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Letters from Proxima Thule

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Dorothy Sayers Explains It All

One hates to gank things from Tumblr, but this is a pretty amazing quote:

Let us accept the idea that women should stick to their own jobs – the jobs they did so well in the good old days before they started talking about votes and women’s rights. Let us return to the Middle Ages and ask what we should get then in return for certain political and educational privileges which we should have to abandon.

It is a formidable list of jobs: the whole of the spinning industry, the whole of the dyeing industry, the whole of the weaving industry. The whole catering industry and… the whole of the nation’s brewing and distilling. All the preserving, pickling, and bottling industry, all the bacon-curing. And (since in those days a man was often absent from home for months together on war or business) a very large share in the management of landed estates. Here are the women’s jobs – and what has become of them? They are all being handled by men. It is all very well to say that woman’s place is the home – but modern civilisation has taken all these pleasant and profitable activities out of the home, where the women looked after them, and handed them over to big industry to be directed and organised by men at the head of large factories. …

The fact remains that the home contains much less of interesting activity than it used to contain. … It is perfectly idiotic to take away women’s traditional occupations and then complain because she looks for new ones. Every woman is a human being – one cannot repeat that too often – and a human being must have occupation.

–Dorothy Sayers, 19freaking47

I mean, this is a very true thing. Being a “homemaker” these days involves raising children (or not) and keeping the house reasonably, but not even particularly immaculately, clean. If you want immaculate, you hire someone. My mother in law, a Russian woman who practically has WORK ETHIC tattooed on her back in prison font, told me to hire a maid, because no one could expect one person to clean a house this big (it’s not obscenely big). It’s considered cool enough for men to cook (easily the most fun and creative of household chores–and probably not coincidentally the one which actually produces a tangible thing, rather than the vague “cleanliness” or “non-psychotic child development”) that homemaking might not even include cooking every day of the week.

I wonder if this is part of the reason there has been such a revival of cottage industry home crafts in recent years. I mean, without even thinking, I can name someone I know who knits, spins and/or dyes fiber, makes beer at home, pickles things, preserves things, grows their own food, makes wine, cures their own meat, raises chickens or ducks or goats or horses, makes their own butter, jam and/or bread, quilts, makes jewelry (practically everyone I know makes jewelry) or clothes, and bakes from scratch. Hell, I do most of those things and I am not by any stretch a homemaker. But we’ve lost the home tasks which provided the most creative output and enjoyment (no one liked washing laundry with lye, no matter how idyllic scrubbing linens in the river looks in movies, but knitting is damned pleasant, and food activities have their peculiar joys, even when they are tedious and strenuous, like pickling and preserving) and yet we still have to spend a lot of time at home, and still have this cultural meme of “home = woman” which leads to not teaching sons to do even the child and cleanliness things, and teaching them also that someone, eventually, will do those things for them. I wonder if we’re just trying to get those parts that provided connection and community and occupation back somehow. Even parenting has become a kind of competitive performance art not wholly related to how we ourselves were raised. The thing is, almost (I said almost, do not get offended if you are a homemaking superman) everyone I can think of who does those things, with the exception of beermaking, because duh, is a woman. I think I know one man who knits the way I and my female friends do, which is to say obsessively. Most of this revival is feminine, and I don’t quite know why, except that we’re all unemployed or non-traditionally employed, and these things do provide a high level of tangible occupational satisfaction.

Because let’s be honest here. I don’t know very many people of my generation who can afford to “just stay at home.” They do it when they can’t find work or cinch their belts for the first years when child development is so important, but I can’t really think of anyone starting to have their babies now who can just blithely kick it housewife style.

Of course, men also used to be expected to know a whole lot of home-things, too. Like how to fix anything that goes wrong with household machines, care for livestock, and literally build more house–and the build more house bit was often a hobby. Even one generation back, I see men on this island whose idea of a rocking awesome weekend is to build something out of wood and glass that adds to the beauty and utility of their home. We don’t teach that anymore either. There’s always someone to hire to do it. What I am capable of doing in that field is purely due to my own streak of I WILL DO BOY THINGS FUCK YOU and not anything I’ve been taught–but more interestingly, my husband is fairly competent at fixing (better at computers than ovens) and can assist at building, but his father can do more or less everything. That’s how I think it happens–each generation needs these skills less, so learns maybe half of what their parents knew, and pretty soon no one knows how to do shit our great-grandparents considered basic.

