Ignoring “women’s work”: Yet another Christmas tradition

“I love that moment when you first come downstairs and you can tell the turkey’s already in the oven.” So says the placard outside my local Sainsbury’s, complete with the picture of a traditional Christmas roast. This quotation has started to irritate me every time I leave the house. “That moment”? Is this something with which I’m meant to be familiar? Is it meant to be pleasant? Because to me it sounds frankly disconcerting.

For many of us, wouldn’t our first thought on sniffing the turkey-scented air be “hang on, am I in the right house?” Turkeys don’t just put themselves in the oven, or at least you’d hope not (and if that’s the sort of poultry Sainsbury’s are now selling, I’m steering well clear).

Every time I see this advertisement I’m reminded of one thing: the trivialisation or even erasure of unpaid domestic labour, especially at Christmas. That said, it’s only now I’ve reached adulthood and have children of my own that I realise what a total pain in the arse Christmas can be. So much cooking, cleaning, tidying and washing when you’re sure you should be dozing drunkenly in front of the Coronation Street Special. You’d be forgiven for feeling taken for granted even without the addition of turkeys which take all the credit for cooking themselves.

Women’s magazines in particular make me shudder. Your easiest ever Christmas dinner! Make your home sparkle from just £1! Best-ever canapés from the UK’s top party planner! Your Christmas dilemmas … solved! You never see this on the cover of FHM and GQ. Spending the whole of Christmas caring for others is, apparently, a woman thing, and while that’s not literally the case in our household, the overall message is that it bloody well should be, especially if you’ve got kids. After all, that’s what mums are there for! We love it!

I consider this to be a feminist issue and yes, I’m aware how dramatic and self-indulgent that sounds. Given all the other oppression faced by women globally, who wants to be whinging about tearing greasy strips from the leftover turkey carcass while everyone else hits the sherry? It’s just the stuff of life, a minor, repetitive detail. Yet the little things add up, whatever the broader cultural context. If women lack financial independence, political status and physical freedom, it’s not because they are weak, frivolous or disengaged. Whatever localised opportunities they have gained, women the world over still do the majority of unpaid domestic work while the other half of the human race hasn’t really noticed.

Clearly Christmas is a frivolous, highly culturally specific example to pick on. Nonetheless, we still haven’t come to terms with the degree to an unequal division of household labour affects even fairly privileged women’s lives. The media representation of a middle-class family Christmas shows this, I think, in a particularly vivid light. To be standing alone in a kitchen, faced with dirty plates, dead animal carcasses and filthy pots and pans isn’t hell on earth, no. But if everyone else is slumped on the sofa, half-sozzled and intermittently mumbling “need any help, love?” (in a tone that makes you know it’s not sincere), it’s pretty clear what your status is. Whatever else you are, you’re only a woman and the things you do for others are seen as background noise.

The ongoing acceptance that women should do the majority of domestic tasks and that this work should be unpaid ought to trouble today’s feminists far more than it currently does. Perhaps it’s just not engaging enough. Why focus on dirty socks when media representation, sex and violence appear so much more immediate and pressing? We seem to have internalised the belief that because housework is, to a certain extent, trivial and repetitive, the issue itself is too trivial and repetitive to concern us. We’ve bought into the idea that to complain is to be an uppity snob who thinks she’s too good to pick up an iron. We’ve equated a subject not being edgy with it being irrelevant. Conversations about women’s work, started decades ago, have been left unfinished. Younger feminists aren’t interested, whereas older ones can’t take time off from cross-generational caring work to reiterate the original points.

We want our feminism to be dramatic. And yet, do you know why we’re not always getting it? Do you know why many women aren’t the activists we’d like them to be? Because they’re at home cleaning up all the shit. They’re poor and lack choices because no one pays them for the work they do. The work they do isn’t paid because it’s still viewed as women’s work, only to make matters worse, hardly anyone even admits this today. We pretend to live in a post-women’s work world, in which heterosexual couples divvy up roles in a cultural vacuum (and if an individual woman gets a poor deal, well, that’s her lookout). The light-hearted way in which we treat mum doing everything around the home – granting her a bonus “Night Off” KFC bucket if she behaves – masks a more insidious process of re-normalising an aspect of inequality which used to be questioned far more directly.

I realise this is a lot to read into a poster showing an admittedly delicious-looking Christmas turkey. What we need is a domestic revolution and obviously it’s unlikely to happen in between finishing off the pudding and munching on some late-evening turkey sandwiches. Still, if I had one Christmas message for young feminists, it would be this: however you spend the holiday season, whether or not you celebrate Christmas, if at some point you’re planning on smashing the patriarchy, just don’t leave your mum to clean up after you.

16 thoughts on “Ignoring “women’s work”: Yet another Christmas tradition

  1. Brilliant, spot on. Domestic revolution, workplace revolution. Making the invisible visible. Never has my feminism been more challenged than since I “became” a wife and mother.

  2. Although I should point out that my long-suffering husband, who used to be a chef, is actually the invisible turkey-stuffer in our house. It’s more that I do everything else, and even he doesn’t really notice…. In our case, the turkey is not symbolic of the true division of labour, but draws attention to the imbalance I face 364 other days of the year. Not his fault, I hasten to add, just “how things have worked out” (for which read “crushing patriarchal ideology still operative despite contraception, education, and entry to the workplace for more women”).

