“Women’s Work” and Thanksgiving Memories

By Hannah McCandless
Hannah is a first year graduate student in the Women’s History Program.

A Thanksgiving Memory

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 don’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 person… I knew it was weird – me being the only grandkid working, my aunts and mother being the only adults working, my grandmother being the only grandparent working. 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, by my aunt, 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. During holidays and in everyday life, women end up taking on tasks that have been feminized to an extent that in many heterosexual relationships, the work in the home is almost completely on women. It is 2018 and still when I find myself at home, with my parents and other family members, the gender norms and gender rules still exist.

It spills over into the office, and women often end up being the people who organize office parties, put the notes together for  meeting, or decorate around the holidays. It puts differing values on differing types of work. Women teach and become nurses. Men do construction and become firefighters. “Feminine” jobs require a lot of training and furthering education, and yet more “masculine” jobs are paid more and are sometimes viewed better. All jobs are valid and needed, but it is very problematic that some are viewed with the face of a woman and thus less respect.

“Women’s work” is a part of today’s culture, and the culture of our past, 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 the social structures and identities of every young woman 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. Take a moment to talk with your mother or grandmother, and ask how your brother can help. Challenge everyone to be a part of whatever traditions you have. It’s a small structural step that can help change a culture so deeply ingrained in many Americans this holiday season.

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