I’m not singing the modern world sucks rag. I really like my technology. Of course, I still get it from all corners that I should be buckling down and having a baby, as though my career is just faffing about and killing time. If the house is awry that’s on me, not my husband–who is a good post-feminist boy and does all kinds of cleaning and cooking! But external judgment will always be on me, no matter how many books are on the shelf with my name on them. I became so much more socially acceptable when I wrote a book for children. And though I bake like a mofo and cook and preserve and pickle, I’ve never touched a grill in my life, for lo, that is sacred Man Territory. I am the very model of a modern pomo feminist, yet oh, how my life is still strewn with this crap. Let’s set aside for a moment the issues of sexism in my industry, and how I so rarely read a book or watch a TV show where a woman has an internal life, a job outside the home, a friend, desires or ambitions. (I just saw someone list off the best shows evar, and none of them had any interest in women’s stories or passed the Bechdel test, rather, they were all the sorts of shows that get described to me as being “interesting in masculinity” which apparently means no chicks plz.)

I find the very simple question at the beginning of the quote fascinating, because I’ve never heard it asked. If we, as conservatives would have us do, give up all those pesky votes and rights and bodily autonomy and needs to be recognized as human, what do we get in return? Because “the home” is kind of a shitty answer. It’s always been a brutal gig to be asked to be intelligent and creative and engaged enough to raise a highly successful child, yet to be satisfied with only that, forever, along with some cleaning and cooking. But the home as they seem to conceive it no longer exists. The home is a place now, not an industry.

I saw a comedian the other day talking about how little girls never get to be kids. (For values of our current “to be a child is to be carefree, work-free, trauma-free and innocent” meme) A baby boy’s toys are trucks, spaceships, guns, robots. A baby girl’s is another baby girl to take care of. The comedian looked up plaintively to the spotlight and said: “But I just got here.”

Quite so. And this got a little long. But the gender stuff is still spicing the soup and it’s gross and weird and ugly and even moreso on the internet where no one has to look a woman in the eye when they tell her to shut up. I wish we were doing a little better. A little better than the commentary of 1947. Than the gender politics of early-90s Star Trek, which looks so quaint now, not actually worshiping full-tilt at the font of overweening masculinity. (As the new movie does, as Mad Men does even while caring a great deal about women–if you think that show would have succeeded without Don Draper set up for a long while as a good old days ubermensch for men to adore and emulate, think again, while you’re trying on that Banana Republic Sterling Cooper suit. Which doesn’t even get into a whole new genre of film and TV set in historical tiemz, so that we can ogle ladies being treated badly without feeling bad about it, because accuracy! Please do not pay attention to anyone named Eleanor in either the 12th or 20th centuries.) I wish the quote that made me ramble on forever didn’t strike me the way it did, because my culture considers those issues asked and answered, even while it tells me to have a kid, stay at home as much as I can, be thin and pretty all the time, don’t have an abortion ever, stop complaining, take less money, it’s only logical as you’re weaker and will probably just have a baby anyway, but don’t call yourself a feminist, and that it’s scientifically proven that my voice doesn’t command as much attention as a man (harmonics! not cultural, just FACT.) and that my orgasms are evolutionarily useless.

You can keep your flying cars and jetpacks–I was promised a future where my gender would not define me. And yet.

Mirrored from cmv.com. Also appearing on @LJ and @DW. Read anywhere, comment anywhere.

DAMN!!! Wow.

That 3rd to last paragraph about the comedian just kills me. As in a not funny way. Buh...

The odd thing is the comedian was a man, who had said rather a lot of dumb sexist crap earlier in the set, before admitting that all the things he hates about women are things our culture does to them to make them conform.

Something I noticed years ago, back when I was in academia studying the Middle Ages. Wife, back when, had quite job description. Of course, DL Sayers got there first.

Mad Men made me squirm. (http://zornhau.livejournal.com/231684.html)

I really like Mad Men. After it gets a couple of episodes under its belt, it really actually has a lot more to say about women than almost any modern show I can think of. It examines the different paths available to them and the difficulties of progress when some are young enough to take advantage of it and some have hitched their wagon to the old system. It cares about women's stories without making them ridiculous or small or titillating, which is more than I can say for most shows.

Don Draper is an interesting character--for the first two seasons he is this god of masculinity, albeit one whose existence is based on lies and fear. But it all comes crumbling down and he is deconstructed from top to bottom, and his whole idiom shown to be repellent. However, a lot of the audience misses the thesis here, and just sees him as that god, ignores the sensitive work the show does wrt to women, and quotes Roger Sterling happily without understanding that neither of them are meant to be emulated.

I'm more sad that the popularity of the show has led to ripoffs idealizing the era, which I don't think MM does at all.

