Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't: Identity, Women, Domestic Life

Sharon July 8th, 2009

I was struck this morning by the implicit assumptions in a Washington Post article about Michelle Obama’s visit to Russia.  The headline reads “In Mother Russia, She’s 1st Lady of Gardening.”  And even in that terse bit of writing are a whole bunch of implicit assumptions - after all, why invoke “Mother” Russia, except to emphasize the backwardness of Russian women, who, we learn, are interested not in Obama’s education, her speeches or her Narciso Rodriguez dress (whatever that is).  Instead, they are interested in how she grows food and runs her domestic life.

The article is rather patronizing to Russian women.  Yes, they admit that Russian women also have degrees and education, but:

“Women here have long stood equal to men on a variety of fronts — one of the lasting aspects of the Soviet era — but they are also expected to tend the hearth, raise the children and maintain the family. Obama, a lawyer and former hospital executive, has described her White House role as mom in chief. That title, as well as her very public sowing and planting, speaks volumes in a culture where men and women relate in very traditional ways and women struggle to balance independence with homemaking.”

Oh gosh, I wonder what that would be like - a society where women struggle to balance independence with homemaking, and where women have to do the vast majority of the work in tending the hearth, raising the children and maintaining the family?  I can’t imagine such a shocking situation happening anywhere.  Next you’ll tell me that a major national newspaper in Russia has so little respect for women that an article about Obama’s reputation contains half a paragraph about what she’s wearing, and less than a single sentence about what she has said.  Oh, wait, that’s the Washington Post.

Yes, there are real cultural differences between the US and Russia, but is hard to see them clearly because our own prejudices are showing so clearly.  Consider this quotation by a Russian teacher,

“The dacha is something important in our life and something present in our life all the time,” says Alla Lapidus, 52, a teacher at a music school. Obama is appealing not only because she has a career but also because “she can work with her hands,” Lapidus says.”

Try to imagine an American - almost any American, saying that about their first lady - that she’s appealing because she is not afraid of manual labor.  There are parts of American culture where that is a term of praise still, but it stretches the imagination to conceive of someone applying it to Michelle Obama - simply because we are told that the primary grounds on which to admire a woman who takes on the fraught and uncertain job of first lady is her education and policy talent.

But, of course,  she hasn’t been elected to anything, and for the duration of her husband’s presidency is expected to devote herself to parenting, redecorating the White House, doing Oprah and posing for publicity shots far more than policy work.   We don’t actually like it much when highly educated and competent women who happen to be married to presidents actually intervene in public affairs - witness Hillary Clinton during her husband’s tenure.  The role is still very narrow, but we are expected not to admire her for her domestic skills or willingness to work, but for her willingness to look attractive (the Washington Post article contrasts the lack of interest in Russia in her clothing with Europe’s fascination, and manages to slip in that she “wore flats” at the tomb of the unknown soldier, perhaps the least useful information on earth that could be appended to any fact).  We are supposed to see in her fashion sense and her Oprah interviews the keen legal intellect, and admire her for it. 

This represents a fundamental intellectual problem - one’s intellect does not reside in one’s choice of shoes.  Of course we know Michelle Obama is brilliant and talented.  We also know that for the next 3-7 years, she’s going to be set up as first domestic in the land, whether she’s enthusiastic about the job or not.  Redbook is going to show her Christmas tree, people are going to judge her on her parenting and her clothing, she’s going to have to make sure to tell everyone her favorite recipes, and odds are, if she actually steps in in any major policy role, she’ll be criticized for it.  And to the woman’s enormous credit (because I find it very hard to imagine that any bright woman enters this deal with the devil with anything other than deep ambivalence), she’s done a pretty good job with it - she’s still smart and funny, but she’s also expanding the role of first domestic to include gardening.  She’s blunt that her children still have to do chores, and that she doesn’t think that a little thing like your husband being president gets you out of weeding the garden.  She’s in a difficult spot, and she’s doing it very well.

And of course, it is just a smaller version of the reality of women in general.  We all know that it isn’t just Russian women who live in a country where it is hard to balance independence with domestic life, where women have to work with their hands - or want to.  It isn’t just in Russia where women are torn between tending the hearth and family and going out to work and make money in the formal economy.  The game of being first lady is damned if you do, damned if you don’t - and the practice you get for that job is to be a woman - or occasionally (and increasingly frequently) a man - who does domestic work.

