Some things never change

Thirty years into feminism, and guess who's still doing the housework? Melissa Benn throws down her duster

In 1997 the Office for National Statistics made its first official study of housework. The results were astonishing, firstly because, at pounds 739bn, housework was found to be worth more than one and a half times paid work in the "real world" (which means there's an awful lot of dusting, vacuuming and polishing going on out there). But second, the report confirmed what women already knew: that the ladies were doing twice as much of this stuff as the gents - 295 minutes a day compared with men's 155.

So more than 35 years after Betty Friedan lambasted the Feminine Mystique behind the creation of a perfect home and marriage, and 20-something years after British feminists cogently argued that washing-up was, after all, a political issue, we don't seem to have moved too far from the kitchen. The bad news is, we'd better get used to it.

As a feisty teenager growing up in the late Seventies I disdained all forms of domestic work. Why, I protested, should my mother be the one to shop, cook, put out new bed linen? One summer holiday, I ran a poster campaign - complete with crude drawings of female stick figures wielding vacuum cleaners and dusters - complaining at the unfairness of it all. My father mounted a counter leaflet campaign which, as I remember, questioned why I, the only girl among four children, did so little housework myself.

The answer, I then believed, was a "back to basics" on daily living. I went through a short phase of wishing I could have a dozen identical trouser suits, Mao-style, which would eliminate the need to mix, match and fuss about clothes in general. I was intrigued by the lives of French intellectuals such as Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre who holed up in hotel rooms rather than setting up cosy bourgeois homes. I certainly had no intention of devoting my life to "servicing" a husband and children.

From the wistful vantage point of 20 years, I feel both sympathy and a touch of irritation for that choleric teenager. Sympathy, because I think she was right to see that women's responsibility for running the home was, and is, less to do with love than convention. Irritation, because I have since learnt how much I appreciate domestic comfort: the creamy warmth of a light in the corner of a room, a bed with crisp new cotton sheets. These are the sensual pleasures of life that, in a tough world, need indulging rather than eliminating.(However, I, along with half the fashion industry, have no problem still understanding the appeal of the plain suit.)

But I have not given up on the "equality thing", on my belief that there is no God-given reason why women should shop, cook, clean and plump pillows for perfectly healthy male adults. I still believe that finding equitable ways to share the running of a home guarantees the most personal and social satisfaction. It is our failure, so far, to establish a society-wide solution to the problems of the home that keeps women in low-paid, badly rewarded jobs and prevents them from playing a greater part in the formal economy and public life.

Children change everything, of course. Not only does their arrival quadruple the tasks that need to be done but - and this is less talked about - they cramp the natural pace of a life lived solo. I still feel myself deprived of that once-a-week chance to stay up till 2.30 in the morning just because I feel like it. If I did it now, the 6.45am wake-up call from my two-year-old, the beginning of a 13-hour day, would feel like pure torture. The other day, I came across a scribbled note in my pre-children diary of the early Nineties. It noted the simple fact that in one spring week I had eaten take-aways on five days out of seven. (Monday: Chinese, Tuesday: pizza - the anal obsessive recorded). How I ached for my pre-baby lack of routine! No tediously unvarying weekly shopping list or rotating menus, just the sheer pleasure of a randomly disordered existence, and the luxury of leaving a pile of boxes on a tray until I felt like chucking them away.

I was slow to accept the inevitable cage that is domestic life, despite, or perhaps because, the fact that I live with a man who does more than his share. It is only now, with a four-year-old in reception class and a two-and- a-half-year-old heading for nursery, that the nightmare realisation is dawning - we are all back at school. Every weekday morning for the next dozen years I know pretty much what I will be doing. Packing lunchboxes, stirring porridge, scrubbing pans and picking out clothes for girls 10 times fussier about their appearance than I ever was.

The fact that my partner is, at the same time, loading the washing machine, taking out the rubbish and doing the wash- face, brush-teeth, brush-hair routine makes neither of us feel better. It's a bit like being in adjoining cells in the same prison block: his lack of freedom makes my own imprisonment not a jot easier. Still, we have slowly learnt how to wave to each other, swap jokes through the hole in the wall. Whenever one of us is released on temporary parole - a day in town, a three-day work trip - the other is full of tenderly envious salutes to the departing other. In recent months, we have even managed some great escapes together.

New-feminist writers such as Natasha Walter have talked about the "unique poignancy" of domestic life, and the need to welcome men into the home. But are there parents anywhere in the real world who have managed to sustain a sense of poignancy when shovelling the 100th fish finger of the year onto a Mickey Mouse plate?

However, I remain immensely appreciative of my partner for his willing- ness to sustain his part of our domestic democracy. I feel this particularly keenly when I see how many women take on the burden of home life by themselves. A woman of 28, with a two-year-old daughter, told me how her husband had never emptied the dishwasher during their married life. "All he will do is take out a cup from the dishwasher if he needs a clean one. It's beginning to annoy me," she said with admirable understatement.

So why had she never challenged him? It is partly that he is the full- time breadwinner. She thinks it's a fair enough trade-off. (Try telling that to the woman in full-time work, who still does the lioness's share of work at home.)

It is partly fear and it is partly politics. For so many of the 20- and 30-something generations, feminism is old hat or dangerous or both. The question of housework is just too trivial an issue to get heated about, so trivial it might well lead to divorce.

As a result, too many couples collude in the "three-job scenario" in which women take on care of the home, organisation of the children and a good whack of part or full-time work. Thus was Superwoman born, lucky if she could buy in some help, but still left ordering curtain material at two in the morning. Every time I look at Cherie Blair, Superwoman extraordinaire, I feel pity, terror and a deep exhaustion.

No wonder so many young working women shy away from having children: it is, I suspect, not the agony of childbirth or the ambivalence about having them that is the worry, but the sheer volume of low- level work expected of them in a future life. Who in their right minds would willingly volunteer for three jobs?

So how will it be for future generations? In my optimistic moments, I like to think there is a new public conversation about domestic life. Feminist arguments of the Sixties and Seventies have changed consciousness for good. What was once considered "natural" is now, at least, argued about. There are many couples, like myself and my partner, where both man and woman participate in the "three-job scenario" rather than piling it on the mother alone. Men's involvement in domestic life will never solve the angst of existence, but it does reduce daily resentment.

In my pessimistic moments, I see a cycle largely unbroken. With so many couples still in their thirties doing things the old way - Dad taking more leisure time, Mum simmering at the stove - their sons and daughters will inevitably imitiate them when they come to make a home. Too many earnest young women will inherit the three-job scenario, desperately trying to poach sea bass, piece together a jigsaw and send an e-mail at the same time.

And men aren't necessarily sympathetic to women in this position. Helen has lived with her partner, Barry, for more than two years. She finds he demonstrates all the strengths and weaknesses of modern man: "Barry loves to cook, to experiment with different recipes. But I do most of the daily cleaning, washing and ironing. That's what his mum did, so he expects it of me." They do argue about it, she says, but the old "trivial"charge rears its ugly head. "He just laughs at me."

Helen and Barry's story suggests that we are far from a feminist Utopia, even now. We may never get there. Yet, at the same time, I find myself oddly glad that the argument plays on, reinventing itself for every generation.

Melissa Benn's 'Madonna and Child: Towards a New Politics of Motherhood' has just been published in Vintage paperback at pounds 7.99

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