Domestic au pair and homemaking program

It could be more or less formalized, but training young women in the domestic, homemaking arts and giving them practical experience in childcare would be amazingly useful.

There are a number of avenues by which this could conceivably be enabled, not least as part of a general program of supporting women in their women’s work.

A model to start with would taking the system of the current international au pair program, and figuring out how to adapt it to the needs of young women who’d like to be keepers of hearth and home for their families and future husbands and families who could use the help of energetic girls in their late teens and early 20s.

 

Some historical downsides of having household help, American edition

Infectious-licious!

  • Unvetted servants carrying infectious diseases.  The above is the most famous example, but there are plenty of other examples to draw upon.  Because a reference wasn’t necessary to secure a position due to the chronic labor shortages of a growing, wealthy society with free right of travel for all whites (and many blacks), a lot of servants would turn up to work in a household and get everyone sick.  Usually it wasn’t lethal (even Typhoid Mary had fewer than 10% of her 50+ victims die, the rest recovered), but it still was a very real risk and concern.  Anonymity was an early feature of American society, even when housewives still needed domestic help, and this was one of the nasty little side effects of that
  • Harder to present the image of a classless society.  Being the land of opportunity, America has always struggled with the fact that some people are going to be servants or employees to others for their working lives.  Instead of considering this a reason to keep working conditions for domestic servants decent, it was considered a reason to just not have servants.  Or lie about them.  A notable example can be found during the Eisenhower presidency of the 1950s.  His then Vice-President Richard Nixon’s wife spent years pretending she did not have a live-in maid (Swedish), a yard man (ethnic background unknown), and loads and loads of babysitters to watch the two children they had, even to the extent of demanding the help never be photographed or spoken to by reporters doing “A Day in the Life of the Veep’s Wife” fluff pieces.  Something to keep in mind when hearing about how housewives don’t need domestic help because appliances.  As early as the 1950s, American women had many of what we currently consider modern appliances except for the glorious microwave and front-loading washing machine.  But they also had maids and childcare help (which was exempted from wage laws, of course).  Well-off Americans have claimed for a long time that they just magically do it all themselves, especially but not strictly conservatives.

They just wanted a ten hour workday.

  • Violent responses to poor working conditions.  The above is a picture of the Papin sisters, who were French and killed their mistress and her adult daughter after years of 14 hour days.  While not American, working conditions for American domestics were frequently not better.  This is occluded somewhat by racial stuff, but Northern white women were quite as happy to leave a white female servant bleeding from a slap or the strop as Southern white women were with black female slaves.  This is, of course, memoryholed like whoa in American discourse on domestic help.  Domestic service is not necessarily servile, and given decent working conditions, many women are quite all right with serving others even if the pay is not the toppiest of top-end.  American women ran from service because the conditions and pay were both pretty crummy (the Woman Homesteader of Wyoming I wrote a bit about a white back was willing to trade the conditions of working as a laundress in an urban area in the early 1900s for the backbreaking work of homesteading in Wyoming.)  They didn’t run because they disliked serving others necessarily.  Some did, but others would have been happy to keep doing that as a job if they were treated like humans by their employers.  Things these days are not going in that direction, with the rise of “servant apps” where you just-in-time schedule your domestic help (“assistants”).  Meanwhile, the paternalism that drives our own hiring is sneered at for not being all-encompassing enough.  Vacation days, feh!  You don’t pay health insurance!  Health insurance?  Pah, you don’t put in a 401k!  Middle-class American women used to be able to afford domestic help not just because the wages were exempted, but also because it wasn’t considered a job, it was considered a relationship with pay at its best (and worst, of course).  Nobody wants to have human relationships anymore or accept the consequences of paternalism at its best (being responsible personally for those you employ) and in America part of that is being able to just up and move away from paternalism at its worst (Papin sisters, worst of chattel slavery).

 

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.

If your wife can’t stay home without generating income, she needs real work, not a blog or pyramid scheme

The title says it all.  Blame pregnancy brain for this placeholder of a post.  I shall return this one day when I’m a little less gum-brained, but I wanted to post a little at least about what I mean in the title.

To be blunt, if your wife has to make money while she’s at home or else you all have big financial problems and she can’t get a job outside the home for whatever reasons, then she needs to do something real for money.

Too many housewives who have to be economically viable beyond canning and couponing get caught up in the pursuit of professionalism in their work-at-home endeavors.  So they turn to monetized blogs and pyramid schemes because you “join networks” and “build inventory” and sometimes get to wear a business suit or go to a conference.  Such things are just traps, sucking money out of families that really need every dollar and further devaluing the actual work at home they could be doing for money.

