Women still do the lion's share of raising children and cleaning the house. It's time for that to changeby Emma Lundin / June 11, 2020 / Leave a comment
Traditional gender roles “pervade our homes like the aroma of cheap fabric softener,” Sally Howard writes in The Home Stretch. She and her partner Tim had entered into parenthood with “a genuine willingness to share domestic tasks equally,” yet less than three months after the baby arrived, the emotional and mental labour of keeping the family alive had fallen onto Howard’s “aching shoulders.” Her manifesto-memoir interrogates the learned behaviour that got them into this unwanted situation, and tells the story of what really happens when feminists have children.
It is certainly true that motherhood reveals many of the traps laid by the patriarchy, that shadowy formation of male interest designed to lay all dreary housework and childrearing responsibilities at the feet of women. To find yourself struggling with the burdens that we associate with 1950s housewives can be a brutal awakening for anyone who has spent years congratulating themselves for choosing a
progressive partner. Howard sets out to investigate the sources of frustration: she visits academics and activists who have dedicated their lives to removing patriarchal shackles; she conducts a survey on housework; she shadows her cleaner on her visits to other clients; and she has many uncomfortable conversations with Tim that she generously shares with her readers.
The personal is political, but it is also very recognisable. When Howard investigates the tasks fathers tend to refuse because they are coded as feminine and therefore unmanly, I think of my friend who decided that he wouldn’t take his child to baby sensory classes when he was on parental leave because, he said, he just wouldn’t enjoy it. “We don’t go there for my sake,” his wife replied incredulously. I am also reminded of the way the health visitors at my local baby clinic laughed when a father struggled to dress his baby after the weigh-in—reinforcing the stereotype that men are a bit useless at this sort of thing. The truth is, of course, that we improve skills we exercise regularly: the only reason (some) women can dress babies is because they practise (or choose clothes without a gazillion poppers for visits to the health clinic).
“Keeping up the appearance of clean, happy children in a healthy, equal marriage turns out to be—in itself—very gendered work”
Howard shows how women’s knack for multitasking—remembering birthdays, sending cards and keeping kids in correctly fitted shoes—is down to equal amounts of practice and shame. “I know there’s tea and biscuits in the cupboard in case the in-laws pop round, and that a birthday card and stamps have been bought for my partner’s cousin’s son,” Howard writes. “Because it’s me—not their blood relation—who will be judged.” Shame is a core theme of her interview with Donna, a successful career woman whose husband refuses to do his bit to keep their household running. Donna doesn’t tell anyone about Dave’s failings as, she says, it is too embarrassing. Keeping up the appearance of clean, happy children in a healthy, equal marriage turns out to be—in itself—very gendered work.
Howard points out that the domestic gender gap hasn’t been solved by household gadgets, and that the trickle-down effect of second-wave feminism didn’t revolutionise our lives in the way its activists had hoped. But what does work? As part of her investigation, she goes to Sweden where she hangs out with Anders, a lattepappa—a man on parental leave (the nickname stems from the assumption that all they do all day is drink coffee). Anders is frustrated by the way Sweden is often wrongly portrayed as a gender-equal utopia, but it’s clear to Howard that shared parental leave, and paternity leave in particular, really are game changers for families. I agree: having parented in the UK for three years, I moved to Sweden nine months ago. I’m now so used to seeing fathers looking after children on their own during the day that I hardly notice it. They often outnumber mothers at playgrounds—possibly because paternity leave tends to happen during the second half of the 480-day statutory parental leave, of which only 90 days are reserved for each parent and can’t be transferred to the other—when children are mobile and entertained by sand and swings. Most of these fathers seem to be able to find matching shoes for their kids’ feet.
Swedish parenting isn’t gender equal by default: changing behaviour is a challenge. It has taken over five decades of hard work from mostly female politicians (37 per cent of the MPs elected to the Swedish parliament in 1988 were women, compared to just 34 per cent of the MPs elected to the House of Commons last year) for Swedes to be given some tools with which they can at least attempt to balance their home and work lives.
Throughout The Home Stretch, Howard attempts to acknowledge the multiple layers of oppression that some women face on account of their gender, class and race. But despite railing against liberal feminism—whose response to women’s double work in employment and the home has been to open “the servants’ entrance”—this is a book written for the middle classes: those who can afford to employ cleaners and who need to interrogate whether they can justify doing so. Howard’s solution? Pay them what you earn during the time they spend in your house—it’s skilled work and the minimum wage is not enough.
Her attempt to write both a memoir and research-driven investigation leaves a scattered impression with a few loose ends. Howard’s book is a good introduction to a vast field of research, but the survey she conducts ought to have been given more space, and a deeper interrogation of the second-hand information thrown up in interviews would be advisable. Most of all, I would have liked Jurate, Howard’s Lithuanian cleaner, to write her own book. Why must working-class women be ventriloquised by those more privileged?
Helen McCarthy’s Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood is a thoroughly researched monograph that leaves no stone unturned in the quest to understand how mothers in the workforce have been portrayed since the Industrial Revolution formalised their labour. It is also, perhaps surprisingly, a riveting read filled with the sounds, textures and
emotions of the past. While we are often told that women of previous generations were silent, here you can hear their voices—exhausted and defiant. Among them are Ellen Grounds, a pit-brow worker in the 1870s whose mother looks after her two-year-old son while she is at work; Felice MacDonald, who takes her three children to three separate childminders (none would take them all) in order to go to work during the Second World War; and Harbhanan, an East African Indian immigrant who works in Marks & Spencer in the 1970s, while her mother-in-law looks after her children.
