Dorothy Sayers Explains It All

One hates to gank things from Tumblr, but this is a pretty amazing quote:

Let us accept the idea that women should stick to their own jobs – the jobs they did so well in the good old days before they started talking about votes and women’s rights. Let us return to the Middle Ages and ask what we should get then in return for certain political and educational privileges which we should have to abandon.

It is a formidable list of jobs: the whole of the spinning industry, the whole of the dyeing industry, the whole of the weaving industry. The whole catering industry and… the whole of the nation’s brewing and distilling. All the preserving, pickling, and bottling industry, all the bacon-curing. And (since in those days a man was often absent from home for months together on war or business) a very large share in the management of landed estates. Here are the women’s jobs – and what has become of them? They are all being handled by men. It is all very well to say that woman’s place is the home – but modern civilisation has taken all these pleasant and profitable activities out of the home, where the women looked after them, and handed them over to big industry to be directed and organised by men at the head of large factories. …

The fact remains that the home contains much less of interesting activity than it used to contain. … It is perfectly idiotic to take away women’s traditional occupations and then complain because she looks for new ones. Every woman is a human being – one cannot repeat that too often – and a human being must have occupation.

–Dorothy Sayers, 19freaking47

I mean, this is a very true thing. Being a “homemaker” these days involves raising children (or not) and keeping the house reasonably, but not even particularly immaculately, clean. If you want immaculate, you hire someone. My mother in law, a Russian woman who practically has WORK ETHIC tattooed on her back in prison font, told me to hire a maid, because no one could expect one person to clean a house this big (it’s not obscenely big). It’s considered cool enough for men to cook (easily the most fun and creative of household chores–and probably not coincidentally the one which actually produces a tangible thing, rather than the vague “cleanliness” or “non-psychotic child development”) that homemaking might not even include cooking every day of the week.

I wonder if this is part of the reason there has been such a revival of cottage industry home crafts in recent years. I mean, without even thinking, I can name someone I know who knits, spins and/or dyes fiber, makes beer at home, pickles things, preserves things, grows their own food, makes wine, cures their own meat, raises chickens or ducks or goats or horses, makes their own butter, jam and/or bread, quilts, makes jewelry (practically everyone I know makes jewelry) or clothes, and bakes from scratch. Hell, I do most of those things and I am not by any stretch a homemaker. But we’ve lost the home tasks which provided the most creative output and enjoyment (no one liked washing laundry with lye, no matter how idyllic scrubbing linens in the river looks in movies, but knitting is damned pleasant, and food activities have their peculiar joys, even when they are tedious and strenuous, like pickling and preserving) and yet we still have to spend a lot of time at home, and still have this cultural meme of “home = woman” which leads to not teaching sons to do even the child and cleanliness things, and teaching them also that someone, eventually, will do those things for them. I wonder if we’re just trying to get those parts that provided connection and community and occupation back somehow. Even parenting has become a kind of competitive performance art not wholly related to how we ourselves were raised. The thing is, almost (I said almost, do not get offended if you are a homemaking superman) everyone I can think of who does those things, with the exception of beermaking, because duh, is a woman. I think I know one man who knits the way I and my female friends do, which is to say obsessively. Most of this revival is feminine, and I don’t quite know why, except that we’re all unemployed or non-traditionally employed, and these things do provide a high level of tangible occupational satisfaction.

Because let’s be honest here. I don’t know very many people of my generation who can afford to “just stay at home.” They do it when they can’t find work or cinch their belts for the first years when child development is so important, but I can’t really think of anyone starting to have their babies now who can just blithely kick it housewife style.

Of course, men also used to be expected to know a whole lot of home-things, too. Like how to fix anything that goes wrong with household machines, care for livestock, and literally build more house–and the build more house bit was often a hobby. Even one generation back, I see men on this island whose idea of a rocking awesome weekend is to build something out of wood and glass that adds to the beauty and utility of their home. We don’t teach that anymore either. There’s always someone to hire to do it. What I am capable of doing in that field is purely due to my own streak of I WILL DO BOY THINGS FUCK YOU and not anything I’ve been taught–but more interestingly, my husband is fairly competent at fixing (better at computers than ovens) and can assist at building, but his father can do more or less everything. That’s how I think it happens–each generation needs these skills less, so learns maybe half of what their parents knew, and pretty soon no one knows how to do shit our great-grandparents considered basic.

I’m not singing the modern world sucks rag. I really like my technology. Of course, I still get it from all corners that I should be buckling down and having a baby, as though my career is just faffing about and killing time. If the house is awry that’s on me, not my husband–who is a good post-feminist boy and does all kinds of cleaning and cooking! But external judgment will always be on me, no matter how many books are on the shelf with my name on them. I became so much more socially acceptable when I wrote a book for children. And though I bake like a mofo and cook and preserve and pickle, I’ve never touched a grill in my life, for lo, that is sacred Man Territory. I am the very model of a modern pomo feminist, yet oh, how my life is still strewn with this crap. Let’s set aside for a moment the issues of sexism in my industry, and how I so rarely read a book or watch a TV show where a woman has an internal life, a job outside the home, a friend, desires or ambitions. (I just saw someone list off the best shows evar, and none of them had any interest in women’s stories or passed the Bechdel test, rather, they were all the sorts of shows that get described to me as being “interesting in masculinity” which apparently means no chicks plz.)

I find the very simple question at the beginning of the quote fascinating, because I’ve never heard it asked. If we, as conservatives would have us do, give up all those pesky votes and rights and bodily autonomy and needs to be recognized as human, what do we get in return? Because “the home” is kind of a shitty answer. It’s always been a brutal gig to be asked to be intelligent and creative and engaged enough to raise a highly successful child, yet to be satisfied with only that, forever, along with some cleaning and cooking. But the home as they seem to conceive it no longer exists. The home is a place now, not an industry.

I saw a comedian the other day talking about how little girls never get to be kids. (For values of our current “to be a child is to be carefree, work-free, trauma-free and innocent” meme) A baby boy’s toys are trucks, spaceships, guns, robots. A baby girl’s is another baby girl to take care of. The comedian looked up plaintively to the spotlight and said: “But I just got here.”

Quite so. And this got a little long. But the gender stuff is still spicing the soup and it’s gross and weird and ugly and even moreso on the internet where no one has to look a woman in the eye when they tell her to shut up. I wish we were doing a little better. A little better than the commentary of 1947. Than the gender politics of early-90s Star Trek, which looks so quaint now, not actually worshiping full-tilt at the font of overweening masculinity. (As the new movie does, as Mad Men does even while caring a great deal about women–if you think that show would have succeeded without Don Draper set up for a long while as a good old days ubermensch for men to adore and emulate, think again, while you’re trying on that Banana Republic Sterling Cooper suit. Which doesn’t even get into a whole new genre of film and TV set in historical tiemz, so that we can ogle ladies being treated badly without feeling bad about it, because accuracy! Please do not pay attention to anyone named Eleanor in either the 12th or 20th centuries.) I wish the quote that made me ramble on forever didn’t strike me the way it did, because my culture considers those issues asked and answered, even while it tells me to have a kid, stay at home as much as I can, be thin and pretty all the time, don’t have an abortion ever, stop complaining, take less money, it’s only logical as you’re weaker and will probably just have a baby anyway, but don’t call yourself a feminist, and that it’s scientifically proven that my voice doesn’t command as much attention as a man (harmonics! not cultural, just FACT.) and that my orgasms are evolutionarily useless.

You can keep your flying cars and jetpacks–I was promised a future where my gender would not define me. And yet.

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