Diane Duane has a series of books about cat wizards (To Visit The Queen and so on). In those, she uses "queen" and (if I remember correctly) "tom" as the names of genders of un-neutered cats. The books explain that translating their genders merely "female" and "male" would be distorting the real cat truth, which is far more extreme. Virtually every of their cat language is gendered, marked with sex - every step is a strut of some style.

In the usual scifi/fantasy manner, she can be understood as talking about us humans. "maps in a mirror"

To some extent, I think the simplistic feminism ("males and females are equals") that we were taught is (though true) easily misconstrued by young minds. (Or adult minds if we're distracted by thinking about something else, as we usually are.) It's not necessarily wrong to strew gender-indicators throughout our everyday behavior, if they're relatively trivial (The vote, equal pay for equal work, etc are nontrivial). And since sex is a fairly important component of our branch of life, "relatively trivial" might be fairly costly in time and energy.

Ostentatiously avoiding grilling, or cultivating knitting, for example, is a relatively trivial price to pay in order to send a clear signal of "queen".

I believe those are the standard terms for un-neutered cats.

I don't ostentatiously do either of those things, nor do I think they are Territories. It's simply that I was never taught to use a grill as I was taught to use an oven, and sort of just never did it. That's far more the case with pernicious first world gender issues. It's just the Way I Was Raised, etc.

I am not particularly interested in the gender part of the term queen. I would like to send a message of power and command and authority. Whether that comes with being seen as emphatically female or not is of very little concern to me.

Thank you, a thousand times, for posting this.

I struggle with this a lot. As a trans dude, who was raised as a girl in Texas and is now the sort of stay at home spouse/part time worker, I feel a lot of tugging at all sides. I clean house, though I've never been great. I am a bad ass baker, spiritual heir to generations of cakes in the family blood. (When my grandmother went through one of her periodic episodes of assigning heirlooms, I asked for a certain cake recipe.) I know more about the car than my husband probably, though he is better at plumbing. I can shoot and fish, but I sure as hell can't grow a tomato. I'm afraid of heights, so I make him change out the smoke detector batteries, even though I am generally the one starting fires that set them ringing.

The part of me that my father raised, briefly, chafes at not being the primary breadwinner now the way I was for a decade. I worry at the ideas of manliness I was raised in, trying to find some way to adapt them to my peculiar life now. Sometimes I wish I could ask him for advice, but I know that's a hole not worth digging. The answer was always work, work, work, because a man must provide all things as the only measure of his worth and only then could he take happiness however he pleased. Was my mother supposed to be happy with just the kids and the house? She wasn't. She had to work, anyways, and everyone resented that for different reasons.

I have made more money than my husband for the last two years running. I am so proud of that, because I was raised by a single mom and I hated depending on a man to such an extent. I am lucky enough to be with someone who is proud of me for accomplishing that, and doesn't feel diminished by it. He's a rare sort.

I think women get that message too--work, work, work, care, care, care--take care of everyone, even strangers, even people you don't like, look after all their needs, work to make their lives better, and never think of yourself. So we end up having careers and still feeling guilt because we haven't satisfied the caretaker meme.

I can't imagine how being trans must complicate the gender issues for you--I certainly have never been able to discuss my own queerness with family, it's just not their world. But if it helps, I also can't imagine going to my mother or stepmother for advice on femininity.

1. Who promised you?
2. And why would you ever believe something so foolish?

Who promised the entire internet flying cars?

The answer to both is basically science fiction, I suppose. I was being somewhat facetious, but doesn't it seem like we should have progressed a little farther? As far as hallmarks of The Future, equality is really much easier than a jetpack.

This really hit me where I am, today. It sort of sent me reeling back and I went "my god! that's it exactly!". Always a medievalist (and a feminist, god forbid, and interested in gender studies, I might as well give up grad school now, I'm never getting a job), I've argued many times that saying the "public/private" sphere of "the home" vs "the world" is completely useless in describing historical women whose work at home was economic and whose "private sphere" was inherently communal, ie. public.

I recently broke up with a man who unexpectedly decided that since I was done with college what he really wanted in life was to be a dad with a stay-at-home wife to mother his children. This hasn't ever been my inclination. This sudden announcement came in the quiet period between finishing my last undergrad requirements and waiting for my graduate school acceptance letter. Why was I expected to give up a promising career in medieval academia to marry a guy with a part-time job for the pipe dream of children when I have chronic health issues that makes pregnancy risky? Why should I withdraw from my circle of female intimates (I had just moved in with my best friend in another state) to be his wifey partner? What was the exchange for me? I would be leaving my career, my friends, my education, and for what? "The home"?

