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Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Friday, May 12, 2006

In honor of Mother's Day, I thought I'd write something about the new Caitlin Flanagan book, "To Hell With All That." Ms. Flanagan has said that she wants her book to be a Valentine to the Fifties housewife, whose domestic skills brought order and civilization to her unruly brood. If only. Ms. Flanagan is a skilled writer, finding absurdity in almost any situation. The much-described scene in which she screams for the nannie Paloma to come and clean up her son's vomit is worth the price of the book. It is, however, one of the few times Ms. F. actually manages to make fun at her own expense. That is the great flaw in her work; she doesn't really see the irony in her own position as a writer with a household staff who nevertheless posits the superiority of domestic life for women.

That brings me to the other great problem with her work. She has expressed a desire to honor housewives - she wrote an essay for the Atlantic Monthly complaining that women no longer describe themselves as housewives, they are "stay-at-home Moms," shifting the emphasis from wifehood to motherhood. Ms. F. does not consider that shift a good thing. Her most controversial paragraph, judging from the number of times its been cited in blog posts and reviews, describes the dismay of the modern husband at the thought of talking his wife, who, among other problems, is "economically independent of him" into having sex. He decides instead to watch ESPN. It isn't clear why her economic indepence would make him prefer Stanley Cup highlights to intimacy, but it bothers Ms. F. A lot.

I think one can find some enlightenment on this point in the response Ms. F. made to a letter writer who suggested that Ms. Flanagan's husband should help with the housework. The response is the letters to the editor section of the June 2004 Atlantic. Ms. Flanagan states, "Why would I want to? [make hubby share housework] He is the head of the household, and I treat him as such." ARRRRGGH!! Having done the world the enormous favor of being born male, hubby is forever exempt from doing anything unpleasant. Of course, Ms. F. doesn't do any of it either, so I suppose she's being fair. Still, the implication is that the rest of us should give our husbands clean houses, hot food, sex, and never insist he tear himself away from SportsCenter to wash dishes.

If she wants to lionize domestic work, this is NOT the way to go about it. Assigning icky chores to women alone doesn't raise their status. We've been stuck with icky stuff for thousands of years because women were, presumably, too stupid to do anything else. Keeping it that way just means that domestic chores continue to demand scant respect. This makes me sad, because I agree with Ms. F. that most of civilization takes place at home. If we don't mind living in chaotic hovels about to be seized by the health department, wear ratty, dirty clothes, and eat entirely from McDonald's, well then, by all means ignore domestic life. But for the overwhelming majority of us, that live without servants, one of the two adults in the house will have to cook and clean. Even if we're lucky enough, as Steve and I are, to be able to hire a cleaning service regularly, someone has to manage the daily spiffing up or the place becomes unbearable during the two weeks between visits. Also, the maids don't cook, do dishes, or make the place orderly enough for their cleaning to be effective. I want dishwashing and laundry to be regarded as the necessary tasks they are, not as punishment for the sins of Eve, which is what Ms. Flanagan makes it.

It would not be fair for me to rag on Caitlin Flanagan and her gendered vision of cleaning and to fail to address the leftist variant of her idea. A number of feminists, most notably Barbara Ehrenreich, have expressed the opinion that it is exploitive for middle-class households to hire someone to clean up. I do not understand why paying someone to vacuum is so much worse than paying someone to, say, repair the roof, mow the lawn, or unclog the drains. Hiring work is hiring work. The implication in Ms. Eherenreich's stance is the same as Ms. Flanagan's: domestic work is worse than any other kind.

It is my personal opinion that regaining private life, including establishing some dignity to housework, will be one of the issues dominating the 21st century. We settled the public life questions in the 20th century. No one much argues in favor of any other form of government besides full-sufferage democracy. We fought two world wars and spent fifty years in an almost-war over the question of who has the right to govern or choose those who govern. Now, we need to settle the question of who provides the civilized citizens to establish that liberal democracy. We could have a worse start than to decide that housework doesn't come with a chromosome assignment.

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