Monday, June 29, 2020

Housewives, Traditional Sex Roles & Mopping the Floor

Amazing how much time housewives spend pondering their floors. You may think that such a preoccupation is a sign of not much going on in that life, but from a "housemaid" view, the state of the floor is a re-occuring issue. Worn board floors, where cat fur accumulates in powdery drifts after a mere 3 days, or the kitchen linoleum which desperately needs waxing, they all cry out to me. I might fancy myself in an observatory, pondering the gravitational fields of Trans-Neptunian objects, but math always evaded me. --Or maybe I was just a typist at heart.

Gravitational studies do have a small place in the field of housecleaning.  A bit of cat fluff falls at the same speed as the toast crumbs my husband sweeps absently from the table onto the floor. This practice of his used to make me see red. Sometimes he'd do it even while I, rag in hand, was on my way to tidy that exact surface. These days, however, I pick my battles. He doesn't seem to realize that things on the floor immediately become my problem. Or--more darkly--maybe he does.

Most likely, he doesn't think and then multiplies this by doesn't care, because really scratch the surface and most men don't think much about women's work, especially if they have a "proper" housewife in residence. 

This blog is from an elder's POV, one from the "baby bust" cohort. As a female of that era, I was trained to domesticity in the traditional mode by a mother who wasn't much for housework herself and maybe figured such a virtue would eventually help me out in the marriage market. Back then, the deal between the sexes was: The Man performs the work he does in field or office, factory or machine shop and in return, Woman cooked, cleaned and helped to tend the green square surrounding the house, as well as being MOM to the kids. If you were a farmer's wife, you had an extra task in the form of poultry. 

Prehistorical Digression:

Imagine a Cro-Magnon a.k.a. EEMH "European Early Modern Human" woman (perhaps an Aurignacian, the ones with the great wall "posters") cleaning out the clan cave. Gotta take out the garbage you know, or you'll attract all kinds of unwanted guests, like the cave bear who used to live here, the local wild dog pack or the saber toothed tiger, the old one who can't chase faster prey anymore.

This old tiger may be a bit lame, but he's fast enough the dine on you, monkey.

Better to get the tell-tale odors away from your front door. You could simply heave the gnawed bones over the edge of the cliff. If you weren't lucky enough to have such a handy disposal area, you had to laboriously dig a hole with an antler pick and bury the stuff. And just about the time you'd get the place cleaned out, I'd bet dollars to donuts that the men would be back with a new carcass and all jazzed on fermenting grapes or something vegetative and disorienting they'd eaten in the woods. They'll just want to barbecue and party. If that's the case, tomorrow will just be same another day of taking out the trash.

Thank heaven EEMH men did "bring home the bacon," because women were incredibly busy. Either pregnant or nursing, chewing great swathes of hide to soften it sufficiently to sew, or gathering firewood and water and scrounging about for roots, nuts and berries, while trying to keep the older children from falling over the edge of that room with a spectacular view.

Years ago, post climbing the ladders to the dwellings at Mesa Verde, my first question was  how did they raise any kids up there? Or did they tie up toddlers  like backyard dogs until they'd acquired complete balance skills and some judgment?

So now, considering what housecleaning used to be like, I don't consider my modern housework all that hard. When I wrote Mozart's Wife I imagined Constanze's trials when the money ran out--which it often did--and how often she'd find herself doing the chores. Hand-scrubbing those lace cuffs and cravats and undies in a world in which there was no decent hand-cream for winter cracked skin! Soothing ointments? Another item for which you'd have to track down the ingredients and then concoct a cure yourself. Worse would be dishes in a world with no indoor plumbing. The Mozart's, like many today, ate a lot of take-out when they could no longer afford an apartment with a kitchen and/or the requisite cook and scullery maid to staff it.

Personally, mopping floors has become a creative driver. Versions of this housewife's trance work often appear in my stories. The Cinderella-like tale of Genesee, where a Metis girl is demoted from beloved daughter to servant, or Elizabeth Hamilton's strategy in A Master Passion to "encourage" her husband to accept the gift of a housemaid from his in-laws, or  Angelica in Angel's Flightattempting to settle her nerves by scrubbing the steps at her Uncle's Hudson Valley house on the eve of a British terror campaign .

~Juliet Waldron

Barnes & Noble

"Thou dost appear beautiful on the horizon of heaven... "

(From the Hymn to Aton by Akhenaton "the Heretic")



  1. What a great bit here. Floors can really get done or not. Keep writing

  2. I chuckled throughout your blog. So true about the floors. I've been watching dust bunnies run amok along mine the last few days. How do they get in the house with the doors and windows locked I wonder?

  3. I love the "housewife's trance" and how it threads through your books!


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