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    Monday, February 06, 2006

    The Politics of Clean

    A conversation about the joke of "liberatory" household gadgetry on Gendergeek started a lot of blog-talk about cleanliness and neatness.

    Battlepanda talks advertising and what much of it says to and about women, particular women who are mothers.

    Zuzu talks about the pressure she feels not to be a "slob" on Feministe and connects it to gendered expectations of housework.

    Amanda of Pandagon goes into the "invisibility of privilege" as it relates to housework and other "women's" labor.

    Bitch/Lab and Think Naughty finally note the class and race issues that are integral to the debate.

    I don't believe in neatness. It doesn't work for me, I don't enjoy it, and I don't feel that I should have to do work to satisfy someone else's preferences.

    My partner, A, likes cleanliness. We made a deal: A, who doesn't read, would read a novel I loved and wanted to share, in exchange for my cleaning the apartment, which I did and did thoroughly. I was happy to have done it because I wanted to make A happy, but I don't think it would have been fair for me to do it had I not gotten anything in return.

    So let's take this example from my life, where the gendered expectations don't come into play, and consider how it might be different for a man who doesn't care to clean in a relationship with a woman who wants things clean. Is it actually fair for the man to do "equal" housework? I think not.

    Let's look at this from Pandagon, which starts with a quote from the comments on Gendergeek's post:

    The irony is that women tend to be the ones with the higher standards. This is a generalization, which doesn’t even apply to me since I like things cleaner than my GF, but women tend to be much more into having the house “perfect” than men. Women so often refer to men as slobs because of their “good enough” attitude that it has become conventional wisdom and an easy laugh. The fact is that women usually impose the standards of cleanliness on themselves and except for the rare male (which I have only seen in movies) if they decided to halve their effort no one would care but themselves.

    This comment is just so perfect, because it’s just a classic example of someone blaming the victim in a way that’s so well-meaning that it’s really hard to get angry. And so I’m singling it out as an example of exactly how sexism makes itself invisible.

    You see this sort of thing a lot, where women are judged by a different standard than men, but the appointed judges are technically other women, so the whole thing can be written off as women being weird instead of women trying to adapt to a patriarchal system. That way, not only can men benefit from the thing women are supposed to do to fit into a standard, they have the added bonus of acting like they are simply above such female nonsense. In the case of housework, men can benefit from having a clean home without either working or appearing so uncool as to care if the house is clean, since the work is done by invisible female hands.

    First: Are the men "benefitting" from having a clean house if indeed they don't care? Or are the men simply allowing the women who do care to accomodate their own preferences? Amanda assumes that the men here actually want a clean house but don't want to have to clean. What if they simply don't care whether or not the house around them is clean?

    I don't doubt that there are women who clean their homes all the time to conform to norms. I will admit that, if my house is clean, I'll have people over more often. If it's not, I won't. We both clean together to prepare the house for guests. This is something I don't respect about myself, but I do it.

    Many women believe the house must be clean and resent the fact that this necessary work is going to be done by them because their husband (or whatever, but probably husband given the whole scenario) won't help them. But this housework isn't necessary; it is about preference. With the exceptions of dishes being done, food being prepared, and clothes being laundered, there is really nothing that must be done. You can fight about those three chores, but the rest is gravy for the cleaniacs.

    There's also the flip-side of the gendered expectations around housework. While a woman is the partner in a hetero couple who will be blamed when her house is untidy, she is also the one who will usually get props for the cleanliness too. So, if the male partner really doesn't care at all whether the house is clean and he doesn't get the social rewards of a clean house, he gets fucking nothing. The female partner, if nothing else, gets the satisfaction that comes from being praised.

    So, these women in typically-gendered-around-cleanliness relationships have three options:

    1. Women can realize the waste of time that it is cleaning and radically refuse to do that, instead of things that are either important or fun. For some women, who actually want a clean house for their own type-A comfort, this is not an option.

    2. If women want their male partners to clean, they'd better be willing to make some deals. A offered to read this book I really wanted to discuss, which made me do it. It was worth it to me because I got something out of it; as a clean house, in and of itself, was no reward.

    3. Women who enjoy a clean house can continue to do all the cleaning themselves, realizing that it is they who are reaping the benefits, so it makes sense for them to perform the labor.

    Amanda interestingly brings up the other gendered pressures and expectations, around beauty, which she sees as similar to the cleanliness standard.

