Saturday, January 10, 2009

You call that a feminist icon?

Imperfect Union, a book review about the testy relationship between Virginia Woolf and her household domestic, Nellie Boxall, highlights the imperative to find someone else to do the dirty work.

Unbelievably, Woolf expected Boxall, hired as a cook, to do all the household chores in a Victorian household without modern plumbing (think chamberpots) on her own. Reading excerpts of Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury in Mona Simpson's book review made my blood boil. I don't think I need to read Woolf's diary. The relationship between the two women ended, after 18 years, when Boxall demanded a room of one's own by asking Woolf to please leave her room. Good for her.

I am surprised that the Atlantic Monthly website didn't link Imperfect Union with that old Caitlin Flanagan classic, How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement. It's true. You can enjoy more life if you find someone else to do your dirty work. Come to think of it, you can enjoy more life if you get someone else to pay your bills.

I can't stop thinking about how Woolf unilaterally decided to loan out Boxall to her sister's household as if she owned the right to Boxall's labors. Was Boxall an employee or a slave?

The first few chapters of Joan Williams' Unbending Gender survey the history of laws regarding women's labors. Williams is a law professor, and the book can be heavy reading, but I can't recommend the book enough. At the very least, read the history in the early chapters.

Cleaning their own chamberpot never occurred to Virginia Woolf or her husband. That theme is explored in the anthology, Global Woman. I can't remember the anthropological/sociology jargon in the book for it, but it was something like transference. That is, some people assume that their gender (male) or their class get them out of doing dirty work. It never even occurs to them that they could or should do their own dirty work.

The chapter in Global Woman about the plight of a Taiwanese family and their Filipina maid comes to mind. An invalid elderly mother moves in with her retired son against the wishes of his wife. The son/husband says that his mother cannot go to a nursing home; what would people say? What kind of son would he be if he let his mother go to one of those places? He must care for her at his home.

His retired wife, who had worked as a schoolteacher and raised their (grown) children with minimum help from him, found herself trapped in retirement in the house seven days a week with a very demanding and sadistic mother in law. Her husband sat in his chair and read the newspaper all day, even with a graduate student studying household distribution of work observing the household. He felt absolutely no guilt because it never occurred to him that caring for his mother meant doing the work himself. (I wish I could remember the book's term for that kind of myopia.)

In the end, the wife/daughter in law went back to work three days a week so that she could afford to hire a live-in Filipina maid. If she taught three days a week and took care of her mother in law on the maid's days off, that left her 2-3 days a week of freedom. She said that she would have to work until her mother in law died; her husband would not pay for the maid because it was something that they should have been able to handle on their own. That kind of obstinate blindness is very convenient. ;-)

Lost & Found points out another way in which the labor of a woman can be taken away from her against her will. Louise Teagarden's skeletal remains were found in a cave in the Santa Rosa mountains decades after her disappearance. Why did she disappear?

She intended to come back. Why else would she have drained her car's radiator as a precaution against the desert winter cold? Could it have been an attempt to use her own time on her own terms, even for a short while?
Of three sisters, Teagarden was the only one who never married and thus was expected to be her family's helper--coming home as an adult to nurse one sister through an infected cat bite and her father through prostate cancer.
Anyway, it was probably better being chilly in a cave than at home with her family for the holidays. Her father had died three years before, followed soon after by her sister Virginia. Her girlfriend Moore had moved away. Now her mother's health was declining, and Teagarden was again under pressure to come home and care for her. After all, as her surviving sister surely pointed out, Teagarden had no responsibilities.
As an evolutionary biologist pointed out, there are advantages to having homosexual family members. The unmarried aunts lived with their siblings and took care of their nieces and nephews. No one asked them what they wanted, but their thankless labors helped ensure the survival of their relatives.


  1. Oh, that review made my blood boil too, but there are many aspects of Woolf's diaries, which I recall from college, that made my blood boil for the same reasons.

    I haven't read the other two books yet, but I know families where the situation is similar to the one you describe with the MIL, mostly where one or both partner is foreign.

    A neighbor never married and took care of her elderly parents, indeed she was EXPECTED to never marry, her role in life had been assigned from an early age. Deemed to have the least assets of the girls, her fate was sealed from childhood. Her family was fully American, but this was normal in both the Italian-American, and Irish-American neighborhoods in this area in generations past. She remains sad that she never got to experience so many things she wanted to do; by the time her parents died she too was worn down and had health problems from the long years of caring for her parents while her siblings were living their lives unconcerned about the situation at home.

  2. "As an evolutionary biologist pointed out, there are advantages to having homosexual family members. The unmarried aunts lived with their siblings and took care of their nieces and nephews. No one asked them what they wanted, but their thankless labors helped ensure the survival of their relatives."

    That's actually not an evolutionary advantage, it's entirely cultural - it assumes the only marriage is heterosexual marriage. In a culture where homosexual aunts/uncles are free to form committed relationships and live with their partners, this advantage wouldn't be there. Culture doesn't equal biology.

  3. Maybe they were referring to lesbian life before sperm banks?

  4. Perhaps, but even so the premise was "the unmarried aunts lived with their siblings" - sperm banks or no sperm banks, if lesbians were free to form relationships why would they largely be living with their siblings?

  5. Anonymous19:54

    An interesting thing about Woolf is that she did not really consider herself a 'feminist' in many ways and wanted to be separated from those who called her that in favor of being much more closely aligned with labor at the time. The contradictions embedded in the lives of most priveledged folks are entertaining with some distance.

    She was also mentally ill and had a very hard time just getting on on a day to day basis. But yes. She was quite bitchy.

    Blind spots. Everyone has em.

  6. A champion of labor? For reals? Then it is even more ironic.


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