The farmer wants a wife, the wife wants a wife

How many times have you heard a man say: “I’ve got a great wife. She puts her dirty clothes in the washing basket and even empties the bins without being asked”? Most likely never: the very idea is laughable.

Out with a friend a couple of weeks ago, I noticed it was about to start raining. I rang my husband, who I knew would be going out in the next five minutes, to ask him to bring the washing in from the line. I didn’t ring because I am the manager and he the assistant, but because it’s often hard to tell, from inside our flat, what the weather is like. But I needn’t have bothered: he had already brought the clothes in. When my friend heard this, she said: “What a good husband you have!”

man ironingI bristle when people – women – tell me I’m lucky to have a partner that does half the work around the house. Why aren’t they telling the male partners of my friends how lucky they are to have a wife or girlfriend that does far more than half the work?

Beneath my friend’s seeming envy that day lay a profound skepticism. She didn’t genuinely believe I was lucky. Sure, she’d like to not have to do quite so much of the housework herself, but a male partner doing it – unless following strict and very detailed instructions – is completely out of the question. A man in the 21st century who knows where the vacuum cleaner bags are, or understands how to programme the washing machine is still an object of deep suspicion. It’s not natural, and it’s certainly not manly.

Many girls grew up seeing their mothers as slaves to housework, often on top of a full-time job, while their fathers got to do things like play football with their work team or go to the pub without even having to think about who would look after the children. Many of them swore they would never turn out like that; that they would have more self-respect. So why do these girls grow up and pair off with men who are usually only a little less knuckle-dragging than their fathers, but are still pretty much a joke when it comes to sharing housework?

Men’s domesticity often starts and ends with the perfect Thai curry

What society considers feminine – efforts to improve appearance, interest in trivia or gossip, doing crafts – although still branded as inferior, have become partially acceptable to both sexes, along with some elements of what society considers masculine – a career, adventure sports, having a life beyond children. Partially is the key word here – the descriptive term ‘metrosexual’ indicates the level of some people’s distrust of men who swerve recklessly close to femininity.

But domestic chores, almost everyone agrees, are different. Housework is thankless, demeaning and dull. If women don’t want to dress like strippers in the name of embracing their female power, or don’t want to spend hours shopping for the perfect nail varnish, they don’t have to. The problem with not wanting to do the housework, however, is that it doesn’t make it go away. And for some reason, men aren’t chomping at the bit to take on their share.

In recent years, it’s become quite common for men in a man-woman partnership to be good at cooking and perhaps do more of it than the woman. Many women, on the other hand, seem more reluctant to cook. Is this because it’s the most obvious symbol of domestication – even though it is one of the most interesting? And men’s domesticity often starts and ends with the perfect Thai curry: good as they might be at making meals, many men often aren’t quite so good at the related activities. The washing up afterwards, wiping down the table, putting the ingredients away, or even buying the ingredients in the first place – these are the parts they leave for someone else. In short, men are like children. A responsible adult takes charge of all the set-up and clear-up, and the men get praised for their skills and abilities.

This housework stuff is all symptomatic of a larger problem. While the position and attitudes of women have changed dramatically over the last few decades, with women taking on some of the positive and negative aspects of masculinity in an attempt to prove equality, men have stayed resolutely stuck in a behavioural dead end.

As Madeline Bunting pointed out in a recent article in The Guardian, despite all the apparent progress in equal opportunities, society has never thought about redefining men’s roles. Women are allowed, in theory, to be equal with men, but only if they become more like men. Nobody ever suggests that men should change to become more like women – and why would they, when feminine = inferior?

All this points to one thing: young women are conscious that doing housework, the last and darkest symbol of supposed femininity, is bad. And if it’s so bad for them, it naturally follows that it would be truly catastrophic for a man to show any feminine characteristics in this area. Men shouldn’t be able to pop out in their lunch hour and remember what they’ve run out of in the fridge and what they might need to make dinner: we’ve decided that to tell ourselves that men don’t do housework because they can’t multitask and can’t plan ahead. We all know that most men are not going to object to this classification if it gets them out of the ironing, just as we all know that doing the housework as well as a job doesn’t really make women superior or cleverer, just tireder.

