‘Women’s Work’ Is Never Considered Work: The Letter-Writing Edition

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It’s no shock to readers here that the collecting of laundry, the preparation of meals, the sweeping of kitchen –essentials that make a household — are hardly considered “work” by conventional standards. Chores, cooking, childrearing which is more often assigned to women is rarely deemed laborious or taxing in the way that a “real” job is. This sweeping antagonism towards women and men who know what a full-time stay-at-home role truly means was recently highlighted in an article in The Wall Street Journal. The writer Katherine Rossman laments her husband’s snide remarks regarding her dedication to writing thank-you notes. She claims to write 125 a year, a “conservative estimate,” she says that does not include holidays cards. When her husband says that the handwritten notes only serve her benefit, she reminds him that she is representing the family. He maintains that that his work — paying bills, getting the house repainted — is the true work of the family.

Katherine writes:

I’m sure what he said is technically true — people receive a handwritten note from the family and they assume I wrote it. But I act as a representative of the family. The idea that I try to thoughtfully connect with community and family as an act of personal aggrandizement infuriates me.

She offers to switch roles, which her husband declines on the basis that none of her duties interest him — because they are wifely tasks. Then, she had this to observe:

Like it or not, things seen as “women’s work” are often rendered of less value in our culture. I’ve wondered if that accounts for at least part of what Joe is channeling when he says the burden of my correspondence isn’t equal to that of his administrative duties.

Very true, as evidenced by history’s dismissal of all kinds of wifely duties as not real work, and therefore not evoking any real skill or art. At the Brooklyn Museum, the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center For Feminist Art has this to observe:

Throughout the history of art, decoration and domestic handicrafts have been regarded as women’s work, and as such, not considered “high” or fine art. Quilting, embroidery, needlework, china painting, and sewing—none of these have been deemed worthy artistic equivalents to the grand mediums of painting and sculpture. The age-old aesthetic hierarchy that privileges certain forms of art over others based on gender associations has historically devalued “women’s work” specifically because it was associated with the domestic and the “feminine.”

What connotes “art” by cultural standards is often what sets the bar for “work” as well. Domestic work, simply by being associated with the home, is often seen the same way because of the connotations of “domestic.” Maintaining the art of letter-writing in an age in which getting a personal email is considered gracious should be recognized as such. Katherine may not be getting the house painted but her dedication to writing 125 thoughtful letters cannot be seen as merely loafing around the living room.