A Woman's Place?

Coming of age in the 1970s, I cringed whenever I heard the exhausted adage "A woman's place is in the home." While the concepts of marriage and motherhood appealed to me, cleaning up after myself and other people did not.

When we married 17 years ago, my husband and I never thought to discuss the delicate issue of housework. Devoted to our business careers, we rose early for work each weekday morning, ignoring the clutter and unfolded laundry as we headed for the door. Over the years we grumbled quietly through domestic chores on Saturdays, never quite sure who was responsible for emptying the trash or cleaning the refrigerator.

All of this came tumbling back last summer, when I discovered some old books on housekeeping at a second-hand bookstore. Blowing several layers of dust from their covers, I realized I'd stumbled on some pieces of early Americana.

First published in 1924, Good Housekeeping's "The Business of Housekeeping," by Mildred Maddocks Bentley, was a veritable textbook. Its crusty, yellowed pages reminded me that household management once was taken very, very seriously. Thorough and detailed, the book covered such topics as "Managing Servants and Housekeepers," "Dishwashing Three Times a Day," "Sprinkling and Folding," and "The Chemistry of Washing."

As the book's title suggested, Ms. Bentley meant business: "The good housekeeper must bring to her task of housekeeping every one of the qualities that make for a successful executive in the downtown business world."

A more recent artifact, "Housekeeping Made Simple" (The Homemaker's Encyclopedia Inc.), was published in 1952. Editor Miriam B. Reichl revealed that, after World War II, women had lightened up a bit and were looking for labor-saving methods. And the average housewife no longer employed domestic help.

Ms. Reichl's book contained some amusing black-and-white photo illustrations. One showed a woman smiling broadly (wearing high heels and pearls) as she demonstrated several handy ways to use a vacuum. Another shot depicted a woman doing her laundry in a satin evening gown. Male models were conspicuously absent.

Not one of the women in the photos appeared sweaty or breathless - which is how most of us look today when we are going after dog hair behind the sofa. In fact, the photos seemed to imply that household tasks were glamorous, even fun. One chapter in this book, for instance, was titled "Merrily We Wash."

Years ago, when I rented my first apartment, books on home economics (or "Home Eck" as my girlfriends called it) were rare, although my peers and I could have used a few tips on stocking a pantry or organizing a kitchen. At that time, a woman who made a career of caring for a home and family was likely to describe herself apologetically as "just a housewife." The rest of us were bound for the boardroom, leaving housework to the cleaning fairies.

These days, it seems, few people will admit it if they enjoy doing anything remotely domestic, unless it makes them as rich as Martha Stewart. Like life itself, housekeeping is messy business, and nobody wants to get their hands dirty. It's something you hire other people to do if you can afford to.

Hopefully, this attitude will change when we finally stop thinking of "homemaking" as the sole province of women. "You keep a house, but you make a home," observes anthropology professor Mary Catherine Bateson in "Composing a Life" (Plume/Penguin). "As we free the ideas of home and homemaking from their links to old gender roles, we can now also draw on metaphors of home to enrich our perceptions of the world."

Home, after all, is where everyone begins. It is the place in which we refuel our strength to meet the rest of the world.

While I'd never embrace another era in which women have few career options beyond vacuuming (and I'd hate to see ironing raised to an art form), I think we lose our sense of place when we neglect the home front. The driveway becomes a mere parking lot; the kitchen a place to store an empty fridge. The house feels as impersonal as a chain motel.

Not surprisingly, I've noticed a new crop of "home care" books appearing in the bookstores. These tomes are saturated with a deep yearning for roots and shelter, each attempting to revive our culture's respect for the domestic arts - from bread baking to flower arranging. But unlike their predecessors, the books are devoid of sexism (though women will most likely buy them). Whether or not Americans will embrace this new-age interest in homemaking remains to be seen.

For now, we're still arguing over who will take out the garbage.

Cynthia La Ferle, a nationally published newspaper columnist and author of a collection of essays, is based in Royal Oak, Mich.

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