The reality is that all of us are in the situation the the paper implies is exclusively the territory of Russian women, who have not sufficiently evolved - and if there’s less attention on us, well, we most of us don’t have a working staff to handle the cleaning and cooking, either.  There are several ways one can navigate the problem of domestic life - I’m sure I’m overstating the difficulties in some cases, but I think there’s some truth in these broad categories established with in our nuclear family structure:

1. Both the adults in the household work full time by choice or necessity.  They make enough money to outsource any domestic work that needs doing, except what actually can’t be skipped or sold.  The/one of the woman/women if any probably does much of that, although there are exceptions.  There is sometimes money, and never any time.  Most of the work doesn’t get done to anyone’s satisfaction, and many people feel bad about it.  Children, if any, spend a lot of time with paid caregivers and unless they are very good (and usually, the parents very affluent) or family, everyone feels guilty, but usually mostly the female parent.  Domestic skills needed in a changing future are frantically gathered as best can be, and again, guilt reigns.

 2. One member of the adult household works, the other one stays home and does the domestic work,  and that person is female.  The domestic work gets done, but there is often an economic cost, and often a time cost - in many families the breadwinner works long hours to compensate for the loss of a full time earner, with predictable cost to his time with his children.  The domestic worker often finds herself isolated and struggling with a large burden, particularly if she is trying to gain skills and self-sufficiency and has children.  People ask her “What is it you do?” and then wander off when she struggles to explain, or say loftily and condescendingly, ”Oh, I couldn’t do what you do…I work.” 

 3. The gender roles are reversed and the father or male partner is the primary domestic figure.  He gets all the disadvantages of being at home, plus the reality that if there is a female partner, she probably micromanages a lot more than a comparable male spouse would ;-) , and the fact that almost no one thinks he should be doing this work.  This is particularly unpleasant for people who did not choose this situation, but had it thrust upon them due to unemployment.  If there are children, he gets the dubious delight of being the only guy at the playground, and thus gets more than his share of discussions of mastitis, the side effects of pregnancy and other joys.  Otherwise, the situation is the same, except that every single woman in the world is impressed if he can just dress his children in the morning and keep them out of the road, except, of course, his spouse or partner ;-) ).  The woman is assumed to be an unnatural parent and probably secretly to have a penis or a complex, because she makes more money than her partner and doesn’t love her children enough to stay home with them ;-)

4. The parents/partners divide the domestic and employed work, and probably argue about it a fair bit.  Either one works days and the other nights, and they are never together and always exhausted, or both work from home and constantly struggle with privacy, space and whose turn it is to take the kid to the potty, or something.  Both of them do without sleep and free time, while also attempting to build a sustainable future until they go completely mad.  

5. There is only one adult in the household and he or she gets all the fun.  He or she is held morally responsible for not being there for the kids, not doing enough domestic work, not making enough money and not providing another parent.  He or she knows that they are also not doing enough to prepare for incoming zombies, but figures that he/she is already a zombie from lack of sleep and stress, so perhaps they’ll be able to pass.

I’m going to guess that these variations on this are available to women in Russia as well, with one important difference - many of the Russians I know live in extended families with their parents or in-laws.  I have no doubt that this comes with many disadvantages - a neighbor of mine, for example, who married not a Russian, but Ukrainian woman, found it very difficult now that they were living in the US to clearly explain why the parents could not hang pictures of Joseph Stalin in their living room. On the other hand, the grandparents helped cook, gardened, cleaned and helped tend their grandchildren.   The reality of a household with three, four or more adults is very different than one with one or two people and enough labor for 10.

I realize it isn’t just women who get screwed here - men at least have a place where they can win, but of course, are terribly vulnerable to losing that place.  But I think it is fascinating to see how turbulent and troubled our relationship to domestic life and its work are, and how deeply gendered that turbulence is. The article unintentionally turns a microscope not on Russian attitudes, but on American ones.  Consider the opening paragraph:

 ”On her second international trip as first lady, the welcoming cover stories and street chatter here have focused on her White House kitchen garden rather than her clothes, her Ivy League pedigree or her interest in promoting public service. The current cover of Ogonyok, for example, a weekly magazine focusing on politics and culture, carries a candid photograph of the first lady dressed in a burgundy windbreaker with her hair pulled back, working in the garden with students from Bancroft Elementary School in the District. The cover line reads: “The Queen of the Fields: Michelle Obama and her husband can overturn our understanding of America.” It’s accompanied by an extensive story about gardening culture in the United States. Tomatoes, apparently, now serve as tools for diplomacy.”