This narrative is really insidious and it's everywhere. And your post nailed it on the head. We're supposed to be "homemakers" but we don't make anything inside the home, except maybe breakfast and coffee. I think you're right about women's interests in the "traditional crafts" that really represented a woman's economic power. Brewers and dyers and spinners were economic powerhouses in their families, and the risk of their economic power can be seen in how English laws tried to ban women from being guild members and shove them to the fringes of economic society by restricting when they could sell their wares, and under what circumstances, and how often. (If anyone reading this is interested in more, Eileen Powers provides a very readable summary in one of her essays compiled for "Medieval Women". It's a bit old, but still thought as true in women's studies it was then.)

The dynamics of living with another "crafty" woman are very different than the dynamics I've had elsewhere; we cook, I bake, we knit, she spins, we make things for our house and some clothes and produce intellectual crafts of research papers and the miscellania of graduate school. We both frequently express longing to run away with our other female friends and live a life of Cooking All The Things and Knitting All The Things and perhaps raising animals. Perhaps because we have nostalgia for the barely-coherent idea that women used to have economic agency that way, and we enjoyed it surrounded by other women. Maybe. I don't know. But every young woman I know who is "crafty" expresses a desire to run off and live a life dedicated to the tangible results that use to be stock-and-trade of women's livelihoods, preferably in the company of other women.

"Please do not pay attention to anyone named Eleanor in either the 12th or 20th centuries." is now a favorite quote of mine and may be appearing soon, as it neatly captures everything that is wrong with our perception of historical ideals of what "being female" meant.

For these reasons, this will always be my favorite xkcd comic:


I long for that, I do. As long as part of that intellectual production is my books, it is my ideal life. I wish more boys wanted to play in that sandbox, and were capable of doing it without declaring themselves king.

Thank you for posting this. We are in the process of experimenting with a semi-traditional household arrangement--both female, but I am working full time, and my wife is taking on the seneschal role--which is something we've wanted to do for a long time. We're still playing with what each role involves, and thinking about how to keep the home role from being isolated or isolating.

It is awkward in some days because there are "man things" that neither of us have learned before. Grilling feels completely nonintuitive to me, even when my father-in-law demonstrates. Neither of us knows how to fix anything with moving or electronic parts. We'd both like to learn more carpentry, but are still at the Ikea stage. And etc. I wish there were crafting conventions, like Musecon, that included 101-level classes in butch skills.

I love calling it butch skills 101! You should suggest this to Arisia, I bet they'd do it.

I just want to state for the record that I'm staying home b/c it's cheaper than child care. I did the math and I do the math again every time I apply for a job.

And I'm not the only one. "Cinch their belts for the first years when child development is so important" my butt (and also insulting as hell to child care providers, of which I also used to be one.) Some people, yeah, but this is just too damn glib.

Edited at 2011-10-10 04:52 pm (UTC)

Ok. I apologize for that. I was talking about my circle of aquaintances, in which I simply can't think of anyone who is not working outside the home because they don't want to, who can afford to make that choice. Childcare often comes in the form of family and friends or a spouse with an unconventional schedule. But my circle is largely made up of writers, who have a unique work situation.

I'm not sure how it's insulting to child care providers. Child development in the first years can certainly be provided by someone else, but most people who have kids want to be the ones forming those early impressions and guiding a child through those stages. That's all I meant. Someone who loves their job and wants to work might put that aside for nursing years and early toddler, because they want that bond with their child rather than having them form it with even the most wonderful and creative external child care. Sorry if I phrased that wrong.

A baby boy’s toys are trucks, spaceships, guns, robots.

All of these things sound like jobs to me.

I think it's a stretch to call spaceships and robots jobs. I don't think kids construe them as such. Guns can be a job, can be a sport, can be a destructive toy. Same with a truck, which can also just be transportation.


this this this this this.

And miles to go before we can sleep.

I think the part of the statement that the whole concept swings on is "we should get then in return for certain political and educational privileges which we should have to abandon." "In return?" You mean those bitches *expect* something like they're, what, owed?

I think for a lot of people in power (primarily, but not entirely, of the masculine persuasion), the concept of a woman expecting to get anything - in return, or period - is so fundamentally offensive that it sort of doesn't matter what the specifics of the negotiations might be. You see the concept come up with equal strength in regards to jobs as, oh, engagement rings: your resulting negative stereotype might be the feminazi as opposed to the golddigger (or, hey, back in the day, Margery Kempe), but regardless, she's deeply unappealing, the woman who won't just shut up and take what she's given.

But as a general response? Oh, amen, sister.