high quality socks, I draw the line at darning my husband’s sweat socks, which he buys in bulk – he purchases ones that are slightly imperfect.  They last until they get turned into rags, and by the time he stops wearing them (remember aforementioned prediliction for holes) they usually are undarnable.  I buy all the kids socks in white when I can, so I don’t have to do much matching - just grab two of comparable size.  I actually don’t personally believe in matching socks - during high school and college, I used to wear dramatically mismatched socks all the time, and I still like them that way.  Saves time and energy to just dump them in the drawer or an open basket and grab by weight or juxtaposition of color.  Eric likes the opposite strategy  - all white or all black, so they all match.  The kids like to pick their own socks, and seem to have gotten my genes for mismatches. 

We rotate clothing by what we are doing.  On days when we are mostly in the house (or for the parts of them that we are, say when I’m working at the computer), I usually wear Pajamas – but they didn’t always start out as pajamas – when shirts, sweats and loose cotton pants become too ratty to wear in public, they are moved over to the “pj” pile.  The same goes with sweats, tshirts and soft long sleeved shirts for the boys.  Or they are put into the “work/play clothes” pile, to be worn on days when we know we’re not going to be seen by anyone.  I try to remember to change into these clothes as often as possible to preserve the good ones.

Thus, a new shirt and pants arriving for Eli’s birthday, would at first be worn only for school or synagogue.  Gradually as wear began to show I might get lax about it, not bothering to change him out of it after school.  By the time they were passed down to Simon, they might be unfit for the nicest days, but perfectly suitable for regular days.  By the time they hit Isaiah, they would be “play clothes only” or maybe pajamas.  Odds are, before they hit Asher, they’d have become rags, diaper wipes, rag rugs or quilting fabric.  I’ve even experimented with making paper out of old clothes too thin to use for rags or quilting.  If all else fails, natural fibers can be composted – this is why I buy mostly natural fibers, although I’m fond of the judicious use of polar fleece, as long as they are making it.

The same is true of Eric’s and my clothing.  Nice stuff gets worn for synagogue or professional activities.  After a while, it gets worn to the grocery store, but not for the best occasions.  Eventually, it becomes either scrap, work clothes, or an extra layer under something else – if I’m going to give it away, I try to do it at the mid-point.

What we do with the scraps depends on the material they are made from – denim makes great quilts and braided rugs, flannel wonderful quilted duvet covers.  Wool sweaters can be unravelled and reknit, or they can be felted and used to make cut out mittens and hats or other items.  Old polar fleece pjs make great quilts.

I have a separate laundry bin now for “nice” clothes, because otherwise, if the laundry builds up for some reason, they can get buried under the other clothes, and aren’t ready when we need them.  I try to wash our synagogue clothes every Sunday, and have them ready to go, and to make sure that both of us have appropriate clothing ready and clean in case we have to attend a funeral or a short-notice professional event.  I know some people need these kinds of clothes five days a week, while others never dress up at all. 

I rarely iron.  In fact, when Simon was tested before kindergarten with a picture-words test, the only word he missed was “ironing board” and I laughingly admitted to the person administering the test later, that that was because he might never have seen one ;-) .  I hang my clothes out on windy days, and try and buy clothes that won’t need ironing.  The same is true about dry cleaning – I realize this isn’t an option for everyone, of course, but if you can avoid it, it is worth doing so.  For making clothing look nice, I think there’s nothing like line drying on a windy day – I sometimes plan my washings around them.

I wash everything, including diapers, in cold water, with a cold rinse.  We did replace our old washing machine with a front loader last year, after the old one began shredding my clothing, and I have to say that I have come as close to expressing love for an industrial appliance as I ever will with it – using less detergent, less water and less energy, it gets the clothes cleaner.  I also do some hand washing – I soak the clothes a good long time, give them a rub or squeeze, and rinse.  I do more of this in the warm weather, since it is a pleasure then, and the kids can often be persuaded to help, simply for the chance to get sopping wet.  No need to do major wringing – just hang and let it drip unless you need it soon.

