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March 31st, 2008

”Just a Housewife”: The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America by Glenna Matthews

Matthews, to judge by the preface, is a remarkable woman. Like most of her generation, she married young and had children in the fifties. Unlike most of her generation, she believed she could go back to graduate school and did so. The dual perspective she brings to her material – being both subject and object – is rare and valuable.

Her time frame is Colonial America to the (more or less) present (this was published in 1987 and the work done earlier). Her focus is firmly on the middle class, which is problematic, more about this below. Her resources are cookbooks, novels, magazines. She occasionally uses letters by and to her more famous sources, but consciously decided not to use sources such as diaries.

Her major thesis is the subtitle. It has numerous components. One of them is that the new equipment (especially the cast iron stove vs. the hearth) available in the home in the nineteenth century made possible a more varied cuisine. I wonder about this assertion, having seen the brickery around hearths at Sturbridge Village with its multiple ovens and so forth; however, the stove was certainly cheaper and more widely available. Over time, as the kinds of flours available changed, sugar became cheaper, and chemical leaveners became widely available, the cuisine changed again. According to Matthews, this change led to de-skilling the craft tradition of housewifery in America.

This is a claim worth considering. The first component, the kinds of flours available, went rapidly through several phases. For most of the Colonial Period, and part way into the 19th century even for the middle class and up, and well into the 19th century for more ordinary folk, wheat flour was unavailable, and what wheat flour was unavailable was too low protein to be suitable for bread making as we think of bread making. Cornmeal was ubiquitous and rye as available; neither, again, suitable for bread as we are accustomed to thinking of it. What wheat flour there was could be used for cakes, pan or oven, sweet or savory; similarly for other grains.

The cakes we know and love today (and going back to our grandmothers’ earliest experience baking and before) rely upon chemical leaveners (baking powder, which is a dry acid and a dry base, often including an anti-caking ingredient, activated partly by wetting and partly by heating, hence double-acting; previously, baking powder was activated solely by wetting, hence, single-acting; single acting baking powder can be thought of as cream of tartar, a dry acid, and baking soda, a dry base, combined in an appropriate ratio). Pound cake is are last remaining representative of the old style of cake, so-called because it called for a pound of flour, a pound of butter, a pound of sugar and more egg whites than you might readily believe. Essentially: cream butter and sugar, add flour, beat the hell out of the eggs separately and fold in. When cooking, the structure provided by the eggs will, hopefully trap the steam produced by the heat and produce something other than a log. This is a dodgy enough activity that most store-bought (and recipes for) pound cake includes chemical leavener.

As you can imagine, the texture, fat content and so forth of pound cake is completely different from even the richest cake common today. Those who had grown accustomed to the one complained at the switchover, and some people continued to complain for generations thereafter. Matthews’ sources rely heavily on those people (the Hess’, Waverly Root, etc.), and she presents this transition as a deskilling. I think that’s right up there with saying the switchover from Escoffier-style haute cuisine to nouvelle cuisine is deskilling. It entirely misses the point.

Returning to the flours available, initially all wheat flour was stone-ground whole wheat, usually from a water-driven mill (occasionally wind or animal driven, still more rarely hand-ground, but you’re going way back at that point, and only the wealthiest household would have their own millstone and maintenance of a millstone is a bear). Chemical leaveners and granular sugar (previously, sugar had only been available in a loaf which required chisels or worse to break a hunk off of) made possible an amazingly light cake. By reducing the fat substantially, even without chemical leaveners, the better quality (she calls it cheaper) sugar made possible angel-food cake. But, as you can imagine, whole wheat became the hangup. Sifters made it possible to remove the bran; commercial mills started selling white flour. Over time, the temptation to adulterate the flour (with alum and worse) was irresistible and no one would argue that this led to anything other than a bad product. However, to short-circuit this and suggest that anything other than stone-ground whole wheat was a lesser quality flour is misrepresenting a multi-stage transition that spawned a complex and nuanced cuisine of its own.

Another component of her thesis revolves around the position of the home-archetype (she does not use this term) in the political landscape. Through essays and novels, she charts a series of changes in how the home and values associated with the home changed over time, from straight-up patriarchy, to Republican Mothers, to The World As a Home, to Home as a Prison to the Professionalized Home to Home is Irrelevant. I have no quibbles specific to this analysis.

A third component of her thesis is The Servant Problem. During the earliest Colonial Period, domestic servants were indentured. With the start of the Republic, “maids” were women who Matthews describes as being of the same class as the housewife, which I kinda question, although I see where she’s going with it. It is not easy to know how to define the middle class in America through the time period in question. Certainly, for a part of the period, being middle class required having “help”, but probably not for the entire period. It’s also a little difficult to imagine farmer’s wives in general constituting a middle class (I’ve never heard it proposed this way before), but this assertion about maid and housewife seems to suggest that. With the increase in immigration, Irish immigrant women became the servants, and shortly thereafter, The Servant Problem became severe. Matthews summary of the problem as perceived at the time, and solutions as proposed at the time, is able. Unfortunately, her unwillingness to use unpublished sources (such as diaries) ensures the servants themselves (with extraordinarily rare and unrepresentative exceptions) didn’t get any say in this summary. Matthews presents uninspected (other than noting the invidious ethnic slurs and so forth) the complaint that Irish women didn’t know how to keep house properly and needed extensive training. While she acknowledges this is partly due to a background of poverty, at no point does she call out the housewives for Truly Fucking Insane standards, despite the fact that as early as Emerson, at least some of the men recognized the massive burden housewives were under to produce a “display” home.

