A feminist look at the Chores we prefer to minimum wage
Radical feminist philosophers of the past like Simone de Beauvoir did not think very highly of the states of housewifery and domesticity. “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework,” Beauvoir insisted in her 1949 magnum opus The Second Sex. “With its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.” However, as works like contemporary St. John’s poet Maggie Burton’s Chores prove, strong women are capable of claiming those spaces for themselves as spheres of creativity, individuality, and expression rather than the picture of repression and doom painted by second-wave feminism.
Published by Breakwater Books on April 1, Chores is Burton’s photo album repurposed as a collection of free-style poems, which welcome the reader into a private, intimate family life upheld by the perseverance of women’s daily routines. It’s a glimpse into a world where nothing, not even time, is wasted, and rather than rally against their fates, the women press on and immerse themselves completely in their work. What needs to be done gets done, because there is no money to pay someone else to do your chores.
Burton establishes within just a few pages of the collection that the beating heart of her family growing up was her beloved Nan. Nan, a homemaker, is also an unstoppable powerhouse, whose talents in the kitchen, the cellar, and the garden are unmatchable. Nan’s skills and resourcefulness keep the family fed and watered, and her independent settler ways — hunting, skinning, cooking from scratch, brewing — astonish a younger generation that is already beginning to move out of a culture where people produce everything themselves, and they struggle to comprehend the labours of love their forbearers make:
“Nan hid her fermenting
beer in a rain barrel
behind shrouded closet doors.
It stank up the pink bathroom.
I dared my friends to peek,
to taste the drink I knew
was soft and sweet and meant
to complement the rabbit.”
Generations begin to clash as Burton, the narrator, transitions into rebellious adolescence and fails to inherit all of Nan’s outstanding productiveness and functional femininity. There are some confrontations, as Burton flirts with the revolutionary concept of leisure time and Nan demands that her granddaughter puts on a better gender performance. A woman, in Nan’s eyes, is meant to work hard and look good while doing it. But Nan is not entirely a killjoy. Burton devotes sections to fleshing out her grandmother as a high-spirited go-getter who wants to win at bingo, and as a stubborn chain-smoker who won’t be told to stop her most pleasurable vice. She also refuses to allow her offspring to develop the notion that women’s work is insignificant, as grandmother and granddaughter bond over the endless list of tasks to do around the family home:
“Gardening is work too, lil’ chicken,
doesn’t mean I am unemployable.
I just prefer this to minimum wage.”
Readers will witness Burton as a narrator grow into her own person both within and outside of the family dwelling. Something of Nan’s work ethic and assertive, principled personality does take hold in Burton as she begins to cultivate her core values and pursue her own interests as she ages. As an amateur archeologist, she digs holes in the garden for specimens. She cheats at cards for giggles but fully understands she’s doing something wrong. She bonds with her female classmates as the process of puberty urges them to explore the intricacies of their own bodies and budding sexualities. Burton as a narrator overall is sensitive, observant, curious, and receptive to new experiences, even those often deemed mundane in literature, such as collecting garbage after a fair as her first summer job. Her first paid chore. The experience is transformative. Unlike her Nan, she accepts the exchange of minimum wage for labour, but just like her Nan, she does not leave the job undone. That is not how she was raised. Nan’s example has stuck.
As an adult living with her own family, maintaining her own life and living space, Burton has achieved not necessarily domestic bliss, but domestic contentment. The abilities passed on to her are not as sharp or robust as Nan’s. Her vegetables grow wonky, her prepped meals are not always a success. Her bathtub grows mould, and so she gets on her knees and scrubs as hard as she can. Food left unattended goes bad in her fridge. She’s a busy, modern woman. She cleans what she can, when she can. But she tries, and it is through her efforts alone that she best channels the now-deceased Nan, and the generation to which Nan belonged. She puts on her brave face, and does her chores:
“In an out like a lion I hunt by morning
moon and freezer light, like what was seen
by men through fog on frozen floes.
You know sealers hunted in the Narrows?
I scoop out forgotten chicken thighs in shame,
pick blueberries off frost, look for wild
strawberries lost in margarine tubs. My hands,
Spring breaking ice apart, bread in cold soup.”
Chores are universal. Unless one has a housekeeper or maid under their employ, it’s a necessary day-to-day grind. We all have to-do lists to tackle on a regular basis, just as our ancestors did, and theirs were even longer than ours. But as Maggie Burton proves through Chores, a tenacious attitude is what makes the difference between a home well-maintained, and a home only reluctantly maintained. There is beauty and meaning to be found in chores if one simply wipes the sweat away from one’s forehead and peers closer. Past the dust and grime and potato peelings and breadcrumbs, there is history.
E.R. Zarevich is a writer and teacher from Burlington, Ontario, Canada. Her research journalism has appeared in Women in Higher Education, Jstor Daily, Russian Life, and The Calvert Journal, among others.
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