Notes on Letters from a Woman Homesteader

So I got diverted from my original 2014 reading list by yet another bit of old writing that doesn’t quite match up to the myths around frontier and pioneer folks.

It’s some letters a homesteading woman from about 100 years ago wrote to a former employer she’d maintained cordial relations with.  She’d worked for the employer as a laundress.  What is fascinating about the letters is that yet again, she didn’t do all the work alone, but routinely had other women helping her, or she traveled to help them.  It is clearly normalized in these letters for the women to go around to each other and spend days or weeks assisting with, well, homesteading for each other, along with the demands of hospitality.  When parties and social events are undertaken, it’s just assumed that everyone (including men) will pitch in to help the individual household tasked with hosting duties.  There is, despite the fact that they all live ten and twenty and thirty miles away from each other, not actually that much rugged individualism.

Also, this woman’s body broke down having lots of babies (six, more or less, according to other information about her life elsewhere on the internet) and working hard.  The letters Mrs. Stewart writes detail multiple instances of being unwell and struggling physically due to pregnancies (and infant deaths/miscarriages) and the work of homesteading. Her marriage was a mail-order marriage, but it lasted and as noted above produced quite a few surviving little bundles of joy out of it.

Mrs. Stewart promotes homesteading aggressively, feeling strongly that however hard that labor is, it still beats being a laundress in an urban metro area in the early 20th century.  She really felt that women should get out there and grab a piece of land for themselves, with or without a husband.  That sort of feminine self-determination is American to the core, being in regular currency prior to the 19th amendment.  I continue to have my own preconceptions about traditional America rocked by the knowledge that everything old is new again.  And in this case what’s old is American women waving a flag of securing financial independence through earning income rather than marriage.

It’s a short read, plus she’s a capable and engaging writer.  There’s a reason her employer sent the letters to be published in a magazine.

Real Talk for SAHMs: SAHMs chatting online is (technically) traditional

Sometimes male people harangue housewives on the internet about being on the internet instead of scrubbing floors with a toothbrush, but in ye olde days, the housewives could just yap at each other while doing the various household chores.  For the women who weren’t servant-class in societies fancy enough to have servant classes, letter writing was a huge part of the day, complete with multiple deliveries of said letters each day.  Not all chit chat is gossip.  Women are garrulous and verbal by nature, they like to discuss.  Society has changed so that it’s much more difficult to stay home and chat with other women, but technology allows for a partial simulation of the traditional behavior.  The real thing is better, but women who can’t get to the real thing anytime soon shouldn’t be picked on for seeking out some semblance of normal female interaction as they go through their housewiving day.


Labor shifting, not Labor saving, laundry edition

It is generally considered acceptable by conservatives and liberals alike to declare that SAHMs have it easy thanks to washing machines and tumble dryers compared to the grand old days of yore when they did “real work”.  This involves ignoring the explosion in ready to wear clothing that permits even lower-income households to own hundreds of pieces of clothing.  It also involves ignoring the reality that the older methods of laundering clothes were not always backbreakingly hard.  And lastly, it involves ignoring the fact that even for women in the lower tiers of the middle class, laundering their own clothing was often optional because of washerwomen who specialized in doing laundry for many families.

A side-pressing washing machine is more primitive technology than a top loading washing machine, but the former is easier on back and arms, given similar amounts of clothing washed.  Hand wringers could be more physical labor, but again, fewer clothes were owned in the first place, so there wasn’t as much total work involved on a family-level basis.

Having a washing machine perform the labor of agitating the dirt off the clothes (this is the part that cleans clothes, more so than the soap, although soap sure helps out) does save labor, but there isn’t a labor savings when you have to take heavy wet clothes out and transfer them to the dryer vs. hanging them up on a line.  In fact, the modern norm for SAHMs of washing, drying and folding multiple loads of laundry daily is not labor saving at all, no matter what people persist in claiming.  It is astonishing that it’s presented as a leisure activity and sign of how little SAHMs have to do all day compared to “the olden days”.

The feminist criticism that “mission creep” erases any potentially saved labor for housewives from a given technological advancement has some truth to it, as one can observe that creep with core household tasks like laundry.  The same conservatives who want all the women to come home pretty much never promote specialization in domestic tasks that again, even lower-income housewives used to take for granted.  And it’s a wealth problem.  Everyone has these machines that are supposedly so advanced and “labor saving”, so the idea can’t even form in the mind as an option.  People instead obsess about getting cheap machines rather than finding someone to do their laundry for them.  And there are always cheap machines around, so nobody can consider specializing as a source of income.

Part of the secret history of the domestic sphere is that “labor saving” devices are positioned as granting leisure to housewives, but do not, or do not save labor for very long.  It is perhaps the case that for a 1950s housewife a top loading washing machine saved some labor, as she didn’t have the full cheap clothing revolution that the 1970s housewife benefitted from.  But that didn’t last even a full generation before the metrics of acceptability changed, resulting in shifting rather than saving labor.

This isn’t to say that the modern SAHM has exactly the same level of physical labor on her hands as her domestic ancestresses.  It is to say that the idea that she has basically no labor is false.  Despite all the wealth and technological advancement, she still faces a great deal of physical labor to be considered an adequate or suitable SAHM.

Leviticus And The Biblical Value of Daughters

In Leviticus, the length of purification time after the birth of a daughter is twice the length of the time for a son.  This is generally cited as proof that the Bible is anti-woman.  Having come to spend much more time in my life around birthing mothers, I see something that was always there if I could have but opened my world-blinded eyes.

