WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK FIVE – Part 4 – Just a Housewife)

I would say this part of book five is going to help me stretch my “feminist legs” but that sounds weird.

Therese Carter (Housewife)

Right off the bat I just want it to be clear that this article is going to be short. Mostly because this part of book five is only 7 pages long and there’s only two interviews as a result. That said, the interviews are great and I have plenty to say about them so hey, maybe it will all even out? Who knows? Won’t know till we get there! (Edit: Spoilers: It doesn’t)

Carter is a woman who underestimates her worth. Largely because of the patriarchal society we live/d in Carter constantly diminishes the work she does around the house. She compares herself to actresses and other people in the “higher” parts of society to make herself seem unimportant and mentions her enjoyment of housework as well.

She starts off the interview saying she’s “just a housewife”  but then goes on to describe a hefty schedule for herself:

First thing I do in the morning is come out in the kitchen and have a cigarette. Then I’ll put the coffee on and whatever else we’re going to have for breakfast…Then I’ll make one lunch for young Bob—when school’s on, I’ll pack more—and I get them off to work. I’ll usually throw a load of clothes in the washer while I’m waiting for the next batch to get up out of bed, and carry on from there … Later I’ll clean house and saw … I sew a lot of dresses for Cathy and myself. …I start my dinner real early…I’ll bake, cook…It’s not really a full day.

You think it is? You make me sound important. Keep talking. (Laughs.)

(p. 300)

Some of the things I took out of that passage involve elaborations or more specifics, but I think we can all readily agree that Mrs. Carter is doing a lot of work in a day. Sure, she let’s herself rest after dinner but that’s after almost a full day of tending to the needs to other and maybe for herself once in a while. All of this is very important work, for anyone to do.

Carter compares herself to women who go to work and do the job of a housework, saying that they deserve much more than housewife. And while it’s true women like that were/are MVPs of the household, she’s also an amazing person for putting people ahead of herself early and often and being content and not thinking much of it all the while.

That said, I think she could stand to read a bit more during her off time. She sounds like, in the interview, like she really wants to read. But because she thinks that it’s time for “work” she only lets herself have such pleasures when she’s done for the day. And part of me feel that makes sense but another questions how tightly one must self-police to be happy.

In any case:

Oh—I even painted the house last year. How much does a painter get paid for painting a house? (Laughs.) What? I’m a skilled craftsman myself? I never thought about that. Artist? No. (Laughs.) I suppose if you do bake a good cake, you can be called an artist. (p. 300)

Here, again, Carter downplays her skills. She says she has no “special skills” but yet knows how to paint adequately, sew proficiently, is a great reader, is terrifically modest (perhaps too much so) and knows how to bake well. These are all great and useful skills to have and they should be celebrated. Instead, women were (and still are) made to feel like when they do these things they are either not appreciated because they should happen or because it’s not a “real” job.

A housewife is a housewife, that’s all. Low on the totem pole. I can read the paper and find that out. Someone who is a model or a movie star, these are the great ones. I don’t necessarily think they are, but they’re the ones you hear about. (p. 301, emphasis mine)

One of the problems (as I’ve highlighted above) is that Carter seems to take what society says and take it as fact. But the things society is saying, suggesting and highlighting are based on opinions. Movie stars and the like are valued more because more people see and experience their work and because they make so much more money (especially because housewives are almost never paid to begin with!).

But none of that inherently makes these women any more important than Mrs. Carter. And sure, plenty of people could do her job and you could find a maid or another capable women who does well. But the point is that the tasks they are doing well are still crucial for the context they’re done in, AKA the household.

Lastly, I think Mrs. Carter makes a great point here:

I think Women’s Lib puts down a housewife. Even though they say if this is what a woman wants, it’s perfectly all right. I feel it’s said in such a snide way: “If this is all she can do and she’s contented, leave her alone.” It’s patronizing. (p. 302)

To my knowledge this attitude still exists within feminist circles. I myself struggle with the conception of women being happy (or anyone being happy) just doing housework. But I’ve had to let go of those things and just let people do what they’re happy doing, no matter their gender. My current partner loves cooking and buying the food but recently I told them it made me uncomfortable that I can’t at least help them clean. I want to do something to make their life easier.

It’s also a way to say, “Hey I appreciate you and what you do for us.” in a really simple way. I think gestures like that towards your partner (no matter their gender) is always worth at least discussing. There’s no need to be pushy about it, but I think it’s worth giving a shot and definitely not being patronizing about.

Jesusita Novarro

Novarro is the mother of five children and is one of the women that Mrs. Carter in the previous article talks about: As in she works at a job and she’s a housewife (these are both jobs, one just isn’t paid FYI). Apparently her husband started drinking, stopped working and bringing money home so she needed to get a job and help the family go on welfare.

Much of the interview is dedicated to Novarro reflecting on how little people with green cards (for welfare) are regarded in society and how it makes her feel. As opposed to Mrs. Carter, Novarro is a proud woman who feels like she earns the things she has and doesn’t like that society tells her that, thanks to welfare, her money just “falls into your lap”.

I start my day here at five o’clock. I get up and prepare all the children’s clothes. If there’s shoes to shine. I do it in the morning. About seven o’clock I bathe the children. I leave my baby with the baby sitter and I go to work at the settlement house. I work until twelve o’clock. …

When I get back, I try to make hot food for the kids to eat. In the afternoon it’s pretty well on my own. I scrub and clean and cook and do whatever I have to do. (p. 303)

It’s more or less Mrs. Carter’s day but waking up a bit earlier and doing a bit more work in the morning to the afternoon. And while society tries to make Novarro feel like she’s nothing, she stands up for herself and declares that the house is clean and that the clothes have all been washed, she works hard for the results she gets as a mother.

In a way, good for her! But in another way I think it’s sad we live in a society where people feel the need to prove themselves all of the time to other people. A lot of this is due to the way Americans tend to shame lower-class working folks in general and especially when they need some federal assistance to get by.

I go to food banks a few times a month, sometimes more. Without that assistance I wouldn’t be able to afford much (if anything) for myself and still have a comfortable amount left over for rent and utilities. I’m lucky enough to not need a car and to be able bodied but I’m still challenged in other ways and have a fairly low tolerance for my job.

Some men work eight hours a day. There are mothers that work eleven, twelve hours a day. We get up at night, a baby vomits, you have to be calling the doctor, you have to be changing the baby. When do you get a break really? You don’t. This is an all-around job, day and night. Why do they say it’s a charity?

We’re working for our money. I am working for this check. It is not a charity. We are giving some kind of home to these children. (p. 304)

Again, Novarro stresses the importance of reclaiming her identity as a working mother. It’s important for her to remind the interviewer and the readers at home that she works for the fruits of her labor. There’s a lot of shame with feeling like or being made to feel like you don’t do much but being a housewife alone is a ton of work.

And Novarro has tried to work a “real” job at a factory but remarks that it didn’t do much for her. She calls it “automatic” and says that in your brain you aren’t “growing” at all. She felt like she was being hurried and wasn’t allowed to put much of herself into it. But as Carter points out being a housewife you get to see the end results of her labor at the dinner table.

Novarro is also training to be a social worker and I found this little story cute:

I went to one women’s house and she’s Spanish speaking. I was talking to her in English and she wouldn’t unbend. I could see the fear in her eyes. So I started taking Spanish. Right away, she invited me for coffee and she was telling me the latest news… (p. 305)

Towards the end of the interview Novarro confesses she’s looking for something but she’s not sure what. She knows she wants to be a social worker, one that is not “indifferent” and I definitely think she had the special skills to do it.

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