Dialogue: Time women took a stand on burdens of housework

By SHELLEY BRIDGEMAN

The great thing about research is that often it just confirms what everyone knew all along anyway. That was certainly the case when Statistics New Zealand found that women do more housework than men.

It's a universal truth that was dealt with in New Zealand author Christine Beckett's 1997 book entitled I love you but ... with a subtitle of "How to stop doing more than your share of the housework".

The blurb states: "It's a proven fact: women do twice the amount of housework that men do - two hours to their one - an extra 14 hours a week. Over the course of an average working life, this adds up to about 40,000 more hours of work than he does. Enough time to gain a masters' degree.

Beckett's book has numerous graphs and charts for women to fill out to calculate how much housework they do and how little their partner does. She also offers strategies for shifting the balance.

It makes you wonder if the time spent doing the analysis could have been better spent by giving the house a good spring-clean.

But I guess that is just thinking like a woman - the sort of thinking that got us into all this trouble in the first place.

It's worth looking beyond the numbers, though, and examining the misogynistic subtext of this issue - what it says about women and what messages were passed on to the next generation about gender roles in society.

Housework, otherwise known as women's work - that is, the laundry, the beds, the vacuuming, the cleaning and so on - does not, unlike most forms of honest labour, provide an accompanying sense of achievement.

While most jobs - be it administrators, builders, lawyers, couriers or whatever - give you something to show for the completed job, housework is a soul-destroying process which, by its very nature, is undone as soon as it is performed.

There are no milestones or accomplishments in this mundane and endless activity. How can there be satisfaction in the job when the tasks are routinely completed time and time again? The same dishes are washed in the same sink at the same time each day. Every day is groundhog day.

It is easy to understand how the stereotype of nagging housewives evolved.

When a woman sees someone snuggle between the crisp sheets she has just washed and ironed, there's an inevitable sense of bitterness.

Surely the thought that, "I've just washed those damn things and now you're just messing them up again" must flutter through the mind of even the most domestic and subservient of us.

Housework traditionally absorbs much of women's time and energy.

While the old boys' club publicly rues the fact that we have so many women in top positions, the rest of us marvel at the bravery and tenacity these women must have had in daring to dream and to elevate themselves above the minutiae of the household.

Having responsibility for the housework is just one of the ways that women are kept fully occupied and thus prevented from either plotting to take over the world or reflecting on their sorry state. While they are elbow-deep in suds and busy wiping Vegemite off the paintwork, they are unlikely to harbour visions of either ambition or rebellion.

And because housework is pure drudgery, it's a real confidence-destroyer, too. When a life revolves around toilet bowls, nappies, grime and cobwebs it is almost impossible for a woman to imagine actually putting her skills to more rewarding and creative uses.

It's all very well to understand that this is part of the undeclared war against women, but it's a challenge to do something about it. And, perversely, women themselves subscribe to the system with unwarranted and illogical vigour.

Women are lured into adopting the servile role, into wanting a house that gleams more brightly than the one next door. They are simply driven to care for their family and their home. And why should men complain about the situation when it suits them down to the ground?

Yet by meekly and blindly following this age-old societal prescription, we are unwittingly providing our daughters and grand-daughters with truly warped and dangerous role-models.

Surely it's time we took a stand and finally threw in the tea-towel. After all, if we don't do it, no one else will.

* Shelley Bridgeman is an Auckland writer.

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