The time for spring vacations is here, which means a series of different things in my online and offline circles: the flying home for Passover, the grading of the papers, the Holy Week rota, the visiting of the garden centres, the consulting of the Ronald Hutton books on seasonal customs and their significance since the medieval era, it’s all a big lot of stuff. Much of it involving travel or families, so perhaps that’s why a forum thread on Mumsnet caught my eye this morning.
In this thread, a poster told a story which ended up with her asking whether other women do the packing for their husbands/partners and children when they go away. I must admit I was very surprised by the replies, especially on Mumsnet, which – though not a hivemind – tends to have a fairly robust line on the politics of household life. (Disclaimer: this is not a criticism of Mumsnet, which I think it a splendid site in many ways.) Along with the slew of comments saying that it’s no-one’s business how the original poster arranges their life, there was a repeated and various refrain that “I do it because… it’d never get done otherwise/ he’d have no idea how/ we’d end up with the wrong clothes for the season/ it’s just quicker if I do/ he’d put all his favourite shabby t-shirts in/ he doesn’t care about clothes”.
This struck me as an almost textbook demonstration of how the roles assigned to men and women in our society are more about power and prestige than they are about either fairness or even gender essentialism. I’m making assumptions here, but presumably a man who “doesn’t care about clothes”, or would just pack his t-shirts with hole in, can manage to wear the right clothes to work. Whether that’s a suit, a uniform or something more casual, if he doesn’t have some awareness of what garments are acceptable where, he’d be in danger of losing the ability to pay the rent. His social life would also suffer, if he didn’t know what clothes would be reasonable to wear to the pub, or to a sports game. Only when the clothes are part of a household chore does this apparent ignorance appear to have an impact on his life.
The same could be said of the suggestion that “it’s quicker if I do it” or “he’d have no idea how”. Maybe some straight men went straight from living at home to living with a wife, but they must be a relatively small number. Surely the majority of men lived outside their parents’ house for some time before marrying, if only because that would make it easier to form the relationship which might end up in a joint household. Men in this situation have presumably had to move clothes from one place to another before, whether that’s sport kits, visiting friends, going home for family events, etc. They can’t literally not have had to deal with this before. See also: cleaning, cooking, and other life admin. They might not have enjoyed these activities, or found them fulfilling, but they managed to feed and clothe themselves, and travel between planned locations. It’s only when there is someone in the household whose perceived role involves these boring matters that they become practically undoable.
I’m not saying I’m personally perfect in these areas, or indeed that there might not be good reasons why women might choose to pack for their families. But the reasons provided on that thread highlighted two points, long familiar from women’s writing on gender and feminism. Firstly, the personal is political. The organisation of work, responsibility and emotional effort in any situation is enmeshed with questions of power and social hierarchy. This ranges from who takes care of the new people at work (whilst others are negotiating with other firms in that time), to who texts round to make sure everyone’s OK after that argument in the pub last night.
Secondly, those politics are obscured by stereotypes of what people are “good at”. Stereotypes which often shift bafflingly given the situation. Women are just better at dealing with feelings. Or more practical. Or more creative. Or more caring. Or more prudent. Or more extravagant. Whatever set of traits will land them in the role where their role is less rewarded and less likely to lead to either direct power or general prestige. This is what produces a situation where a man can apparently plan for the next financial quarter, but not plan for whether he’ll need a jacket for a holiday in Wales. Deborah Cameron and Cordelia Fine have pointed this out at length: how women’s organisational traits make them ideal for filing, but not for computer coding, for example. Or how men’s lack of natural empathy and understanding of others’ feelings rules them out of nursing, but not out of international diplomacy.
Gender stereotyping is extremely damaging, and leads to people feeling they’ve been “labelled” or “put in a box” which doesn’t allow them to express their personality or fulfil themselves as a person. This example pointed up how those stereotypes are both artificial, and deeply inconsistent. Even when it comes to who puts clothes in a suitcase (or perhaps especially then), gender roles distribute work and reward in ways which disadvantage women, whilst explaining this via their “natural” traits.