I lived a long, long time without a personal washing machine, and I think if I didn’t have children, I’d probably hand wash or just go to the laundromat.  The investment in a front loader was worth it for our large household, but wouldn’t be for a smaller one. 

I try and do sheets every other week, but there’s a bit of bedwetting here, and it doesn’t always work like that.  There are rubberized pads that can go over sheets to keep them dry – that helps a bit.  My only other answer on this front is to keep praying that if the grid ever does do an extended crash, it is after everyone is fully toilet trained and done wetting the bed ;-) .

Ultimately, clothing is about keeping on top of things.  When our washer died last year, in the middle of the hottest, rainiest period of the summer, the laundry pile built up, I got mildew, and some of the clothes got holes.  If I keep organized, I can deal with the laundry in a matter of a few minutes a day – but if I let it build, I have to give it my time and attention on a much greater scale.


88 Responses to “Housewifely Virtues 1: Clothing Management”

  1. MEA says:

    So, why didn’t he do it? If he thought that high caste people should tote their own chamber pots, he should have done it. IMO, being a good houseperson doesn’t mean insisting others perform certain household tasks becuase you have moral objects to them not performing those tasks.

    Or to but it another way, does marriage allow a man to hold his wife to his moral standards? Should it?


  2. Greenpa says:

    MEA- I’m not sure where you got your information there- Gandhi swept up dung (human) and emptied chamber pots all his life.

    And in his case- he was trying to change the behavior of many millions of people. He knew it; everyone around him knew it. His wife “made a face” when she was carrying the chamber pot of a “low caste” worker- and he got angry with her.

    I think I forgive him. And her.

  3. To the person who posted about Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelsohn – I love that book and give it as gifts for weddings, housewarmings or college graduation. It’s readable – essays on sleep, food, comfort etc. But it’s also encyclopedic.

    I will never, ever keep house to her standard or even 50%. But she’s helped me improve my housekeeping by 50% so that’s something, right? And I am a great one for airing beds, rooms etc. thanks to her.

    Re making the list for someone else – this could be computerized. In fact there are housekeeping and organizing sites all over that print such lists. Why couldn’t it be a spreadsheet? Chores, sorted by day of week, zone, difficulty, person responsible, you name it.

    Shopping lists too could be automated. Have a form you create and print out on (used) paper. Tick off the items you need to replenish.


  4. MEA says:

    Oh, Lord. Since I took my facts from the biography written by one of their sons, it might be considered biaseed. He reports Ba recountin the arguement (which was, he claims she said, fierce) as an example how she would try to understand her husband’s point of view, even when she disagreed with it. (In this case, the chamber pot has been used by a Christian visitor.)

    Frankly, I consider her as remarkable person as her husband — her role in the Indenpence Movement is often overlooked.

    But whatever the case, I still think that just becuase he was his husband he had no right to expect her to conform to his standard. I’d say that of any person and that person’s partner.

    And I think, and don’t expect anyone to agree, that using housework to forward your own politcal agenda, even something as worthwhile as ending caste, is not a good example of a housewifely virtue.

    I’m also not sure how much one can learn about housekeeping from someone who had at the end of his life only three posession.

    Keeping in mind, I’ve just talking about housewifely virtues and housework — not any larger discussion of Gandhi’s character or life.


  5. Greenpa says:

    MEA. Good source! But yeah, likely to be a bit biased-

    I do feel that Gandhi’s situation here is different-

    “But whatever the case, I still think that just becuase he was his husband he had no right to expect her to conform to his standard. I’d say that of any person and that person’s partner.”

    I’d certainly agree with you- except maybe, in Gandhi’s case. :-)

    His entire LIFE was about his moral standards. Everyone in his community was THERE because they believed in his MORAL teachings- and everyone in his community was expected to try to live up to them.

    Except his wife? Ow. I could see how that could generate a lot of internal marital tension- which could snap both parties into a good fuss once in a while.

    Nice to see him as entirely human, I think. And I agree- she’s rather undervalued by history. But not, I think, by Gandhi himself.

  6. I’m old enough to have been a housewife, then a homemaker, and now back to housewife, or so it seems. Obviously archaic myself, I think I’ll go with ’shameless hussy.’ Don’t think I’ve been that one before.

