Thursday, 9 July 2009

Homemaking - Saying Something Which Often Remains Unsaid

A little while ago I said that I would post a series of cock-eyed philosophies on homemaking. However, life got it the way (as it so often does) and I was unable to post anything but unrelated bits and bobs until now. Now, I have the time to write, and hopefully discuss with others, a series on the general theory of homemaking.
First, I wanted to talk about "what remains unsaid" about homemaking, perhaps the more politically controversial aspects of the vocation. I warn you, this is a long read!
I think it's fairly obvious to say that having a home is a basic human right. In fact, we in the west see homelessness and dispossession as a terrible social ill. To be homeless is to be without hope. But we need to really define what a home is, because I do think that all of us feel that a home should be much more than a dwelling place, that there are intangible emotions and feelings we often associate with a true home, that home is still an ideal. What I have learnt, from collecting my vintage and antique homemaking books, is that many women throughout the centuries have been attempting to make those intangible emotions we relate with the word home, become more tangible, that we have been attempting to define "home" in a less clinical and more meaningful way, a way which is not simply associated with bricks and mortar but health and comfort.
It is fair to say that the Victorians were the most successful in defining home in more meaningful terms. For them, home was a sanctuary, a place of peace, a place of order and beauty and importantly a place distinctly different from the the workplace. Victorian Britain was a tough place to live and work, the industrial revolution and the concurring social and cultural revolutions meant that the populations had to be increasingly adaptive and creative. The pastoral way of life which the vast majority British people lived before the agricultural and industrial revolutions was in the process of vast and irrevocable change: people flocked to towns and cities, places like Birmingham were just villages in the early 18th century; men and women were beginning to no longer make products themselves to be sold by themselves at market, that is to say the role of the artisan was dwindling; and finally the workplace and the dwelling place became separated. It is no wonder that the cultural ideal as the home as a haven became prominent in the Victorian era, they needed this ideal of an unchanging place of peace in a world of change and turmoil.
However, what the Victorians left us with was the notion of "the separate spheres". When the workplace and the dwelling pace became separate, for example weavers left their small looms in their small cottage to work in huge mills in the industrial north and midlands, the workplace (at least for the middle classes) became a place for men, and home became a place for women. Men felt they were protecting their women from the moral and commercial uncertainties of the Victorian workplace, and the woman, as home-maker was a necessary part of the commercial machinery - how else were the workforce to be properly nourished and rested, if not for the woman at home?
Of course, this is not how my Victorian ancestors lived. My female relatives made underwear in one of the local factories, all of this whilst working alongside their older daughters and keeping house for the miner husbands. But, you can't dispute the fact that the home as haven and the separate spheres were a reality for the middle classes and the cultural ideal for the lesser orders. And, here lies the rub. By the end of the century many middle class women were anxious and desperate for more autonomy. The cultural ideal of the home being exclusively a woman's sphere had intensified to such an extent that women were prohibited from taking part in a cultural life which wasn't related to home and home-life, and many women, although not all, began to fight for access to the universities, professions and political life. Pity the poor Victorian spinster, intellectually capable of having a professional life but absolutely reliant on male relatives for her financial support, Victorian society was heavily skewed against the intellectual, middle class woman's needs, just as it disregarded the terrible hardships of work and home and family the working class woman had to endure.
Well, you know what happens next. First, women being accepted to the red-brick universities, then women being given degrees at Oxford and Cambridge (Dorothy L Sayers being one of the first) and then older women got the franchise and finally the franchise became on a par with men. Yet, amidst these new freedoms people did not loose a sense of the home as a haven, and home as a woman's place. Indeed, the idea that working class women should give up work upon marriage became increasingly popular, and it was not until the second wave of feminism came along in the early 1950s onwards that "home" became the monkey on women's backs it is today.
It is probably only fair that I should explain what I mean by that. The second wavers fought for parity on all fields with men, and for the early radicals the biggest stumbling block to economic, intellectual and sexual parity was the notion of home. Traditionally we have had a sense that a home and family are the foundations of a civil society, but building a home and raising a family takes work and sacrifice, and for the early radical feminists the sacrifice was entirely the woman's, and not just the woman as an individual (whom De Beauvoir concedes probably enjoyed her role as wife, mother and homemaker) but women as a whole, en masse, as it were. That is to say, the early theorists believed that for women to achieve true social parity the notion of the woman as homemaker needed to be attacked. The theory was that if women were to uniformly give up work upon marriage then the professional work of all women will bee seen as being lesser to men, that if the home was given such prominence in women's lives then their intellectual and professional capabilities were always going to be seen as "not their real job/position/place." The only solution to this would be for all women to work, for men to share household tasks equally with women, for childcare to be outsourced and the fabricated and idealised Victorian notion of the home haven to disappear into the history books.
I'll take a break from the extremely potted social history now, and I also want to apologise for condensing and the theoretical beginnings of an entire political movement into two paragraphs.
So where are we today? And, importantly why did I title this post "Something Which Often Remains Unsaid". Well, although some of the early aims of the feminist movement have not been achieved, I would say that the sisterhood has been largely successful. I did not have to fight for my place at university, and my vote (thank you Mrs. Pankhurst, thank you Mrs Henry Fawcett) and my husband sees me as his intellectual equal (thank you Ms De Beauvoir), neither does he see it as my place to clean the toilet - even though it is my job! (thank you Ms Friedan), but conversely I was never informed that being a homemaker was a suitable job for a woman. I was never told that the home and family were indeed the building block of a civil society. I was never told that leaving my children in the care of a paid professional would be so bloody heartbreaking. I was never told the sense of satisfaction and peace I would get through making a home for my husband and children. I was simply told that I was a child of reasonable intellectual capability and that I should go to university and upon leaving enter a profession. What we have to acknowledge is that in its formation feminist theory was based on getting women out of the home, whether they wanted it or not, and for a time the notion of a traditional home became taboo, derided, discounted and then, as the rhetoric mellowed, it became something that was just there for people to go back to after a day's work. Whilst our fore mothers strove to make home a tangible ideal, for us home is something either mythologically intangible or something to be bought and sold as a whole life-style package (as the property boom and bust has shown us). However, what our society shows us time and time again is that a good home is necessary for all our well-being, particularly the well being of our children.
Now, despite my love of vintage I do not see any particular period in history to be better than the one we live in now. I think there's a passage in Ecclesiastes which says we shouldn't yearn for the past. The past had it's own social ills, often far worse than our own. Say what you like about the 1960s radicals but they were primarily responsible for ridding our society of formal racism and other social inequalities, and for that I thank them. But unfortunately our post 1960s liberal society has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. By downplaying the role of home and home life in society we have increasingly commericalised our lives. That is to say, by promoting work life to the extent that it must be put above all other human considerations, we have little idea what to do with our free time other than spend the money which we have earned. We are increasingly unlikely to spend our time on family projects and community projects and we see ourselves as increasingly individual rather than part of something larger. We have become defined by what we do for a living, what we spend our money on and what we do as individuals. We no longer gain social status from being a good wife, husband, mother, father, daughter, son and neighbour - we are no longer relational. When we downgraded the role of home in society we downgraded the role of relationships, because what homemaking is, what it really, really, is, is the formation of strong, peaceful and loving relationships between a group of people who see a particular dwelling as a place of comfort.
I want to leave ideas upon how we go forward, how we can promote good and rewarding home lives, which benefit individuals, families and society in general, without treading on people's individual freedoms, to you, gentle reader. Then once the discussion has come to an end in the comments section I'll collate the ideas in a formal post. However, before I leave I would like to say thank you for getting through this mammoth ramble of mine.


