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The Housewife’s Moment of Truth

It is very hard not to give in. One evening recently two men came to our house for the weekend. “When shall we eat?” they asked, beaming. “Whenever you want,” I said, bravely. “I’m not cooking, I’m working tonight.” They cooked, while I held myself in my chair by an incredible effort of will, the words blurring before my determined eyes. The next day, I expiated my guilt by going the whole route, including homemade bread. “Ah!” they said. “How wonderful! You are a real woman. And working, too.”

(6) Do not feel guilty. I have never met a woman who did not feel guilty. We can post signs in our hearts and on our walls saying: “It is not wrong to inconvenience my family—it is making us all responsible, ego-strong adults.” But when a man we are attached to goes out with a button off his coat, we—not he—feel feckless. The only near-cure is to have something more interesting to think about. Even if “something to do” means going back to easy courses in school—back to the point where we abdicated for marriage—it is a beginning, and we are older now and will learn rapidly, because at least we know we want things some other way.

(7) Expect regression. And remember, the next step is human liberation. The slightest mischance in my life makes me want to fling myself into the protection of someone else’s bank account. And yet I still speak of “our money” as clearly separated from “my money.” Occasionally, men become liberated and it is a dreadful shock. “I’m not going to work this year; I need to think,” announced a friend’s husband. She had spent seven years in his care and keeping and then, as she put it, “Finally I get my own business going and he wants to lie around all day.” Why not? Women who say, “I like my freedom—I have my day organized and I can do what I like with my time,” forget that men are entitled to some of that freedom. They are also prisoners of the rigid structure of their roles and jobs.

“Men do not want equality at home. A strong woman is a threat, an inconvenience, and she can be replaced”

I cannot imagine anything more difficult than incurring the kind of domestic trauma I describe. It requires the conscious loss of the role we have been taught, and its replacement by a true identity. And what if we succeed? What if we become liberated women who recognize that our guilt is reinforced by the marketplace, which would have us attach our identity to furniture polish and confine our deepest anxieties to color coordinating our toilet paper and our washing machines? What if we overcome our creeping sense of something unnatural when our husbands approach “our” stoves? What if we don’t allow ourselves to be treated as people with nothing better to do than wait for repairmen and gynecologists? What if we finally learn that we are not defined by our children and our husbands, but by ourselves? Then we will be able to control our own lives, able to step out into the New Tomorrow. But the sad and solemn truth is that we may have to step out alone.

The more we try, and argue, and change, the more we will realize that the male ego will be the last thing in this world to change. And the last place it will change is at home.

Some women pride themselves on the intransigence of their men. I have always taken pride in the liberated attitudes of mine. And yet, last weekend, when I buckled my seat belt in the car, he growled: “You don’t have to do that with me driving.” My God! We were back to Start; he was threatened by my safety measure. How do we argue with feelings like that? With the constant demands to bolster and boost egos grown fat and fragile, with the blocks and jealousies and petty meannesses that drain off our energies? Too often the only way to find ourselves is to leave.

Men’s resistance is more subtle than simply leaving the dishes unwashed for a month. A woman I know was married for seventeen years to a man who threatened to smash her sculpture whenever they fought. He complained continuously about the cost of her tools, he laughed at her work in public. When she finally left, she was dazed to discover that the critics found her work excellent.

I have a friend in Cleveland who left high school to marry. She raised two children and worked nights in her husband’s office. When she went back to college, it happened mysteriously that they had an exhausting fight the night before every exam. When she still got high marks, he took credit for encouraging her.

I know a writer whose husband never once read her work. She visited an analyst who declared her role conflict a character defect. Her husband told the analyst he wouldn’t mind his wife’s inadequacies so much if she did something. “But she does write,” said the doctor. “Oh. That,” said the husband bitterly, dismissing the work he would eventually feel reflected credit on him, but only after their divorce.

No, the question of housework is not a trivial matter to be worked out the day before we go on to greater things. Men do not want equality at home. A strong woman is a threat, someone to be jealous of. Most of all, she is an inconvenience, and she can be replaced. They like things as they are. It’s pleasanter.

I had never realized how seductive the role of master is until the other day. I was watering a plant, and the water began to run on the floor. I stood where I was and moaned about the puddle until the live-in babysitter dropped what she was doing and brought me the rag it would have been easier for me to get. She, at least, was not saying, “Don’t worry darling, let me take care of it.” But my excuse was . . . I have more important things to think about than housework.

Jane O’Reilly is a contributing editor of “New York” Magazine and the mother of an eight-year-old son. She is currently writing a book called “The American Way of Love.”


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