    I saw an oh-so-fun thing while looking around for advice columns to torture myself by reading–Ask Men had a list of things women supposedly love that men hate. The list was really interesting–things men supposedly hate were a woman’s plethora of bathroom items, women who follow workout trends, and women who love shoes and shopping–all behaviors that these same men who wrote the article would scream bloody murder about if women said, “Really? Fuck it, then, I’ll quit.”

    In both the cleaning and beauty examples, a woman can say (not without consequence but she can) "Fuck it, then, I'll quit." The difference is the place in the public and private spheres. The woman who chooses not to wear cosmetics, exercise, or wear trendy shoes has to broadcast this to the world everyday, whereas the woman who just doesn't fucking care if the bookshelves are dusty, can keep that between her and the few people she chooses to let into her home space. (Of course there are some important exceptions: women who are mothers may have to allow other mothers and fathers into their homes for play-dates and such, women who run businesses of various types from their homes may need to show biz-partners and clients into their private space, women who are in public housing or being observed by social welfare organizations will have to let government employees into their homes, and most people will have to let a super or landlord or repairperson in at some point. Otherwise, people have a pretty good level of control over who enters their home and when.)

    Part of the thing about feminism, viewed a movement for social change, is that, as much as you may sympathize with the woman who feels the need to keep a spotless house due to patriarchal pressures, you must also understand her as someone who has revolutionary choice at her fingertips: she can say, "Fuck housework! IF people don't like it, to hell with them!" She can say, "I hate these heels and I'm never wearing them again!" If she doesn't, and no one does, then it will remain a patriarchal pressure. But, if she is willing to be the risk-taker, then the social pressures could gradually abate.

    The woman who is afraid her kids are going to be taken away if she doesn't have a perfectly clean home is not someone who can be expected to buck the system. But a middle-class woman with a "progressive" male partner who identifies as a feminist seems like someone who can look at her compulsive cleaning and ask: "Does this benefit me? Does this benefit society? Does this benefit women?" And if the answer to the first question is "yes", cleaning matters to her, but she shouldn't expect others to feel the same way. If the answer to the first question is "no", then she can choose to quit wasting so much time and spend more of her time blogging, watching television, sleeping, saving the environment, or running for office, meanwhile, doing her part to take the cleaning weight off other women everywhere.

    Tim Sackton comments:

    I often find that ‘choice’ feminism is often inuitively appealing — after all, if women want to be cleaner than men, what is the problem? If some women want to change their names after marriage, what is the problem? Isn’t it there choice?

    Here's the difference in these examples and it's a serious one. A woman who chooses not to take her husband's name is, in my opinion, making a choice the effect of which is liberatory. The more women don't take their husbands' names, the more women don't feel they have to. Therefore, the woman who makes the choice not to take the name is, in my opinion, on higher moral ground with her "choice". There are women who are more or less able, as I point out above, to buck the system, but bucking the system, in these cases, is the more ethical and more feminist course of action, I'd say, when that is an option for you. Same with cleaning: choosing not to clean is the liberatory choice, helping to enable other women not to clean, if they so choose. That's feminist ethics to me. When you can choose, choose the liberatory choice for other women (and men). When you can't, we're not gonna get mad at you for it, because we get it.


    Anonymous Bitch | Lab said...

    "women who are in public housing or being observed by social welfare organizations will have to let government employees into their homes, and most people will have to let a super or landlord or repairperson in at some point."

    I love you for pointing this out. utterly love you. i lived in a place where we were regularly subjected to the "Is there a man under the bed" yearly check in from the Fedz.

    It cracked me up the first year I was there. I was in the office, picking up a pakcage from the mailroom. We'd gotten a letter about the inspection.

    So, some women are asking staff what it all meant and what these people wanted to be in their apartments for.

    One of the women who worked in the rental office said, "They're just looking to see if there's someone else in the house sharing the bills. So, you know, they'll look to see if there's men's cologne, work boots, flannel shirts."


    In the south, I guess, women wouldn't have a toolbox. @@ so I could have been hiding my then lover under the bed, sharing bills with her. (She didn't live with me of course, since I was n the midst of child support battle and couldn't risk any such thing.)

    1:44 PM  
    Blogger EL said...

    Oh my gosh- the toolbox. That's the dead giveaway. Of course, God forbid your girlfriend was a little butch too or worked a nontraditional job! :)

    2:21 PM  

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