Sex & Relationships

I'm a Feminist But I Do All the Housework: What's Up With That?

By and large, women do far more housework than men and are better at it. It's creating a dirty situation.

By and large, women do far more housework than men and are better at it, and it’s creating a dirty situation.

I call myself a feminist, but I do almost all of the housework. Though I don’t have a cleaning fetish or anything, I like it when my toilet doesn’t frighten surprise guests, my underwear is clean, and my fridge isn’t full of moldy vegetables.

I know I’m supposed to get over that, but thousands of years of history make it pretty hard. And I can’t blame the sensitive, decent progressive men I know for those years of history, either, or where it’s left us. But the disparity still causes a mess that needs cleaning up.

There are millions of men who are dazzlingly good at dirty work, of course. And scores of relationships where men and women equitably share those tasks that, while not glamorous, enable everyone in the household able to be glamorous.

But anyway you measure it, statistically speaking, women do about twice as much housework as men, even in relationships where the woman works outside of the home and the man doesn’t.

The disparity might be fine if women benefited from it more than men. Or if, somehow, reclaiming cleaning as important women’s work (without getting anything in return) advanced feminism. But in both cases, the opposite is true.

Men benefit from relationships more than women, according to Michael Kimmel, author of Guyland, and professor of sociology at SUNY Stony Brook, because the current distribution of domestic labor means that when men marry, they tend to gain a chef and a laundress, among other things. Married men are happier, live longer, have lower rates of illness, and are less likely to be treated by a therapist than their unmarried brothers, but married women have lower rates of happiness than unmarried women, and more likely to need medical treatments and therapy.

Recent research is also suggesting that men are happier than women right now, and I think housework is a key reason. Some articles about the current gap between men’s and women’s happiness, like Maureen Dowd’s piece this week, point out “while women still do more cooking, cleaning and child-caring, the trend lines are moving toward more parity, which should make them less stressed.” But in most cases, there still isn’t parity, so the “second shift,” does put more of a burden on women, and does result in lower happiness levels.

And when there is a disparity in work, it doesn’t just impact the individuals’ happiness, but the health of their relationship. No matter what the cultural reasons behind it, when one person spends more time on mutually beneficial tasks than the other, it’s as if the first person is saying, yeah I’m happy to spend some of my non-paid-work hours – ones that could be spent in bed, or with friends, or drunk, whatever – on making your life better, but you don’t think it’s worth spending non-work hours on me in return. And those kinds of numbers start to add up to serious problems.

I know it’s not that simple. Not only have I and many women I know grown up, encouraged to think that cleanliness is next to goodness, but many men I know have grown up thinking the opposite. They’re cleaning-averse. Cleaning, some male friends have told me, is like giving in to the Man. It’s sacrificing your individuality and free time, to adulthood and to social pressure. It’s boring and even emasculating. You don’t see icons of masculinity like Donald Draper, on Mad Men, or James Bond, doing the dishes. But it’s not all fun for me either.

So why do I do it? Despite critical thinking, feminism, and some knowledge of history, I still think housework is worth doing, but I don’t want to fight about it, be the task mistress, project manager, coaxer, or nag endlessly. I’d rather clean the toilet every time, than discuss it for longer than it takes to do the job. And I don’t want to start withholding things, as some people have suggested, to get “my way,” because I think that would kill the relationship faster than bleach kills germs (and the environment).

But that’s a big a political decision. “I really think that this is one of the victories of the women’s liberation movement,”said Dr. Susan Strasser, Richards Professor of American History, and author of Never Done: A History of American Housework, when I called to talk to her about it, and my heart sank a little. She said early feminists demanded that men do fifty percent of the housework. “It takes women making the demand, and saying ‘I’m out of the house eight hours a day and you’re out of the house eight hours a day so who is going to do the housework? It doesn’t happen automatically, it takes negotiation.”

And she added, “There are plenty of nice men who say ‘Oh yeah I can see your point,’ but that doesn’t mean they do it.”

So I asked my male and female friends how they handle this murky situation.

A male friend told me he and his girlfriend used to have a weekly argument after she cleaned the toilet – he said he didn’t clean it because it was never dirty, she says it was never dirty because she cleaned it. Her standards are higher, his effort is lower. So they’ve hired a cleaner, which he pays for, and their toilet-related arguments have been flushed away.

A female friend told me told me that she refuses to do any cleaning or cooking. She and her husband hire someone to clean their house weekly, and when her husband doesn’t feel like cooking (which is most nights), they go out to eat.

Another female friend told me proudly that she and her husband have two laundry baskets, and she never does his. Even when she was at home with their child, supported by him financially, and he was working over a hundred hours a week, she refused to clean or cook. "I'm not his maid," she said to me. "Men don't respect the maid."

Another has a husband who is so averse to domestic work that he refuses to even pick his own clothes off the floor when he takes them off at night. She refuses to pick them up too. So they have a cleaner three times a week. She told him she won’t do his dirty work, so to speak.

But these are all affluent friends, so I asked female friends who are less so. They admitted they do housework, more of it than their partners, but also emphasized how much they hate it, how they wish they could hire a cleaning person, and how they feel not only inferior to and resentful of their partners for doing less, but also to other women who can hire someone to do the housework. So there’s not only a gender situation here, but a class one.

I know that hiring a cleaning person works in many cases, and I won’t begin to try to unravel the mysteries of what makes other people’s relationships work, but for me, hiring out the business of everyday life isn’t as simple as it seems.

I hire a cleaner once a month to clean the floors and the fridge but don’t want someone to come in more than that. It’s a personal decision, but I don’t want to hire out the business of everyday life, necessarily, to make my relationship work.

Plus, even though I pay the cleaner three times the minimum wage, I know the arguments about how Western women’s so-called equality has been won on the backs of immigrant and poor women, and I feel guilty about it.

I’d rather do the work, and find another way to make it equal.

“The historical position on this negotiation is that men make more money and take up with women who do more housework,” according to Strausser. Which is one way to go, but I think we know there are more problems with that model. And I’m in the privileged position of making enough money to support myself. So I don’t want a quid pro quo that consists of my housework for his money, even though I think that can work in a postfeminist context.

In a dream world, I’d like my housework to be considered valuable, precious even – much like cooking has become. “The fact that so many middle class women have handed the work over to poor women, says that the work is devalued in a way that even in the 60s and 70s it wasn’t. That it’s work that can be done for a low hourly wage by people whom society thinks little of,” says Strasser.

And there is some hope on this front, if Maxim is any kind of reliable cultural barometer. Recent shots of Audrina Partridge showedher sitting on a dryer in lingerie.

And in a recent interview with Charles Saatchi, in which he talked briefly about life with the domestic goddess, Nigella Lawson, he said, “She's too good for me, I know, but she knows it too and reminds me every day.”

But until cleaning is seen as the valuable work it is, here’s what I demand. If doing the dishes or the laundry is a big deal to my partner, no problem; I’ll do it. It’s my choice. But because relationships don’t work and people aren’t happy when a situation is unequal and unfair, in return, I want my partner to spend a similar amount of time and effort doing things that benefit me in some way. These can be things of his own choosing (as cleaning is mine) -- “manly” things, whatever that means to him -- he can fix my car, set up my wi-fi, make me a CD of my favourite songs, take me out for dinner, rub my feet, drive me places in the car. They can be essential tasks, or ones that simply make life more pleasant. But it still has to add up, more or less, or the relationship doesn’t.

Tyee Contributing Editor Vanessa Richmond writes the Schlock and Awe column about popular culture and the media. She is also the former managing editor of the Tyee.
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