    PS Husband, bonded to the house or not, only ‘helps out’ as a favor to me, and even then only once in a while. But I keep him anyway. He is good at fixing things, is tolerably good company, and does the taxes. Besides, I’m finding that the more I immerse myself in self-sufficiency, the more satisfied I am with myself and my life. Still learning — long way to go — but headed in the right direction.

  7. Christina says:

    Rosa, the connecting spectrum that you see (re Quiverfull and green frugal bloggers) is common if not universal; most people think of a spectrum as linear but it is usually spherical (or circular at least). I see it in homeschooling as well – a place of conjunction between the radical left and the radical right. Peak preparedness, ditto – a common space for the rightist militia commando response as well as leftist communal homesteading response. Strange bedfellows indeed :-)

  8. NM says:

    LOL, I love this discussion! I’m going with shameless hussy alewife; love the idea of it, though I’m nowhere near busty enough for the (movie-inspired tavern wench) image in my head. Now to learn to brew, and acquire appropriate alewife clothing … believe that’s going to require learning to spin, too…
    My mother’s idea of darning socks was to drop them in the trash can and say “Oh, darn.” I have plans to mend clothing … and a pile of items I gathered up to mend … ulp … about 15 years ago, and put neatly into a bag, to help facilitate the process.
    I bought Home Comforts in a desperate bid to learn how to keep a house, upon realizing my knowledge was woefully lacking. It’s a great book! Now I have more of the knowledge, the skill, however, is another matter … or maybe that’s the will to devote sufficient time to the endeavor. There aren’t enough hours in the day.
    Speaking of which, I’d better go home and tackle the laundry. And the dog hair on the floor.

  9. Clif says:

    Zippers! Don’t rip it out, or toss the coat! I had a zipper go out on my winter coat, and after googling it, I found out how to fix a zipper! I’ve done this on several coats, now. It seems that after a while, the halves of the zipper slider spread apart, and will no longer zip up, or as I found out, *unzip* while you are wearing it. Here’s what you do: take a small pair of pliers, and *gently* squeeze the halves of the slider together a bit. Do this on both side of the slider, then try it. when you’ve squeezed it shut enough, you’ll find out that your busted, useless coat zipper works again! Yay!

  10. Sharon says:

    Rosa, I’m not even sure that the links between conservative Christian quiverfull types and the leftist radical homemakers (as Shannon Hayes puts it) is a bad thing. While I’m somewhat skeptical of patriarchy in general, I tend to think that a culture of submission of any kind is probably better than a culture that believes in submission to nothing (ie, the mainstream), and I find that the common ground is sufficient. Everyone doesn’t have to believe what I do for the same reasons.


  11. Raye says:

    Thanks, Sharon, good stuff! I am becoming an apron person. I have three, and more and more, remember to don one before grubby housework or gardening.

    For now, I have stopped buying clothes (budget breather). But eventually I am going to need to begin again. There are a few places around that I need to check out. As you point out, time must be set aside for such ventures. I am going to try to use up what I can.

    I like skirts with shorts underneath, and I can get just about anything done that I need to wearing skirts or jumpers.

    Thanks for your inspiration and ideas!

  12. MEA says:

    Greenpa, you raise in interesting question in terms of what to committe couples owe each other in the way of behavior. Does it change if they consider them selves husbands and wife or spouses or partners? Does it matter if they chose each other or not?

  13. Rosa says:

    “I tend to think that a culture of submission of any kind is probably better than a culture that believes in submission to nothing”

    Well, that’s it – I don’t believe that at ALL. If the price of sustainability is to lose whatever ground we’ve gained against hierarchies and patriarchy in particular, maybe we ought to just let the place warm up and another species evolve into dominance.

    Every time I come face-to-face with the levels of violence and abuse “traditional” families (and other hierarchies, like racism) support and depend on, I go back to this place where I feel like any soft stance on hierarchy is just assisting abusers, and the “we have to value the work of the home and choose to think it’s interesting” is SO MUCH like what the “so every woman should be stuck at home and if she won’t do that we should force her to with economic and maybe violent force” crowd says, it makes me uncomfortable.

