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The Housewife’s Moment of Truth

We are all housewives. We would prefer to be persons. That is the part they don’t go along with.

“That broad . . .” begins a male guest who Hasn’t Thought.

“Woman,” corrects the hostess, smiling meaningfully over her coffeepot.

“Oh, no,” groans the guest. “Don’t tell me you believe in this Women’s Lib stuff!”

“Yes,” says the hostess.

“Well, I’ll go along with some of it, equal pay for equal work, that seems fair enough,” he concedes. Uneasy now, he waits for the male hoots of laughter, for the flutter of wives rushing to sit by their husbands at the merest breath of the subject of Women’s Liberation. But that was three or four years ago. Too many moments have clicked in the minds of too many women since then. This year the women in the room have not moved to their husbands’ sides; they have . . . solidified. A gelid quality settles over the room. The guest struggles on.

“You can’t tell me Women’s Lib means I have to wash the dishes, does it?”

“Yes.”

They tell us we are being petty. The future improvement of civilization could not depend on who washes the dishes. Could it? Yes. The liberated society—with men, women and children living as whole human beings, not halves divided by sex roles—depends on the steadfast search for new solutions to just such apparently trivial problems, on new answers to tired old questions. Such questions as:

Denise works as a waitress from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Her husband is a cabdriver, who moonlights on weekends as a doorman. They have four children. When her husband comes home at night, he asks: “What’s for dinner?”

Jonathan and Joanne are both doctors. They have identical office hours. They come home in the evening to a dinner cooked by the housekeeper. When they go to bed, he drops his clothes on the floor and she picks them up. In the morning he asks: “Where is my pink and orange striped shirt?”

“We are all housewives, the people to turn to when there is something unpleasant to be done”

In moments of suburban strife; Fred often asks his wife, “Why haven’t you mended my shirt and lubricated the car? What else have you got to do but sit around the house all day?”

How dare he ask such a question? What sort of bizarre social arrangement is post-industrial-revolution marriage? What kind of relationship involves two people sharing their lives without knowing, or apparently caring, what the other does all day?

According to insurance companies, it would cost Fred $8,000 to $9,000 a year to replace Alice’s services if she died. Alice, being an average ideal suburban housewife, works 99.6 hours a week—always feeling there is too much to be done and always guilty because it is never quite finished. Besides, her work doesn’t seem important. After all, Fred is paid for doing whatever it is he does. Abstract statistics make no impact on Alice. “My situation is different,” she says. Of course it is. All situations are different. But sooner or later she will experience—in a blinding click—a moment of truth. She will remember that she once had other interests, vague hopes, great plans. She will decide that the work in the house is less important than reordering that work so she can consider her own life.

The problem is, what does she do then?

The first thing we all do is argue. We present our case: It is unfair that we should bear the whole responsibility for the constant schema of household management; that this burden should be implanted, inescapable, like Mrs. Ramsay’s boeuf bourguignon, in our minds.

Soon, we find out that argument serves no practical motivational purpose. We may get agreement, but we will never get cooperation or permission. Rebuttals may begin at the lowest level: “It is a woman’s job to wash dishes.” Men at a higher stage of enlightenment may argue, “Why do we need a washing machine? I wash my socks and we send everything out.” They simply cannot understand that we are the ones who must gather and list and plan even for the laundry we send out. It is, quite simply, on our minds. And not on theirs. Evenings of explanation and understanding will still end with, “Honey, do I have any clean shorts for tomorrow?” Most women will decide that it is not worth making an issue out of shorts.

In fact, underwear is as good a place to begin as anywhere. Last summer I carried the underwear downstairs, put it in the hamper, sorted it, washed and dried it, folded it, carried it upstairs, and put it away. One day, I decided that as an act of extreme courage I would not carry the laundry upstairs. I put it on the couch in the room with the television set. The family moved it to one side of the couch so they could sit down. I left it there. I put more on the couch. They piled it up. They began to dress off the couch. I began to avoid the television room. At last, guilty and angry, my nerve failed and I carried the laundry upstairs. No one noticed. Out of that experience, I formulated a few rules, which I intend to follow as soon as I finish the painful process of thinking about the assumptions that make them necessary.


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