  3. [I am shouting this in agreement with you!!]
    I also believe this to be a much bigger issue than anyone is willing to talk about. I was talking this very morning to another mum at school about this and I used my (only half a joke) suggestion that what we need are our own wives. We supposedly live in an equal society, having gone through many social changes but actually it was only ever the women’s roles that changed, in that we ended up ‘taking on’ male roles (paid work) without dumping half what was traditionally our own. Housekeeping, quite simply, is a full time job and it is essential and so often gets prioritised over concentrating on progression in any chosen career (and by ‘housekeeping’ I include childcare, etc also). I do not believe it is possible (or that it ever has been possible), to do both, without having ‘help at home’. Of course, for lots of successful men, this involves having an understanding and supportive mother/wife/partner whereas this is simply not the case for women, who quite often do not have this luxury.
    Incidentally, the mother I was speaking to loved the idea of having her own wife, whereas the other two that she passed it on to looked at me as if I was completely mad. I don’t think it’s something many women think about and really, I’m not at all surprised; we are just too tired and busy.

  4. I actually see domestic inequality as a direct extension of the fact that, globally, women still do the majority of agricultural work too. Most subsistence farmers are women. It’s all about reproductive labor: the work of actually maintaining the world from one day to the net, as opposed to generating profits & added value for capital.

    I’ve been meaning to write for a while about the insights I’ve had regarding cleaning when I was in Brazil. In the Favelas, keeping people and homes clean is an enormous challenge, and it falls exclusively to women. Experiencing it every day, you get an appreciation of how vital it is not just to some kind of middle class house-pride concept of cleanliness, but to the very maintenance of civilization.

    Cleaning, food cultivation and preparation, childcare and the maintenance of social bonds (“gossip”, in patriarchy-speak): these things aren’t just “important”. They’re foundational. Human existence is impossible without them. And they mostly get done by women, unpaid, unacknowledged, unrespected and unsung.

    There’s a Chinese saying that says women hold up half the sky; but I think we generally hold up much more than half. And for free, too. *And* get financially & socially penalized for not doing more/different “men’s” work. If *I* ever saw that fucking turkey, I might have just gone Mona Eltahawy on its ass.

  5. Thanks for this, it is something that is so frequent and yet not discussed. On an aside, in Ireland, 6 January, the Epiphany, is known as ‘Women’s Christmas’ or ‘Little Christmas’. In recognition of the fact that women slave away with all the cooking and cleaning on Christmas Day itself and over that whole period, on this last day of Christmas celebrations the men traditionally take over the household duties, while the women take the day off: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_Christmas. It’s not a tradition from my children (or adulthood) unfortunately, but is apparently quite strong in Cork and Kerry. Watch out for the #womenschristmas hashtag on Twitter on 6 January.

  6. I really, really love this post. I think the small things sometimes show so much more than a lot of the big things do. I am tired of the number of times I’m told I’m “dramatic”, “hysterical” or “emotional” when I simply strong disagree with someone (politely).

  7. This isn’t trivial at all. I think the patriarchy want us to think it is trivial to maintain us doing all the work. Marriages do and probably should more often, break up over this.

    In addition there is also link between the unpaid slavery, I mean wifework and domestic abuse (which also rises round Christmas). For a start it is on the same spectrum of disrespect and misogyny. But the additional pressures of Xmas can make it impossible for some women. The stress can can make it very difficult to also ‘manage’ the abuse they receive in the same way as they usually do to minimise it as much as they can. And of course the expectations of the abusive man will also rise over this period and make it impossible for the women and children to match his exacting standards. Add to the mix alcohol and it is a dangerous time for abused women.

  8. I was a fairly isolated kid at secondary school, and it’s one of my Christmas memories repeated over several years: that we’d have the Christmas lunch, my parents would head for a well-deserved nap, my brother and sister would be heading out to friends for the afternoon “so you’ll do the washing-up, won’t you?”

    One year after I left home I spent Christmas in San Francisco, staying in a cheap hotel, and on Christmas Day I left at first light and walked through Golden Gate Park. Got no presents, no one wished me a happy Christmas, didn’t have any festive food. (Did stop off half-way through for lunch, and felt guilty about the depressed-looking waitstaff.)

    Best Christmas Day I ever had.

  9. Absolutely spot on, brilliant, but to make matters worse things haven’t changed since my Grandmothers day, and I’m 65!! I’m now free of all that domestic servitude but only just and it was a battle hard won through a nasty divorce More upsetting though is that feminists are still talking and campaigning about the same stuff I was in the 70s,and absolutely zilch is changing regarding Womens position Wasn’t it Simone De Beauvoir who pronounced “It was as Mother that woman was fearsome, it is in maternity that she must be transfigured and enslaved” How many more years are we to jog on before any real change occurs? Enjoy your Christmas dinner girls especially at the wonderful moment when the turkey is in the oven

  10. Brilliant absolutely spot on but more upsetting is the fact that Womans place hasn’t changed one iota since my Grandmothers day I am 65 now and am free from all that domestic servitude but it was a battle hard won through a very nasty divorce 9 years ago More upsetting though is that feminists are still talking and protesting and campaigning about the same issues I was in the 70s I was Lucky enough to speak with Germaine Greer in September about this very issue who agreed with me whole heartedly in that change has yet to come Wasn’t it Simone De Beauvior who posited that “It was as Mother that woman was fearsome; it is in maternity that she must be transfigured and enslaved” Enjoy your Christmas turkey girls especially at that “wonderful moment you can tell that the turkeys already in the oven” as you jog on by!!

  11. It’s not the individual task that’s such a pain and it’s not that that one task is ignored. It’s the sum of them, the repetitiveness and that most of it happens ‘behind the scenes’ invisible. I actually started a tick list for tasks done at some point because my husband got so angry about being asked to do more housework when he was doing ‘so much’ already. It turned out to be a quarter! And it’s not just the actual work, it’s the endless emotional support that he demand. Since I’ve stopped to hand it out but wait to be asked for it our relationship has taken a real nosedive.

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