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In Which I Think About Labor on Labor Day

September 2, 2013

While I was in Washington, D.C. this summer completing a research fellowship, I came across the following description of a typical American woman’s day, from James Caleb Jackson’s American Womanhood: Its Peculiarities and Necessities (1870):

 “…She dresses herself and washes her hands and face and begins her daily duties.

First, to get the breakfast under way.

Second, to dress the children.

Third, to set the table with dishes.

Fourth, to put the food on the table.

Fifth, to blow the horn or ring the bell, and then set the chairs round the table.

Sixth, seat the children, wait for the blessing if the husband is pious, and then serve him and then serve them, and then herself.

Seventh, after breakfast get the children off to school.

Eighth, get the victuals in way of preparation for dinner.

Ninth, wash the dishes that were dirtied at breakfast.

Tenth, look after the baking, the washing, or the ironing.

Eleventh, get dinner, serve her husband, and then herself.

Twelfth, wash dishes.

Thirteenth, churn.

Fourteenth, see company.

Fifteenth, get hot short-cake, butter, fruit-sauce and tea for them, or, if she has no company, mend clothes, darn stockings, and get supper for the family.

Sixteenth, wash the dishes, get the children off to bed and sit down to knit.

So the days go. One after another they pass, each coming in loaded with burdens which she has to lift and carry: each going out whispering as it goes,—‘To-morrow and yet to-morrow shall be even as I have been.’

My readers will perceive that the work which the laboring woman has to do in the house and for the family, subjects her to it, not for one day nor for one week, but for her life; and in doing so, enslaves her by degrading her to imprisonment. There is not a power nor faculty which does not undergo depreciation and deterioration by being subjected to long-continued exercise under such narrow circumstances. Of the work done I make no complaint in the abstract; but against the manner of doing it I do protest, and charge that, in all essential particulars it is an involuntary servitude, whose wickedness consists in that it is imposed on the innocent in the name of love, and is not at all necessary to the maintenance of a well-ordered family.” (pp. 67-68) (The original can be found at Google Books here).

I had several reactions to this, as I sat there at my desk. First, I wanted to applaud Jackson for his open-minded recognition that American women did lose something in the narrow and confining realm of housework, childcare, and nothing else. (However, not so surprising given that Jackson was part of a burgeoning health reform movement during the mid-to-late nineteenth century, which incorporated water cure, suffrage, and dress reform.) And yet, with the exception of the butter churning, having defined hours for “receiving company,” and the fact that my husband cooks, this could be a description of my typical day, 143 years later.

So what does that mean, now that we just celebrated Labor Day? Did my family’s cookout really celebrate the grandeur and contributions of the American worker? Of course not.

And yet…

I tell myself this—that my work matters, that I am feeding my brain by continuing to pursue my studies and working to finish my dissertation even while I run a household, raise two kids with my husband, and help a family member with her health issues.

And yet there are days when I think that Jackson has a point. That “narrow circumstances” tend to narrow the mind, and, Jackson would argue, ruin one’s health. There are definitely days when I feel pretty narrow.

So why do I keep doing this? Is my love of history so great that it’s worth it, to keep slogging through every day just for the chance to sit down at my desk and write (usually at ungodly hours)?

Yes. And, no matter what, despite what Jackson portrays as domestic drudgery, I’ve found that a world with children, and the world of academia, is never the same from day to day—it isn’t “To-morrow and yet to-morrow shall be even as I have been.”

It’s not even “Tomorrow is another day,” really.

All we really have is the endless present, and so I make the most of it, even as I labor.


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