Reviews of Homeward Bound

“3.5 out of 4 stars” - People Magazine                                                               “The brilliance of Emily Matchar’s new book is that it exhaustively describes what disillusioned workers are opting into: a slower, more sustainable, and more self-sufficient lifestyle that’s focused on the home. Matchar synthesizes dozens of trend stories … into a single, compelling narrative about the resurgence of domesticity….Refreshing.” -The New Republic                                                       "[P]rovocatively explores what the movement says about the role of women in society today.” – The New Yorker                                                                       "I unreservedly loved it…It’s empathetic and funny and thoughtful and smart, and I encourage all of you to read it."– The Hairpin                                                         “Cogently argues that choosing a more hands-on, DIY lifestyle – family farming, canning, crafting, can, without sacrificing feminism’s hard-won gains, improve on an earlier time when ‘people lived more lightly on the earth and relied less on corporations, and family and community came first.’” - ELLE                                                               “[I]ntelligent and insightful...essential reading.” - Christianity Today                                                       “A lively and perceptive reporter… a valuable and astute assessment.”—Publishers Weekly                                                         “A well-researched look at the resurgence of home life…. Offers intriguing insight into the renaissance of old-fashioned home traditions.”— Kirkus Reviews

What is New Domesticity?

This blog is a look at the social movement I call ‘New Domesticity’ – the fascination with reviving “lost” domestic arts like canning, bread-baking, knitting, chicken-raising, etc. Why are women of my generation, the daughters of post-Betty Friedan feminists, embracing the domestic tasks that our mothers and grandmothers so eagerly shrugged off? Why has the image of the blissfully domestic supermom overtaken the Sex & the City-style single urban careerist as the media’s feminine ideal? Where does this movement come from? What does it mean for women? For families? For society?                                                                                     My book, Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, which explores New Domesticity in greater depth, will be published by Simon & Schuster in May 2013.

Follow me on Twitter!

Is it oppressive and antifeminist to hire a maid?

You know what sucks? When you wake up in the morning and find your laptop flashing “Operating System Not Found.” What sucks even worse? When you realize you haven’t backed up your hard drive in two months.

Anyway, after a very unhappy trip to the Sony store, during which my laptop was pronounced DOA, I am now nearly $1000k poorer but in possession of a new work machine. Which is good, because I was starting to get carpal tunnel from hunting and pecking out long emails on my iPhone. #firstworldproblems

So: back to blogging!

The funniest thing you'll read all year

I just read How to Be a Woman by the absolutely hilarious British writer Caitlin Moran. It’s a must-read for many reasons (Moran’s scathing take on the waxing-industrial complex, for example), but I was recently musing on this bit, about hiring a house cleaner:

“If a middle-class woman is engaging in antifeminist activity by hiring a woman to do the cleaning, then surely a middle-class man is engaging in class oppression when he hires a male plumber?”

Moran is talking about how women are often accused of being oppressive and antifeminist by hiring poorer women to vacuum their living rooms. This is a view loudly touted by many, most notably right-wing writer Caitlin Flanagan, who wrote a famous The Atlantic article called “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement.” If you haven’t read it, it’s a doozy, with lots of sharp, well-observed points, but based largely on false premises.

Since feminists consider housework to be “shit work,” Flanagan says, it follows that it’s unfeminist to hire another woman to do the shit. But, contrary to what Flanagan says, few feminists actually claimed that housework was shit work or inherently oppressive. They might not have found it particularly interesting, especially doing it all day every day on an unpaid basis. They just wanted to share the housework with men, and be free to do other things as well.

My parents both worked outside the home, and they hired others to do some of the domestic work and childcare. There was a house cleaner who came twice a month, a middle-aged woman who wore knee pads and listened to soft rock on her headphones as she  mopped. There were a succession of University of North Carolina undergrads who took care of my brothers and I after school (when we were younger, we went to daycare). There was man who mowed the lawn, a former divinity school student who had been hit by a car and sustained brain damage that left him with major cognitive deficits. These people were doing jobs, and they were treated like anyone else doing a job (OK, the UNC nannies were treated more like family, since my mom can’t resist mothering anyone younger than 35).

I don’t like to clean the kitchen, and, if I could afford it, I would certainly consider hiring someone to do it for me. I would pay them a fair wage, just like I’d pay anyone else providing me with a service. I don’t like changing my own oil, so I pay someone to do it for me. Is there a difference?

Questions of oppression/class strife aside, it’s troubling that, in this day and age, women are still made to feel guilty for outsourcing domestic work, since this presumes that women are still responsible for domestic work.