Tropigal said...

What a fabulous post. As a former sociologist and student of second wave feminism and now passionate homemaker you have summed up how I feel about homemaking/feminism so perfectly. I have been reading and enjoying your blog for a long time now and this is my first comment. Bravo and thank you.

monix said...

I printed off the post so that I could mull over it during the day. What a lot you covered in such a short space - congratulations on managing to condense it so well.

I would like to dive in at the 1960s, when I was a young adult. (I left school in 1964, the first of my family to go through sixth form and on to higher education).

My mother and aunts (born between 1910 and 1920)gave up their jobs as housekeeper, cooks and nanny, when they married. Although they were all very intelligent young women, their parents had not allowed them to take up college scholarships while their three brothers were encouraged to do so. The four sisters were determined that we girls should have the same opportunities as our brothers and made significant sacrifices to ensure that we did.

Paradoxically, they also got rather twitchy if we weren't 'going steady' by the age of twenty and huge family weddings were the highlight of their lives. I was a great disappointment to my mother, not marrying until I was almost 28 and no baby for another 4 years!

I suppose girls in my age group benefited from greater educational and career opportunities but also experienced the remnants of 'the woman's place is in the home.' I was always a rebel but my sisters and girl cousins all learned to cook and keep house with their mothers as guides. I had to develop these skills later, from books and through some awful errors!

