How about a price tag on housework? And other feminist thoughts

Have you ever wondered when cloud kitchens originated? I hadn’t really thought about it, assuming they took shape sometime in the 21st century as a product of new age issues (People moving out of homes for work, restricted living spaces and women taking on jobs).

It was a surprise then to stumble across What Diantha Did by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Written way back in 1909, this book talks of not just a cloud kitchen but also home-cleaning services and maid agencies. 

Each time I come across a book like this it blows my mind to think how very ahead of their time authors can be. They are truly restricted by their imagination only.

Diantha is a young girl in love with a well-to-do young man, Roscoe. Roscoe has four sisters to marry off before he and Diantha can get together. He runs his late father’s grocery store which he hates. He would have loved a life of scientific experimentation but cannot afford that luxury because, unknown to everyone, Roscoe’s family is in deep debt.

Diantha realises her marriage would remain a distant dream unless she did something to ease Roscoe’s financial responsibilities.

She is highly accomplished in household chores and comes up with a plan to monetise housework, to get it the respect it deserves and thus turn it into a profitable enterprise.

A working woman makes everyone uncomfortable

Diantha faces opposition from all her friends and family. Her parents don’t like this ‘disruption’ of their comfortable peaceful lives. Her younger sister, married at 18, feels it is alright for a son to leave home, and also for a daughter as long as she is getting married but an unmarried woman leaving home for work? Now, that was unacceptable.

For Roscoe, it’s his honour that’s at stake:

Diantha smiled. “I suppose you never would permit your wife to work?” “My widow might have to–not my wife.” he says.

A determined Diantha listens to no one and sets off on her journey alone.

She approaches Isabel Porne, a new mom. Isabel, a talented architect, is hopeless at housework and hates every minute of it. She isn’t able to enjoy motherhood because she’s drowning in household chores. Diantha’s entry proves life-changing for her, freeing her to enjoy her baby and take up work when the baby sleeps.

While working for Isabel, Diantha gets in touch with other maids and slowly begins to build her network.

At the end of her contract, she moves away to set up her own maid agency. Slowly she diversifies to food deliveries and sets up a restaurant too. 

She gets her parents to come live with her and involves her mom in her work giving her life purpose.

Finally, after a long long struggle Diantha finds her happy ending with Roscoe.

The book is a simple account of Diantha’s journey conveying through it numerous feminist messages in a no-nonsense, no-frills manner. That it was written many many decades ago makes it utterly pathbreaking.

The question of filial obligation

Among all the roadblocks a woman has to overcome when she steps out to work, emotional ones are the toughest to reason through; whether it’s a daughter wanting to leave her parents or a mom wanting to leave her children.

Diantha tackles it with commendable level-headedness. She refuses to be swayed. She gets a maid for her parents and later, as soon as she can afford it, she gets them to come and live with her.

Assigning financial value to housework

That is the single, stand-out message of the book.

Diantha keeps meticulous accounts and puts value to every bit of housework. When her father tries to stop her saying she owes it to them for the money they spent on her upbringing, she’s hurt. 

She had expected this, and yet it struck her like a blow. It was not the first time she had heard it — this claim of filial obligation.

However, she puts aside her hurt and totals up the amount her father spent on her since birth and explains how she has more than repaid it over the years.

Bringing dignity to housework

Housework is a business–like any other business–I’ve always said so, and it’s got to be done in a business way.

So methodical is Diantha that modern-day women can take a page out of her book. Here’s how she goes about it:

  • She gets a recommendation from a man of influence, a Reverend.
  • She behaves and dresses above her station going by the adage ‘dress for the job you want not for the one you have.’
  • She refuses to be called ‘the maid’ insisting on the more formal and respectful ‘Miss Bell’.
  • She specifies her terms of service, including holidays and breaks clearly and non-apologetically.
  • She always remains gentle and gracious.

Looking beyond traditional roles

What Diantha Did challenges traditional roles not just of women but of men too. Gilman understands the drudgery of women and men alike. Referring to Roscoe’s father she says:

The older man had suddenly dropped beneath the burden he had carried with such visible happiness and pride, such unknown anxiety and straining effort; and the younger one had to step into the harness on the spot.

(Did you notice the use of the word ‘harness’ and how cruel it sounds?)

When Diantha’s sister insists that she should continue with her teaching job instead of leaving home to become a maid, she replies: 

I’ve taught for four years. I don’t like it, I don’t do well, and it exhausts me horribly.

Dianatha’s father had no head for business, yet he keeps investing in projects and losing money on them. On the other hand, her mother has no talent for housework but is forced to spend her days doing just that. Diantha understands her mother’s nervous temperament as a result of being the square man in the round hole’.

Her mother’s expertise lies in accounts and she is constantly frustrated that despite knowing and understanding business better than her husband she is unable to contribute simply because she isn’t the right gender. 

The chafe and fret of seeing her husband constantly attempting against her judgement, and failing for lack of help he scorned.

Diantha’s father needs help but he scorns it since it comes from a woman, his wife. And so the unfortunate cycle continues until Diantha steps in to break it.

What Diantha Did proved to be an immensely enjoyable read. It’s rather sad that more than hundred years later we are still struggling with the issues Gilman brings up in her book.

The book is available free of cost at Gutenberg.org. Click here to download.

Last thought: If you enjoy feminist classics this one’s your book.

4 Replies to “How about a price tag on housework? And other feminist thoughts”

  1. I am definitely reading this book, Tulika. Thanks for the recommendation! Also, it makes me think of how we claim to have “progressed” in our thoughts, but actually, we haven’t.

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  2. Thank you for sharing this review, Tulika! I’d love to read it. This issue of monetising housework really caught my attention and I’m surprised that it was a topic to write about so many years ago!

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  3. This book is on such an interesting topic. I feel housework is so thankless. No one wants to do it, yet everyone wants it to be done. While we do have paid help in India, but I don’t think our domestic helps really have much to write home about, as they get no dignity of labour, no perks, benefits or even job security. I guess as a society we do consider these jobs menial. That was a detailed review.

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