Keeping Home

For most of my life I've felt guilty about the pleasure I get from homemaking. According to many feminists of my mother's generation, it's the work that was put before women to keep them from rising up and claiming power. And recent reclamations of homemaking seem to be undertaken largely in the spirit of bourgeoise distraction or the mormon faith. (For the record I don't object to either of those things, I just don't relate to them. Well, sometimes the bourgeoise distraction bit if I'm being honest.)

Homemaking is Labor. It's real work: sweaty, intellectually and physically demanding. When done well it reduces waste, keeps people feeling healthy and loved, reinforces basic dignity, binds communities together. Good, important stuff. 

No surprise that given this, I'm enchanted by women's media of any era. I picked up American Woman's Home recently. It's a stout little book written in 1869 by Catherine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe (of Uncle Tom's Cabin fame). I expected a flowery, effeminate thing. It is absolutely not that. 

An illustration describing the process of ventilation in American Woman's Home.

Actually, it's almost 500 pages on how to do everything: build a daybed, an "earth closet" (toilet), or a flour bin, propagate plants, cook healthy food, take care of old people, prevent cholera. With a very hearty dose of Christian propaganda. It is exhausting just reading this thing. And in case you weren't taking this work seriously, the authors note that "The chief causes of the disabilities and sufferings of their sex are [due to] the fact that the honor and duties of the family are not duly appreciated." And you know what? If we de-gender this thing and take out the frowning, wrathful God, I'm inclined to agree with at least half of that statement. 

Time went by. It's safe to assume everyone was unanimously pleased to cross "preventing cholera" off their to-do lists. In October 1949, Family Circle suggested that harvesting, prepping, and freezing garden vegetables would be "fun" if you did it with your mom. Debatable. But why did it have to be "fun" in the first place? Was her husband's postwar job "fun"? Probably not. It was work. It is work, even in 2015. And it's worth doing. 

Definitely not having fun on the right, there. From the October 1949 Family Circle. 

In my 20 years of devouring these magazines, none have been nearly as delightful as Sphere, the short-lived 1970's Betty Crocker Magazine. Pictorials with titles like "Chili for Chauvinists" and instructions on how to throw an African-themed dinner party, make a faux-suede wrap skirt, or get a dozen friends drunk on negronis are pretty irresistible. All this in the midst of the battle for the ERA, no less! The work here seems based, still, on an intrinsic moral need for wholesome-ness, but it also seems...optional. I get the sense that Sphere's audience read Gloria Steinem, but mostly opted for talking about her over Sanka, rather than taking the struggle to the streets. 

Apparently women used to exercise while wearing pantyhose? Pictorial from the January 1973 issue of Sphere. 

Now we're going to skip ahead to the Reagan administration. Again, homemaking is work here, and it feels a little less like a fun way to get creative and express one's identity, and a little more like a thing you can fail at if you're not careful. Here are the mauve throw pillows, floral-print comforters, and white lace tights that were so conspicuously absent in 1973. Still! There's a whole page devoted to replacing a light switch, which any homemaker will tell you is some pro-level shit.   

These days they're working on the Hilary Clinton campaign. From a pictorial in the October 1983 Better Homes and Gardens. 

Recently I subscribed to a couple of present-day homemaking magazines (of the Ladies' Home Journal variety). Eventually I lost interest--something about the present-day versions just didn't quite enchant me. They focus mostly on ease, convenience, and product recommendations. I want to hear more about the hard work of homemaking. The stuff that Harriet Beecher Stowe demanded respect for.