I was the only one to move right away from the family and that has had a huge impact on my life. I had no mother or extended family nearby when my children were small. In many ways, I feel that I had to invent a family life and tradition for my children whereas those who settled close to home simply carried on in much the same way as previous generations but with more material comforts.

This is such an absorbing and important subject and, as you can see, I could go on for hours but I'll stop here. I look forward to reading about other people's experiences and perhaps I can come back later if you move on to discussing solutions or ways forward.

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Tropigal
I'm really glad I've echoed your feelings. I'm also incredibly flattered that you enjoyed this post. I hope more women will join in, just so we can see how they feel on the subject.

Hi Monix
I've got such a lot from you response. I think you must be of a similar age to my mum. My grandfather didn't want her to go to art college, because he didn't think it suitable for her, she went to secretarial school instead...something I think she always regrets. It's not that my grandfather was a chauvanist, but that 1960s art schols just weren't very respectable, and how was she to get a decent job after doing her course? I people who came of age in the 1960s ofen butted up against social attitudes which must have seemed decades old.

My paternal grandfather was very gifted at mathematics and won a scholarship to the local grammar (in the 1920s). His parents simply couldn't afford for him to have an extra four years of schooling, they needed him to contribute to the family coffers. Luckily he didn't have to go down the pit, but found an engineering aprenticeship at Daimler. Working class parents must have had to make tough decisions about their children's schooling back then, and yes, it was probably the bright girls who really suffered.

Oh, and even as a teen in the late 1980s/early 1990s I had a lot of pressure from the grannies and aunties to start "courting". When I finally found a boyfriend they sctrutinised him to the point of nearly bullying him! I think it was a matter of status to them that I should find a husband and do it quickly! (Oh, and reader I married him).

Again, I don't know if you found this, but my gran and great aunts found real status within the community if they were considered to be a good cook and steps and white nets.

monix said...

Oh those red steps and white nets! The greatest compliment from my aunts was, "you could eat off her floor." I wonder if this was just a northern attitude? The first time I went to stay in the home of a fellow student in Southampton (posh southerners!) I didn't feel I wanted to eat off her table.

Anonymous said...

Donkey stone them steps! (Just read the comments) Every good Lancashire lass donkey stoned her steps good n' proper.

I'll write some thoughts on your post when I've a little more time.


Gumbo Lily said...

It says a lot about society today when a young woman in her teens or twenties (my own daughter) has to whisper her true desire of being a wife, mother and homemaker rather than career woman. Now it is these young women who are going against the social grain, wanting something different for their lives and their family's lives.

Since I'm an American, I bring to the attention Sarah Palin (who ran as V.pres in the last election) who embraces traditional moral values like of the worth of pre-born children, family, and individual liberty, but who gets not an iota of support or rallying from womens rights groups when she is attacked and degraded by the media. I guess she's not the "right kind" of woman.

Thank you for your post and for your keen support of the homemaker.


Dulce Domum said...

Monix and Sarah
Now, here's a question. Am I a northerner or a southener? Discuss.
Sarah, I look forward to hearing your thoughts vis a vis post, m'dear.

Hi Jody
You bring up some really interesting points. I've always wanted to be "just" a housewife. I enjoyed my career, but it always came second. If I do go back to work again, it will come second, I can't be any other way. And, yes, the desire to be a full-time homemaker was something I kept very close to my chest.

Regarding Sarah Palin. I followed the US elections quite closely, and was really interested in the Palin phenomena. The adverse reaction she received from women's groups I think proves that the woman's movement is heavily politicised, which is a shame...surely a movement concerned with the betterment of all women should be apolitical. However, I think that many social issues in the USA become polarised when they are claimed by the left or the right. For example, are there not pro-life Democrats, how are they recieved by their political fellows? And Palin was a right wing feminist (isn't she a member of Feminists for Life?)and there was an attitude that she wasn't a proper feminist because she was right wing, as though the Democrats had a monopoly on the politics of equality.

I don't think social issues are as heavily polarised as we are led to believe, people largely act upon their consciences when they vote, we're not as stupid an electorate as the spin doctors think.

Oh, I wasn't keen on Mrs Thatcher. Her policies of greed is good and "there is no such thing as society" undermined the social fabric of this country. She was too radical. However, no-one can deny that when a woman holds the highest office of the country she is both capable and truly remarkable - oh, and that women, as a whole, have made it. I've got so much to say on this, but I'm going off topic.

monix said...

