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The Housewife’s Moment of Truth

On Fire Island my weekend hostess and I had just finished cooking breakfast, lunch, and washing dishes for both. A male guest came wandering into the kitchen just as the last dish was being put away and said, “How about something to eat?” He sat down, expectantly, and started to read the paper. Click! “You work all week,” said the hostess, “and I work all week, and if you want something to eat, you can get it, and wash up after it yourself.”

In New York last fall, my neighbors—named Jones—had a couple named Smith over for dinner. Mr. Smith kept telling his wife to get up and help Mrs. Jones. Click! Click! Two women radicalized at once.

A woman I know in St. Louis, who had begun to enjoy a little success writing a grain company’s newsletter, came home to tell her husband about lunch in the executive dining room. She had planned a funny little anecdote about the deeply humorous pomposity of executives, when she noticed her husband rocking with laughter. “Ho ho, my little wife in an executive dining room.” Click!

“‘I do not agree with your last article, and I am cancelling my wife’s subscription’”

Last August, I was on a boat leaving an island in Maine. Two families were with me, and the mothers were discussing the troubles of cleaning up after a rental summer. “Bob cleaned up the bathroom for me, didn’t you honey?” she confided, gratefully patting her husband’s knee. “Well, what the hell, it’s vacation,” he said, fondly. The two women looked at each other, and the queerest change came over their faces. “I got up at six this morning to make the sandwiches for the trip home from this ‘vacation,’” the first one said. “So I wonder why I’ve thanked him at least six times for cleaning the bathroom?” Click! Click!

Attitudes are expressed in semantic equations that simply turn out to be two languages; one for men and another for women. One morning a friend of mine told her husband she would like to hire a baby sitter so she could get back to her painting. “Maybe when you start to make money from your pictures, then we could think about it,” said her husband. My friend didn’t stop to argue the inherent fallacy in his point—how could she make money if no one was willing to free her for work? She suggested that, instead of hiring someone, he could help with the housework a little more. “Well, I don’t know, honey,” he said, “I guess sharing the housework is all right if the wife is really contributing something, brings in a salary. . . .” For a terrible minute my friend thought she would kill her husband, right there at breakfast, in front of the children. For ten years, she had been covering furniture, hanging wallpaper, making curtains and refinishing floors so that they could afford the mortgage on their apartment. She had planned the money-saving menus so they could afford the little dinners for prospective clients. She had crossed town to save money on clothes so the family could have a new hi-fi. All the little advances in station—the vacations, the theater tickets, the new car—had been made possible by her crafty, endless, worried manipulation of the household expenses. “I was under the impression,” she said, “that I was contributing something. Evidently my life’s blood is simply a non-deductible expense.”

In suburban Chicago, the party consisted of three couples. The women were a writer, a doctor and a teacher. The men were all lawyers. As the last couple arrived, the host said, jovially, “With a roomful of lawyers, we ought to have a good evening.” Silence. Click! “What are we?” asked the teacher. “Invisible?”

In an office, a political columnist, male, was waiting to see the editor-in-chief. Leaning against a doorway, the columnist turned to the first woman he saw and said, “Listen, call Barry Brown and tell him I’ll be late.” Click! It wasn’t because she happened to be an editor herself that she refused to make the call.

In the end, we are all housewives, the natural people to turn to when there is something unpleasant, inconvenient or inconclusive to be done. It will not do for women who have jobs to pretend that society’s ills will be cured if all women are gainfully employed. In Russia, 70 per cent of the doctors and 20 per cent of the construction workers are women, but women still do all the housework. Some revolution. As the Russian women’s saying goes, it simply freed us to do twice the work.

It will not do for women who are mostly housewives to say that Women’s Liberation is fine for women who work, but has no relevance for them. Equal pay for equal work is only part of the argument—usually described as “the part I’ll go along with.”


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  • Archive: “Features
  • From the Dec 20, 1971 issue of New York
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