The extra time for a daughter is extra bonding time and extra time for the husband as well.  Given the inheritance rules, if the times of “no-touch wifey” were the same, there would be temptation to rush things after the birth of daughters in a pursuit of sons.  But by enforcing a longer time of purification (and correspondingly time to physically recover and bond with the baby and enjoy that old oxytocin song) for daughters, this temptation is subverted and husbands have extra time to value their daughters and give their wives the reassurance of their faithfulness by abstaining for even longer than with a son.  It also, with the extra bonding time, provides a means for the very earliest sort of woman-to-woman support to happen. Thus, what looks like oppression is actually a way to establish that daughters are precious and to be valued despite the fact that their place and future follows a different path than that of sons.  Both different, but both precious and worthy of love.

Childcare is both a skill and a talent

It is clear that a lot of conservatives (though it’s a particularly American malady overall) these days think that childcare is something only a mother can do for her own children and that any other kind of childcare is both morally and psychologically inferior.  Needless to say, this flies against all kinds of traditional views on childcare.

We’ve had a lot of teenaged girls babysit our children for anywhere from a few hours to full-time, probably a dozen in the last two years.  It was really obvious that some girls had that special talent of being able to handle the needs of six or seven children at one time, even if they didn’t themselves come from a large family.  It was also really obvious that other girls could barely manage the needs of one child and were at meltdown mode with just a second one added in.

This happens with mothers too.  Most of the time mothers have mother-love for their children, but that’s not the same as having a talent for managing children.  In normal societies, there are so many other women around that a mother who has trouble with increasing numbers of children can easily delegate, while women who can seamlessly handle six or eight or ten smoothly can pick up that extra slack for other mothers.

But childcare isn’t something that is bred-in to all women in equal ability if they just try real hard.  Some women have a flair for it even if they never have any children of their own, while other women can bear a dozen and never quite get the hang of things.

This is one of the reasons I advocate domestic skills internships for young conservative women interested in marrying young and administering the home as housewives.  It’s a good way for women to find out which aspects of domestic living are potential weak spots and make plans to adjust their expectations and goals while they are young and still have a lot of energy to do so.

A mother doesn’t love her child the less because she doesn’t change every single diaper. Specialization is a key part of civilization.

Real Talk for SAHMs, Women’s Work edition

Contrary to popular belief even among SAHMs, women have have historically done more than bear children and provide infant and elderly care.  They also produced economically valuable goods (in addition to the children, I mean).  For thousands of years, women literally made the money. Cloth was as precious as gold and used as currency.  Even through the Industrial Revolution and the Pax Americana of the middle 20th century, women were still producing household goods as SAHMs, typically things like towels or bed linens.  Women also produced a lot of food and drink.  It was both the nuns and the monks who brewed, after all.

Female labor was economically productive for nearly the entirety of human history as a norm.  Not an exception, but the norm.  This is hard to understand in a world where people believe only alienated labor exists and that unalienated labor is a mythical construction.  The key difference between economically valuable male labor and economically valuable female labor is that the female labor has generally contained substantial unalienated components.  Someone more versed in Marx than myself might suppose that female labor cannot help but contain unalienated aspects.

The travail and despair of the modern SAHM is not so much that the alienated (economically productive) aspect of her labor has nearly disappeared, it is rather that nobody (not even her) is able to understand that unalienated labor is still labor, quite precious labor specifically because of its, let us say intimacy.

In a different economic system, one I cheerfully support (techno-distributism), the interwoven strands of alienation and unalienation could link back together in women’s work and they could be part of economic production again.  In a less mean version of the current system, the fact that female labor is currently almost 100% unalienated would not stop people from devaluing said labor.  The work of the SAHM would have value to her own family and local community even if it never brought in a penny of its own accord.

Though, one must ask, what is the value of making it possible for a man to earn higher and higher wages?  Surely it is a number larger than zero.  It is worth noting that no matter how small, primarily male industries like IT and construction have (nearly always female) secretaries.  Specialization has its own value in creating and maintaining the economic surpluses of civilization and dismissing the work of the modern SAHM because she doesn’t have to beat clothes against a rock is a perilous and ignorant thing to do.

The labor of the modern SAHM is shifted, not “saved”.  Her workload is moved around to different places than before labor-shifting machinery came along, but it’s not gone.  The cruel and petty meme that modern SAHMs don’t really have enough to keep them busy is simultaneously cruel and historically ridiculous.  The feminists, in blind squirrel fashion, are correct to note that women have been considered not busy enough for millennia.  It is nothing new as a criticism or snipe.  It’s just a way to get out of acknowledging that male and female labor are complements.

Nothing is gained by minimizing the importance of women’s work, or its potential economic, social and psychological benefits to marriages, families and communities.  Much, however, is lost, making the world of cake parties at the job and social life solely found at work outside the home look wonderful compared to being told what you do is nothing much and worth even less by even your fellow SAHMs.  That way lies madness and a lot of women running away from the hearth, home and hestia.  This is, in fact, the current situation.

Further, the isolation and dismissal make it even more difficult for modern SAHMs to be able to restore the hestia sufficiently and consistently enough to let men maximize their own production.  Yes, misogyny is economically depressive.  Female subjection is less economically productive than female submission.

Women’s work is not superior or inferior to men’s work, it is simply different work.  But it is not some pitiful rag end tacked on to the “real work” of teh menz either.  The fullness of God’s creation is reflected in respecting and understanding that women’s work is important, has been important and can regain its old importance and status if only people desire to follow God’s will and not give in to envy, jealousy, bitterness and despite.