Wednesday, 16 January 2013
Dorothy Parker and the gateway to domesticity
Dorothy Parker was a woman who avoided domestic tasks like the plague. She'd have starved rather than boil herself an egg, ate bacon raw claiming she didn't know how to cook it, and threw her soiled underwear back in her bureau drawer with her clean pairs, leaving the resulting mess for the maid to sort out, if there was one. She wrote in one of her poems that she hated women who made their own clothes and who were always hurrying home to make dinner. But she was an avid knitter. The photo above shows her carrying her knitting bag, and according to what I've read, she was seldom without it.
Knitting has a dynamic and a pace of its own. One can pick up knitting and knit for exactly as long as one wants to, or has time to, whether that be five minutes or several hours. One can put a knitting project down and leave it for hours, days, months, or years, and then pick it up again. Knitting is portable. Knitting is compatible with carrying on a social conversation, with being out in the world. None of these things can be said of cooking or cleaning or dressmaking. Dorothy Parker no doubt felt she could yield a point and enjoy her knitting without it becoming some sort of gateway domestic task, the first step on downhill course of action that would eventually deposit her in the kitchen, slaving to prepare meals for a family of six.
I've always been one to revel in domestic skills, perhaps because my mother was both a dedicated elementary school teacher and a woman who enjoyed baking bread, making jam, growing flowers and vegetables, and making clothing. Like her, I earn a living working in a professional capacity and also do most of the same household tasks, and have never felt that these activities were in conflict in any way. I tend to roll my eyes at some of the feminist critique of the so-called "New Domesticity", and get impatient with the moaning that women are setting back the clock by turning away from the feminist achievements of their mothers and grandmothers and embracing housewifely roles and tasks.
For one thing the whole idea of a "New Domesticity" is an appallingly classist construct. Relatively few women have been able to turn their backs on domestic tasks over the past fifty years. My mother and my grandmothers certainly did all their own housework. Only a relatively small percentage of women could afford to not do their own housekeeping, and their household staff brought up the average by doing double duty: they did their employers' housework and then went home to do their own. There's nothing new about domesticity because women have been steadily tending to their housekeeping through all the waves of feminism.
In any case I see nothing at all wrong with women choosing to cook from scratch or make their own candles or spin. And I've had it with this relentless nitpicking over how women run their lives. Feminism was supposed to free women up from gender-based strictures, not add new ones.
Not that I don't get where some of the critics are coming from. As I've said before on this blog, leisure-time activities do need to be kept in their place. These domestic hobbies that can be so pleasant and rewarding shouldn't become a vortex that absorbs all our free time and keeps us from ever reading the newspaper, voting, volunteering, learning new skills, or otherwise attending to higher priority personal or professional tasks. But it's certainly possible to indulge in these elective domestic tasks without neglecting other more important things, and I would like to see these New Domesticity critics show some respect for women's ability to do so. No one assumes a man will contribute less to the world or fail to reach his potential because he's taken up woodworking. Dorothy Parker's knitting never took away from her writing — though her drinking and her hatred of the actual task of writing certainly did.
Dorothy Parker's flight from domesticity made sense given the era in which she lived. Relatively few women of her time managed to bypass the kind of domestic, housebound life women were then expected to lead in order to live a professional, artistic or political life outside the home. To Parker, cherishing a hostility towards the domestic role was part of the means she used to avoid it. It reminds me of how the narrator in Erica Jong's Fear of Flying (published in 1973) writes that she refused to learn to type so that she could ensure that she didn't wind up working as a secretary. She didn't become a secretary, but she handicapped herself as a grad student and professional writer. Surely things have changed since Parker's day, or even since the seventies. Surely we don't need to share Parker's contempt for domestic accomplishments, and to shoot ourselves in the foot by refusing to learn needed life skills, because we need no longer fear their thralldom as she did.
Can't we now admire domestic accomplishments rather than dismissing them as "women's work" as though they were lesser achievements and past-times than those traditionally perfomed by men? Can't women bake bread or crochet a tablecloth without anyone telling them they've betrayed feminism? I hope we can. Because it's only when we can do so that we will have made real progress towards respecting the work women do and their right to make their own choices.