Domestic Help

1 Jun

Kirsten Dunst in the Mona Lisa Smile (film)

I wonder if the abolitionists, the democrats, the socialists, knew exactly what they were getting themselves into when the dreamt up the equality of humanity. In stories you always read about the aristocrats not lifting a finger at the chores, so very preoccupied were they by ‘higher pursuit’, business, military enterprises (which sometimes were one with business), science, philosophy, women. The women too, in needlework and the ordering of a household, the sort of pleasure we in our age can only find in the arrangement of our reserves in computer games, in the practical business of running a work team.

Of course, housework was harder then – more time consuming. It was due to the reordering of the world, where households became more or less independent and the picture of family we saw were not confined to the abject poor who were made to scrub out other people’s toiletry or the rich who hired these people as their help. The world became fairer – women of a family were to do their own linens, and then came the washing machines, the dish-driers, the vacuum cleaner, the stronger cleaning detergents and more robust cloth of which one did not need to hand wash. And they arose not due to the outcry of servants – they did away with the need of servants after the middle class was conceived. Indeed, if we were to continue in that age I doubt the need of such practical household items such as synthetic sponges would appear. In fact, it would be against the social system – a vacuum cleaner would do away with at least two servants for a medium sized mansion – and then what would they do?

Housework became easier, and more women became liberated enough to think, as their richer counterparts had started doing at least half a century earlier. And this they thought – if I could advise my husband on his work, then it proves I am not entirely incapable, and I can possibly do his work.

And it was not so shocking for the husbands, for at this moment the idea became more and more conceivable in our female population, the men became too preoccupied by their own affairs – the war. So that without much fight the women were made to sit in the factories and do the work of the men previously denied then. And their men came back to find their work taken from them, or done as well by their wives, or they did not come back at all. And so it was that women kept their foot in the doorway thrust upon them, suddenly satisfied by a sense of independence previously denied them. And both couples were expected to work, and then both couples were expected to share the housework – it became a criteria for choosing a mate, unless you were the few filthy rich who could hire help.

And somehow, for some inexplicable reason, the world became so that it became necessary for both husband and wife to work in many families, at least in countries that had embraced capitalism with their heart and soul. For life was becoming more extravagant – it was expected that life should be so lived, with the advertisements becoming much more skilled at coming at us sideways, entrapping our hearts and our purse-strings so that we stopped thinking, we stopped looking at each other, we stopped being us so long as the increasing baubles in our lives kept us feeling the sense of well being that more than a century ago was denied all of us except the nobility. Now we have it. Commercialism. And we can’t go back, at least consciously, for our eyes our glued to the TV set and our hands to our bags of chips. We don’t have time to think being so exhausted at work, feeding the huge engine of material need that pulses through our society so that our hearts can keep pounding. That’s what they tell us, anyway. Toeing the party line, being a consumer, it is an all consuming activity that requires we consume ourselves before being allowed to consume other. Ask the telemarketer, the gussied up woman with the quietly desperate eyes pushing makeup at her brand name cosmetics counter, satisfying herself on the freebies the company offers her, the way a synthetic silk nightgown swims through her fingers as her hard earned money swims out again to offer her the image of the beautiful woman she sees all day in her work on billboards, the image of the perfect woman who can really enjoy her life. If I’m beautiful I will be happy. Or so they tell us.

And strangely, we don’t realize that we’re being forced to work now, both of us. We don’t realize that we’re the new domestic help. And we’re accepting of this, coming home to sit in front of televisions blaring music from people in mansions. Dreaming of their life, not realizing that it is us who put them there.

I’ve wondered sometimes, as I’m doing the laundry, and feeling totally bored by the process, whether it wouldn’t be nice to have some help. I imagine a world where this is possible, and I look at myself. I realize that I’d either not have to touch a dish cloth, ever, be allowed to wallow in my books, or I’d be always the one with the mop, the hanger, the scrub, with my hair tied out of my eyes and forehead picking off clothes my inconsiderate bosses leave lying around on the floor. There would only be two options, and I shudder. If I do not want these extreme alternatives for myself, would I want it for others?

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