Often these kinds of household disputes seem to be solved by employing a paid wife for both the man and woman

But it’s a myth that persists, because without it we would have to admit that we’re being taken advantage of, or demeaned in some way. So this is why men doing the housework ultimately threatens women: if the women can’t be men themselves, then at least the men they choose should be symbols of good, honest masculinity.

The blame can’t be fixed entirely on men, which is something of a shame, but they are no more free from social pressures and conditioning than women are – even though they usually end up getting a better deal out of it. So we’ve absolved men from oppressing women now that women have proved quite capable of adding that role to their never-ending tasks – it’s like clean clothes in the drawer or a new pack of toilet roll in the cupboard: just one in a long list of things that seem to magically happen for men without their ever having to do anything about it. They would do their fair share of the housework, men claim, but by the time they think about it someone else has already done it.

Women, according to much popular wisdom, make a rod for their own back by starting off being nice, being the one to do all the dishes or make sure there’s always milk in the fridge. In this, they take over the mother’s role – and don’t realise that it is in fact invisible to, rather than appreciated by, those men who have always taken these things for granted. But that argument assumes that women should not only change themselves but also take on responsibility for changing men. The problem is that men have no real need to change.

So how can we make sure that women don’t get stuck with whatever men don’t want to do? What if both men and women profess themselves to be entirely satisfied with the current arrangements, and think that trying to change things is simply meddling with nature? After all, boys will be boys, and as a result girls will sigh and moan and nag and then settle into an unwanted but vaguely comfortable martyr’s position.

Often these kinds of household disputes seem to be solved by employing outside help – in effect, a paid wife for both the man and woman. But this only masks the problem rather than addressing it: employing someone – almost always a woman – at ridiculously low wages is just another way of expressing how inferior a woman’s ‘natural’ role really is when compared with the important male world of work and career.

When all women have is martyred pride in their ability to keep on top of both job and housework, it’s not surprising that they don’t want men to be good at that as well

Of course there are exceptions to these generalisations. There are male cleaners and male house-husbands and men whose wives don’t lift a finger round the house. The men who do object to the current inequalities, and who make sure that they pull their weight with housework and childcare, should be applauded, not derided. But they aren’t the norm, and the norm is the problem we’re concerned with.

Changing the law would be a start: legal practice often heralds conceptual change. We could give both men and women equal rights to parental leave, but how can we legislate against the typical women’s complaint – that on her days looking after the children she is expected to do all the housework and get dinner on the table, but when it’s the father’s turn everyone plays all day and waits for the mother to come home and do the cooking and cleaning? Or we could introduce something similar to the symbolic Spanish law adopted in 2005, which states that anyone marrying in a civil ceremony must pledge to share housework, childcare and looking after elderly relatives.

The real problem, of course, is that the status quo gives both sexes something. To men it gives freedom from responsibility, and to women it gives the chance to cast themselves as the martyr in funny stories about husbands who shrink favourite jumpers, or who can’t even boil an egg without setting fire to the kitchen. The appeal of the latter can only hold for as long as women need to justify why they end up doing everything themselves. We have to hope that more and more women will come to see their part of the deal as the con it truly is. But for the moment, when all women have is a sort of martyred pride in their ability to keep on top of job and housework, it’s not surprising that they don’t want men to be good at that as well.

Early feminism tried to liberate women from housework and domestic chores, but what Betty Friedan and co forgot to point out was that some things, whether or not they are boring or menial or dirty, whether cooking, cleaning, washing, tidying, mending or child-rearing, will always need to be done. Saying that they are not worthy of women’s time hasn’t yet changed who does them; it has just ensured that the general perception of anyone – man or women – who does housework is entirely negative.

JC Sutcliffe lives in England and Canada and is a writer and translator.