A historian is now claiming that a new generation of feminists is rediscovering work in the home as domesticity becomes sexier, and she might be right. Maggie Andrews, Professor of Cultural History at the University of Worcester, said housework and cooking were becoming fashionable again thanks to ‘a shift in culture.’ She said TV programmes such as The Great British Bake Off had contributed allowing elements of homemaking to become ‘much sexier, much more popular, and escape from the horror of society.’
A specialist in the history of the Women’s Institute, Professor Andrews added that young women were reassessing the merits of the organization – which she has called ‘the acceptable face of femininity’. She told an audience at the Hay Festival in April: ‘I think actually the WI is benefiting from a shift in our culture. In the 80s the assumption was that feminism was about escaping the domestic, getting out of the home, getting a job and being financially independent. People are more sceptical about that now – they see a much more complex picture. They see the domestic space as one area of women’s power.’
Professor Andrews added: ‘Part of it also must be that more men are involved in it; cooking is less low status. There’s been a real shift in our attitudes to domesticity within the feminist movement and scholarship. There’s been a lot of people looking at the domestic in the way that they did thirty years ago. Feminism and the WI have sort of come together. Maybe domesticity isn’t a bad thing or possibly, work isn’t quite as much fun as we all thought.’
When the historian released her book about the WI thirty years ago she experienced a backlash over its title, The Acceptable Face of Feminism. Feminists have criticised the WI’s tendency to revel in the joys of the home and garden – seen by many as an old-fashioned way of thinking, but when the book was republished last year for the organization’s centenary, it received a warmer reception.
Professor Andrews exclaimed that: ‘There was no doubt that a good season of Bake-Off is awfully good for WI members.’ She also discussed the role of the WI today, saying that members’ opinions – for example when they famously slow-clapped Tony Blair during a speech – had helped to change public opinion. ‘The fact they stood up and said “ No we’re not having this“ really quite shocked people,’ she said.
But Professor Andrews’s comments were criticised by the Fawcett Society which campaigns for gender equality. Chairman Sam Smethers said she found it hard to believe that women were starting to find household chores ‘sexy’. She told The Times: ‘Most women don’t have a choice between work and home, they have to do both. What we really need to do is value the caring work that is predominately done by women.’ Recent research by polling company ComRes found that women did twice as much housework than men. Experts thought the divide was probably greater because men tended to overestimate how much time they spent on chores.
Well, in my own experience (which perhaps, some would say is rather limited) modern man seems to share housework whenever his other duties permit. During my sixty years of marriage I invariably performed the washing-up after a meal which usually I had cooked. I did this because I truly enjoyed the notion and the practice of sharing duties, which enabled my wife and I to have free time with each other and keep our love on the boil throughout our life together. It worked admirably and the benefits to both of us were incalculable.