Considering Housework: An Uneven Anthology

By Gordon, Beverly | Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Considering Housework: An Uneven Anthology


Gordon, Beverly, Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women's Studies Resources


Elizabeth Patton & Mimi Choi, eds., HOME SWEAT HOME: PERSPECTIVES ON HOUSEWORK & MODERN RELATIONSHIPS. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014, notes, bibl. index. $72.00, ISBN 978-1442229693.

I grew up in the 1950s and came of age in the heady consciousness-raising phase of second-wave feminism. I was acutely aware of expected gender roles, and it was a given that my partners and I would share housework. My scholarship focused on issues related to "background history" and the often-trivialized realities of the domestic sphere. Nevertheless, I still struggled through the years with inconsistencies --push-pulls between my ideals, preferences, and experiences. So it was exciting recently to encounter a volume devoted to attitudes about housework.

Home Sweat Home: Perspectives on Housework & Modern Relationships was not completely satisfying. Editors Elizabeth Patton and Mimi Choi explain that the anthology began with a session at the Popular/American Culture Association conference in 2012. Previously unacquainted academics from different fields--English, media/communications, gender and women's studies --responded to a call for papers and bonded over their common interest. The resulting essays are uneven, but they approach the topic from a refreshing variety of starting points. Their discussions, which range from the vision of domestic technology expressed in the political discourse of the 1960s "Kitchen Debates" to analysis of housework depicted in the animated film The Incredibles, leave strong impressions. Ultimately, however, they are about images rather than under lying reasons and issues. While the editors' objective was "to wrest and make visible the awkward issues from the margins" and "enlarge the discourse" about housework (p. xv), it is unclear how that expansion is taking place. As they plaintively conclude, "we may feel not very far from" Betty Friedan's 1963 articulation of the discontented housewife in The Feminine Mystique. "Will it take another fifty years to really resolve the issue of housework?" (p. xxii).

Many of the essays demonstrate that the idealized domestic image (a "home-cooked meal and an attractive maternal figure" [p. xv]) still persists, despite the prevalence of dual-income households. Why is that image so tenacious? The editors argue that the prevalent attitude about housework--that it is "invisible, marginalized and devalued"--can be traced to the Industrial Revolution (pp. xiv--xv), when concepts of work and home were bifurcated for the first time. The scope of Home Sweat Home purportedly extends from the Victorian era to the present. None of the essays actually covers anything before the twentieth century, but the well-written introduction provides some important historical context. Unfortunately, neither the editors nor the contributors consider why this industrial-era model would endure in our post-industrial, post-modern society.

One of the weaknesses of the book is that housework is never defined or delimited. Often it is the physical labor of taking care of the house that is considered, but sometimes the term is conflated with the idea of homemaker (this was a Victorian construct--a homemaker was not the laborer, but the moral and emotional "light of the home"). Nicola Goes "Snapshot Photography, Women's Domestic Work, and the 'Kodak Moment,' 1910s--1960s," for example, argues that with the availability of inexpensive cameras, photography became part of women's domestic work. They acted as family historians, who documented and memorialized homey scenes. This fascinating, compellingly illustrated essay tells us much about the construction of meaning, but it is not about household drudgery or an endless task like dishwashing.

Childcare/childrearing is similarly subsumed into housework in some, but not all, of the essays. In what seems a particular outlier, "Kuaering 'Home' in Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet, " Gust Yep and Ryan Lescure look at concepts of home in the light of queer theory and transnational sensibility. …

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