Thursday, July 2, 2009

"Come, Muse, And Sing The Dreaded Washing-Day"

Among male writers, artists, and musicians, the domestic arts classified as “women’s work” occupied a lowly position in the hierarchy of subject matter for their great works. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there are plenty of paintings with women bathing, dressing, or brushing their hair. Walking down the long hall of painting fame you might also find a “Woman at a Window,” or a “Woman at an Embroidery Frame,” but if you are longing to see something along the lines of “Woman Butchering Rooster” or “Woman Collecting Lye for Soap” you could walk a long ways in vain. Similarly, highbrow composers would not take something like “The Lament of the Scullery Maid” as a serious theme—if you heard this title, you would probably assume it was part of a bawdy song.

Dairymaids in the world of art could frolic in charming dishabille through a meadow but their trek through the mud to the barn in winter, the chilblains on their hands, the fatigue they felt, all these were made invisible. Women writers had an awareness of the exclusion of the heart of their working lives from the sanctioned realm of art. Anna Barbauld, in her 1825 poem Washing Day creates the separate and distinct existence of a “domestic Muse”:

The Muses are turned gossips; they have lost
The busk
ined step, and clear high-sounding phrase,
Language of gods. Come then, domestic Muse,
In slipshod measure loosely prattling on
Of farm or orchard, pleasant curds and cream,
Or drowning flies, or shoe lost in the mire
By little whimpering boy, with rueful face;
Come, Muse, and sing the dreaded Washing-Day.

There was indeed reason to dread washing day. If a family was not able to hire out the washing, the woman of the house did a weekly wash—a huge undertaking. Popular rhymes chided women who did not do the washing early in the week. Even the list of necessary equipment is daunting:

Two wash-forms are needed; one for the two tubs in which to put the suds, and the other for blueing and starching-tubs. Four tubs, of different sizes, are necessary; also, a large wooden dipper, (as metal is apt to rust;) two or three pails; a grooved wash-board; a clothes-line, (sea-grass, or horse-hair is best;) a wash-stick to move clothes, when boiling, and a wooden fork to take them out. Soap-dishes, made to hook on the tubs, save soap and time. Provide, also, a clothes-bag, in which to boil clothes; an indigo-bag, of double flannel; a starch-strainer, of coarse linen; a bottle of ox-gall for calicoes; a supply of starch, neither sour nor musty; several dozens of clothes-pins, which are cleft sticks, used to fasten clothes on the line; a bottle of dissolved gum Arabic; two clothes-baskets; and a brass or copper kettle, for boiling clothes, as iron is apt to rust.
Catherine Beecher, A Treatise on Domestic Economy, 1843

The technology of industriali
zation often proved a mixed blessing for women. The advent of cheap cottons meant that fewer women wove their own cloth, but washable cotton was part of what turned laundering into the Herculean task that it became. Women and children dominated the low-paid work of hired-out laundering as they would come to dominate the low-paid labor force of the textile factories. Previously, hand-woven linens were brushed rather than washed. Not to idealize a pre-industrial state—because pounding clothes on rocks also has its disadvantages—but the direction that technological advances took did tend to isolate women. Rather than doing spinning, weaving, and laundry in groups together, women were isolated in the nuclear family home units that better served the captains of industry and their profit-margins.

Since prehisto
ric times, spinning and weaving has been associated with women in western civilization. The fate of the word “spinster” mirrors in some ways the disempowerment of women as industrialization took hold—and also, in the wake of that disempowerment, the courageous steps that women ultimately took to assert their full rights as human beings.

In the fourteenth century, the word spinster simply referred to a woman whose occupation was spinning; by the seventeenth century, it could mean either a spinner or a woman whose legal status was unmarried. Not until th
e eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did the word acquire overtones of “old maid” and the implied criticisms of uselessness, prudishness and foolishness. In the nineteenth century, spinsters showing traces of beard were likely to be fictional laughingstocks; in ancient times, however, these same figures were more powerful than the gods themselves. The Fates in ancient Greek mythology were embodied by three spinsters with beards who exerted power in a sphere apart from the official gods of Olympus. Clotho spun the thread of life from her distaff to her spindle, Lachesis measured the thread with her rod, and Atropos cut the thread, determining the manner and time of a person’s death. Athenian women swore by the Fates, making them offerings as they would to a goddess.

Domestic work, such as sewing and cooking, was not originally conceived as nin
eteenth century male painters framed it for their audiences—as decorative and trivial. In fact, these activities in ancient myth were linked with power over life and death. A Nordic trinity of spinster goddesses is also connected to human destiny, and the Valkyries are described as weavers as well. These warrior women sang songs of destruction at looms strung with human entrails—with shuttles made of arrows, and weights of severed heads.

This image of the Valkyries at their looms may seem a far cry from the dainty female posture depicted in Woman at an Embroidery Frame. Women writers of the nineteenth century, however, sometimes echoed the subversive history of textile arts. It is during quilting bees, for example, that women engage in discussion apart from any authorized channels of information. The long and involved process of girl fri
ends sewing the trousseau of a bride-to-be was no doubt a time of much discussion on love and sex. Sewing and weaving turn up in some unexpected places—including hymn-writing. Hymn-writing has been considered a particularly womanly form of writing, and women from as long ago as the twelfth century Hildegard von Bingen have taken active part in this tradition. American women hymn-writers of the nineteenth century often used hymns to put their own slant on theology.

Mary Artemisia Lathbury (1841-1913) was known as one of the founders of the Chautauqua Movement, which began near Lake Chautauqua in New York where thousands of people gathered at Methodist campgrounds to listen to lectures, music, and sermons. Lathbury links an understanding of God with nature and the domestic hearth as well as with the written or spoken words of preachers. She expresses this idea in the Hymn of Life:

In age-abiding rocks that bear
An elder Scripture written there;
In the red hearth-glow, and the flame
Of countless suns, we read Thy name.

During Lathbury’s time, weaving was still the province of women and in one of her works, Song of Hope, she links God directly with the woman at the loom:

Song of Hope

Children of yesterday;
Heirs of to-morrow.
What are you weaving?
Labor and sorrow?
Look to your loom again.
Faster and faster
Fly the great shuttles
Prepared by the Master.
Life's in the loom!
Room for it—

Children of yesterday,
Heirs of to-morrow,
Lighten the labor,
And sweeten the sorrow.
Now—while the shuttles fly
Faster and faster,
Up, and be at it,
At work with the Master.
He stands at your loom;
Room for Him—

Children of yesterday.
Heirs of to-morrow,
Look at your fabric
Of labor and sorrow.
Seamy and dark
With despair and disaster,
Turn it, and—lo,
The Design of the Master!
The Lord's at the loom;
Room for Him—

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  1. This is reminding me that my kitchen floor is in dire need of a good going over with me mops and me brushes.

  2. Hi Willow:

    Now that sounds like no fun at all!

  3. It's An Interesting Role of Art.Not Only what it Illustrates but,equally, what it Makes Invisible.I,m not sure things are any better today.Given that so many current Images of Women are of the Celeb & Sex Variety.Hey-Hoy.
    Great Post.

  4. Hi Tony:

    You have a good point there. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. An interesting history here, I really enjoyed it. It is sad how women raised the men who had these attitudes. But not just men had these attitudes, other women had them. Sometimes I think that was the greater hurdle, for women to believe in other women. And it seems to still exist. Very sad.

    I like the poem a lot. Thank you for sharing it with us.

    God bless.

  6. Hi Mrsupole:

    I do think change in society &/or culture requires attitudes to be revised all-around. Thanks for stopping by!


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