  14. Sharon says:

    Rosa, I guess I don’t really agree that our society has become dramatically less patriarchal or hierarchical, and thus, less abusive, if that is your claim. That is, I haven’t seen the magic decline in women being raped, for example, or in abusive families. And I think that structurally, modern patriarchy is just as violent – it simply offshores and sanitizes much of the violence it perpetrates on poorer people, particularly poorer women. I am delighted that we’ve managed to make it easier, for example, for women to leave abusive husbands, or to prosecute the abuse of children, but I don’t think we should take these for more than they are. Perhaps because I grew up in a violent and deeply non-traditional household, I’m not that impressed.

    I think that a particular class of western women lives not so much free of patriarchal hierarchies, but exempted to a moderate degree from them, and often, enabling them. I am a feminist, and opposed to patriarchy, but since I’m still meaningfully and functionally operating in a corporatized, highly hierarchical, repressive patriarchy, I find it hard to leap upon other people operating within patriarchy who are trying to navigate their opposition to the corporatized bits of it. I know some quiverfull folk who I think of as deeply deluded, and some whose version of submission – in which both wife and husband are submissive to a larger theological authority – is not my personal way of getting at a revision of the world, but who I can definitely work with.

    I also can think of no example of a non-hierarchical society – even in the most egalitarian traditional societies there are hierarchies of age and family that apply. Can you? I ask this sincerely – if we are to say that all hierarchy is bad, and we should be working towards a non-hierarchical society, that means we have to postulate one, and models would be helpful. At best, I think we can work towards more just (not perfectly just) hierarchies. I agree, patriarchy ain’t one of the goodies – but since I don’t see any modern industrial society that has fully succeeded in overthrowing patriarchy – in fact, I’d argue that industrialization and modernity are by their very nature patriarchal in many ways, I’m not sure that the better, more intellectually interesting strains of the Christian women’s movements (and there are more intellectually interesting and nuanced ones – they aren’t all cartoons) aren’t one way of engaging the problem of modernity.

    As for your discomfort, I simply don’t buy your analysis. I think the two statements are notably different, actually – and since the “feminist” alternative from mainstream feminism has largely been “we should outsource women’s work to the public economy, mostly to a new class of non-white untouchable women (and men) who clean toilets, serve food, watch children” I think that that has radically enforced both hierarchy of class and patriarchy. I don’t like the fact that the quiverfull folk think that it should always be women doing the toilet scrubbing, or that they are teaching their daughters that. That said, at least the members of their household are scrubbing their own damned toilets, rather than paying poorer, non-white women pushed off their land to do it, while praising the fact that the affluent folks’ daughters can grow up to be doctors. Nor are those women working 45 hours a week, commuting home, picking up the kids at the daycare that eats up 70% of their income, and then scrubbing their toilet because their husband doesn’t do that work. Often enough, the women and kids in all those households get smacked around, and the women get raped. I don’t much like looking for the mote in other people’s eyes.


  15. dewey says:

    Home Comforts is on my permanent reference shelf too, but it gives me the same kind of nervous twitch that Quiverfull gives some people here. The author is obviously an OCD sufferer, and I can imagine too well what life must be like for her kid.

  16. Rosa says:

    And now you’re arguing against a strawman feminism that isn’t what I subscribe to either.

    I think I’m going to go away for another week and think about this some more.

  17. Laurie in MN says:

    Really quick response to Liz, because I have to get back to work. (Ironically enough, I sew for a living. ;)

    Properly done, handsewing is actually *stronger* than a lot of machine sewing. The reason is that you have a single strand (or however many strands you stitch with — I usually double my thread) going all the way through the fabric, as opposed to in machine sewing where you have the upper thread and lower thread meeting in the middle of the fabric. THAT is your weak point, and why most seams “pop” rather than rip the fabric out. I might be aware that an item is mended and not put it in the heavy duty cycle that spins the snot out of clothing ;) but otherwise, it should be OK. Start on something small and not delicate, and see how it goes.

    To learn the stitching: Get a good basic sewing book and study the hand stitches. What you want for a LOT of patching and mending is a back stitch or tiny, tiny running stitch which you stitch BOTH ways, so that there is a solid seam. Dang — this is easier with visuals….

