By Hannah McCandless
Hannah is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History Program.
Grandmother worked in the kitchen for hours leading up to the day of the big event. Mom would make food at home and bring it to grandmother’s house. Aunt May would always bring pie and rolls. I was the only girl of the grandkids, so I was always asked to set the table, even though someone always came behind me fixing my mistakes.
“Mary Jane, why won’t you put Hannah in a finishing school? She needs to know how to set the table!” Said Grandmother. A hidden eye roll and playful smile looked my way. Mom wouldn’t send me to a finishing school. She thought that was silly, especially in this day and age.
My brother and cousins played while I waited for instructions. Carry this, clean that, take this drink to that uncle… I knew it was weird. I didn’t understand why. I was just a kid. But I knew it was not fair that my granddaddy, my father, my uncles, my brother, and my male cousins would not help. And then after all of that hard work, my granddaddy was still the one who got to cut up the turkey. I was unsure how to address something I had no words for. How can you say that something is wrong when you don’t know how to name what is wrong i the first place?
Years later, the traditions have changed. But it is mostly because my grandmother can’t keep up with that much food in the way she used to. Now, my aunt takes on those responsibilities. Now, I find myself still helping. My brother helps more, but not for long before he is told to go sit down and enjoy the company of everyone else.
“Women’s work” is what they call it in feminist writing today. “Women’s work” is the work that people assume women will do, like cooking, cleaning, and child rearing. But it also includes various things at work, like expectations about organizing and party planning and workshop leading. It puts differing values on differing types of work. Women teach and become nurses. Men do construction and become electricians. “Feminine” jobs require a lot of training and furthering education, and yet more “masculine” jobs are paid more and are sometimes viewed better.
“Women’s work” is a cultural phenomenon that is so much a part of the way we value work and how it is gendered. It starts at a young age, and it seems like it becomes a part of the culture of every young women and man.
This Thanksgiving, consider practicing “stepping up and stepping back.” Consider asking male cousins or siblings to help in the kitchen, ask your father or uncle to cook something for the meal, and take a step back. It’s a small structural step that can help change a culture so deeply ingrained in us all.