Housekeeping is a tricky subject. No woman feels she’s mastered it. All those glossy magazines about simple living feel like a reproach—and order seems an impossible goal when home has to double as school or workplace. The two words we rarely use to describe housework? One is “sexy,” the other, “fun.”
For generations, women have had a deep resentment of cleaning and tidying up. Housework has long been linked to concepts like perfectionism, subservience, self-judgment, and self-worth. In Western fairytales, it has stripped many of us of our independence and staunched our youthful hopes. Recall those backbreaking, hand-chapping, nail-splitting chores that kept Cinderella from going to the ball—her dreams of love and liberation dashed by an endless rendezvous with a bucket and a mop!
Today, these folk tales offer a Marxist critique of housework and the endless struggle between the haves and the have-nots. They are a stark reminder that the most loathsome tasks go to those on the last rung of the social ladder, that the poorest lads clean the chimneys and the lowliest maids empty the chamber pots.
With all its class implications, housework remains the dirty little thing we’re loath to talk about.
Equating Cleanliness and Virtue
Religion has a role to play, as well, with its insistence on pairing cleanliness with godliness—and female virtue.
In the 1500s, the word slut referred to an untidy person. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer used the term to describe an unkempt lord but, by the 18th century, it was used to denote a slovenly or salacious female. Hussy, short for huswife, was similarly transformed. Originally referring to a serving wench, the word came to mean “a woman of casual and improper behavior.” About this time, the Church linked lax housekeeping with loose morals.
Fallen women were put to work in convent laundries—as if years of scrubbing might remove a stain on their souls. From the 18th century until the mid 1950s, wayward girls in England and Ireland were shipped off to the Magdalene Sisters Home where they labored for 10 hours a day, 365 days a year, for no pay—standing over large vats of lye and scalding water. Some of these “inmates” had committed minor crimes, like stealing a train ticket, while others had the bad luck of being orphaned or pregnant out of wedlock.
The First Martha Stewart
While poor women were indentured, those in the middle class were mercilessly judged by how well they kept the home. In the Victorian era, wives were tasked with running an establishment that rivaled a posh men’s club while also managing the garden, the canning, and the nursery.
They turned for advice to a young Londoner named Isabella Beeton who had raised 11 siblings and studied pastry-making at a finishing school in France. The Martha Stewart of her age, Isabella had a popular magazine column, and her Book of Household Management, first published in 1861, eventually ballooned to some 2,000 pages, covering every aspect of homemaking from selecting wallpaper to caring for the silver and curing a bad case of the croup.
At the turn of the last century, home was a dangerous place. There were no antibiotics, disease was rampant, and the bedroom was often turned into “the dying room.” Electricity was hazardous and faulty wiring responsible for many burns and fatalities. Arsenic, evident in certain popular Victorian wallpaper, was poisonous to touch, and cleansers were severely caustic, causing lasting injury to the eyes and hands.
Mrs. Beeton guided her followers through all these hazards and was ultimately defeated by a form of dirt she couldn’t see and few understood—the microbe. When she died at the age of 28, after delivering her fourth child. the official cause was septicemia, an infection thought at the time to be linked to unsanitary conditions in the home. But I’m sure her doctors unwashed hands and her husband’s longstanding case of syphilis didn’t help.
Slavery and Domestic Service
Any moral discussion of housework must consider the African women brought in slave ships to work on American plantations. Southern households were run by black women for two centuries and the job of maid was still filled by women of color even after emancipation.
“Work as a maid or (in a) private household was woven into my family’s history,” writes Julianne Malvaux, a labor economist and author of Black Women in the Labor Force (MIT Press 1980). “Not only did my great-grandmother Addie Hawkins work as a maid, but my grandmother Rose Elizabeth Nelson majored in home economics in Tuskegee. She migrated to San Francisco from Mississippi during World War II to work in the shipyard, an African American ‘Rosie the Riveter.’ After she retired, she was the housekeeper for a wealthy family in Marin County. She was a phenomenal cook and one of those housecleaners who would run the white glove over a surface that should have been dusted before sniffing, disdainfully, at a job poorly done.”
The assumption that Black women should be in domestic service is deeply embedded in American culture. Not long ago, Malvaux offered to help a frail white traveler disembark from a plane. For her kindness, she was handed a $2 tip and asked whether she did “day work.”