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    A Broom of One’s Own

    In 1972, as America protested the Vietnam War and Helen Reddy’s ‘I
    Am Woman’ played endlessly on the radio, 21 students were embarking
    on a mission to put together a feminist art project. What they
    called Womanhouse was an installation piece, set in an
    actual condemned house in Los Angeles, that explored the ways that
    women are trapped by the home. There was the ‘Nurturant Kitchen,’
    with egglike nipples applied to the ceiling and walls; the
    ‘Menstruation Bathroom’ with bloodied tampons; and the ‘Bridal
    Stair-case,’ featuring a new bride in her new home/prison.

    This house has haunted me. I was raised on Betty Friedan-style
    feminism. Growing up, I wanted nothing to do with domesticity,
    motherhood, marriage, or anything else that reeked of traditional
    womanhood. My dream was to become a famous bohemian like the writer
    Anaïs Nin or the feminist artist Miriam Schapiro.

    My attitude remained unchallenged throughout my college years. I
    was a women’s studies major at UCLA in the early ’90s, and my
    professors, like the artists who created Womanhouse,
    perceived the home and its accompanying activities as something
    that women needed to free themselves from. Smart, enlightened women
    had little time for silly things like cooking, sewing, knitting, or
    cleaning. And it all made sense to me. After college, bad-ass and
    ambitious, I hopped from job to job, working as a filmmaker, a
    video editor, and a Web producer. My focus was becoming successful.
    As a result, I never learned how to save money or create a nice

    Then, at age 28, I crashed. Sure, I had built a ‘career’ for
    myself, but I also had a huge debt, a crappy apartment with the
    requisite futon on the floor, bad eating habits, worse boyfriend
    choices, and no real clue as to how to be a grown-up. I began
    reevaluating who I was and what I wanted, including many of the
    things that I had always dismissed because I didn’t want to be one
    of ‘those’ women. After all, I reasoned, what did I have to fear
    from domestic entrapment? I was a single girl with a job and a
    growing posse of girlfriends. I just wanted someplace nice to come
    home to.

    Before I knew it, I was buying books on macrobiotics and natural
    healing. I also read about home furnishing and feng shui as I
    plotted out the new décor for my apartment. I took up knitting,
    crafts, and sewing. I bought overpriced glossies, ‘cool’ mags like
    Wallpaper and Nest. And I got secret subscriptions to
    Martha Stewart Living and Gourmet magazine.

    And you know what I learned? All the stuff that I had always
    dismissed as stupid housework was actually quite complicated. There
    are also systems and rules for doing it well–and they are not
    obvious, nor are they being taught anywhere. Do you know the proper
    way to sew on a button or iron a shirt or bleach your whites?
    ‘Cause I sure as hell didn’t–and none of my friends did, either.
    As I started experimenting with different domestic tasks, I
    discovered which ones I liked (cooking, woodwork, knitting), and
    which ones I hated (ironing, laundry, dusting). I learned that my
    favorite thing to do in the whole world is to grocery shop–I love
    to be around food, to smell it, touch it, and think about all the
    delicious things I’m going to make in the kitchen.

    Yet even with all this joyous creativity, I still feel
    conflicted. After all, our culture continues to thumb its nose at
    domesticity. Even more troubling to me is that feminism also
    dismisses domesticity. When Betty Friedan searched for the cause of
    the ‘problem that has no name’ affecting middle-class white
    suburban housewives in 1963, she found it in housecleaning and
    caring for a family. According to Friedan, all things domestic were
    actually the root of women’s problems and depression. As I read
    through the book now, almost 40 years later, I have a lot of
    sympathy and admiration for Friedan, but I think her analysis is
    off. It isn’t the housework itself that is so stifling (although it
    may be to some), but rather the fact that at the time few other
    alternatives were available to women, and, perhaps even more
    importantly, that women’s work has always been devalued.

    What if, instead, we thought of domesticity as our history, and
    therefore an important part of who we are? Don’t get me wrong–I’m
    not suggesting that all women quit their jobs, get married, and
    stay at home in the suburbs. But I am suggesting that we think of
    ‘women’s work’ as something viable, interesting, and
    important–like knowing how to play an instrument or speaking a
    foreign language. And what about the skill, love, and creativity
    that goes into raising children and running a home? It’s not
    stupid, and it’s not simple; it’s damn hard work that we as
    feminists need to start respecting.

    Six months ago, I did something that I never thought I
    would do in a million years: I got married. The plan was that after
    the ceremony, my husband and I would live in separate apartments,
    the way we always had. I just couldn’t bring myself to cohabit with
    a man; I was afraid of losing my identity and having to ‘look
    after’ him. But in the end, after many conversations, we decided to
    move in together anyway.

    It’s been difficult, but we seem to have established a pretty
    equitable system. I do most of the cooking and grocery shopping, he
    does all the ironing, clothes mending, and dishwashing, and we
    split all other tasks right down the middle. We fight over stuff
    like vacuuming and whether we should order in again. But we also
    have a blast together: We painted our apartment sky blue, avocado
    green, café con leche, and bright pink, built tons of
    shelves, and finished it with the finest thrift store finds to
    create a look that can only be described as

    So here I am at age 30. My life is much more domestic and
    varied and interesting and creative and pastiche-like than I ever
    imagined. I didn’t become a feminist artist or a bohemian writer.
    Instead, I practice my feminism in the way I live my life, the
    clothes I wear, the home I live in, the food I eat, the company I
    keep. It’s not glamorous, but it’s fulfilling. As it turns out, my
    experience is the opposite of that of the women who built
    Womanhouse: Embracing domesticity and women’s work has freed
    me from depression and a feeling that my life is meaningless. Best
    of all, I have discovered simple ways to give myself and others the
    gift of living well.

    From Bust (Spring 2001). Subscriptions: $11.95/yr. (4 issues)
    from Box 1016, Cooper Station, New York, NY 10276.

    Published on Jul 1, 2001


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