Seamstress, egg lady, taking in other children, cooking for working parents, taking in hand washing: these are just a few of the real, normal, historical things housewives have done for money that can still be done even in isolated exurbs.  Mostly they don’t have corrosive and ongoing costs that are difficult to break out of and they scale up or down to individual families and the strengths of individual women.

There are other options beyond these, but the common theme is slightly more than what is done for one’s family, just enough excess to sell for a moderate profit.  Maybe not a “real job” where you sit at a desk and have meetings about synergy all day, but real work that is useful to one’s local community and one’s real bottom line.

Cooking as a middle class SAHM task is recent

What follows below is excerpted from a now-private post discussing food in the context of (mostly) UK society between the wars and shortly after World War 2.  It doesn’t really get into the significance of rationing and it misses some key details of social structure and its changes, but there are some broad points that are correct.  I’ve bolded a specific passage about middle class cooking.

“A couple of years ago, I did a marathon read of fiction from the 1920s to the 1950s…. What drew me in were the experiences of women characters who, like the women they were modelled on, were determining their own lives – pretty much for the first time in history. They bicycled through war time London doing useful things, or sat writing fiction, or lived in squalid bed sits in houses crammed with other young women.

And, of course, they ate. There’s a lot of food in middle class entertainments, and that’s a fact.

What struck me about the pre- and post-war literature I read, was how limited the food was. Heroines drink a lot of tea, toast a lot of bread, and occasionally augment the toast with sardines. Crumpets turn up occasionally, as does afternoon tea (involving cakes) at hotels. The diet was a paelo-low-carber’s nightmare. Sunday usually involve roast meat with roasted vegetables and gravy and breakfast could involve rashers of bacon. Boiled eggs appear and butter was crucial.

Even with all the afternoon cakes and sugared teas, the average calorie per day intake of a modern girl enjoying her bed squat was less than 1200 (by my dodgy, back-of-the-envelope calculations). And on top of that she was walking (striding, usually) everywhere, when she wasn’t biking.

But two other things struck me – how incredibly narrow the diet was. The same few dishes are mentioned repeatedly. Dietary variation doesn’t seem to obsess anyone and cooking is such a low priority, that people are pleased if they have a gas ring to boil eggs on.

I also learned that if you’re starving, what your body prioritises first is fat. There’s a fantastic book called A Woman in Berlin, about a woman who is stuck in Berlin when the Russians invade. The citizens of Berlin are starving, and all she can think about is fat. It’s an obsession. Butter or grease isn’t an addition to other things, it’s the Ground Zero of food, the thing your body wants the most.

The other thing, which I learned from reading E.M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady (a very funny read), is that cooking wasn’t a middle class virtue, much less an upper class one. ‘Cooking’ meant leaving a note for Cook about what you wanted to eat the next day. When WWII broke out, households all over England went into spasms because the cooks and maids went off to join the land army or whatever, leaving their mistresses with homes to run and absolutely no idea how to do it. It’s only after the war that it becomes accepted that cooking and cleaning is part of a middle class woman’s set of duties.

We also romanticise a past where women stayed in the kitchen, turning out fabulous, organic, home prepared meals for their families, when that time never existed.

I guess my point is that when it comes to food and food mores – it’s all being made up as we go along, and then varnished over with this patina of fake history.”

This is fairly true, even in an American context.  Although in America, due to the influence of the pioneer mythos, women were simultaneously expected to do a huge amount of household work mostly alone and this resulted in a view of food-as-fuel, best encapsulated by the Midwestern “hotdish”, which is just a bunch of whatever is handy heated up and served with little attention to flavor or taste.

Americans ate a lot of quick foods from 1920-1950, and the mom-at-home-making-dinner was already more of a marketing thing than a lived reality for substantial percentages of the population even if the wife was staying home.  Conservatives who spin stories about the halcyon home cooking of yore seem to forget about the Automat, which was around in the incredibly recent year of…1902.  Mom’s home cooking has, at least in America, always been more of an idea (or advertising slogan) than a necessary component of daily life.  Traditional society is replete with the home cooking being grandma’s, or auntie’s, or the hired girl’s, or the eldest daughter(s).

More simply, middle class status for women has not always revolved around their skillet-slinging capabilities.  In fact, one can see that it is very much not middle class at all in the fiction of Damon Runyon, who was hardly writing about the domestic sphere himself.  And he was also writing in the first half of the 20th century.

Having the opportunity to specialize has been closer to the middle class SAHM reality than what passes for it now in America.  Now SAHMs are excoriated for daring to specialize, if they find the energy to think about it at all.

Of course, I suppose the punchline is that our household eats about 80% of our meals at home, prepared from local, organic, minimally processed or unprocessed ingredients.  But we sure don’t cook every day, and I sure don’t cook all the meals.  And that’s totally traditional.