Thoughts? Has anyone hired domestic help? Has anyone worked as a cleaner or nanny?

Also: Read How to Be a Woman, seriously. But be warned: you won’t get much sleep, since you’ll be snorting with laughter at 3am as you ponder Moran’s take on naming your vagina.

19 comments to Is it oppressive and antifeminist to hire a maid?

  • Ruben

    I have never hired or been domestic help. But I certainly do not have the gift of tidiness, which has caused me much yearning for domestic help.

    But rather than oppressing the worker, I think domestic help dehumanizes the person hiring. Which I mean literally.

    The animal kingdom illustrates this very clearly. If an animal is unsuccessful at cleaning themselves, keeping their nest disease-free and feeding themselves, we don’t say, “Hey look at such-and-such animal,” we say, “Oh. That poor animal is dead.”

    In fact, being capable of performing these basic subsistence tasks is what makes animals animals. As opposed to dead failures in the evolutionary line. I think the same applies to humans. Cleaning, feeding and sheltering are the basic skills needed for survival. Lawn mowing is not. Plumbing is on the bubble, but there is clearly a good argument there.

    So, I think there is a good argument that if you have a maid, you are not human. You certainly have shown yourself to be unworthy of voting–you can’t clean up after yourself and you want a voice in deciding the governance of your country? Probably not capable enough to responsibly hold a driver’s license, as well….

  • ann

    i was thinking of this very thing the past 12 days, as i lived out of hotels (yes, plural–there were 6 in total) as I worked away from home. Because I’d brought my infant son, my meeting & his naps meant that the room was not often unoccupied during the morning housekeeping & I often had to decide between fresh sheets/towels and an emptied trash (often full of diapers) … and the strange feeling of another human cleaning up my messes. adding to the discomfort, I was in AZ & all the housekeepers were Hispanic.

  • I spent a few years as a nanny/housekeeper, and I will say that different families had varying ideas about how to categorize me, though none (of the mothers, anyway) were able treat my work as simply a paid service. It was emotional for them. There was always some level of guilt/conflict about having their children “raised” by someone other than themselves.

    In certain cases my being a white, college educated young woman further added to the conflict. In houses where they had formerly hired only older latino women, it was jarring to have someone who resembled their children in the role. Also harder, I think, to distance themselves emotionally from my position in their life. Some of these people are used to people of color providing quiet service all around them, but are uncomfortable seeing white people working these jobs.

    I actually had one stay-at-home-mom tell me, when I brought my charge over for a playdate “What they really need is a good Mexican, they’re maternal by nature, you know.”

  • Katy

    I’ll never forget the late night at a family reunion when my aunt (who is in what can only be described as a stereotypical 1950s marriage) basically discounted all of my mother’s accomplishments because “she didn’t have to scrub the toilets” because we had a housekeeper growing up. It was deeply disturbing – somehow my mother holding down a career while not only running but founding half a dozen different volunteer programs at my church and other charities didn’t mean anything because she didn’t also do her own laundry while she did it.

    Of course, it seemed pretty obvious that this was my aunt’s coping mechanism for dealing with the fact that my mother was such an accomplished woman (and in comfortably feminine fields like vacation bible schools and social work). Yeah, anyone could be a superwoman if she had a maid!

    So, following her logic…we should all have maids and be superwomen? Instead of tearing down the superwomen for having maids?

    [Also, I know this is one example, but it still haunts me. Forgive my oversimplification of the macro situation.]

  • Eli

    “If a middle-class woman is engaging in antifeminist activity by hiring a woman to do the cleaning, then surely a middle-class man is engaging in class oppression when he hires a male plumber?”

    Come on, this is not a reasonable comparison to make. Most people who hire maids are capable of performing the work (if not as skillfully or efficiently as a professional cleaner) but prefer not to; most people who hire plumbers do not have the specialized skills to do the work and have no choice but to hire the plumber if they want to have functional plumbing. A maid almost always makes less money than the employer; a plumber frequently makes as much or more. Yes, inasmuch as both practices further the wage system they both have elements of class oppression, but there are degrees of exploitation and it is disingenuous to pretend that domestic labor is no more exploitative than the kind of labor that a plumber performs.

    So, following her logic…we should all have maids and be superwomen? Instead of tearing down the superwomen for having maids?

    Does “we all” who are supposed to have maids include the maids themselves?

  • I’ve hired a housekeeper to come in a couple of hours a week in the past, and will do so again once we move into our new place. I don’t mind cleaning, but my husband and I both work full time, and we have a two year old. I’d much rather pay someone $60 to come in during the week than have to spend 2-3 hours on the weekend cleaning instead of spending time with my son. It’s win-win. I’m paying the cleaner a fair wage, it’s as honest of work as any other.

