The de-skilling and re-skilling of domesticity

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 women’s disillusionment with domesticity is due to modern society’s 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. I’m 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 don’t 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 matriarch’s 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 women’s 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 one’s 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 don’t 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 it’s 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 matriarch’s 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 it’s 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 wouldn’t have claimed to have much skill as a seamstress. If we’d had to rely on her handiwork to clothe us, we’d 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. It’s 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. It’s hard to value in the same way a domesticity which has lost so much of its skill. That doesn’t 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.


7 thoughts on “The de-skilling and re-skilling of domesticity

  1. Based on your hypothesis, I am delighted that I am de-skilled in domestic labours. You put a persuasive argument for drudgery and gloss it up as skilled. Surviving drudgery and exploitation, both in and out of the home, in my view, was and still is a skill in itself.

    As you say, some people excel in manual dexterity and domestic creativity, if they have the means, and with today’s economically demanding requirements, the time. Some people make a living from it and take a pride in their domestic work, but it is their employment not their personal home situation. It may provide a roof over their heads.

    Less educated groups realize there is another world that is difficult, (nigh impossible) for most to attain. In days gone by, people realized there were different strata in societies; for the sake of the preservation of particular societies, upper echelons kept the workers in their place, as did men from all echelons of society, keep women in what they viewed was their place in a man’s world.

    I won’t go into what is known historically about the worldly and intellectual abilities of women only being recognised when it suited the patriarchal society. It has been inevitable, that women would assert themselves in many subtle, and at times, obvious ways, to a point where we remove ourselves from drudge wherever it lies, finding other roles for ourselves, (not always quite what we would like) in order to satisfy some part of what we see is our raison d’etre over and beyond the child production department and the domestic working subservient stereotype.


    • I wouldn’t say I was arguing for drudgery – in fact, I’m pretty domestically deskilled myself. But I don’t see anything contradictory in saying both that it takes skill to iron a shirt well and that I personally have no wish to gain this skill, or iron more than an absolute minimum of shirts.

      The problem is that some domestic tasks can’t be eliminated entirely or performed by robots. Someone has to do them, even if it’s no longer a housewife. It still takes a human being to care for small children, gut fish, clean toilets etc (I don’t think even the Japanese have yet invented the self-cleaning toilet).

      Part of treating properly the people who are left doing these menial jobs is to acknowledge the fact that they do them with skill (along with decent pay and conditions for such people). I get particularly annoyed with educated people who think that ‘anyone’ can care for children and sneer at those involved in such work. One of the most humbling things I found when I was the mother of a toddler was that the ‘uneducated’ workers in her daycare nursery, often young women with few qualifications and shaky literacy, were nevertheless able to look after a number of small children far more effectively and calmly than I ever could, for all my higher IQ. Where ‘drudgery’ can be eliminated it should be, but where it has only been outsourced, we need to acknowledge this, and to give due credit to those who perform such tasks effectively.


      • Apart from leaving some of the issues I raised unaddressed, gender perceptions and stereotypes, for example, we are not disagreeing in essence on other factors. I fully agree that those who have different skills should be appreciated for what they are good at, and I live by my credo. It does not mean that because we avoid undertaking certain tasks, we are de-skilled. We may be less practised at many of them. If it’s a task or role you enjoy, it is not drudge. Any task or role that is not enjoyable, say, one that is personally imprisoning, is in my view, a drudge.

        There are recent generations in the UK who have been skilled differently, the focus and demands of society changed. Those generations are not necessarily de-skilled; whose measures or what measures should be used to assess either way?


      • Any discussion of gender and domestic life (or drudgery more generally) is enormously complicated by class. I’d say that for most of history lower-class men have had more drudgery to carry out (includng a lot of household drudgery) than upper-class women, and lower-class women have had even more. Indeed, you could argue that the real revolt by women against domestic life came only in the 1950s/1960s, when, owing to temporary socio-economic circumstances, middle-class women found it hard to hire domestic labour and had to do all the housework themselves (rather than having maids, cleaners, nannies etc to do the bits they didn’t like). A lot of modern day feminism, unfortunately, doesn’t have much to say about the poor treatment of cleaners, childcare workers etc.

        As for skill, I want to make a distinction between not having a skill and a skill being obsolete. If you know how to kill, pluck and dress a chicken, but you don’t normally do this because it’s easier to buy a prepared chicken at the supermarket, that’s an obsolete skill. If the supermarket suddenly wasn’t available, it might take you a few tries till you could remember how to prepare a chicken effectively yourself again, but the basic skill would probably still be there.

        If you don’t know how to kill and prepare a chicken (or darn a sock or light a fire without a match), you are de-skilled in that respect, as opposed to the many people in previous generations who could. (You may have many new skills that they didn’t, but that’s a different matter). You can avoid doing a task for all sorts of good reasons, but if you don’t know how to do it well, you are not skilled in it. And most tasks which involve manual work require a fair bit of practice to develop that skill: to assume that you can do an unfamiliar task easily whenever you should choose to turn your hand to it is very often hubristic. I don’t worry that I’m no good at polishing a floor, but I also don’t take it for granted that it would be easy for me if I ever had to.


      • I’m of an age where I learned many of the chores you describe, some of them at my mother’s skirt. I am glad that it has not been necessary to continue to live with them.

        De-skilling in your terms, not mine, started, I would argue, in modern times, during the war. Women were drafted in to the factories and onto the land. They resented being pushed out of the workplace into the ‘bliss’ of domesticity, they and their obvious other skills were not going to easily be discarded. The rumblings of that exercise culminated in what we term now as feminism.

        There was a pool of domestic workers in the form of refugees, who replaced the servants of previous days. There is not much discussion of this. There are similarities today, with migrant workers, not necessarily EEC nationals.


      • It sounds like I’m a lot more domestically deskilled than you are, even if you may have happily given up on exercising most of the techniques you learnt. My mother did try and teach me domesticity, but I didn’t pick up much of it. And she, in turn, lacked some of the skills that earlier generations had. She was a city-bred girl and in the country parish in which we lived, she couldn’t easily deal with the brace of dead pheasants the local gentry occasionally donated to her. (Actually, the woman who helped her out with the plucking was the English-born wife of a Polish refugee, so you probably have a point about that sort of immigrant labour).

        I think the deskilling I’m talking about actually started long before World War II: looking after a (middle-class) household was objectively easier in 1960 than in 1860 (and easier in 1860 than in 1760). And though your point about war work is a good one, I think the increasing ease of housework was also part of the reason why the revolt against it was a 1960s development. It became increasingly difficult to claim that being a housewife was a full time job in itself. Women either had to make additional domestic work for themselves, which risked artificiality, or find something else to do with their spare time (which they might then find they enjoyed more than their housework). The bored housewife isn’t a new development of the post war era (as Madame Bovary shows), but I think that domestic de-skilling is probably one of the factors that increased the numbers of bored and unsatisfied women from the mid-twentieth century.


      • I’m city born and bred too.

        I hope men continue to develop domestic skills, thereby allowing women to exercise their full potential both in and out of the home, as men have.


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