When “wife” is code for “maid”

Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone who does all your shopping for you, makes all your meals and keeps the house clean and running like clockwork? You’d never have to wonder if the power bill got paid on time or worry about pesky things like taking kitty to the vet or waiting in the doctor’s office to make sure Junior’s fever was just a fever.

I admit, it sounds great! Goodbye chores — hello cocktail hour!

Too bad for most Americans that (hetero-marriage-based) ideal is the equivalent of “the wife,” in all its 1950s-stereotype glory. Being a wife myself, this grates on a personal level. For the past 10 years my husband and I have split the housework in as equitable a fashion as possible. No system is perfect and we certainly have had to make revisions over the years. Look, nobody likes housework! Nobody! It’s monotonous and often involves lifting, dirt, odors or other irritations. But that’s the stuff of life, even in this modern age. Things get dirty. Things fall apart. Things have to be put in their place. Bills have to get paid. Etc. Etc.

And I get the fantasy and allure of having someone at home doing all that thankless drudge work for you. If I wrote a bestseller and made a gazillion dollars (oh, the dream!), you better believe one of my first splurges (after paying off student loans) would be to get a maid and a cook! Sign me up! Hooray for not doing chores! I would absolutely pay someone to do all the crap I hate from cleaning the cat box to scrubbing toilets. Bourgeois? Perhaps. But for nearly half of my college career I paid the bills by being a maid/nanny, so I’ve paid some dues on the other side.

So why are people so stuck on linking household drudgery with “wife”? It sucks and it pisses me off. To wit the Aug. 11 New York Times article “Wedded to Work, and in Dire Need of a Wife.” (Thanks Feministing.)

Feminists (and non-feminists) have been writing about the unequal division of household labor at least since 1970 when Pat Mainardi wrote “The Politics of Housework,” in which she confronts the one place “women’s lib” wasn’t reaching: the domestic sphere. (And they said my minor in women’s studies wouldn’t come in handy.)

I’ve transcribed a little here for ya:

… [W]e women have been brainwashed more than even we can imagine. Probably too many years of seeing television women in ecstasy over their shiny waxed floors or breaking down over their dirty shirt collars. Men have no such conditioning. They recognize the essential fact of housework right from the beginning. Which is that it stinks.

Here’s my list of dirty chores: buying groceries, carting them home and putting them away; cooking meals and washing dishes and pots; doing the laundry, and digging out the place when things get out of control; washing floors. The list could go on and on but the sheer necessities are bad enough. All of us have to do these things or get someone else to do them for us. The longer my husband contemplated these chores, the more repulsed he became, and to proceed the change from the normally sweet, considerate Dr. Jekyll into the crafty Mr. Hyde who would stop at nothing to avoid the horrors of — housework. As he felt himself backed into a corner laden with dirty dishes, brooms, mops and reeking of garbage, his front teeth grew longer and pointier, his fingernails haggled and his eyes grew wild. Housework trivial? Not on your life! Just try to share the burden.

And before you say, “But that was 1970, not 2007.” Think about the branding and messages still circulating in our mass-consumer society today and what they say about housework and who should be doing it. Notice something about all those new Swiffer ads? The offending mops and feather dusters aren’t doing the job — for a woman. (Choice example: The ad where the female bartender tells the feather duster it won’t get any game unless it can be the “whole package.” And she doesn’t mean a whole package for a man.)

What? You need another example? No problem! How about the ads for Clorox bleach. The new ones have good ol’ mom diligently working on the laundry inside with her daughter smiling and helping while son is outside playing with mudpies. Or the ad campaign they had earlier this year where they show the many generations who have used clorox bleach (all women) and the voice-over even acknowledges such by saying “even some men” have used it here and there. As in, men don’t normally do laundry and it’s such an oddity that we have to say “even some men” because those men are clearly very special or weird or something. And before that Clorox had those annoying ads where “Momma’s got the magic of Clorox!”

Still not convinced? How about those Windex ads that only show women cleaning off the windows? What about those ads for Shout where frustrated wives throw their washing machines out of their homes for failure to eradicate the dreaded set-in-stain? (Here we get to see the man coming in to tell the wife how she’s failed her duties to get out stains, too.) Or how about a Mr. Clean product commercial? Nary a man in sight. (Although I will admit the new one with the whole family helping does show a boy helping out. So I guess the lesson there is that boys can help sometimes, if everybody is doing it.)

And this whole wives-do-it-better (when it comes to housework) thing has been bitched about in more recent times, too. A 1990 Ms. Magazine article by Judy Brady uses irony to tackle the subject in “Why I [Still] Want a Wife.” Well, it’s a reprint from when she had it published in the first Ms. Magazine in 1972, but it’s still relevant whether it’s 1990 or 2007. (And yes, I’m transcribing this, too. See how much I love you?)

I want a wife who will work and send me to school. And while I am going to school I want a wife to take care of my children. … I want a wife who takes care of the children when they are sick, a wife who arranges to be around when the children need special care, because, of course, I cannot miss classes at school. …

I want a wife who will take care of my physical needs. I want a wife who will keep my house clean. A wife to pick up after me. … I want a wife who cooks the meals, a wife who is a good cook. …

I want a wife who will not bother me with the rambling complaints about a wife’s duties. …

My God, who wouldn’t want a wife?

We get it. Having a servant who attends to your every need and saves you the trouble of having to do crappy chores is awesome! But come on! It’s a new millennium. Can we finally stop equating those servants with wives?!

And let’s not forget that this unpaid “second-shift” that many working wives (and most stay-at-home moms) work would be very expensive if it were rewarded monetarily. So much so that Salary.com gives you a “Mom’s Salary Wizard” for all their unpaid efforts. The theoretical earnings span a national range of $76,856 to $198,380 a year. Even at the bottom end, that’s nothing to sneeze at. (And I’d like to point out, most maids/nannies — a dominantly female industry — aren’t paid those kinds of wages! Pink collar syndrome strikes again.)

4 thoughts on “When “wife” is code for “maid”

  1. 35 years of dirty dishes,laundry,bathrooms,and floors-enough to make even the happiest woman cry-paper goods,clean your own bathroom and do your own clothes are the words to live by

  2. Boring & unimaginative. Advertisements sell product and they work. If you marry a jerk than that’s your fault.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s