The article assumes that “public service” doesn’t include helping develop schoolyard gardens, and that there’s something weird and trivial about tomatoes having anything to do with the understanding of the US that Russia has.  Her public service couldn’t include something as domestic as the garden, because when she touches dirt, we don’t see her education - we’ve been trained to see dirt touching as the territory of near-illiterates, so of course we can’t see her law degree and “spunky independence” when she’s got a hoe in her hand. 

And of course, engagement with her food could never be vital, exciting, and truly a diplomatic tool - that’s just proof that Russians again, are backwards, they worry about stupid little things like food.  Of course it couldn’t be important to the world for them to see us as like them, as caring about food security and doing the hard work involved in creating it - better we remain in everyone’s view rich, fashion conscious and talking about self-esteem, rather than dinner.

And of course, even though in its function, the role of first lady still carries heavy domestic assumptions, it is implied there’s something wrong about Michelle Obama embracing and expanding those to any extent.  And definitely, there’s something weird about people responding to her because she does those things, and does them well.  We are told in the article that people are more interested in how she raises her children than in her speeches - well, first of all, that’s almost certainly true of Americans as well, otherwise “Inside the White House” wouldn’t be in so many magazines.  Americans want to know what the front-face of American motherhood and domestic life actually does - that’s why all the photo spreads. 

Some interest is obviously gossipy trivialities or celebrity worship, but some of it isn’t.  Some of it is genuinely reasonable - after all, fair or no, being first lady means taking on a public domestic role - people cared that Eleanor Roosevelt stopped serving coffee in the White House during rationing and that they ate what everyone else ate, people cared that the Clintons seemed to be mostly good parents, if not always good people.  And they don’t care just for bad reasons - they care because they know that domestic life didn’t disappear just because we stopped talking about it, or implying that it took intelligence, skill and strength to manage. 

The truth is that someone does have to parent Sasha and Malia Obama, and it won’t be their Dad, for the most part - he’s got a big job.  The truth is that someone has to be the face of domestic life in America - because that life is real, and it is increasingly flooding into our reality.  As fewer people can afford even fast food and bad daycare, as more people are unemployed, as more and more people need to tend their own needs and expand their self-sufficiency, domestic life is reminding us that despite our lack of respect or even interest, it is a primary human activity, one we cannot negate simply by declining to value it or the people who do the work.

Those Russian women being interviewed have educations too.  They have jobs or even careers too.  They also have gardens and kitchens and children - and the very fact that they aren’t interested in Obama’s legal career or her speeches on self-esteem suggests something - in a society where domestic life literally saved lives - where the gardens kept people fed during the SU’s collapse, domestic life is more interesting than jobs. Jobs go away sometimes. Education is great, but you can think about poetry while you cook or dig. 

It is us who haven’t come to terms with reality - tomatoes can change the world.  It does matter how you parent children, and doing so is not trivial work.  Pretending that domestic labor doesn’t exist doesn’t make you happy or your life easier.  And that maybe, just maybe, there are better choices for both women and men than damned if you do, damned if you don’t.


29 Responses to “Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don't: Identity, Women, Domestic Life”

  1. Heather says:

    I’ve done a lot of thinking about this aspect of our American culture. What also amazes me is the fact that although these are traditionally female roles in life, if we are an avid gardener, etc, we are now longer considered particularly feminine. Why is it that feminine is now only someone interested in clothes, makeup and Hollywood gossip. If one is capable of raising a garden, canning, cooking from scratch and uninterested in what outfit she’s wearing, she is ‘butch’. Apparently in today’s society, I’m supposed to sit around helpless, filing my nails and picking up dinner from the ready made part of the grocery store. Self sufficient=weird

  2. Tara says:

    Heather - you’re right. I routinely experience the same thing. I’m far more capable of performing traditionally domestic duties with aplomb than most of my peers, yet I am in no way considered feminine. Apparently I should be wearing my dress and pearls and have my hair set to do these things. Bah!

