The Fem Spot

You can do the laundry

Posted in Feminist Theory, Marriage, Personal Essays by femspotter on August 7, 2008

August 7, 2008

My husband and I spent last weekend in historic, beach side Cape May, New Jersey. It’s the kind of place where front doors stand wide open and boutique storefronts are still a la mode. As I’m not really a swim-in the-ocean-kind-of-girl (owing to an irrational fear of sharks) I opted for on land adventures.

We set out from our bed and breakfast on Saturday morning a bit dazed from a night spent in a foreign bed, though nonetheless ready for shopping, eating and building sandcastles. But seeing that it was drizzling, we decided to visit Cold Spring Village instead, a mere three-mile jaunt away. There among the transplanted and restored buildings of old, educators dress up and perform “interpretations” of life in the 17-1800’s.

It’s funny how this is obviously a place targeted at kids: a genuine learning experience with arts and crafts and train rides to boot. And yet I watched scads of parents move their kids through the two and three hundred-year-old buildings, wondering why so few of them stopped to ask questions. The operators had cleverly fashioned a scavenger hunt out of historic objects belonging to each location. In and out went the families without stopping to absorb. “Here’s the hatchet, Mom,” a young girl said just before she was whisked away.

J*** and I don’t have children. We asked a lot of questions for our own benefit. We decided that if we’d lived back in the day, we’d have run a printing press. (There were women printers, we learned.) We would have dug up the local dirt, laid out the rubber tiles and generated early versions of US Weekly. (Not really!) I’m a journalist today. He’s a Web designer. We’d have been perfect for the job! This was the happiest part of the visit.

We also found out that very few farmers owned books in the 1700’s and early 1800’s (sad). The books they did own would have been purchased from a publisher and then taken to a book binder to be compacted into book form. It was a very expensive process. And so few farmers and their wives had time to read, even if they were able. It was a long, backbreaking day to be sure.

We visited the local one-room schoolhouse (mixed), the inn/tavern (sad because women were prohibited from entering the tavern and partaking in the spirits: warm beer, hard cider, wine, etc.) and the bakery (very happy indeed). Finally, we took a seat at the kitchen table in the Spicer Leaming House, circa 1700. It was under those low ceilings and above the wide plank floorboards where we learned the real secrets of the day.

Maybe I’d already learned them long ago; perhaps on a field trip to Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, before I was shuffled out of the room by an impatient teacher or parent. Maybe I had only forgotten them. But I’ll never forget this secret history of women’s work now.

And I’ll never again take for granted my washing machine. Needless to say, if I’d been born in 1800 on a farm in Cape May, I wouldn’t have had one. And I would not have had servants to wash my three sets of clothing either. I would have washed them myself – along with those of my husband and my six to eight children – twice a month in warm weather, once a month during the rest of the year.

I would have bent down to slip a yoke over my shoulders and I would have filled buckets on either side of me with water from a well: one gallon in each bucket at eight pounds a piece. And then I would have hauled an estimated 400 gallons of water (per wash) over to the fire for boiling and then back to the spot on the yard designated for laundry and into a large basin.

Put this in perspective: a modern-day bathtub holds about 50 gallons of liquid…so think about lugging and heating and lugging and dumping eight or so bathtubs of water.

Oh…and I was pregnant during this chore…because a woman had to be in a constant state of pregnancy. Parents didn’t name their children until they were about 10 months old, after which time they were expected to have outlived the risks of infant illnesses and death. I probably gave birth to 10 or so children during my 40-year stay on this planet (yup! that was the average lifespan for women) because of the 10, only 60 to 80 percent would survive infancy.

I probably reserved all of the love in my heart for the survivors, before I robbed them of their childhoods. I needed them, you see? I needed my two-year-old to churn butter, my four-year-old to chop wood and my six-year-old to darn socks. I needed their help for raw survival until it was time for them to marry at about age 15 and start the cycle of survival all over again. If it weren’t the baked goods, there really wouldn’t have been any reason to live at all.

So there I was, age 30, and celebrating the marriage of my eldest child and then nine months later the birth of my first grandchild. And by the time I was 40, I’d probably died from one of two main causes: childbirth (only #2) or first degree burns. I didn’t have a stove, just an open flame in the hearth of our one-room home or the make-shift fire pit in our yard. But I wore heavy wool frocks, and sometimes…sometimes I would catch fire leaning over the flame to cook a meal. And a burn has the potential to become infected. Infection owing to burns was the most prevalent cause of death for women in rural America in the early 1800’s.

Who knew?

The interpreter at the Spicer Leaming House seemed pleased with our intense scrutiny of her presentation. But I found myself feeling far from pleased. Not only did I feel guilty for undervaluing the convenience of my washing machine, but I thought about an earlier version of me who lived back then without convenience, without antiperspirant, without medical remedies and without a glass of wine or two to numb the pain of existence. I thought about making love with my husband in a way that is enjoyable for both of us and felt sorry for a woman back then, lying on her back while some sweaty, stinky man writhed on top of her. I thought of my opportunities to read newspapers and books, wear non-constrictive clothing and flush waste away in toilets (latrines suck). I knew how I would miss sipping an ice-cold martini, speaking my mind and following my heart.

And then I thought of every time I’d heard someone imply that historically women have had a free ride. “Men did all the heavy lifting,” some say. “Women just did the laundry.”

Well, I’d like to see anybody today agree to lifting and carrying 3,200 pounds of water just for clean clothes.

On the way home, my husband joked about not finding a fitness club in the village. I told him that he was welcome to do the laundry.

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