HOUSEWIFERY is the efficient running of a house, and embraces problems of widely different natures. It includes the problem of running the house economically, seeing that the money available is spent to the best purpose. It includes keeping the house clean, for cleanliness and hygiene are the basis of healthy living. It includes a knowledge of the choice of foods, and how to cook them, for if not properly fed, the members of the household cannot be expected to exert their full effort. It includes, too, a knowledge of LAUNDERING, without which the household and its members will look shabby and make a poor impression on the outside world. The good housewife must also have a knowledge of sewing, so as to keep the family linen in good repair. A knowledge of FIRST AID, too, is useful to enable her to meet emergencies, and she should keep a small medicine cupboard, suitably stocked, for this purpose. And if one is fortunate enough to be able to afford all sorts of machines and gadgets, it includes the knowledge of how to use them properly, so that they are not always going wrong. See also CROCHET, DARNING, EMBROIDERY, STITCHES, KNITTING, CAKE-MAKING, DIET, FISH, JAM-MAKING, KITCHEN MEASURES, MEAT, PASTRY-MAKING, PICKLING, VEGETABLES.

It was published in 1950, and I had a copy on my shelves throughout the Fifties. I don’t remember ever consulting it for information, but browsed through much of it in idle moments. What kind of child (apart from a bookworm like me) would find out about the world through its pages? The best use I got from it was to discover Vincent van Gogh through two of its articles: PRINTING and OIL-PAINTING, as mentioned in my post “Tooting Broadway Dude“.

The Swinging Sixties were a happening thing when my wife and I moved to Nottingham. Our two children were born there; we lived more or less in the manner of Judy’s lower middle-class background. My own background consisted of incoherent episodes hither and thither with scant parental warmth. In our new family, housewifery was alive, but not exactly well. Something was definitely amiss.

And so it was that she queued up to buy a copy of The Female Eunuch on the day it was published in October 1970. I glanced at it to see what the fuss was about. Radical feminism had no appeal for me, but certainly made things happen in the world. Some of the implications were revolutionary for us too. See recent post “Buck Fuller“.

My own favourite reading included a column in the conservative Daily Telegraph: “Way of the World”, by Peter Simple. He was a reactionary absurdist who gently mocked anything modern, including its distaste for the lives of past generations, as in this clip:

Dec. 23: Storms. Spat on elderly Jew in a.m. Evicted Crippled Simon and Deaf Peter, also re-evicted Blind Benjamin who was lodging with Deaf Peter. Dec. 24: Snow. Shot unusual crippled poacher in a.m. Evicted Halfwitted William. While chasing a fleeing tenant I fell into a snowdrift and to restore myself pulled forth a flask of brandy …

And so he imagined the effect of Germaine Greer’s bombshell on the housewife depicted in my Encyclopaedia, as it might be discussed on the Agony Aunt page of a women’s magazine:

Dear Clare Howitzer—I live on a very “with-it” council estate where all the other wives seem to have husbands who make love to them all the time. Most of them, I gather, rush back from work in the lunch-time for this purpose. My own husband Jim seems to be the “odd man out.” Now the other wives are beginning to laugh at me. When I told Jim, he stayed at work all night at the factory, then got sacked for an unauthorised shift. Is there something wrong with us? (Mrs L. Tropes, Nerdley).

Clare Howitzer replies: This is a problem which is facing more and more husbands and wives who find they cannot cope with the Sexual Revolution in this permissive day and age, when it is becoming more and more difficult to reconcile the claims of booming productivity, full employment and the “leisure explosion” with meaningful relationships in the context of traditional marriage. If all else fails, and your husband cannot understand your difficulties, I suggest you join your local group of Women’s Liberation urban guerillas on a part-time basis.

Needless to say, the battle of the sexes never ends. I feel no need to comment on its current manifestations. My politics have changed, but I still feel more at home in past centuries than anything in Facebook or Twitter. (Have accounts in both but don’t know how to use them.)

How could one be a feminist in the Middle Ages? Patriarchy ruled everywhere, especially in the Catholic Church, where it survives to this day. A woman was merely a chattel—”used (chiefly rhetorically, by emancipation writers and others) of slaves or bondmen“; unless she was a chatelaine—”a female castellan; the mistress of a castle or country house. Also the mistress of a household“. (Definitions from the OED)

excerpt is from page xx of the Introduction

At this point, it’s time to make a confession. I’ve little interest in the history of feminism—past, present or any projected future. This is a ramble to a place I wanted to show you, in hopes you might be pleased with the destination as much as the journey.

Religious mysticism has its own history too. There’s a point where it intersects with the possibilities of women’s freedom.

The Beguine movement corresponds to a new age of Christianity, the age of rights wrenched from the feudal system: freedom of trade, communal franchises and, as a consequence, a certain personal religious independence. This was especially the case in the Rhine Valley where the densely populated towns and trade expansion favored the spread of ideas which in those days were, first and foremost, religious ideas. We see another facet of this freedom when we consider the case of many women of noble or bourgeois origin, desirous of dedicating themselves to God. As they were unable to join religious orders, for lack of sufficient dowry or of noble origin, and also on account of the growing refusal of the religious orders to open new convents to satisfy the ever-increasing number of vocations, these women were obliged to adopt a semi-religious life. In other words, they devoted themselves to a life of asceticism, prayer, and work, but without pronouncing perpetual vows. And so the creation of the Beguinages helped to solve the serious problem of the fate of unmarried women (Frauenfrage) who, in aristocratic milieux could not take up an occupation, as could those of the lower classes. These few indications illustrate the fact that the movement of the women of the Middle Ages—as other movements of that period—is to be explained by factors that are indissociably religious, social, and economic.

These women went their own way, sometimes living in shared accommodation, sometimes going alone. Some of them wrote exquisite poems and visions, in the vernacular tongue, defying the Church’s insistence on Latin for all religious purposes. As to how they lived their day-to-day lives, I know very little. I guess scholars do their best to piece it together.

I hope to give a glimpse of their writings in another post. What’s clear is that women found a path to spiritual ecstasy beyond the world of men, whether taken as a collective noun for human beings or specifically males. Here’s the title of a manuscript by Margarite Porete:

The Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls who only Dwell in the Will and Desire of Love

In 1310 she was burned at the stake as a relapsed heretic. Teresa of Avila, three centuries later, was made into a saint. In her autobiography, she describes an angel visitation:

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.

A century later, Bernini was commissioned to design a family chapel, complete with an altarpiece inspired by Teresa’s vision:

In mysticism one can trace an urge to surrender oneself (body and soul) to a powerful force. In women this is an instinct, to the chagrin of certain feminist ideals. I don’t know what Germaine Greer said in her famous book, but it’s apparent that female mystics took the strenuous path, finding ecstatic union, body and soul, without succumbing to the need for a man in their life.

How does this tie up with “housewifery”? I’m not sure. Comments welcome.

5 thoughts on “Housewifery”

  1. Replying to my own question, I seem to have got confused somewhere, conflating “housewifery” with marriage vows, especially “to have and to hold”. The OED doesn’t support this at all.
    This is not an apology!


  2. My mother, long ago, had a a red zippered wallet with elastic hoops for needles, cotton reels, wool strands, thimble, seam ripper, scissors, and pockets for buttons and poppers and other assorted items to repair anything anywhere. She called it a ‘housewife’. Pronounced ‘huzzif’. She had no cooking skills at all when she married, and learned from my father, whose mother had died when he was nine and whose older sisters made sure he did his full part in the house.


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