    I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to be like excellent waitstaff - to do a lot while giving the appearance that we’re not doing anything.

  3. Shamba says:

    That story of the Stalin picture is priceless, I laughed and laughed at that.

    I took some Russian in college and studied some Russian history with it. The fact is that their own gardens have been very important always in the 20th century for keeping Russians, and various other ethnic groups in that area, alive.

    Domestic work seems grungy to many of us but there is grunge in any job. In any formal economy job, you have others to deal with, bosses or supvervisory to deal with or if you’re part of management, you have your supervisees to deal with. I found the last one to be a real pain in the you-know-what. and if you have a formal economy service job you have to deal with a wide range of the public who use your services. You might be able to be your own boss with the domestic work you do at home.

    Peace to All,

  4. Cat says:

    Sharon - you left out a category - where both adults work and yet there still isn’t extra funds to hire help, so we are forced to do it all ourselves. ;-)

    I know this isn’t the point of your post, but I want to thank you for it as it helps me breathe easier. I, like most women I know, struggle with the concept that I can do anything I set my mind to. My parents brought me up this way and while its good in some ways, it’s hugely detrimental in others. I am loathe to ask for help. I take on too much. I constantly over-commit. And as a result, everthing that I do gets only partial attention and I’m left with a lot of guilt over my inability to be the superwoman I expect of myself. This post serves as a reminder to me that while I may have a lot on my plate, at least I don’t have the public watching my every move like Michelle does. Phew - I feel better already!

    I 100% agree with your take on the Washington Post’s angle on this. Unfortunately, it mirrors the ‘typical’ American attitude about physical labor and the definition of successful. Pity.

  5. Stephen B says:

    What’s really depressing about that Washington Post article is not the article itself, but rather the shallowness of the reader comments wherein many of them are merely whining about Michelle embarrassing the US in the eyes of the world as some kind of “First Gardener.” Not to be a snob, but wow (-:

  6. Laurie in MN says:

    *Thank you* for your third paragraph, about the “grunge” work that is involved with formal economy jobs!! I have worked both retail service and administrative assistance jobs, and I can emphatically say that they are both bigger PITAs than any domestic task I can think of. With the possible exception of cleaning out our basement — we are both packrats and have WAY too much stuff/clutter/detritus piled up everywhere in the house. (Needs to go; hard to find the time to go through it and the will to get rid of some of it.)

    I need to mark or print out your post so that I can refer to it when I’m having a particularly pissy moment about the housework that needs to be done, and really needs to be done by me. Which would I rather face — dust bunnies and clutter, or crabby M.D.s who think every project is the top priority and why *can’t* I get them all done at once?!? :) I think I’ll take the dust bunnies….

  7. homebrewlibrarian says:

    I read through the Washington Post article and all I could think was “Go Michelle!” So what if the Post is showing its biases of “the US is the pinnacle of culture?” The very fact that they also reported the interest among Russian women of her domestic life speaks volumes towards a change in how Russians will view Americans. I particularly liked the title of the article in Ogonyok - “The Queen of the Fields: Michelle Obama and her husband can overturn our understanding of America.” Now if that doesn’t indicate a sea change, what does?

    But the response from Russian women has me wondering how many *American* women find value in Michelle Obama’s housewifery skills (ah, now she’s a hussy! :) ). I’m impressed and thankful that she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty and I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that. Yes, she may be educated, talented and beautiful but to all those women who struggle to make it all work every day, that she’s also engaged in her children, working in a garden and making a point to place value on those activities allows them to feel a kinship, even if tenuous, and validated.

    The Post article may have taken a chastising tone but the real news happening in the background has me feeling refreshed and reenergized.

