Letters

"True feminists can change their own damn light bulbs." Readers respond to Ayelet Waldman's column about the division of domestic labor.


Salon Staff
June 23, 2005 12:12AM (UTC)

[Read "A Woman Needs a Repairman," by Ayelet Waldman.]

Ms. Waldman asks how she can allow her husband to perform certain responsibilities without feeling guilty. The answer is pretty simple: Think of it as outsourcing. Sure, I could deliver my own mail, but that's what I pay the post office for. I could rent a truck and pick up the new sofa I bought with a couple of friends, but I'll just pay the delivery fee instead. The difference is that when one's spouse/partner/etc. takes care of the job in question, no money changes hands, but a transaction still takes place -- it's just bartered. Honey, you fix the toilet, and I'll cook dinner. Tit for tat, quid pro quo.

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-- Howard Cheng

Oh, Ayelet! You are just lazy! So am I! So is everyone! I let my partner do all kinds of things that I should be doing, and he does them because he is a kind, hardworking and generous person, and so is your husband. (I know, I have met him.) So lie back and enjoy the luxury of not having to do it all yourself. Some people, and not all of them men, like that sort of thing. I used to have a woman friend who, while not playing the flute and administering the University of Iowa International Writers' Program, was happy to tar her porch roof and hammer out dents in her car. You are making amply productive use of your time wondering whether you should feel guilty. I say, don't bother with that, either.

-- Jane Smiley

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Waldman says, "I am an adamant feminist ... During the periods in my marriage when I chose to stay home with my kids rather than work as an attorney, it caused me no end of anxiety. Despite the fact that I knew I was contributing to our family by caring for our children, I still felt that my worth was less because I wasn't earning."

What kind of feminism is that, Ayelet? Feminism isn't about forcing women to work. It isn't even about the right to work. Feminism is about our right to make our own choices.

You are obviously quite proud to call yourself a feminist. Do not be so proud, however, as to cast aspersions on we who earn good wages and make the choice to work in the home. There is great value in raising children, volunteering in the community, and building a solid and united household. Families have been the foundation of our society and societies around the world for hundreds of years. Choosing to build a family is a valid, noble choice for a woman to make. To undervalue yourself or any woman who dedicates herself to that cause is not feminism.

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However, to the main point of your essay, I say, "Me, too."

-- Meg Freebern

Ayelet Waldman's article does not surprise me one bit. I wish I had a nickel for every self-described "feminist" who is nonetheless unwilling to make substantial adjustments to her life if they might interfere with the more cushy and convenient traditional female prerogatives.

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Sure, chanting the word "equality" with your fist clenched might add a chic and fashionable distraction into a college woman's life, but let's face it: Feminism would never attract many adherents if it ever began to advocate things like equal responsibility or equal punishments or equal representation of women in hazardous male-dominated jobs.

The typical feminist of today is way too hip and cool to pay for her own drink when she goes out partying. And why should she? Any attempt to restrict her behavior is sexist oppression. And she'll throw a righteous fist into the face of any male who tells her otherwise -- perhaps while sternly lecturing him on the immorality of violence (against women, that is).

Ms. Waldman claims that household repair is the "only" area of her marriage that is "traditional." I find this extremely hard to swallow. Many women who claim to care about "inequality" are nonetheless champions when it comes to studiously ignoring the inequalities that favor themselves. Does Ms. Waldman still expect her husband to act as her free personal bodyguard when they walk in the bad parts of town? If she's on a sinking ship, does she really intend to wait in line for a lifeboat? Is it boorish for her husband to criticize her in public while she's unrestrained in criticizing her husband in public? Does Ms. Waldman exercise her "option" to pay half the check in a restaurant when her husband has no such "option" if his wife ever feels like not paying?

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What feminists refer to as the "backlash" is not against women's gaining equality. It is against the fact that a lot of women are getting to have their cake and eat it too: equality when it's convenient, tradition when it's convenient.

The reason for Ms. Waldman's puzzle is obvious: Though she calls herself a feminist and knows how to piously mouth the proper slogans, she has little intention of living as she speaks whenever her desire for "equality" requires her to do the hazardous and yucky stuff that only men are fit to do.

-- Linney Uston

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What Ms. Waldman really needs is a swift, bitter-to-swallow dose of reality. "True feminists" can change their own damn light bulbs, put together any particle-board bookcase Ikea can offer -- and not with our Manolos but with Black and Decker tools, thank you very much.