    Plain running stitch seam, not so good:
    - – – – – -

    Double running stitch, much better:

    If you are in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, let me know. Sharon has my permission to pass on my e-mail address if necessary. I’d be happy to get together with you and show you some stuff! :) If you are not, check out your local community ed., or sewing stores to see if there is anyone willing to teach you what you need to know. Books are good; having someone at your elbow gently correcting you as you go is even better. :)

  18. Laurie in MN says:

    I kind of like the reclaimation of the word “hussy”, and hey! I have the bustline to support it! Woo-hoo! ;)

  19. Rosa says:

    Hey, Sharon, if you’d go back and delete that last comment of mine, I’d appreciate it. It came off a lot snottier than I intended. How I deal with this discomfort isn’t really anybody else’s problem.

  20. MEA says:

    Sharon is your point better a flawed system that give people some good that no system that results in no good at all?

    In other words — if a woman is of her own free will (and let’s not argue here if that’s possible) in a marriage where both partners agree that if there is a conflict over what to do, after both have given it prayerful consideration, the husband makes the final decision and the wife is bound to obey it and the privilage is not abused, it’s better than a system where by people are free to do what the bloodly please, no matter who gets hurt?

    While I have serious problems with anyone turning their moral direction and discerment over to someone else (for various reasons that I won’t go into now) I think I understand your arguement.


  21. Liz says:

    Thanks, Laurie! Unfortunately, I live in North Carolina, soon to move to Tennessee, so it’s a little to far to drop by. :) But I’ll check out the books at the library and sewing classes in my area(s).

  22. NM says:

    Very interesting discussion between Sharon and Rosa. What popped into my head was a comment I’ve read that in some societies, it’s considered quite rude and inconsiderate to do your own housework, if you can possibly afford to hire a maid, because you are depriving said maid of a job.
    I assume — or maybe just fervently hope — that the belief is accompanied by respect for maids …
    I once read a defense of exported sweatshops, by otherwise thoughtful people, that is still haunting me. The gist was something about people being willing to endure the conditions, for the money, to try to make their lives better … Uh, yeah! … And as more and more of them work in the sweatshops, that will just naturally lead to greater prosperity and improving conditions.
    Worked so well for us, you know …

  23. Claire says:

    Another potential source of clothes is finding them in the street, abandoned. At least my DH can find them this way. I don’t know if it is particular to where we live (a lower-income suburb of St. Louis) or if it is a more general phenomenon. But so far he’s found shorts he can wear around the house and/or as pajamas, lots of bandannas, a couple of T-shirts, and most astonishingly, a nearly brand-new pair of men’s Levis, 34W 34L, that fit me well enough to have become the pair of jeans I otherwise would have had to buy this summer.

    I wear jeans mostly, lined jeans from LL Bean in cold weather, unlined jeans either from LLB or from a garage sale/thrift store in warmer weather. LLB’s jeans seem to last the longest and fit me the best, so if I buy new, I buy from them. I usually keep three pairs each of lined and unlined jeans as my wear-in-public pairs, and done this way each pair will last 3 or 4 years or longer. Once a pair gets worn enough that I no longer want to be seen in public in them, they become gardening/painting/work clothes and last for a few more years. My parents give me LLB gift cards for Christmas so I can get the lined jeans and long underwear without paying for them myself. Otherwise I can get almost everything else from cheap sources of used clothes, or from gifts from my MIL (she passes on some of her clothes to me).

    I swear by bike shorts for bicycling, but I always wear them under something looser (shorts or jeans). I feel too exposed with the skin-tightness of the shorts by themselves. Bike shorts are way more comfortable than anything else between me and the seat.

    I like the way skirts look but almost never wear them, except for special occasions. I don’t find them warmer than pants, in fact just the opposite, but that’s probably just my physiology.

    I’ve learned to mend, don’t much enjoy it, but I’d rather mend my wool socks (needed for cold weather) and my cashmere sweater than have to stop wearing them. Found a 1950s era Gook Housekeeping type of book on sewing at a used book sale that taught me how to mend. My DH has replaced zippers and been successful at it. Both of us can repair a hem and put on a button … rule is, whoever’s clothes it is, has to mend it. Same thing with ironing. But I do all the laundry, because I’m more particular about it than he is.