    Kerri in AK

  8. ceridwen says:

    “pretending that domestic labour doesnt exist” - oh would that we could…….Obviously “domestic labour” has as low value in U.S. society as it does here in Britain (ie virtually zilch)….but someone somewhere has to do the “grunt work”…and yep…why the heck should it be women? Quite…absolutely agree……

    …and we are onto a very uncomfortable fact - the one that goes “someone somewhere HAS to do the domestic labour” and actually its pretty important. Howzabout seeing domestic labour as the last bastion of “slavery is okay - yah”…because thats what it boils down to…

    I’m steadily becoming more and more conscious at the moment that there is a LOT of “grunt work” in society - any society/any time…and someone/somewhere HAS to do it….the question is “who?”. In previous eras - as I understand it….it was often slaves…okay…we now know THATS wrong….a lot of us have now moved on to a position of its wrong to expect the woman in a household automatically to do this…..so…many of us moved onto a position of “the machines will do it for us”……errr…what do we do if the “machines” stop functioning courtesy of no power anymore for them?

    …..so….now what? Just who DOES do this “grunt work” that is still always going to be there? How do we work out fair shares all round for EVERYONE doing a decent share of it….’cos for sure we’re not going to be able to abolish it…

  9. Shamba says:

    to Laurie in MN: thanks for the compliment and be my guest in using it! :)

    My mom always saw some advantages in being a homemaker and keeping things going for a family but she also wanted something from outside the home to be who she was herself, no just my or my brother’s mom or my dad’s wife! She went to work partime when my brother was in high school doing income tax for HRBlock and absolutely loved doing that kind of work. but she said she remembered being the happiest in the years when she ran the household for her family.


  10. Robin says:


    I think grunt work can be marvelous sometimes. It’s just in how one feels while doing it. I have a dear friend who lives in East Timor. She has described the delight she takes in washing the laundry by hand with all the other women as preferable to using a washing machine all alone. For me, I am glad I have daily labor, or else I wouldn’t be able to eat nearly as much.

  11. Susan in NJ says:

    Sharon, I was with Cat in noticing the missing category.
    I didn’t read that WP article but I saw a TV news segment yesterday that was more geared to discussing the different response the Pres. was getting in Russia and which mentioned in passing only that the Russians (no gender specified) who “love their compost” were fascinated by Michelle’s first garden. I did not find that it portrayed the Russians as somehow less civilized than U.S. folk.

  12. Cathie says:

    Hi Sharon

    I’ve discoverred your blog as I head off to bed so will look forward to reading more of a like-minded’s observations another day.

    Before I say goodnight I just wanted to add my newly discovered alternative to the nuclear family structure - the potentially lovely, shared care and women working on interesting fullfilling jobs together of an ‘intentional community’.

    My husband and I are looking forward to leaving nuclear family life behind this summer as we are joining a newly established eco-village by the sea here in the UK. I worked full time in London, at JPMorgan, until my twins were three, we then downshifted for a more family-orientated rural lifestyle with me at home discovering, like Michele Obama, what its like to be a homemaker for the first time and now that we are utterly convinced our modern glutinous ways cannot and must not continue we are thrilled to be given the opportunity to join others in becoming self-sufficient in food, energy, water, friendship, care etc.

    Thanks for taking the time to write your blog. Its inspiring and reassuring that there are others with similar views of anti-fashion, anti-tv, anti-chainstore mentality.

    C x

  13. Abbie says:

    My husband and I fall into a slightly different category: we both work full time to pay for this home and piece of land that we work with our hands. He also works on weekends with his family business, as I do with my family’s business. And I take classes because, while I can’t really afford them, I will eventually get paid more for getting this second M.S. degree. No children yet, but we realize we’ll both have to work and have no understanding of how we’ll ever pay for child care. But not working is not an option if we want to keep this piece of land that we work.

    Just realized I said “work” quite a bit in there to mean a bunch of different things.

    Anyway, if I were Michelle Obama, which I’m not, I’d be incredibly offended that the moronic American media is so consumed with my wardrobe, as if that somehow defined me as a woman. That idea should be gone by the time we all graduate from high school.

  14. Frogdancer says:

    Loved this! Just loved it. One of the best posts you’ve written.

  15. Chandra says:

    I’m reminded of a my recent graduation, where each graduate was invited to share with the audience, their educational experience, gratitudes, and future aspirations. A fellow woman graduate in the Sustainable Community Development program shared her experience of working through a self designed curriculum that centered on domesticity. It was painful to hear her story, which included ridicule, prejudice, and disrespect for her choice of study and throughout the actual execution of the projects she undertook. Further evidence that we have ventured deep into some convoluted, abstract realm of existence.