In reconstructing this forgotten past, McCarthy exposes the misconception that working mothers—or childcare—are modern phenomena. Four million women and girls were in paid work in late Victorian Britain, McCarthy points out, and there tended to be less, rather than more, female employment as the decades wore on. Indeed, the “stay-at-home” housewife we think of as traditional was in truth the product of a historically-specific era, between live-in servants becoming unaffordable and domestic appliances affordable. While the Second World War did draw women into new roles, rapid wage growth in the mid-20th century made it easier for families to get by on a father’s earnings alone, which many at least attempted. But even in the mid-1950s, the social researcher Pearl Jephcott moved to working-class Bermondsey in south London, and found that a lot of married women there had always worked—in factories or as cleaners. It was more financially privileged women who were the typical housewives, supposedly freed from paid drudgery by their husband’s earnings, but also constrained by the male fantasy of an angel in the house and their lack of financial and psychological independence. Many of these women believed that they had to choose between children and work, particularly if it was of the intellectual kind.
Among them were Beatrice Webb, the socialist reformer born in 1858, who was convinced that she was too old to combine the two after she married at the age of 34 and decided not to have children. It seemed like an easy choice but, McCarthy writes, “the decision against maternity haunted Beatrice in her darker moments, when she conjured up idealised images of an alternative maternal self.”
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, a pioneer as a female doctor, suffragist and campaigner for women’s health, had both children and a career, though she was reluctant to make a thing out of it. Nevertheless, in May 1874—when she was the mother of a 10-month-old and pregnant again—she found time to rebuke Henry Maudsley’s “evidence” of female intellectual inferiority based on their biology. Her circumstances must have made her intervention a personal crusade, McCarthy argues.
Wherever women found themselves on the social scale, the labour market they joined was organised to support male breadwinners who, in turn, were meant to support their families. In the late 19th century, though very many women were employed, women at work were blamed for men’s idleness, infant mortality and the degradation of the “British race.” Women were considered so important to the turn-of-the-century eugenic project, which sought to create a healthier population through the manipulation of supposedly hereditary traits, there were calls to ban them from dangerous workplaces—even when those workplaces were the only source of income for their families.
In the interwar years, married women remained invisible in unemployment statistics, despite their vital contributions to their families’ economy. The Jarrow crusade was about dispossessed men, McCarthy argues, but she leaves out that the march was led by their MP, Ellen Wilkinson, the 10th woman ever elected to parliament. Even the new welfare state (which Wilkinson had a hand in creating) treated women as financial appendages to their husbands: hence their reduced National Insurance contributions and pensions for married women, as well as gender-specific widow’s allowances. In many professions a “marriage bar”—meaning women had to quit after their wedding—persisted in social practice rather than law, even after it was gradually lifted in the decades following the Second World War.
“The housewife emerged after live-in servants became unaffordable but before domestic appliances became affordable”
Eventually a new model of working motherhood did emerge. Full male employment in the 1950s and 60s might have forced employers to adopt a (somewhat) more open mind to female hires, and years of rapid economic growth and social change opened minds more widely about the roles married women could play. A burgeoning of consumer goods, like TVs and toys, created a new aspiration for extra income that could be justified as being an investment in the family, while others—like washing machines—freed up the time in which earning was possible. Initially, the marketing of all this, which was often aimed at women, had to appeal to their self-image as respectable housewives. The company Tupperware, McCarthy writes, understood its target audience perfectly and managed to portray the selling of plastic containers to one’s friends as pleasurable part-time work that could fulfil social and material aspirations.
But in these years, a woman was still supposed to make sure that her children were old enough before she sought employment: psychologist John Bowlby’s recommendation that a mother should be constantly available to a child during his or her first three years of life had great impact on British ideas of parenting. In a country where parental leave pay was low or non-existent, the combination of these two competing ideals left many women with unfulfilled ambitions either as parents or independent wage-earners. The “you-can’t-have-it-all” syndrome dawned.
This is a British history of motherhood and it is also a mostly white history of motherhood, bar one chapter titled “Newcomers.” Among McCarthy’s sources here are Z Nia Reynolds’ collection of accounts from Caribbean migrants, Kennetta Hammond Perry’s interrogation of black Britons’ experiences, Louise Ryan’s work on Irish women’s migration and Buchi Emecheta’s 1974 novel Second-Class Citizen. Ideally, these women’s voices would have been interspersed throughout the book. Still, McCarthy clearly depicts how white women policed race in the workplace, and—immersed as they were in the attachment theory ideal—frowned on women from the Caribbean who left some of their children behind to search for a better life in the colonial metropole.
Howard and McCarthy agree that paid work hasn’t been the path to liberation for all women, and that a shift in values over recent decades hasn’t translated into an equal and fair workplace. Ideas about the caregiving nature of women and the inability of men to look after anyone or anything still conspire to keep us in tightly prescribed roles. Yet some real change has taken place: McCarthy notes that unlike in the mid-20th century, there was no talk of rationing women’s work to secure full male employment after the 2008 financial crisis. And Howard’s home life was dramatically improved when her partner took eight months of parental leave with their toddler, forcing him to cope with raising the child and Howard to let go of her “comforting delusions around the primacy of motherhood.” Both these books show that the lives of women who become mothers have changed many times and dramatically over the past 150 years; let’s hope that we can close the remaining gender gap—in the workplace and at home—within the next 15.
Emma Lundin is a historian and journalist based in Malmö and London