The Politics of Housework, Revisited

politics of housework. Jon cheerfully prepares salmon for a birthday dinner for his wife. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Jon does all the cooking at our house. This was a special salmon dinner for my birthday. Photo by Barbara Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall, The Oakland Tribune, August 16, 1987


One can be too preoccupied with clean.

Or so I thought until a few weeks ago when I learned that I was allergic to the dustballs I had so blithely allowed to collect behind the bookcase and under the washing machine.

A man prepares salmon fillets for baking. The politics of housework. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Photo by Barbara Newhall

A clean, absolutely dust-free house held little cachet for us denizens of the hip ’60s. Clean suggested clean-cut, up-tight, polyester, color-coordinated, unnatural, lifeless.

Then, as the ’60s became the ’70s, feminists dealt a further blow to clean. They exposed the politics of housework for what it was — and excused womankind forever from the bondage of clean.

Clean was something women, not men, obsessed on, we told ourselves.

Getting the household chores done, we reasoned, was a little like negotiating the price of car. Whoever cares the most, gives in the most.

A woman is offended by the globs of grease on the wall behind the stove. Her man is watching the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. He does not see the grease.

She wipes up the grease.

Men Don’t Care About Housework — And Neither Should We

Men, we found, didn’t care about clean. If they did, they would know where the Ty-D-bol is kept.

They would know the difference between Joy and Cheer. They would vacuum the draperies during halftime.

And that was how we females got stuck with all the housework. We cared. We didn’t know why, but we cared.

Furthermore, and here is where our reasoning got a little shaky, if men did not consider clean an

Men and housework and childcare. A man carries his affectionate toddler girl. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Jon was happy to do his share of the childcare when the kids were little. Photo by Barbara Newhall

important world issue — it was ipso facto not an important issue.

The secret to winning the housekeeping war, therefore, was not to care.

Go ahead, we told ourselves, be free. Liberate yourselves from the oppression of dust.

Let it collect behind the stereo and on top of the refrigerator. Let it scoot across the bedroom floor and settle in the flokati rug.

The politics of houswork. A man does the traditionally male job of trimming the bottom off a Christmas tree. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Jon still does a lot of the guy tasks around the house, like the sticky job of cutting down the trunk of our Christmas tree . . .

Clean doesn’t matter. We have bigger things to think about — developing our relationships, our careers, our abdominals and pectorals.

More Quality Time, Less Drone Time

What we need is less drone time behind the mop and more quality time with children, husbands, mentors and ourselves.

And now that we have everything we said we wanted back in the ’60s — job, family, house — there is scarcely time in our busy lives to keep the refrigerator stocked, let alone defrosted.

Now, good housekeeping is a matter of carefully ordered priorities.

The cleanliness of little Jessica’s diaper area matters.

The cat fur accumulating on the sofa does not.

Getting rid of Caleb’s head lice so that he can go back to child care tomorrow matters.

The raisins smashed under the carseat cushions do not.

Clean is a concept for the mothers-in-law and maiden aunts of yesteryear. They wiped a finger across the fireplace mantle, found dust and wrinkled their noses.

The modern, liberated woman does not turn up her nose at another woman’s less-than-perfect housekeeping.

She rejoices that she is not the only woman in the carpool who has systematically lowered her housekeeping standards.

For her, cleanliness is no longer next to godliness. It is not even right up there next to good sex and fresh artichokes.

Like handknit socks, cleanliness is expendable.

Enter Dermatophagoides Farinae

Or at least I thought it was expendable until a few weeks ago, when I first made the acquaintance of one Dermatophagoides farinae.

Things have changed since I found out about Dermatophagoides farinae.

Those dustballs, I learned, the ones I had so carefully allowed to collect under my marital bed as

The politics of housework. A man pushes a cart stacked high with luggage at an airport. Photo by Barbara Newhall

. . . and doing most of the heavy lifting and pushing. Photos by Barbara Newhall

a symbol of my liberation from clean — those dustballs are alive.

And they are killing me.

Revising the Politics of Housework

After nearly a year of putting up with headaches and chronic sinusitis, I made an appointment last month for allergy testing.

“That one is dust mites,” the allergist said, pointing to the puffy spot on my arm.

“Dust mites?”

“Yes, Dermatophagoides farinae. They are microscopic critters that live in household dust. Every house has them. Some people are senstive to their droppings. and it looks like you’re one of them.”

“They live in dust?”

“Yes. Try cleaning your house, especially the bedroom. It should help.”

I declared war on the dust mite. I cleaned the house. I cleaned under the bed.

The dust flew. My eyes itched. My sinuses throbbed. My head and chest ached.

My nose wrinkled and turned up.

I cared.

© 1987 The Oakland Tribune. Reprinted by permission.

The politics of housework. A baked salmon dinnerdish produced by a liberated husband.  Photo by Barbara Newhall

Jon cooks. I wash the dishes. Photo by Barbara Newhall

I’m pretty sure that, as I was writing this column for the Oakland Tribune back in 1987, I was also wishing I could get my hands on a copy of “The Politics of Housework” by Pat Mainardi of Redstockings.

It was a seminal piece of Women’s Liberation Movement writing that I came across around 1970 in my early feminist days in San Francisco. Mainardi’s tract caused the scales to fall from my eyes where housework was concerned. 

In 1987, when I wrote this column for the Trib, newspaper deadlines were tight; there was no time for a trip to the public library to hunt down a copy of “The Politics of Housework” — if the library even had a copy of this handout. Today, thanks to the Internet, I can link you to the original document. It had a profound effect on me. Enjoy!

More stories about Jon at “Confessions of a So-So Wife” and “Rejected Again — Telephoning Those Teenaged Babysitters.”



  1. Hi Barbara, I have just discovered your blog via Good Reads and have really enjoyed this article. I like your gentle style of humour and your insights!

  2. My secret vice: collecting vintage/antique/outdated but amazing Housekeeping and Homemaking manuals! AND following their advice from time to time. I especially love the ones with schedules on when to do what. A nice map to follow, adapting things for modern times, and–what’s more– they work! (Laundry on Monday, scrub hearth on Tuesday, beat rugs on Wednesday…)

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