Over the decades (heck, probably getting on to a century, now), a variety of studies have been done on how much housework is there to do. Despite massive innovation, plumbing, electrification, gasification and so on, the amount of hours reported spent on housework remained remarkably stable. Some able thinkers have tackled this problem and concluded the obvious: standards escalated. The more servants you had, the higher your standards got, whether those servants were actual human beings, or mechanical devices. Matthews spends precious little time on this issue (mentioning it once in passing by midpoint in the book), but fails to come to the obvious conclusion.

Throughout the book, Matthews charts the way intelligent, powerful women worked to advance the cause of Women. She does a fantastic job (given that it is not central to the work) of identifying the major players and where they stood on the primary issues: married women’s property rights, participation of women in public life (either in the marketplace or politics), suffrage, temperance, education for women, coeducation, etc. She does this in part to show how the rhetoric associated with domesticity and the Value of Home was rallied in support of or against each of these causes. She also does a fair job of showing how these efforts to advance the cause of Women often included the same ethnic and class bias that appears in the politics of that (or any other) age.

Matthews includes a chapter specifically about evolution. The thrust of this chapter is to show how evolution was used rhetorically to Keep Women Down, and how various women responded to this tactic. Again, she identifies the players, and whether they accepted the thesis that women were inferior to men, whether they argued for or against the education of women (and if so, how much and of what kind), etc. Unfortunately, The Panda’s Thumb by Gould is one of her major sources for making sense of evolution-as-scientific-fact. Regardless of what the reader’s opinion might be regarding how (or even whether) evolution works, those familiar with the field will recognize that Gould’s got a horse in this race (punctuated equilibrium) and using him as a sole or even primary interpreter of Darwin is not exactly fair.

Hey, I’m all over the expose Darwin for the wrong-in-all-the-details guy that he was. But this is not a great way to do it.

Matthews doesn’t describe childrearing as a significant component of housewifery, nor does she detail the demographic transition. Further, while she describes the rise of scientific or professional housewifery in the form of home economics, she does not describe the parallel rise of Scientific Motherhood, with its frequent consultation with pediatricians and use of formula, and the rise of vaccines. She touches briefly on scheduling children, but does so not in the context of its major popularizer Holt, but rather Watson. She was told that Watson was not particularly influential, but stuck to her guns on the widespread use of scheduling and avoiding touch. It is likely that when she was doing her research, Holt had been well and truly forgotten, to be remembered a decade or more later as the history of childrearing advice came into its own as a field.

I was a little surprised at her assertion that no attempts were made to provide day care or meal support or other assistance during WWII to women who were combining the roles of work-outside-the-home and childcare-and-housewifery, at least in America. She notes that support was present in the UK. I’ve read some fairly detailed treatment of the daycare and takehome meals provided to munitions factory workers and other DoD workers during WWII, so I think her treatment is not entirely fair. Sure, more should have be done and sooner, but the US is a huge place and the war effort was piecemeal. It’s sad she missed these programs, however.

Between plumbing and sewage (eliminating water and waste hauling), electrification and gasification (preceded by coal deliveries, all of which vastly reduced the work of keeping the cookstove going and the house somewhat livably warm), the most onerous work associated with the house (as opposed to the garden and/or field) had been mostly automated (except for a substantial fraction of the decreasing number of farm families) by the 1920s. As the marketplace supplied lighting, soap, cloth and eventually ready-made clothing, the next major chunk of work around the house was eliminated, leaving only food preparation (which was itself substantially eased with frozen and canned foods, meat available by the cut – a far cry from having to slaughter the pig and brine it, turn it into sausages, and so forth), cleaning, child care and decoration remained. While Matthews mentions many of these developments, and catalogs the men who complained about how easy housewives had it, particularly after their children had grown, Matthews’ activist approach to her subject leaves her somewhat blind to what the men were complaining about. As long as childrearing was a largely heartless, detached affair involving formula and schedules, mothers really had nothing obvious to point to as uniquely their contribution (although even so they still were doing a lot that could not be readily replaced). Given that most women preferred to hire out, when possible, the rest of the work, it’s hard to understand why anyone should respect domesticity.