Sure, be proud that your husband changes some diapers; after all, you have a large brood of kiddies together (as we read in your "Baby Lust" piece a few months back). But, please, spare us your flip-flopping around on what defines a feminist in 2005. You can be a stay-at-home mother, you can want your Prince Charming, and you can learn the self-reliance it takes to pour some Drano in the clogged tub and hightail it to Target when the dimmer switch is on the fritz. We girls can do it all!

-- Susan May

Ms. Waldman, you said in your article, "Of course [Stacia] can put together a cabinet or unplug a toilet. So could I, if I set my mind to it."

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No, you couldn't.

At least not with the alacrity and joy with which boys and men do these things. As soon as we are able to sit up without falling over, we males delight in technology. We fumble and explore. We break things. We fix things.

Girls don't. There's no getting around this general feature of female behavior. Little girls step aside while their brothers fix their closet doors. Girlfriends step aside while their boyfriends deal with the bullshit of auto mechanics.

One of modern feminism's greatest failings is its refusal to deal with women's instinctual technology avoidance. Most boys are taught, quite rightly, to look forward to their fair share of parenting and housecleaning. Girls are still being taught that technology is a "guy thing." They are taught this by the same middle-aged women who step aside and do nothing while men fix the office copy machine.

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Yes, some women are remarkable technologists, but they are few and far between. Some men hate tools, but they, too, are rare. This division of labor has absolutely nothing to do with "social roles" or a "marriage bargain." As long as feminist authors rationalize away this fundamental fact of human nature, feminism will continue to be a half-finished exercise in wishful thinking.

-- Conrad Spoke

Ayelet, I know you'll probably get criticized yet again for daring to speak the truth, but I have to say, you are singing my song yet again. I could have written almost every word of your column myself (though undoubtedly not as well), except for the cooking part (I do all of that) and the finances part. (That's his domain, because I'm the full-time laborer, and if it were left up to me, we'd be swimming in late fees and bad credit.)

It may not be an exclusively Jewish thing, but it's definitely endemic in our culture, I think. I'll never forget when my sister was first married, and they bought a house that needed remodeling. Her now ex-husband -- a goyim, as my very Jewish grandmother would say in hushed tones -- called in about 20 of his friends to help him redo the bathroom, build a deck and raise the ceilings. When he asked my sister why none of her friends or family were contributing to the effort, she looked at him as if he'd grown a second head.

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"We're Jews," she replied. "We don't do things. We hire people."

And so it goes.

-- Lori Oliwenstein

Maybe this idea that women want someone to do the "handyman stuff" has more to do with roles in general, not simply gender roles. In our marriage, the situation is entirely reversed. My husband takes care of the finances, and he detests home repair projects, which I happen to enjoy (to a point, that point being the situations where I end up pushing the envelope of my repair skills).

To what do I attribute this less typical arrangement? Maybe that his dad is an artist and writer and mine is a work-obsessed engineer, so we both learned a different approach to these things. It could be that some of us are simply more interested in fixing things for the results and for the sense of accomplishment it engenders. Gender may really have very little to do with it other than providing a nice excuse for something a person just doesn't like to do. I do, however, recognize that when I show up at the home improvement store with a list and grubby clothes I am usually the only woman I see there by herself and with a look of determination in her eye.

My husband prefers not being exposed to the stuff, so he went to work to earn the cash so I can be a "contractorette." Do I resent his not helping me? Not at all -- everyone here is doing exactly what he or she prefers to do, and domestic harmony reigns. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a kitchen floor to install and the rest of our current remodeling to complete.

-- Kit Cohan

Why feel guilty? I haven't cleaned a toilet since I got married. I haven't cooked a meal, either. On the other hand, I have cleaned lots of kitchens, done all the laundry, cut lots of grass, etc. One of the best things about marriage is how you arrive at an efficient division of labor after a few years. And two minds really are much better than one. Everything is easier when you work together. I lived alone for 15 years and it was, frankly, a neurotic, lonely hell. You can spot singles a mile away by the waves of misery they give off. Face it, outside of your family, no one really cares if you live or die, except the local funeral home.

As far as financial matters go, no one has to give the "financial reins" to anyone. You have a joint online account and it is perfectly transparent every day where the money comes from and goes to. Finally, I don't really understand why one partner needs to stay home with the kid(s). All adults should have careers or jobs -- it is boring and unnatural to stay home all day with kids.

-- Jared


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