Monday, Monday

November 03, 2003


Monday looks like it might be a good day. The weather is nice, I got enough sleep, and I have some good ideas for my work.

Today I need to prepare class for tomorrow, do some grading, and finish hashing through the scribbles on chapter four. With luck I should be typing them up by lunchtime.

Today the handy neighbor and I might also be running the cable-modem wire so that I can put the cable modem in my office and not in the master bedroom. It will be good to no longer have ethernet cable snaking around the upstairs hall.

We have been in the house since July. It is finally starting to get uncluttered and be nice to live in. This is a good thing, as we will be having about ten people over for dinner in three and a half weeks. By then we will have pictures on the walls, the last picture boxes out of the living room, and a pleasant space to live in. We went through a period of slacking off a month or so ago, we had gotten most of the house ready and then we did other work and let clutter pile up. J. got into a cleaning kick - it might be nesting instinct kicking in early, it might just be that she got tired of clutter. She has been reading the FlyLady stuff, and while she is not buying the whole message she is stealing some of their techniques for organizing her time and getting more done.

It is amazing how much better I feel in a clean house. And, according to J, it is amazing how much of the housework I do compared to some of the husbands of the women on her email lists. I am thinking about housework because one of the things I will be lecturing on tomorrow is the invention of housework in the 19th century and the shift of domestic responsibilities in and out of the market economy during the 19th century.

I intend to blame housework on Catherine Beecher. She did not invent it, but she did do a lot to popularize it and we are using the Beecher family as our window into the past this semester. The invention of housework was a two-part story. The first part saw commercial production move out of the house and into separate buildings. No longer did the master live above the shop, the servants and apprentices in the attic, and everyone worked on the ground floor together. People began to separate house and work, at least in cities and villages. The master lived away from the shop, the workers no longer lived under family government but were in boarding houses and other ersatz families. As men worked more out of the house, women, whose work had traditionally been more closely associated with the house and not the fields, saw three countervailing patterns.

The first, the Catherine Beecher pattern, was for middle-class women to get dropped from the productive economy and move over to the consumption economy. No longer making butter, storing food, or managing apprentices, middle class urban women had large houses and not much to do. So, Beecher turned care of the house from a chore, one of many and less important than working the dairy, to a duty. Women were to spend their time entertaining and presenting themselves and their spaces, your gentility was measured by your living space, and so keeping a clean living space became a moral duty.

The second, the middle states farmwife pattern, was for women to turn to from household production to commercial production. This pattern was most common in rural areas. Women had always run the dairy as part of the gendered division of labor. By the early 19th century many American farms had become butter factories. Rather than putting up some butter for family use or local exchange, women were maintaining large herds, hiring women to work for them, and spending all day milking, skimming, churning butter, making cheese, and tending the cheese as it cured. Dairying was the most notable of these rural factories run by women, but women were also involved in broom manufacturing, out-work, and other tasks where they took traditional female jobs and brought them so much farther into market production that the nature of the task changed.

The final pattern was most noticeable among young women, immigrant women, and black women. That was a turn to wage labor outside of the house. The biggest employment was domestic service, helping those middle class women in the first category dust, clean, cook, and present a refined appearance. The second biggest wage employment was factory work, a new category, but factory workers were a mere fraction of all women in the wage economy. Here the common pattern early was for young unmarried women to work in factories for a few years before getting married and setting up housekeeping. For a single women, especially from New England or the Middle States, there were not a lot of choices of what to do before marriage. Many young men headed west to prepare land, coming back to marry their beau's or court a new lady, and the age of marriage was creeping upwards. Meanwhile women could stay at home as part of their parent's household, they could work as dairymaids or productive farm workers in other commercial farms, they could take up domestic service, or they could go down to the factories and use machines to spin thread and weave cloth.

There is a fourth category, one I need to remember to show the kids tomorrow. Slave women continued to do field work. Only a few slave owners had the big plantations and the house servants. These are, of course, what visitors remembered and they are the core of the Moonlight and Magnolias romantic view of the South. But for every gracious mansion on the James or the Mississippi, there were twenty ramshackle shacks in the middle of the cotton belt, buildings thrown up quickly to last a few years before master and slaves moved farther west to better lands. I think I will mention slave women Tuesday but will save the full discussion until Thursday.

Not all 19th-century women bought into the notion that housework was a duty. Housework was most common among middle class women who had dropped out of the productive economy. These were the same women who embraced the theory of separate spheres, the notion that women were more moral, more religious, and had a duty to nurture and educate children. Separate spheres grew out of republican motherhood, the notion that women had the duty to educate themselves so that they could educate a rising generation of good republican men, but separate spheres soon added "evangelical" religion to the earlier scheme. (I use the quotes because evangelical did not become an identity until the 1840s and modern evangelicalism is a twentieth-century phenomenon.)

Catherine Beecher performed a sort of moral jujitsu with separate spheres. She believed that women were naturally gifted with nurturing, religious, and moral natures. She believed that they had a Divine duty to stay out of politics, a men's realm, and focus on domestic concerns. But, in the service of those domestic concerns, women could and should influence society. Early Catherine Beecher, the women we will be studying tomorrow, focused on teaching as a job field for middle class women, giving them a way to earn money and support themselves, without the need for a man, while remaining within the feminine sphere. Towards the end of her life her focus on women's duty to spread domestic values gave birth to the political wing of the temperance and education movements. A few women voted right after the American Revolution before being disfranchised in the early 19th century, women next voted in the late 19th century in school board elections and local referendums on temperance laws.

Enlightenment guarantees of natural rights were not proof against a social climate that assumed a "natural" difference between men and women. Counter-enlightenment appeals to morality and religion did bring women back into public affairs.

Housework is political. As the 20th century feminists reminded us, everything is political. The politics of housework ran in odd and unexpected directions.

That was useful, I just prepped a fifth of my class for tomorrow. And, I have a better understanding for why it makes me happy that I will be working in a clean house today.

Posted by Red Ted at November 3, 2003 09:22 AM | TrackBack