  16. kerrie says:

    i quit working before my son was born. he’s 17 now and i still think the worst day at home is better than even a regular day in a formal job. and now that he’s old enough that i could go back to work (ha ha-like there is a job for a 50 year old woman out of the work force for 18 years…), instead i do more around here to save us money, ie. things like hanging out the laundry instead of using the dryer, darning socks, growing the vegetables. a friend said-why don’t you just get a job and you wouldn’t have to work so hard. after she had just complained a blue streak about her boss and co-workers!

  17. knutty knitter says:

    I think of the difference between generations. My grandmother expected to lose her job with marriage and then commit herself to family and community. She worked just as hard at this as my grandfather did at his formal job, possibly even harder.

    My mother also expected to lose her job but not until her first child was due. She then worked the same job as my grandmother until her youngest child got to high school. She then took a basic wage part time job to supplement income so as to provide higher education for us and then for their retirement.

    I was expected to leave school with a good education and take one of three career paths none of which were well paid. Marriage and children would reduce this down to part time and then increase to full time once the children were teenagers.

    By the time the next generation came along domestic and community work of any sort was considered a failure on your part to follow a good career and children were for after said career was well established. It was considered a waste of education to ‘just’ become a housewife.

    I think the generation my children belong to will have to deal with this pendulum effect and hopefully stabilize things so that all work is considered important and all work is valued as something necessary to good living.
    (My children are under 13 - I was an older parent!)

    I wait in hope.

    viv in nz

  18. knutty knitter says:

    The above only applies to the middle and upper classes of course. The ‘great unwashed’ were expected to work regardless of age, sex, marriage etc.


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    [...] Astyk at Casaubon’s Book writes about the Obama visit to Russia, and how Mrs Michele Obama was received by Russian women. The topic of her post is unhappy and clearly and effectively speaks to how limiting the role of [...]

  20. Pine Ridge says:

    Well, currently in a #2, and probably will eb for the next 11 years. My job is all about :”If I am doing nothing all day then why am I so tired at night?!” lol, I must love it though or I would stop adding chores to my normal household work.

    I was talking to a friend yesterday, he is in #3 (laid of since last February) and he brought by his youngest son to visit and was taking his older son fishing for the day…..

    Now I want to know what the heck he does all day? I have been a sahm for the last 12 years, and I don’t have the time to go fishing, who would cook the meals and wash the clothes and feed the animals (not to mention split the firewood and finish the stupid drywall upstairs).

    I’m seriously thinking I need to leave some housework for my dear hubby to do in the evening or lower my cleanliness standards….

    maybe the kids and I need a day off?

  21. TLE says:

    I don’t think the grunt work has to be excessive - the solution I’m working on is less stuff, & lowers standards (while preserving basic hygiene). I was talking to my grandmother about ‘life on the farm’ when she was young, and she made a point about housework that Sharon has made before - my great-grandmother mother kept house and did chores (including A LOT of canning on a coal stove), and it was hard work, yes. But she didn’t keep a big, jam-packed house spotless, nor did she do tons of laundry. The family had far fewer possessions then we would expect today. They had ‘good clothes’ that were kept clean for church etc, and wore ‘work clothes’ while working…and the same set was basically worn til the weekly wash day.

  22. Laureen says:

    Up until January, I was the primary wage-earner, and my husband was the domestic front; raising children, working on the house, dealing with daily survival tasks. Then I got laid off, and we switched roles. It was totally seamless; we operate from a basis of mutual respect, and recognition that we were lucky enough that it was a choice for us to live as we did.

    And the comments from people have been amazingly horrid. Basically, that things are as they should be now, and that aren’t we relieved now that I’m back in the kitchen and raising the kids and Jason’s back to “real work”.

    Makes me really sad… for them. I know that because we have both done all the jobs, we have given our children a great template for “do the work that needs to be done”, and I’m horrified at how few people in the world are capable of that. Because as readers of this blog know, pretty soon, they’re going to have to.

    And I agree with commenters about less stuff. My family lives on a boat, and we’re getting ready for a round the world cruise in October. You can only fit so much stuff on a boat, and that makes life far, far easier than keeping a house.