    Growing up we always had someone come in to do the cleaning. My mother worked full time and there were four of us mucking up the house, so a housecleaner bought her a needed break from some of the housework. There was never any issue or discomfort, we knew the deal, they didn’t pick up after us, or do laundry/cooking etc., but provided we had tidied up we would come home to a clean house after school once a week or so.

    I agree with your analysis, I don’t hesitate to pay someone to cook my dinner (take-out) if I don’t have time to cook, or detail my car. Cleaning my house is no different. I think saying that women should do it all is stifling and unfair. I have a friend who hires a housecleaner but would never admit to it (her husband spilled the beans after a few beers).

    • Also wanted to say – I read that book in bed, and laughed out loud so many times my husband wants to read it. It’s awesome, direct, no holds-barred, and full of things to think about

  • Emily

    Really interesting discussion, and it seems like there are definitely two distinct sides here.

    I guess I just don’t see that hiring domestic help dehumanizes anyone, as long as the pay is fair and the job conditions safe. There are lots of jobs I wouldn’t personally want, from preschool teacher to fry cook to car mechanic to boutique salesperson. But I don’t think it’s inherently oppressive to pay someone to fry my eggs at a diner or change my car’s oil. And I don’t think it’s inherently oppressive or dehumanizing to hire someone to vacuum my living room. I think domestic service is rife with problems – the mistreatment of illegal immigrants, the poor wages at corporate maid companies, etc. But this doesn’t make hiring domestic work *inherently* bad.

    If I could afford to pay someone a fair wage to thoroughly clean my kitchen once or twice a month, I would totally do it. I’d save some time, and he or she would make some money for their business.

    I think people are uncomfortable with the idea of hiring domestic help because it’s a very visible reminder of class inequality. In reality, a house cleaner may make more money than, say, a boutique saleswoman or a preschool teacher or a barista, but there aren’t baristas in Downton Abbey or Dickens and the word doesn’t bring up the powerful associations that ‘maid’ does.

    Also, people (especially women) feel a real sense that anything that happens “inside” the home should be their responsibility. I think this is a vestige of A) sexism, and B) the myth of the family as self-sufficient unit.

    In my opinion, hiring a house cleaner is simply engaging in the economy in a way that’s no different than buying food at a restaurant rather than cooking dinner or taking a taxi rather than driving your own car. If you can afford it, good for you!

    • Eli

      I think one key issue is the distinction between being a customer and being a boss. I take your argument to imply that maybe the line between these things is not always clear, and I suspect that you’re right.

      For me, hiring someone to clean feels much more like an employer-employee relationship–something that makes me very uncomfortable because it is essentially hierarchical and inequitable–than hiring a plumber or going to a restaurant. But perhaps that’s a distinction that I only draw to make myself feel better about my economic role in the latter situations.

      • I think that the unease with the employer-employee relationship lies far from what my view of feminism is. To argue that women should not put themselves in hierarchical positions precludes their participation in most economic activities.

        I think it’s these kinds of views, along with the views that women should always make their children’s halloween costumes / drama costumes / treats for a bake sale etc, which keep women from progressing in society.

        To allow economic participation only for what a woman cannot do for herself is a pretty thin line to draw. It puts so much pressure on women to ‘do it all’ and seems oppressive to me.

        Is it exploitative because I can do it myself, or because the housecleaner makes less than I do? In that argument is it exploitative then to pay someone to wash my car? Or walk my dogs? Or is it just because the housekeeper is taking on a duty that is traditionally ‘woman’s work’?

  • I HATE cleaning house. And I don’t have a lot of time since I’m a freelance writer and I’m always scrambling for deadlines. So I hire someone to clean my house. There have been lean times when I’ve gone without groceries but still paid the cleaning person to come every other week. (She definitely makes more money than I do!) I don’t ask her to do anything too icky; I try not to leave too huge a mess. We have managed to be quite equitable about it all; in fact, we’re friends. I don’t know whether this would work for everyone, but it certainly works for us.

  • 24fps

    Well, first reaction: I want to kick Ruben.

    I’ve been a house cleaner. When I was 18, I lost my job at a fast food restaurant, my self-employed father was in hospital and my mother was attempting to support the household and not lose our house on her Avon sales. Needless to say, we couldn’t afford me not working – so I took up an offer to clean a woman’s house. She paid higher wages than I was getting at my former job and began referring me to her friends. Within a month I had a humming little business because I worked hard and did a good job. There were only two clients who I quit on – one kept leaving her underwear on the floor and told me off when I refused to pick it up, the other was unreasonable about standards and would check the vacuum cleaner for sufficient lint even though the house was pretty impeccable. Anyway, I didn’t find it demeaning. It was a job and no worse than many others I could have gotten.

