Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Men and Feminist Housework

I've recently started reading Jennifer Baumgardner's Look Both Ways: Bisexual Politics. I picked it up for several reasons. First of all, Baumgardner is something of a feminist icon. But also, I read an article she had written (which I have subsequently not been able to find) and I loved her writing style. Mostly, though, I picked it up because of the experiences I've had given that two of my deepest romantic relationships have been with women who identified as, or came to identify as, bisexual (not to mention the interesting conversations I've had with my current cohort, who is able to problematize straight, gay and bi as identities). I don't really have any interest in giving any kind of general book review, but I will say that in general the book resonated with me--Baumgardner manages to cram a lot into the book, and one of the things I like about it is that it is (seems to me) representative of a lot of beginnings of conversations that people can and perhaps ought to be having--but she isn't out to write the end-all be-all of bisexual politics. At first I was bothered by the lack of much of substance as regards bisexual men (and other bisexual-identified people of genders other than female)--and it still bothers me a little bit that the title doesn't make that clear, as I think that's a little misleading--but it seems to me that enough of what she has to say is, as I say, tentative enough to be the beginnings of conversations, and lots of what she has to say, therefore, might be talked about in terms of people of genders other than female in other forums.

Another great facet of the book is Baumgardner's ability to delve into feminism throughout, doing something of a compare and contrast between feminist movement and, say, GLBTQ movements. It's hard for me to talk about any important aspect of life without bringing feminism into it (once you see through the lens of feminism, it's hard to not see the things it reveals), and that idea is reflected in Look Both Ways, as she touches on feminism throughout.

Something she said about what some bi women want reminded me of some conversations I've had around men and housework, and that's something that is often on my brain's back burner. Keep in mind that this is not representative of Baumgardner's entire book, and that she is most definitely not making blanket claims about what women want, what bi-identified women want, or anything of the sort--and I'm sort of taking her out of context anyway, taking something she's said and running with it. She says:
I remember very clearly the day I knew, just knew beyond the shadow of a doubt, that I would never live with the father of my child. It was months before I got pregnant. I was staying at his Brooklyn apartment for a week because a friend had relatives in town who were staying at my place. After a few days of calmly living among th eruins, I snapped. As he was off jogging one morning, I skated around shoeless on wet Swifter pads trying to clean his uncleanable floors. I threw some bleach on the cumbly, coroded tile in the bathroom and began vacuuming the rest of the apartment like a madwoman. He walked in as I was trying to free the assorted bottle caps that had already jammed the vacuum (one false move under the couch yielded a bounty of recycling) and demanded to know what I was doing. I froze, caught in the act. As I put away the vacuum, my socks crunched over a fine scattering of debris. “As God is my witness,” I hissed to myself, “I will not stand in cat litter again!”

...

Soon after my son was born, my mother asked me if I thought the next person I dated would be a man or a woman. My instinct was a man....[h]owever, when I actually thought about what I wanted from a partner, the person I pictured changed. Not all women want this, of course, but I want someone who knows how to make a bed and who agrees with me that even though it will just get messed up that night, it makes sense to straighten it anyway. I want someone who doesn't fear they are a “pussy” if I ask them to help me with an errand. I want someone who will go to the Seneca Falls museum with me. I want someone with whom I can discuss my writing and who will be an intellectual muse. I want someone who will gossip about feminists with me. Apparently, I want a girlfriend. Or a wife. And I'm not the only one.(Pp132)


Housework as Feminism
I don't keep a particularly clean house. Clutter finds me (it seems) no matter how vigilant I am that it won't find me. I'm getting better, but I still have a stack of newspapers, piles of comics, and various empty drinking glasses hanging out around my place. I've worked and worked and worked to try to rid myself of this stuff, and I haven't yet been able to accomplish that to a degree that I'm happy with. Part of what's going on here is straight-up neurosis, I'm convinced: being a packrat could be just a 'quirk', but for me, and for some of the people in my family (thanks for the genes!), it's not a quirk, but rather is an expression of some of the odd ways that my brain deals with being in the world.

Still, part of what's going on with my packrat-ness, I think, is the fact of having been raised a man. When men and women live together, men tend to not do their share of the cleaning, even when both people work outside of the home. Women tend to work a 'second shift' at home in a way that men don't. This is the case even when egalitarianism is something people are interested in and aiming at. Perhaps the trend is slowly shifting, but that still implies that it has to shift—and that means that men tend to not be as interested in cleaning up their living spaces as women are. Or, to put it slightly differently, it may be the case that men don't want or need their spaces to be as clean as women want or need their spaces to be. (But of course, to add this last little bit is to begin to open up the bigger can of worms, because saying that men don't want as much cleanliness isn't the same as saying that men don't tend to do as much cleaning when living with other people. These two ideas are related, but not the same.)

I wonder about the complexities involved in even describing the problem. Let's say just for a moment that the stereotypes tend to hold true. If they do, what are the causes? One cause almost certainly is that men have often grown up in environments where they didn't have to clean as much—the complaints some women have about not wanting to date a guy who needs a mother come into play here. I was raised (mostly) by my mother alone, and even she cleaned up around me. She didn't want to, of course, but she sometimes just got tired of encouraging me and or threatening me, in whatever ways, to do my share. I didn't have any role models of men who cleaned, and I had plenty of media telling me that women did (commercials for cleaning products alone probably did that for me). Well, there was that one Mr. Clean guy, but he seemed to just deliver the cleaners to the girls, and didn't so much actually go out and do the cleaning.

So it may be the case that men and women tend to learn different standards of cleanliness because of sexism—that is, both learn that women should do the bulk of the cleaning, and men, when they find themselves alone, just don't do as much as would be necessary to keep a clean place. And, conversely, women probably keep a cleaner living space than may really be 'necessary', because they are taught that cleaning is their job.

These are all (over)generalizations, of course, but there seems to be some basis of truth in it. I can think of lots of counterexamples from my own life--the cleanest person I ever knew was a guy who was my roommate for a while. Still, I've heard enough times anecdotally about women friends who have troubles getting their partners who are men to do their share, or about having to have conversations about how clean people want things to be that I think there is something to be addressed here. It may be that, for men, keeping a clean house is something of a feminist goal.
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