  23. Sharon says:

    Susan, and Cat, I can see why you think I did, but I was mentally at least (what, you can’t read my mind, you expect me to put it all out there in words ;-) ?) assuming that #4 included people who could work two “regular” jobs who don’t have to swtich schedules because they don’t have kids, but I should have said so.


  24. Laura says:

    Gnosticism. The ancient ideology that the flesh is evil, fallen, sinful and must be, somehow, abrogated and the spirit (the mind, the intellect) is pure and holy and worthy of exaltation.

    Today, we have inculcated this ancient idea into almost all of life. We remove ourselves from the dirt and sweat and blood and tears of life as much as we possibly can. We think, therefore, that our true identity is in our minds and not in the work of our hands. First Lady Obama’s education and career are more valued to us than how she grows a tomato, how she manages her household, how she raises her children. We esteem her intellect more than her domesticity because, again, the mind (and the things of the mind) is pure…the flesh (and the things of the flesh) is not.

    Think about all the “labour-saving” devices we have in our lives from elevators to riding-lawn mowers to ebooks to electric can-openers. Have we truly saved labour to pursue more lofty pure things of the intellect? Or are we just lazy…filling up our new-found moments with yet more mindless busyness?

    Women’s work is a high art and should be treated as such. There is beauty, as well as fulfillment, in the garden, and the mending, and the raising of children, as well as reading and understanding Nietzsche, Aquinas, and Torts. A truly balanced life embraces those gifts (and vocations) given us…however grand or meager they may be.

    Gnosticism is a killer in that it elevates an elite class at the expense of simplicity of daily life in it’s responsibilities. Look at some of the mundane objects our GrandMother’s used (casserole dishes and nut choppers): they were decorated…pretty…even elegant in their design. We Homemakers deserve that elevation of what we do…even as our jobs are too often thankless, boring, mundane.

    What we do has future consequences much moreso than the very very few Hilary Clintons and Michelle Obamas and Eleanor Roosevelts. These three women effected their time and place, and the two contemporary women may effect a larger history. But all of us who bear children effect the future…even if it is only a localised future. What we do now and teach now is important in it’s generation. A home-grown tomato, a well-read bedtime story, a fresh bedsheet, will mean something after we’re gone…

  25. Cat says:

    Ah yes…#4 does decribe us if you switch it to one working from home and one working from an office.

    The part about going “completely mad” is certainly quite accurate!

  26. risa b says:

    A good theoretical framework for discussing the centrality of the “domestic economy” can be found in The Subsistence Perspective, which you can buy through Sharon’s online store, linked at the top of the blog. The book is an oldie but goodie, hard reading but very rewarding.

    The argument is that it is no accident that the destruction of subsistence farming and the devaluing of “women’s work” have gone hand-in-hand during the industrial era. kind of “Women subsistence farmer’s of the world, unite.” ;)

  27. Kati says:

    I’ve gotta agree about the missing category…. My hubby and I both work (me 30 hours, him 40+ a week) outside the home, and are splitting housework a lot more these days than either of us saw our parents do. Oh, Dad would do dishes on occasion (and he was a much better cook than Mom) but housework was still deemed something for us girls to do. In my house, it’s a well-avowed fact that my hubby is better and more efficient at housework than I am, and he’s good at operating a lawn-mower, when I can’t mow a straight line to save my life. We barely make ends meet on a over-the-table-financial spread-sheet, so we don’t have $$ to hire domestic help. But, when we come home, it’s almost evenly split between us, whom starts laundry while the other starts dishes. I do most of the cooking (because I’m better at most cooking, except the grill), but he does most of the yard work….. And now that our kiddo is reaching her teen years, she pitches in quite a bit, which is a help. (or, would be if she’d stop griping about it.) There IS the possibility for a fairly even split between housework and financial-world work. Maybe it’s never perfectly 50/50, but what in this world IS?!?! Tonight, after hanging out with the neighbours a bit, he washed dishes while I watered the veggies. *shrug* It’s all good.

    Otherwise, fantastic article…… Michelle Obama may not be perfect (again, who IS?) but she’s certainly working hard on it! And I think she’s a great role model for women everywhere….. (Wondering if she has the kids memorizing the “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” while planting potatoes…. if only my memory were good enough to think about poetry while gardening.

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  29. perel says:

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