In the 1970s, as in the seventeenth century, maintaining the home was a role mainly undertaken by women. There were, however, no longer maids’ rooms in the house. Women were expected to stop their professional careers, or aspirations, as becoming a housewife was put forward as the ultimate dream.[i] In reality, however, being a housewife meant that women had to make their own desires subordinate to the welfare of children and husband; it meant a retreat from society. The frustration of the housewife was first voiced in America by the writer Betty Friedan, in The Feminine Mystique in 1963, after she had interviewed women who were housewives, who told her, independently, how dissatisfied they were with their lives.[ii] The feminist sociologist Anne Oakley articulated the lot of the English housewife, working away in the isolation of her home, a job that was repetitive, boring, undervalued and unpaid.[iii]
From the perspective of a housewife, it is the lack of control that makes cleaning and maintaining so frustrating; the repetitiveness of the actions. Clothes are washed but become dirty again. Dishes get used, personal belongings get left behind, and food gets eaten. Everything about housework is fleeting and repetitive, without a permanent result or any perceptible, or material, rewards. Household tasks have to be executed over and over again and only lack of maintenance is apparent in a home.
The repetitiveness and mindlessness of cleaning, however, are turned around in Zen and the Art of Housekeeping, 2008.[iv] Its author, Lauren Cassel Brownell, depicts cleaning, housekeeping and mothering in a holistic unity. The process of cleaning, through its rhythms and repetitions, becomes therapeutic according to Cassel Brownell, who likens each cleaning action to a Zen-concept. Housekeeping becomes a path to enlightenment and empowers, rather than destroys, the mind. Cassel Brownell leads the life of the suburban housewife; the life depicted critically in writings and art projects in the 1970s. However, Cassel Brownell made the conscious choice to stay home. Before she became a housewife, she had a full-time job outside the house, and felt she had no time to care for her home and children. She then chose to be a housewife, though did feel the need to share her experiences and opinions with wider society and wrote a book about it.[v]
The above, however, almost echoes the glorifying role the sisters Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher-Stowe ascribed to the housewife and the scientific management of her tasks in the American Woman’s Home, 1869. The book was an attempt to ‘elevate the honour and remuneration of domestic employment’, as ‘the chief cause of woman’s disabilities and sufferings’ is ‘that woman are not trained, as men are, for their peculiar duties’.[vi] It gave precise descriptions, not unlike Zen and the Art of Housekeeping, of how to clean and how to stay happy, as the chapter ‘Good Temper in the Housekeeper’ suggests. Whereas the earlier book bases its advice on Christian values, the later bases its wisdom on Buddhist teaching. Both underscore the importance of maintaining the home, not only for family, but also for the wider community. Both rely on a single person, the mother, to look after the home and its inhabitants.
Sarah Pink, in her book Home Truths: Gender, Domestic Objects and Everyday Life, 2004, looks at the art of cleaning and the impact that the practice of cleaning has on people. According to her, the typical housewife is generally portrayed as deeply unhappy; dependent, depressed and obsessed with cleanliness.[vii] Even though this stereotypical housewife is often referred to as a target of scorn by Pink’s informants, neither Pink nor her informants ever actually met a housewife that answered to the description given above.[viii] In contrast, she found that the housewives she met and those that are mentioned by her informants are admired for their skills and for their expert knowledge of, for example, laundry.[ix] Is the typical housewife now a 1960s ghost? In the drawing, three 1960s housewife ghosts are featured doing laundry and tidying up. The landscape is littered with dirt, laundry, folding and sweeping.
[i] This was the case in several countries; the Netherlands, the US, and Britain, but the suburban Housewife was predominantly found in the USA.
[ii] Friedan, 1972; Oakley, 1976.
[iii] The Housewife, 1974.
[iv] Lauren Cassel Brownell, 2008.
[v] She also found time to write a book about it.
[vi] Harriet Beecher Stow, 1869, L 6 – 13 [Kindle edition.]. Jacob Cats emphasised the importance of education for women in the 17th century, (De Mare, 2003, pp376-377).
[vii] Pink, 2004, p. 88.
[viii] Idem. p. 88.
[ix] Idem, p. 94.