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The Housewife’s Moment of Truth

(1) Decide what housework needs to be done. Then cut the list in half. It is no longer necessary to prove ourselves by being in motion all day and all night. Beds must be made and food cooked, but it is unfair to demand that the family share the work if your standards include cooking like Julia Child and bouncing dimes on the bedspread. Beware of useless and self-defeating standards. It is preposterous and not unusual for a woman to feel her house must look as though no one lived there. Who’s looking? Who cares?

(2) Decide what you will and will not do. Keep firmly in mind the notion of personal maintenance as an individual responsibility. If children cannot put away their clothes and therefore cannot find them and have to go to school looking like ragpickers—well, presumably they will learn from experience. Their appearance does not make you a bad person. (If you can acknowledge and act on that fact, you are becoming liberated.) If you spend four or five hours a day driving your children places, ask yourself why. Are they cripples? Are there no safe streets they can walk along? Why? Seizing responsibility from children has been women’s way to compensate for their own lack of responsibility for themselves, and it has resulted in two generations of non-adults.

(3) Make a plan and present it as final. There will, of course, be democratic argument, but it is only fair to state your purpose. Not that anyone will pay attention. They will laugh nervously and expect life to go on as usual. Do not be distracted by sophisticated arguments, such as, “Well, let’s take the relative value of our days.” Yes. Let’s. When your husband sits down at his desk after dinner, to use his brain, do you murmur, “Poor darling,” as you wash up, tidy the living room, start the wash and check the bathroom for clean towels? Why? A game of role reversal can be most enlightening. A wife who figures out that his important business meeting is no different from her P.T.A. committee meeting may opt for equal hours—and quit her own work at five o’clock.

Another diversionary remark is: “But honey, this isn’t a business agreement. This is a home. It is a question of helping each other reach fulfillment.” In my home, when I am working against a deadline, I sit in front of a typewriter and shout, “More tea!” The whole family hustles in with more tea. I call out, “Go to bed,” “Get some lamb chops.” It is an emergency situation and they all spring to, helping me fulfill myself. But I am still in charge of remembering to get the lamb chops. It is a problem that may not be solved in my lifetime.

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

Almost equally difficult is deciding who does what. Men will always opt for things that get finished and stay that way—putting up screens, but not planning menus. Some find washing dishes a peaceful, meditative experience. It has to be worked out. The important thing is to get the argument away from philosophy and onto assigned chores.

(4) Think revolutionary thoughts. The nineteenth century ended 72 years ago, but we are still trying to arrange our households according to that “ideal” image of family life. Think of something new. I know a man and woman who decided to stop eating dinner. She had been rushing around putting children to bed, and then laying on a candlelit dinner with three kinds of food on the plate for her husband. They liked chatting at dinner. He helped clean up. They never finished before ten. But one night they discovered that both were dreaming of long cozy evenings reading by the fire. So they have skipped the ritual feast—and replaced it with sandwiches. They get up earlier and have family talks at breakfast. Who knows what daring innovations may follow? He may demand an end to success based on overtime. Both may demand less homework so the children can assume some responsibilities.

This is, after all, part of the revolution we are talking about. The woman in Aspen who imagined herself a snake happened to be a nursing mother. One day a complaining note appeared on the conference bulletin board saying: “Why are there crying babies in the tent? Signed, Father of Five.” The conference was discussing designs for the future, and Father of Five learned that in the future, children, and their mothers, will no longer be quarantined. Someone does not have to take care of the children, sometwo will share them.

(5) Never give in. Empty one dishwasher, and it leads to a lifetime of emptying dishwashers. Remember that nothing will ever get done by anyone else if you do it. If you are the only person who worries about it, perhaps it isn’t worth worrying about. If it is very important to you that you not live in a sty, then you must persuade everyone else that what is important to you counts.


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