In that context, Matthews emphasis on deskilling is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, a worker in the home (a woman or a man or a child) who contributes something that would be unavailable outside the home or prohibitively expensive is bound to be valued by their family (although it might take a couple of weekend strikes visiting friends or a hotel to make the point). In my personal experience, a lot of women whose children became teenagers or adults around the time this book was published just flat quit cooking. No one cared. The moms went on strike and insisted on going out for meals (or eating meals prepared outside the home, whether takeout or frozen or whatever). As long as the cost was in line, their husbands and vestigial families were largely indifferent. Anyone who attempts to justify their work at home, whether it is knitting socks or sewing clothes or cooking meals or mowing the lawn or changing the oil or etc., is constantly in competition with replacement services in the market place. But some people do value homecooked meals (and, presumably, the socks and so forth as well), whatever Matthews might say. I think deskilling is not the best term. In some cases, the replacement skill (whether it is shopping cleverly, or Scientific Motherhood) is often as difficult to learn and deploy as the original skill (of knitting, or what we would now call attachment parenting). Matthews is, however, entirely correct to lament that the market has so thoroughly invaded a realm that was originally defined as safe from the market.

On balance, Matthews has produced an interesting, well-thought out and well-researched volume on a topic that deserved more attention than it was getting in 1987, and certainly more attention from those who are concerned by just treatment of women and an equitable division of labor among the sexes. Unfortunately, I felt at many times that Matthews, having been a housewife herself at a magical moment that reproduced, not for everyone, but certainly for the masses, a kind of home that had previously been available only to a tiny percentage of the population which could afford the assistance of servants, bought into that ideal more than was compatible with objectivity. And not by a little. I would not accuse Matthews of being a Martha Stewart (or even a Martha Stewart fan); I would certainly note that she proved herself capable of rattling off Bellamy’s and Gilman Perkins’ (and others) commercialization of the home without any obvious recognition that (even in 1987) those changes were being implemented around her. The village bakery (supermarket); the village cook shop (take out restaurants at every level, and the supermarket); laundry by the pound. There was no online shopping in 1987 (more’s the pity), but surely we now have the clerk-less shopping Bellamy described. Why did Matthews not mention these trends? Because Matthews was really freaking upset by them. It bothers her that Bellamy and company don’t value the family sitting down to dinner together, which she regards (like many of her generation) as the be-all and end-all of family togetherness; without it, there can be no family, and nothing else is a good enough substitute. There will probably always be a market for this idea. That market will not, however, necessarily be interested in committing more to that proposition than the cost of a hardcover and the few hours involved in reading it.

What could Matthews have done differently, to increase the appeal of domesticity? What are other people doing now to sell this, or a similar package?

(1) The expense and risk of farming out the care of small children to relative strangers
(2) The health cost of eating out all the time (whether frozen dinners, McD’s, dinner prep places or some other village cookshop – sodium is hard to avoid and organic is hard to find)
(3) The cost of cleaning services
(4) The cost of commuting to two jobs, maintaining appropriate wardrobes, etc.
(5) The difficulty of combining schedules (between adults, adults and children, etc.)

Some people focus primarily on cost-cost-cost. Unless you have the skills and education to get a job that pays well, you might as well stay home and save the cost of hiring child care, eating out, hiring a maid, having two cars, etc. This has always been a major argument for stay-at-home parent, but Matthews didn’t see it because she was focused on the middle class, rather than the working class.

Others focus on the non-monetary loss of an empty home. Matthews says a number of things (and her sources say a lot more) to chase this group away. No one in this crowd is talking about autonomy support, empathy, nurturing, etc. They do talk about love, but it’s a hyper-controlling love that’s very focused on behavior, decorum and speech. And Matthews goes so far as to assert that from the Colonial Period to the nineteenth century, mothers became more emotionally involved with their children (no support for statement). The novels Matthews quotes invariably show families broken not by divorce but by death, and it’s the death of the mother that is striking, and the search for love by the daughter (generally unsuccessful, she instead focuses on housewifery). Who wants this kind of domesticity?

Another group focuses on the excessive complexity, materialism, consumerism, etc. associated with keeping-up-with-the-Jones, and opt instead for a simpler, cheaper, lower standard of housewifery. Again, given the quotes of women who had a passion for housewifery but could not afford to do it the way they wanted, one has to suspect that Matthews and this crowd won’t get along well, either.

I also see two significant problems with the book. First, and probably because her sources are uniformly guilty of this as well, Matthews reifies the (new) division between Home and The World. Sure, patriarchy has been around for a while. No question. But the details of how it manifests are many and varied across time, space, class and so forth. The sharp division between Women-at-Home and Men-in-The-World is unique to the time she covers, the place she covers and the class she covers. Higher and lower classes both saw more overlap between Home and the World (political hostesses, women working out of the home, whether in the field, the shop or the factory, etc.). Generalizations around something so new and unique across a larger span of time, across classes, across place (heck, even to the South) don’t hold up. Second, as with all historical analysis of image and/or perception (whether pop culture or other), it is all too easy for the reader, the author or both to confuse perception with reality. Being a housewife was never and never will be the glorious goddessship envisioned by the Beecher clan and others. At times, it is more onerous than at other times; on that scale, housewifery has never been better than today, which would seem to me to undermine some fraction of the thesis, at least for anyone stuck doing the actual work.

This is a great book. It is really thought provoking, albeit with some serious problems in the rhetoric, choice of sourcing and interpretation in spots, but not in such a way as to detract from the thesis itself. But I cannot imagine who this thesis is going to appeal to. It doesn’t much appeal to me, and this is one of my major reading areas over the last decade or so.