Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The Origins of "Housework"

I've been reading a book I happened on to accidently in the archives this past week, Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Day by Margaret Kim Peterson.  It's fitting, as next week I plan to begin spring cleaning, giving everything a good dusting and weeding out things no longer used or needed and making room, not necessarily for more, but to breathe.

Growing up the only aspirations I had were to become a wife and a mother. If I ever considered a career, it was teaching, and that was fueled more by the ability to be at home with my family on holidays and summers. In the end I opted not to attend college, though I did pursue a degree in library sciences when I when I moved back to Texas to care for my mother. I'm only about 12 hours shy of my associates, and I suppose I really should just finish it, but life has changed since then and its no longer a priority. I expand my education daily, on my terms and at my pace. Prior to having children I worked in child care as a pre-school teacher. I had my first child at 23, and from that moment on my life was totally devoted to being a wife, mother and homekeeper. I never viewed my choice as less or believed that I was missing out on anything, so I was surprised to learn how the role of housewife and housework originated and came to be viewed as a lower status in society.

Before the industrialization of America the word "housework" didn't even exist. What did exist were the words "houswifery" and "husbandry", which described the women's work and the men's work required to run an agrarian household. Married couples, working their own land, supporting their own small households. Personally, I think that sounds lovely!

But with industrialization, work became separated. Work outside the home becoming the man's place, and in the home, the woman's, particularly married women, and a new word was thus developed to name her duties, "housework". Before industrialization men and women had worked together in and around the house at complementary unpaid tasks that were differentiated by gender; cutting and carrying wood (men), building and tending the fire (women), making lye, for men, making soap, for women. After industrialization, men and some women (mostly single), went to work. They left their homes and labored elsewhere for wages. Women, especially married women, "stayed home", laboring without pay doing "housework".

Industrialization brought other changes to women's work, with the development of running water, refrigeration, gas and electric stoves, washing machines and commercially produced soaps and detergents. With this, one woman able to do the work that previously had required two or three women. The improvements (if they can be considered that), did not eliminate their work, but vastly increased their productivity. 

Prior to the industrial revolution, clothing was minimal and seldom laundered (ew!), but with the advent of factory made clothing, mostly cotton, now clothes needed frequent washing, bleaching, starching and ironing. One pot meals, that were popular in the pre-industrialized world, gave way to menus that included multiple dishes. And perhaps one of the biggest changes came with the invention of indoor plumbing, cleaning the bathroom. And all this work was to be done by the housewife herself. Many single women went to work in the factories, making hired help, which was common in the pre-industrialized world, difficult to come by. 

It is interesting to note, that "work for wages" outside of the home came to be viewed as "real work", and therefore what wives were left to was not considered as such, leaving men, and even housewives themselves to question what exactly it was she did all day? For all the modern conveniences that were now provided and meant to release her from a life of "drudgery", most women were utterly exhausted.

The problem with "housework" was not just that it was "women's work" but that it was now viewed as low in status, and suspected of not being work at all, even by the men who benefitted from it directly and women whose lives were consumed by it. The seemingly endless amounts of work only increased with the invention of each new time and labor saving device. That combined with the recognition, value or even the necessity of such work, gave way to the feminist regard for housework. Author Germain Greer stated that, "Housewives represent the most oppressed class of life, contracted, unpaid workers, for who slave is not too melodramatic a description."

But what if we were to look at housework, and the doers of housework not throught the post-industrial and post-feminist lens, but through the lens of scripture? What we would find is that God does not share the lowly view of housekeepers and housework as our culture is apt to do. On the contrary, scripture abounds with images of God Himself as a homemaker and house dweller, as one who clothes and is clothed, who feeds people, animals and the earth itself and receives gifts of food and drink in return.

"Thou coverst thyself with light, as a garment, who has stretched out the heavens like a tent, who has laid the beams of thy chambers on the water. . . . Thou didst set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be shaken. Thou didst cover it with the deep as with a garment. . . Thou makest spring gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills, they give drink to every beast of the field. All creatures look to Thee to give them their food in due season. When Thou givest to them, they gather it up; When thou openest thy hand, they are filled with good things. (v. 1-2, 5-6, 10-11, 27-28)

The psalmist portrayal of God as a great housekeeper, pitching a tent, clothing Himself with light and the earth with water as with garments, ordering boundaries, making homes for creatures, giving them food, sustaining all life, creating and re-creating through the Spirit.

This theme abounds throughout scripture. At creation, when God first sets humans in a home He has created for them, a garden, both beautiful and nourishing. And when man is expelled from the garden, God's parting gesture is to clothe them. And he continues to clothe and shelter His people, even in their exile from paradise. He rains bread from heaven as they wander in the wilderness (Exodus 16:4), preseves their clothing (Deuteronomy 8:4) and houses them in booths (Leviticus 23:43).

God's presence with His people is represented often through dwelling places and domestic activities. The Lord appeared to Abraham as he sat at the door of his tent beside the oaks of Mamre. God appeared as three strangers, whom Abraham and Sarai greeted with a meal of bread and meat and curds. 

When the children of Israel were wandering in the wilderness, God met with them in another tent, "The Tent of Meeting", which was staffed by priests whose duties resembled the work of keeping house. They arranged coverings, put out dishes and food, set out lamps, arranged utensils and vessels, and cleared away ashes. (Numbers 4:4-14)

And when in the fulness of time God did come bodily to dwell with humans in the person of Jesus Christ, He did so in a way that is reminiscent of His presence with the Isarelites in their wanderings, 

"The word became flesh, and pitched His tent among us." 

- JOHN 1:14

More to come . . . :)

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