  24. Christina says:

    I’d love recommendations for a book on repairing knitwear if anyone has them to offer. My girls (9 and 13) spent the other day working their way through the mending basket while listening to Harry Potter on tape. I can’t say they did it the way I’d do it, but what the heck!

  25. Sharon says:

    Rosa, I guess I’m misunderstanding you – but I admit, I reacted pretty strongly to the idea that because some Christians consciously choose a particular kind of patriarchy for themselves, that we should all just let people die out. I’ll try and delete the comment – I usually can’t delete them once they’ve gone through though.


  26. MEA says:

    Christina — The Mender’s Manual by Estella Foote, MD has sections on repairing knits. You can get copies cheaply on Amazon, and IMO, if you have this book you don’t need another on mending.


  27. Sharon says:

    MEA, thanks for clarifying my obviously flawed thoughts. I guess for me the issue issue is the context – in a society where overwhelmingly the idea of submission to something (and by something I mean even “the collective good in any measure” or “the limits of our ecology”) is completely absent, I think those who choose (and for the most part it is a choice – many protestant sects that either do the quiverfull thing or overlap practice adult baptism, and even if you don’t, the larger world is very present and critical that it is hard to imagine that most participants are not voluntary) to submit themselves and their family to G-d with husband beneath are not making my personal choice, but they aren’t doing something evil either. For example, I live near a lot of Amish, and while many of them live in an explicitly patriarchal society, they are not necessarily destructively so – I’m sure some privately are, but the women that I see are hardly victims – most of them are very powerful figures who have chosen something. They know what they are giving up, for the most part – they had their running around.

    I’m also close to a lot of Orthodox Jews, many of whom are “returnees” from more liberal Judaism – many of them active feminists who remain feminist while also accepting certain patriarchal structures. I know a bunch of quiverfull women who are bright, funny and competent, and whose vision of submission doesn’t include being beaten or repressed – I admit, I don’t buy it, I couldn’t do it and I don’t want to – but none of it is so very wrong that we go now to “let’s just let the world burn,” and I admit, I find that just deeply, deeply offensive. If we lived in an overarchingly Christian hierarchy, that would be one thing, but context is everything, and here I think these movements are a response to the basic emptiness of a life lived in patriarchy and hierarchy without acknowledging or fully exploring those ideas – that is, mainstream culture.

    Again, it isn’t my choice. And I don’t mind fair criticisms of it – in fact, I might join in them. But I do think that it is the right of the participants to choose their method of resistance to the totalizing model of industrial modernity, even if I don’t like it personally.


  28. MEA says:

    It’s always struck me that if you running around is limited to popular movies and milk shakes (which you can have at home with a egg beater, afer all) on the one hand, and drugs and drag racing on the other, it’s not hard to give up the world — I don’t know if my impression is true.

    If it included art, theater, ballet, opera, worldly novels… then it might be harder, but I degress.



  29. Sharon says:

    MEA, I’d say that was true except that I can’t think of the last time I got to do any of those things except the worldly novels . Ah, motherhood. Actually, I did get to take the kids to the Met, when we were last in NYC, but spent an awful lot of time saying “Don’t touch that” and not so much meditating on the beauty of the art.


  30. MEA says:

    To be honest, motherhood is a lot of things, most of the good, some tolerable and one or two downright teeth gritting, but it isn’t a subsitute what you can’t or don’t take with you from the privious life. If found life with and without children to be two completely things, and the pleasure of one didn’t (and don’t) compenstate for what was missing from the other. I wouldn’t give up my chance at motherhood, for me, pusihng swings is a diffent pleasure from going to MOMA and don’t having to say “don’t touch” every two minutes.

    (Actually, I used to go to MOMA’s cafe with a pair a (uninvolved) gay co-workers to men watch, and sometimes we’d have to say “don’t touch” but that was another life.)

