Feminist Housewives Reclaim the Kitchen
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When my beloved Grandma Rose died in 2003 at the age of 89, it made sense that my eulogy at her memorial service opened this way: My grandmother is the smell of butter.
For she was. Even today when I smell onions browning in the stuff, or I get a bite of a homemade cookie baked with the real thing, not Crisco, I think of her. Grandma Rose was my first model of a 20th century housewife. She raised six kids, cooked and baked like a champ, sewed whatever needed sewing, gossiped with the neighborhood gals, and scrubbed everything in her path to a squeaky, sparkling clean. But as much as I adored her, I never wanted to do what she did for a living.
I saw other housewives in action on channel 9's late-night rerun lineup: "I Love Lucy," "Dick Van Dyke" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." The shows' respective housewives, Lucy Ricardo, Laura Petrie and Sue Ann Nivens (who adopted the moniker The Happy Homemaker despite being unhappily unmarried) were all completely nuts. In fact, one could watch the latter two shows and imagine the feminist trajectory of Mary Tyler Moore, as she dumped her boring kitchen in New Rochelle for the independence of paid work in Minneapolis. I sure did. I didn't go to Carleton for my MRS degree, thank you very much.
But guess who ended up in Rose's profession anyway? Me. I'm a housewife, too.
There are essential differences between us, however. Easy access to effective contraception limited my brood to two. I thaw most of our family's meals, but my homemade banana bread is the envy of the neighborhood. My sewing is limited to replacing buttons. I adore gossip in all forms, but I do less of it over picket fences than I do online.
And online is a terrific place to argue the merits and limitations of the next generation of at-home caregivers, SAHMs (that's Stay at Home Moms), and homemakers, happy or otherwise.
Where else can you angrily debate The Right Thing To Do? Whether Linda Hirshman, whose 2006 book orders women to "Get to Work ... and Get a Life Before It's Too Late," is a prophet or a kook? (For the record, I'm in the latter category.)
Phony or no, the mommy wars are here to stay, due in no small part to the exalted place that the mother plays in American cultural mythology. When we think of that iconic mother, we don't see her in a power suit. We see her in an apron.
My grandma Rose sewed her own. So does Charlot Meyer, a Woodbury-based graphic artist who sells her recreations of vintage aprons in the online marketplace Etsy. Said Meyer of her aprons, "I like the idea of [the apron] moving from a utilitarian garment to a fashion accessory. Women today are busier than ever at home and work. There's no reason why we can't have fun and be fashionable in our family life." But one woman's necessity (Rose needed to keep flour off her dress) is another woman's ball and chain (legendary women's libber Betty Friedan) is another woman's fashion (Meyer's customers today). How can a few pieces of fabric say so much?
Historian Glenna Matthews suggests in her book "'Just a Housewife': the Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America," that the emotional loading of motherhood was a necessary byproduct of the new consumer culture of the early 20th century. Thanks to technological advances, basic household functions were now done by machines, not hands. Thus a great portion of the housewife's justification for existence vanished. Matthews argues that women had to be newly convinced of their emotional utility to the American family. By 1920, any idiot could buy a machine-sewn apron from a retail store, and advertisers knew it.