You definitely have a northern heart and soul, Dulce D! I left Lancashire when I was 18 and am now 63, so am I a northerner or southerner? Few traces left of the accent, but the inherited values of generosity alongside thrift remain - I scrape the last bit of jam from the jar (unlike husband who throws away the last 1/4 if I don't catch him) but I'll give away my last £1 to anyone who needs it.

This is side-tracking from your original post, sorry! However, I think environment and local culture have an influence on the rate of change in society so perhaps not too far off track.

Anonymous said...

Well if you look at it by county and between 'upland' and lowland' you are borderline south dearie :)

However, politically your constituency is deemed 'north'.


Anonymous said...

However, you're above the Watford gap! I agree with Monix, you are a Northerner at heart. For some reason have an urge to listen to 'The Dreams we Have as Children'...ha.

Anyhoo, back to your lovely post. I agree, why are we so embarrassed to admit to loving being a homemaker/housewife/SAHM? We are measured by our ability to 'contribute' to the economy...we are measured by our NI number and our tax code. We are measured by filthy lucre and not by the worth of good food, happy home, well adjusted loved children.


Thinking of Sarah Palin, I didn't like the 'spin' around her. Here was a woman who had it all! She apparently did all her own housework, cooking, held down a mega stressful job, took her kids to work and was good looking to boot. It was enough to have me wanting to book myself into the Priory because just thinking about it made me have a nervous breakdown! She is wonder woman surely. Noone can do all that and remain sane and healthy with good interpersonal relationships with their family?

Can they?

Anonymous said...

Did feminists do us good? Yes and no.

I agree with your article. I read a feminist rant recently in which she said that women who have a college degree (it was an American article) should be made to work to get more women in prominent positions in the working world, to address the balance of sexes as CEOs, etc.

Which begs the question, is university there to educate our children in order to contribute to the working world, or do we send our children to university to 'improve' their minds? I have a psychology honours degree, yet I have never used it. It helped me get a job at the university when I worked, but I didn't become a psychologist or even a counsellor.

What do you think?

Anonymous said...

What I mean is, what is the purpose of education? Is it solely for economic productivity? Should we as women in order to 'honour' those women who fought for us to go to university by getting super dooper jobs above the men (as the feminist I mentioned earlier reckoned we ought)? Or is it simply a matter of 'bettering' ourselves, education for the joy of learning?

Gumbo Lily said...

Sarah in England wonders if Sarah Palin is able to do it all? I really think not. I do believe she has a nanny and some help in the home, but she does some of it herself too. I think she wants to stay close to the home fires.

Dulce, I agree that women's groups ought to be apolitical, but every issue is now political in the USA. Each side wishes to claim their pet issues, but the people ultimately vote their conscience.

I was noticing an advertisement on Yahoo's front page that says: "Obama wants every mom to go back to school." For some reason, I bristle up at that. Why should I go back to school? Is not my "job" valuable enough? Sexy enough? Smart enough? And why does our president need to see to it that we go to school? Have we moms no ability to make that choice for ourselves? Or can we not educate ourselves by reading those things that we consider valuable to our lives or take up lessons that interest us for interest's sake?

Home and homemaking really are about relationships as you said, Dulce. And what on earth is more important than that?

I'm enjoying the forum. Thank you for allowing us.


Dulce Domum said...

Wow! So much to respond to.

Ahh, it's so sweet of you all to say I'm a northerner. All midlanders have an identity crisis every now and then. Ahh, the midlands, the cultural no man's land of the north-south divide!

In answer to your responses about Sarah Palin. I'm dang sure Mrs Palin has a heck of a lot of help. She couldn't do it if she didn't, and I don't think she could do it if Mr Palin was a highflyer too. now, there's something to think about.

Also, regarding education. Education is a pleasure and right. Education is always useful, whether you use your skills in mothering or brain surgery, what you learn, and HOW you've learnt it is always applicable. Although I too don't use my degree as I "should", it has always given me great pleasure and helps me with my children's learning.

Oh, and should a persons usefulness and productivity be solely measured by their economic output? Heck no! It dehumanises us all to believe that, it make society less social, relationship focussed and community focussed. Rage, rage against rabid individulaism (even to the point of incoherence!)

Your point about local environment and cultural change is a really good one. I live in a bit of a backwater...but we're all kind of hip and green now because we haven't changed our ways for decades...only just got a starbucks in town...

It's happening here too. Both the Conservatives and Labour are bandying around an idea that we should pay grannies to look after their granchildren whilst mums go back to work. Is it me or is that a really cock-eyed solution to our child welfare and elderly welfare problems? I'd LOVE to know what you think about that one!