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Friday, July 14, 2006

The Housewife 1

Charlotte Perkins Gilman
Here is the House to hold me–cradle of all the race;
Here is my lord and my love, here are my children dear–
Here is the House enclosing, the dear-loved dwelling place;
Why should I ever weary for aught that I find not here?

Here for the hours of the day and the hours of the night;
Bound with the bands of Duty, rivetted tight;
Duty older than Adam–Duty that saw
Acceptance utter and hopeless in the eyes of the serving squaw.

Food and the serving of food–that is my daylong care;
What and when we shall eat, what and how we shall wear;
Soiling and cleaning of things–that is my task in the main–
Soil them and clean them and soil them–soil them and clean them again.

To work at my trade by the dozen and never a trade to know;
To plan like a Chinese puzzle–fitting and changing so;
To think of a thousand details, each in a thousand ways;
For my own immediate people and a possible love and praise.

My mind is trodden in circles, tiresome, narrow and hard,
Useful, commonplace, private–simply a small backyard;
And I the Mother of Nations!–Blind their struggle and vain!
I cover the earth with my children–each with a housewife's brain.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman is one favorite feminist writer of mine. Spending half of her time in the end of the nineteenth century America, Gilman of course still underwent the cult of True Womanhood in which one of the tenets is the cult of domesticity—being a housewife.

Appearing in the beginning of the eighteenth century, the cult of True Womanhood soon got a strong support from the religious bodies. The clergymen “trickily” and quickly were trying to find some verses in the Bible to strengthen the place for women—at home; forgetting that in the previous centuries women were also active in the public sphere. Not wanting to leave the puritan heritage of their ancestor as a pious nation, Americans put the burden to raise pious children to women’s shoulders. These pious children would be the future national leaders. The “interference” of the religious bodies successfully made most women coming from middle and high social class easily believed that they were born to stay home, to do household chores, to serve the husbands who worked in the industry outside home (after the Industrial Revolution was spread from England starting in the end of the seventeenth century and America in the beginning of the eighteenth century.

Gilman was one victim of the mother who strongly believed that she was born to stay home, no matter what happened. Her father left her mother and the two children in 1869. Her mother’s financial dependence forced them to move from one relative’s house to another, nineteen times in eighteen years. This also made the mother not able to show the care and love the children needed.
This bitter childhood made Gilman determined since a very young age to think that it was important for women to be financially independent. Being a full housewife would hamper a woman to be financially secure coz a woman wouldn’t have enough time to actualize her own skill, talent, and want. She wouldn’t have ample time to pursue her own career.

The poem I quoted above clearly shows Gilman’s criticism of the pride to be a housewife for women during her era.

In the first stanza, Gilman’s choice of word “lord” shows the unequal relationship between the husband and the wife. The word “lord” is used to show respect for someone who has a higher status. The husband—man—is the superior, while the wife—woman—is the inferior. A mother is even also less important than the children.

This condition is also criticized by Aquarini when her husband complained to her, “Why can’t you be an ordinary wife coz I am also only an ordinary husband?” After trying to find out what is the definition of “ordinary wife”, she came to a conclusion where one of them is when the family having meals, this housewife who has busily prepared the meals must let the husband eat first while she feeds the small children. After everybody is full, it is time for the “good” wife to have her own meal. After that, the husband will watch television or read newspapers, the wife continues working—doing the dishes. This illustration shows that the husband—the one who earns the money—is the “lord”, the respected one. The woman is the inferior.

The second stanza illustrates how doing the household chores has become the main duty for a housewife, all day long. It shows that the working hours for a housewife are almost for twenty-four hours. When can she have her own leisure time to do things she wants to enjoy for herself? However, a woman must accept it. Stanzas three and four explain more what a housewife must do—preparing the meals and clothes for the whole family members.

The last stanza is Gilman’s ultimate criticism of the existence of housewife as one “profession” for women in that era. When a woman is busy doing all those household chores and she doesn’t have time to improve knowledge, and do other intellectual things, how can society put the burden of raising the future national leaders on the shoulders of women whose mind is always occupied with doing household chores?

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