Housekeeping (at home and work)

This post is a way of exploring some contradictory thinking about housekeeping.

In my last post on strategies for working during tough times, the small, shallow, short-term tasks I identified can be understood as a type of academic housekeeping. At work, as at home, women tend to do more of it, and it holds less value than other tasks:

[It] receives little recognition within the process of academic career making or within the definition of academic excellence … Higher ranked academics are better equipped to regulate some of their academic housework … [which] includes tasks that relate to giving back to the community, various teaching and research-related activities, administrative work and gender equality initiatives (Heijstra, Steinthorsdóttir and Einarsdóttir, 2017) .

In a recent Pracademic blog post on time management, Karina Luzia wrote:

For people who work in and with their heads and/or do work where there is often little directly observable effect or impact, housework, especially the kind that makes a visible difference to chaos, is strongly recommended.

I find housekeeping both comforting (for its routine, impact and calm) and discomforting (for its relentlessness, obligation and gendering).

One of the books I read for English in high school was Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping. My memory of reading it is strangely vivid, almost as though I knew it was a book I would return to throughout my life. The novel follows two girls whose mother commits suicide, leaving them in the care of their chaotic Aunt Sylvie. Robinson describes Sylvie’s slapdash approach to housekeeping:

Sylvie talked a great deal about housekeeping. She soaked all the tea towels for a number of weeks in a tub of water and bleach. She emptied several cupboards and left them open to air, and once she washed half the kitchen ceiling and a door. Sylvie believed in stern solvents, and most of all in air. It was for the sake of air that she opened doors and windows, though it was probably through forgetfulness that she left them open. It was for the sake of air that on one early splendid day she wrestled my grandmother’s plum-coloured davenport into the front yard, where it remained until it weathered pink (1980, p 85).

Sylvie inhabiting a house is described by her niece as being “like a mermaid in a ship’s cabin.  She preferred it sunk in the very element it was meant to exclude.  We had crickets in the pantry, squirrels in the eaves, sparrows in the attic” (1980, p 99).

Feminist theorist Iris Marion Young described growing up in the 1950s with a mother who did not clean:

Our two-bedroom apartment was always dirty, cluttered, things all over the floors and piled on surfaces, clothes strewn around the bedroom, dust in the corners, in the rugs, on the bookcases; the kitchen stove wore cooked-on food … My mother spent her days at home reading books, taking a correspondence course in Russian, filling papers with codes and calculations.  She seemed to me an inscrutable intellectual … I was mortified then by her weirdness, sitting in her chair reading and writing, instead of cooking, cleaning and ironing, mending like a real mom.  (2005, p 125-126).

In these examples, housework and motherwork are inextricably linked. For Young, the lack of a “real mom” became a reality when, after the sudden death of her father, she and her siblings were removed from their mother, who was charged with neglect and subsequently jailed:

The primary evidence of neglect was drinking and a messy house.  We ate well enough, had clean enough clothes, and a mother’s steady love, given the way she gave it: playing ping-pong, telling bible stories, playing twenty questions.  We were a family in need of support, but we children were not neglected (2005a, p 127).

Ultimately, the family was reunited —after the death of their foster father: “Headed now only by a woman, our foster family instantly became a bad environment for us; they shipped us back to my mother without warning” (2005, p 128).  Encountering the film version of Robinson’s Housekeeping, Young felt as if she had come home.

I grew up with the opposite experience: a house kept by a mother with boarding school precision. I can only ever fall short of these high standards. I was consequently amused to read French philosopher Michèle Le Dœuff’s criticism of Luce Irigaray’s work as prepatory for a life of domesticity: “Those who feel strong and hope to find employment, a place in the professional world, and a satisfactory level of material independence prefer Simone de Beauvoir” (2003, p 65).  I haven’t found my PhD on Irigaray’s work has particularly improved my housekeeping. What has helped? Outsourcing some of it, following advice on how to keep academic women scientists in the lab where they belong.

5 thoughts on “Housekeeping (at home and work)

  1. Interesting discussion Agnes, I am reminded of an alleged quote by Quentin Crisp – “There is no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn’t get any worse.” I have, however, never been brave enough to test this out.

    I have had a succession of wonderful cleaners for decades and at times feel they have saved my life (or at least my sanity). But I recall a discussion with a friend about hiring help. He was shocked and muttered something about having servants. In turn I was shocked, I had never considered these workers as servants and wonder if some of the reluctance of people to get household help has some basis in this kind of belief. I guess it points out that some types of work are seen as inferior (less deserving) than others. One of my first jobs as a uni student was cleaning motel rooms on a weekend – it possibly helped shape my views around this question.


  2. Thanks for your comment Theresa. Admitting to having cleaners did give me pause as I have heard comments like that before. Perhaps your colleague had a wife who cleaned for him? I have had the same cleaners once a fortnight for 11 years (when I first returned to work after maternity leave) and, funnily enough, when I first employed them I was paying them more per hour than I earned myself.

    This is consistent with the study I linked to which found:

    “At each rank, women scientists outsource twice as much core housework as do men scientists. Despite significantly lower salaries, women assistant professors outsource the same proportion of housework as men full professors. Senior-ranking women outsource 20 percent of their basic housework. For these women, employing others to assist with housework does not equalize divisions of labor, but it does somewhat lighten their share, and it shaves off almost four hours from the total weekly household load. Housecleaning is subcontracted to third parties more than any other core household task.”


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