  31. Mary says:

    May I suggest when you look for a sewing machine (and they are a g-dsend if you have to do *a lot* of sewing) that you look for a steel machine from the 60’s or earlier? They’re built like tanks and can probably be handed down to your granddaughter. Oh, and get one with a zig zag stitch.

  32. RC says:

    All the posts appeal to me. Thanks for everything.

  33. Liz says:

    Thanks for the tip, Mary!

  34. Maggie says:

    I just wanted to thank you for this post as well as a thoughtful conversation about the quiverful / partiachy gang. I can be lumped in with part of this group and rarely find comments from either side that grant respect to both ideas of thought. I don’t find submission a difficult thing to understand but, in our society it is almost impossible to try to explain. My husband does not lord over me as one would think and our home is as plesant a place to be as any other home. I find that where love and compassion reign there is little need of discussion on laundry duties. This job of running a home to me is a great joy to me and it is my firm belief that the moment women started to leave the home is the age to which we lost most of our power as women. The way society looks at the realm of home has tainted the view of the jobs actually performed there. Families and women have been weakened in my view, by our abandoning the power in raising children, nourishing the people who live with us, providing peace and general care. We in turn are, in my family, are only trying to gain a better understanding of what family means. I am blessed with a husband who works from home, children who school at home and a desire to be at home. It is a powerful thing to be able to say this is my choice and it is. I would by no means take this choice away from anyone. Everyone in life needs to be able to build their own lives. I hope that the intersecting of the quiverful sect and the greenie groups comes to find they are more alike than different as I am positive they are. We all care deeply about the future of our children. We simply have different paths that oddly enough cross quite alot.
    Thank you again for your comments and much love to those who may not understand but love us still.
    I love good intellectual thought and lively discussion so, I am delighted to have found your site.

  35. Maggie says:

    In my last post I said that in a home where love and compassion reign there is no need of discussion of laundry duties. I by no means mean to imply laundry discussions are of no consequence, just it isn’t as important as mutual understanding in marriage. I enjoy very much this and other conversations on how laundry issues are mastered. I have even moved all our family laundry to the open shelves in our mud room, which may seem quite messy at first. I cannot express how this has changed the stress level for my children who had little room in dressers for all the clothes. I have a full view of all there items and can quickly access what is needed and when we have too much. If it can’t fit in your area it gets passed on or given away.
    The mundane tasks of life are often never spoken about and in turn we never innovate. How liberating is this to realize that we can ease other peoples burden simply by trying different means in our housekeeping.

    Shameless hussy is the funniest and most pleasing term!!!LOL. I can’t wait for the reaction friends will have when I refer to it.

  36. mary q contrarie says:

    I love the laundry part of clothing management. When our dryer broke a couple years ago we decided that for the planet we were not going to replace it. Because the weather does not alway cooperate for drying on a line. We purchased a couple clothes drying racks I find the act of hanging laundry to be very medatative and very beautiful.

    If you look on line and search for images of drying clothes it is amazing. What a rich tapestry it adds to our landscape and homes.

  37. Tina Cipolla says:

    It pained me to read your words about refusing to learn the home crafts from your foremothers because I did the exact same thing, and like you, I deeply regret it. My mother was the one who was always trying to teach me how to knit, sew, crochet and do needlepoint. I flatly refused to learn any of it, because as a child I certainly knew that I would never need such skills. I was going to have a high profile job and someone was going to do all of those home tasks for me. At 41 years, I cringe thinking about how much “smarter” I was when I was a teenager. The only thing that brings me some comfort however, is that I did learn to cook, garden and do laundry properly from my mother. And the problem of rejecting what our mothers try to teach us seems endemic. My own mother confessed to me that she flatly refused to learn how to clean (eviscerate) live chickens from her mother because she said “it was so gross and I knew I’d always buy my chickens from the grocery store.” Now, I’m the one that is going around my community trying to bargain with the local poultry farmers to teach me how to do this very task that my mother was sure we’d never need! See how things just come full circle!

  38. [...] for pregnant and nursing women, and what kind of menstrual supplies you might need post-zombie, why I think people who demean housewifely virtues are assholes , and why I like being called a shameless hussy (and why I think that there’s an important [...]

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