Women’s Work

Last night, Bernie and I watched the first part of the PBS three part special “Makers: Women Who Make America”. This one was about the earliest women in what came to be known as “The Women’s Liberation Movement.” While much of the early efforts were about equal opportunity and compensation in the work place, it was also about the experience of women in the home. Women were being awakened to the fact that they were “trapped” in their roles as housewives. During the World Wars, women had to step into the workforce to fill the positions men abandoned to do the fighting. There, they learned about their own competencies, yet found themselves fired when the men returned. This was only one of many experiences that fed the fire.

As we watched, Bernie said several times, “God, I didn’t even realize this was going on!” That is why the movement had to happen, I thought. I sure wasn’t able to get through to him how taken for granted I felt in those early years of our marriage. He was oblivious. He was part of the problem of men not getting it. It is always the problem of the oppressors. They are unable to put themselves in the shoes of the oppressed. I told him, “You achieved putting me in my place by simply not stepping in, by your non-action.” He took my comment as an opportunity to make a joke.

I can remember exactly how it happened and how irritated I would get. Here is an example: We are both working on chores on a Saturday morning, he on the outside and me on the inside of the house. He walks into the house, totally oblivious to the fact that my hands are in the toilet, and says, “What’s for lunch?” It did not occur to him to go to the refrigerator to check it out. It for sure didn’t occur to him to ask, “What do you want me to fix for lunch?”

The same was true if he needed a shirt ironed or if there was only one pair of unders left in his drawer. Bernie was actually better trained to take care of these things than I was, but once the vows were spoken, he forgot everything he learned. After that he never again thought, “This room is a mess. I’d better pick up around here.”

As I said, Bernie achieved the husbandly oppression by simply not stepping up to the plate. He never thought that the dirty dishes, laundry, or carpet might be a shared responsibility. Note: I realize today that the thought of stepping in did not pass through his mind. He was as much a victim of his upbringing as I was.  While his mother forced her sons to do chores, his father was the model for the way he would live in relationship once he got married. My mother showed me how to do all the chores as well as how to carry around monstrous resentments.

Gratefully, Bernie and I have worked through most of this garbage. He does the dishes now and then though he has never touched the laundry. He just keeps a 3 week supply of unders. It is okay. I am retired. Holding down a job of my own and having to take care of house matters alone was exhausting. He is retired, too. He’s taken up cooking and will vacuum when it is needed without comment to me. He will even fix his own lunch when he’s hungry – that took years of training. He is more considerate. So am I.

Not all couples are as fortunate as we are. Marriages have ended over dirty ash trays. One could go on and on about these things and the women in the early days of the Women’s Lib movement did that. The air needed to be cleared  and they wrote and spoke words that gave a lot of us something to talk about. This was their gift. But it is up to each couple to take whichever issue that seems relevant to their relationship, put it on the table and work it out. It is one of the hardest and most vital works there is. It is the work of the peacemaker.