    Fast forward 25 years. I have a couple who comes in to clean twice a month. I run my own company, have two kids and I’m also active in my community. I don’t like to clean, especially. My husband contributes to the housework equally, and we were making it work until we got busier with the business (we also work together) and stuff just stopped getting done. We found an ad, and got some help. I feel no guilt or inadequacy.

    My cleaning couple are great people. She was a receptionist and bookkeeper, but was unable to go to her young daughter’s school stuff, so she wanted a more flexible schedule and she felt this was a way for her to have more balance in her life. She actually makes more money cleaning and gets to spend more time with her kid. He’s a visual artist and cleans to bring in extra income.

    Granted, some people decide to be a bad stereotype and treat people who do domestic work like crap. That’s not something I support, but it’s also a choice. I pay a fair wage and appreciate the work. I don’t care to be lumped in with the former.

    Personally, I think it’s the people who claim such an arrangement is demeaning who have the load of prejudices to carry around and some hang-ups they need to get over. They’re the ones setting up a division between “good” work and “bad” work. I just have more work than I can handle and don’t mind paying someone to take up the slack. I see this as a win/win.

  • Katy

    I have a nanny a few days a week and while I am conflicted about it from the perspective of not being a “good mother” (since I can’t work out how to work AND raise my baby full time), I certainly don’t feel it exploits her. She earns 24 dollars an hour, and while she minds my son I go to a job (as a lawyer) where I earn 31 dollars an hour, so we are pretty close to parity (and obviously if she earned as much as me I couldn’t afford to work). My last job came with a ‘maid’ (well, someone who came and cleaned three hours a week). The rationale was that we needed this assistance because we would be working too hard to keep our house rep ready (this job was in the foreign service), and it was kinda true. I thought it would be weird at first (someone in my personal space, paying someone to do something that I could easily – if tediously – do myself, but it was wonderful and if I ever have loads of money again I will do it for sure. In the end, I dont think it’s different to any other personal service (a hair cut or whatever). But ironically while I feel comfortable with home ‘help’ I can’t bring myself to go get professional massages cos it feels weird and exploitative to pay someone to touch me – so we all have our limits. Really, though, I think we feel uncomfortable with hiring maids cos we don’t see housework as real work – it’s ‘just’ demeaning, unskilled labour. Screw that, my nanny is amazing, as was m housecleaner, and I think it is the stronger feminist statement to financially reward those skills ( but if you wanna critique capitalism as a whole there are some other prof relationships I think are a little more exploitative!)

  • Nicole

    You know what is dehumanising? Poverty.
    I live in South Africa and daily life is filled with reminders of abject poverty, so it seems somewhat self-indulgent to ponder whether it is ethical to employ someone or not based on class ideologies/ white guilt etc. My take on it is this: if you can afford it, you should try to give someone a job.

    These ladies are very often the breadwinners, providing for children and grandchildren, so I strongly believe the work they do should be valued and acknowledged as any other form of employment. Whether or not I’m comfortable with someone else cleaning my kitchen and ironing my clothes seems irrelevant in this context.

    My partner and I both work full time and we have a 2 and a half year old daughter. I have a cleaning lady who comes once a week and makes a world of difference to our home. I pay her a good rate and I don’t have to do any ironing. Win – win!

  • I know, right? I am a stay at home mom and a somewhat of a domestic blogger, but I suck at cleaning, so while I do it most of the time (in my sucky way) because of my inherent cheapness, I’ve hired people to deep clean for me in the past. Although my husband, I must add, is excellent in splitting this and every other domestic duty despite being the primary earner. And you know what, many women I know do it. My MIL does it. My home delivery midwife does it. My various friends and family members do it at least sometimes. Ree Drummond does it (she says so on her blog) even.

  • P.S.: I assure you (thought I don’t need to) that people who would feel humiliated by that job wouldn’t be there cleaning fore hire in the first place. And in the past I’ve cleaned for others once or twice before kids and when I needed money.

  • Or, better yet, I love to slowly be training the kids and passing some of the work on to them. It works beautifully (in the areas that are appropriate for their ages), and is one of the most important things I can teach them outside of school.

  • [...] hire paid household help. We’ve discussed before on this blog the tension around the idea of whether it’s OK to hire a maid in the first place. A lot of people were inherently uncomfortable with the idea of giving other [...]