This post grows out of comments on a previous post, where I got into a discussion with Sue about whether women could be fulfilled in a patriarchal system. I think there is empirical evidence that some women are and have been happy in more moderate forms of patriarchy. (Fulfilment is a trickier concept, since it is arguable that most humans at all times and in all places have not been fulfilled, in the sense either of making full use of all their possible abilities or of achieving their ambitions).
In particular, domestic life has historically made some women happy, and yet it seems to do so for a decreasingly small percentage of Western women. Why is this so? One obvious answer is that the apparent happiness of a larger proportion of previous generations of women was illusory: they were happy with domesticity because they knew no better, just as someone who has never seen a mountain cannot realise its beauty. A second view, popular among conservatives, is that womens disillusionment with domesticity is due to modern societys denigration of stay at home wives and mothers. What these otherwise opposing views share is an emphasis on the subjective experience of domestic life. I want to try looking at the question from another angle today. What if the intrinsic nature of domestic life has changed in recent periods, so that it is objectively less satisfying than before for many women?
The immediate problem with talking about domestic life is that it is highly class-specific: the domestic responsibilities of a Victorian wife and mother differed vastly between a lady and a factory worker. Im focusing here mainly on matriarchs: the married woman in charge of a household of her own. What interests me is the proportion of skilled work such a role entails. By skilled work, I dont mean necessarily work that involves either long training or particular intellect, but any tasks where there is a substantial difference in the efficiency of the action and the outcome between the competent and the incompetent. In that sense, even the most mundane tasks can be performed skilfully or unskilfully: laying a fire, cooking a meal or sweeping a room can be done well or badly.
Skilful work of this kind, of course, is not necessarily either enjoyable or stimulating: you can skilfully change a baby or repetitively gut fish. But skilful work, doing something well, often does bring at least some feeling of fulfilment or even happiness: a job well done has achieved a tangible outcome. What I want to argue is that the proportion of skilled work involved in domestic life has declined substantially in recent centuries.
In the pre-industrial world, for example, domestic life for women often involved at least some skilled craft activities, such as textile work, contributing to a family business, or agricultural/horticultural work. Cooking and food preparation, too, are skilled activities, though the skills involved differ depending on the budget available. Not only did children have to be cared for, they also had to be educated and trained, in a period with relatively few schools and almost no formal education for girls. Although at the higher social levels, aristocratic women normally were not directly doing such craft, agricultural or educational work themselves, they were normally managing those who did such work, and effective management of such personnel is itself a considerable skill.
Even before the industrial revolution, however, the development of commerce gradually meant that some domestic functions could be outsourced. If you could buy cloth rather than make your own, or buy bread rather than have your servants cook it, or send your son off to school at age eight, a matriarchs tasks needed a little less skill. The ability to purchase goods and services, however, still required considerable skill: getting the right quality at a reasonable price and avoiding being cheated by either your suppliers or your servants.
In the last 250 years there has been a progressive deskilling of most areas of domestic life. The industrial revolution meant the separation of the home and the workplace, and the decline of agriculture as a normal part of most womens lives. In the twentieth century shopping has largely become deskilled: trading standards and commodification of products has standardized the quality of goods, supermarkets have reduced the need to be able to find ones own butcher, grocer etc, while increasing living standards means that the need for very careful household budgeting is now largely confined to the poor. My mother kept household accounts: I dont find the need to.
The twentieth century also brought a string of labour saving domestic devices, particularly into household cleaning and laundry. In the last twenty or thirty years this has been further increased by the development of a culture of disposable goods: why wash nappies or darn socks when the alternative is so much easier? Why get something mended when its easier and cheaper to replace it? The move away from the use of solid fuel heating and cooking has also meant a decline in domestic work, both in the maintenance of such heat sources (in my childhood, our Aga was allowed to go out only once a year, when we went on holiday) and in the resultant room cleaning required.
The last 100 years has also seen the decline of the matriarchs role as educator and manager of domestic labour. Education has largely been professionalised, few households now have domestic staff or even part-time help.
Almost every part of household life now requires less time and skill than it once did. At one level its been a story of capitalism creating demands for consumer goods; at another, of working women with little time seeking shortcuts. But the deskilling of domestic work also has another cause: skilled work is better done by the skilled than by the unskilled. Most children will get a better education in a school than at home. There are very few women with talents in all the domestic arts. My mother was a good cook, a talented gardener and a former teacher, but she wouldnt have claimed to have much skill as a seamstress. If wed had to rely on her handiwork to clothe us, wed have been fairly uncomfortable.
There have been various responses to this more or less continual decline in the skill levels of domestic work, which have aimed to restore prestige and skill to the talented housewife. One is to demand higher standards of domesticity, for example concerning cleanliness. The detachable shirt collar and cuffs, which meant only part of a garment needed regular washing, has been replaced by the one-piece shirt. For middle class matriarchs, meanwhile, it is no longer enough to leave education to school: it must be supplemented by educational activities at home. Another alternative is the glorification of particular kinds of domestic work, as more authentic or superior in some other way. Homemade baby food is better for children than bought in meals, home-made greetings cards save money and show more genuine sentiments, there is genuine pleasure to be found in making your own clothes, etc.
In most of these cases, there is a core of a good argument present: homemade cooking, for example, is often healthier or cheaper than shop-bought alternatives. But these demands for more domesticity can only be taken so far before they become obviously absurd. You do not need to clean a bathroom every day or bake all your own bread. You can do so, but this is domestic life as performance art, demonstrating an arbitrary skill, more than attending to real needs, and is thus likely to prove unsatisfying in the long run.
The other problem with attempts to re-skill domestic life is that real skill is needed to make such activities worthwhile, and real skill is hard to develop. A few years ago I made a hobby-horse for my daughter with an old sock and a length of dowling. After some work, I was pleased with the end result, and L played with it quite a lot. But for the price of the materials, I could have bought her a pink sparkly unicorn hobbyhorse which would making neighing sounds, which she would probably have enjoyed even more. Its only a certain kind of sensibility that values the wonky authenticity of amateur domestic crafts over the objectively better products of specialist factory workers or craftspeople.
As a result, most attempts at re-skilling domesticity content themselves with partial re-skilling of a few tasks, in order to restore a feeling of domestic virtue. A classic example of this would be the bread machine, which allows the authenticity of homemade bread while removing much of the hard work. In the same way, the increased out of school educational role of the middle-class mother is often in practice delegated to specialists. She does not teach her children swimming or music or French herself (often on the sensible grounds that she would not be able to teach them very well), but instead takes on a managerial role, itself a skilled task, co-ordinating the acquiring of these services and the logistics of their being carried out.
The conservative wish for women to return to domesticity ignores the extent to which the content of domesticity has changed substantially over the centuries, and even within the last generation. Its hard to value in the same way a domesticity which has lost so much of its skill. That doesnt mean that all women want to abandon all aspects of domestic life in its broadest sense: but it does mean that they can increasingly pick and choose what aspects of it they want to engage with fully. The clock cannot be turned back: any cult of domesticity has to start with the reality of the twenty-first century volunteer homemaker, not nostalgia, and develop a new narrative of why domestic work still has value.