One of the recurring themes in my “Women and Gender in Art History” class this semester has been the historical association of women with the domestic sphere. In the nineteenth century, we looked at examples of European art that addressed this clear cultural separation of spheres, where public = masculine and private = feminine. Of course, this cultural association of women with domesticity persisted throughout much of the twentieth century (think June Cleaver) and was cleverly marketed to women through seemingly endless inventions of domestic appliances and ever-better cleaning products.
By the 1970s, American feminist artists and writers began taking on the gendering of domesticity. Building on Betty Friedan’s arguments in The Feminine Mystique (1963), writers like Pat Mainardi critiqued the cultural assumptions that made cleaning a gendered imperative. In “The Politics of Housework” (1970), Mainardi examined the excuses used by her husband to avoid sharing the burden of household chores:
“I don’t mind sharing the housework, but I don’t do it very well. We should each do the things we’re best at.” MEANING: Unfortunately I’m no good at things like washing dishes or cooking. What I do best is a little light carpentry, changing light bulbs, moving furniture (how often do you move furniture?). ALSO MEANING: Historically the lower classes (black men and us) have had hundreds of years experience doing menial jobs. It would be a waste of manpower to train someone else to do them now. ALSO MEANING: I don’t like the dull, stupid, boring jobs, so you should do them.
Some of my favorite art that I’ve shown this semester are performance pieces by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, who deals with issues of gender, race, and class when it comes to work, and how society devalues certain forms of work and the people who perform them. Much of her art has focused on what she terms “maintenance work”—the maintaining of society, primarily through occupations devoted to cleaning. In 1973, Ukeles went to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut to perform Hartford Wash: Washing, Tracks, Maintenance. Conducting the performance in various spaces in and around the museum, Ukeles would wash areas where visitors were sure to walk, wait for spectators to soil the floor with their shoes, then rewash the space, performing this over and over until the museum closed for the day.
Ukeles’ performance brings attention to jobs that are invisible: we consider the museum to be a spotless, pristine entity, without stopping to think how it gets that way and stays that way. And when we do see the cleaning people, Ukeles argued, they become part of the architecture; we do not associate with them because they are clearly not museum visitors. And, because the lower-paid positions are often occupied by minorities, the white museum-goer doubly looks over them.
In 1977, Ukeles took on a position as an unsalaried artist-in-residence for New York City’s Department of Sanitation. In this 3-year long performance piece, entitled Touch Sanitation, Ukeles shook hands with and personally thanked all 8500 sanitation workers in the 59 community districts.
We can understand variety of meanings in a work like this. On one level, she may be leveling an environmental critique, showing that our garbage doesn’t just magically disappear; Ukeles said she hoped through these handshakes to “burn an image into the public eye, that this is a human system that keeps NYC alive, that when you throw something out, there’s no simple ‘out.’ Rather there’s a human being who has to lift it, haul it, get injured b/c of it (highest injury rate of any US occupation), dispose of it, 20,000 tons every day.”[i] Another important effect of this work, as in Hartford Wash, is to simply give higher visibility to these workers and their jobs. Ukeles spoke of the sanitation workers as the housekeepers of the whole city, so I think in large part she sees parallels with the work she and so many other women were doing, along with their regular jobs, only on a larger scale—identifying with the same kind of unappreciated-ness of maintenance work.
Taking it one step further, there’s an implicit parallel, between the labor of the sanitation workers and that of the traditional roles of wives and mothers, the never-ending repetitive nature of caregiving and the on-call status. Ukeles not only shook the hands of the sanitation workers but also followed in their footsteps, which, as she detailed, included ‘round-robin’ shifts of only 8 hours off between continuous shifts, for several days in a row. This exhausting and mind-numbing repetition has definite similarities to on-call periods of parenthood, with the lack of sleep but still the obligation to keep things running.
I wonder sometimes if my students think that this issue is passé, that there’s no longer any need to talk about gendered (and raced and classed) divisions of labor. Most of them seem to think that in their grown-up lives, everyone will do their fair share, and I truly hope that will be the case for them. But the messages are still there: advertisers still target women with sales pitches for their latest cleaning products, not only presuming that women do the lion’s share of domestic labor but also suggesting that they want and need to do the work in order to better fulfill their roles as wives and mothers. For Christmas this year, a well-meaning relative gave me a subscription to Good Housekeeping, which may be the best mainstream media example of this marketing, since the entire magazine is devoted to training “good housekeepers.” In flipping through the most recent issue, I came upon an advertisement for Liquid Plumr. Laid out in a movie-poster style, it stages a dramatic narrative of a woman in tight leather pants and boots who must do battle with a monster… of clogged drainage. Title of said movie? “One Mom, Double Impact.”
I was floored when I saw it. We can claim power by… cleaning? Have we really not made any progress? It’s the same cultural construction in a new package, where the domestic goddess is now a badass superhero, able to attack clogged drains with her weapon-like products.
Honestly, all it really makes me want to do is indoctrinate my children and my students with the “Free to Be You and Me” soundtrack. It may be 40 years old, but the lessons are no less relevant. In a disarmingly (unthreateningly?) cute voice, Carol Channing lays bare the gendering of domesticity in “Housework”:
You know, there are times when we happen to be
Just sitting there, quietly watching TV,
When the program we’re watching will stop for a while
And suddenly someone appears with a smile,
And starts to show us how terribly urgent
It is to buy some brand of detergent,
Or soap or cleanser or cleaner or powder or paste or wax or bleach,
To help with the housework.
Now, most of the time it’s a lady we see,
Who’s doing the housework on TV.
She’s cheerfully scouring a skillet or two,
Or she’s polishing pots till they gleam like new,
Or she’s scrubbing the tub or she’s mopping the floors,
Or she’s wiping the stains from the walls and the doors,
Or she’s washing the windows, the dishes, the clothes,
Or waxing the furniture till it just glows,
Or cleaning the fridge or the stove or the sink,
With a light-hearted smile, and a friendly wink,
And she’s doing her best to make us think
The her soap, or detergent or cleanser or cleaner or powder or paste or wax or bleach,
Is the best kind of soap, or detergent or cleanser or cleaner or powder or paste or wax or bleach,
That there is in the whole wide world.
And, maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t,
And maybe it does what they say it will do,
But I’ll tell you one thing I know is true.
The lady we see when we’re watching TV,
The lady who smiles as she scours or scrubs or rubs or washes or wipes or mops or dusts or cleans,
Or whatever she does on our TV screens,
That lady is smiling because she’s an actress,
And she’s earning money for learning those speeches
That mention those wonderful soaps and detergents and cleansers and cleaners and powders and pastes and waxes and bleaches.
So, the very next time you happen to be
Just sitting there quietly watching TV,
And you see some nice lady who smiles
As she scours or scrubs or rubs or washes or wipes or mops or dusts or cleans,
Remember, nobody smiles doing housework but those ladies you see on TV.
Your mommy hates housework,
Your daddy hates housework,
I hate housework too.
And when you grow up, so will you.
Because even if the soap or cleanser or cleaner or powder or paste or wax or bleach
That you use is the very best one,
Housework is just no fun.
Children, when you have a house of your own,
Make sure, when there’s house work to do,
That you don’t have to do it alone.
Little boys, little girls, when you’re big husbands and wives,
If you want all the days of your lives
To seem sunny as summer weather,
Make sure, when there’s housework to do,
That you do it together!
[i] Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “Touch Sanitation,” in Feminism – Art – Theory, ed. Hilary Robinson (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 106.