DISHES: A PREAMBLE TO WOMEN'S
men do the dishes some of the time. A few
men do the dishes all of the time. Most
men never do the dishes. This is a truism
in all domiciles where more than one gender
resides, and, in my observation, in domiciles
where only men reside as well! It puts me
in mind of the complaint registered by civil
rights activist Flo Kennedy that "cleanliness
is next to godliness" pertains only
to women! "In our society," she
roared, "women are considered the dirt-searchers.
Their greatest worth is eradicating rings
on collars and coffee tables. Never mind
your real estate board corruption or racism,
here's your soap suds. Everything she's
doing is either peripheral, expendable,
the message is very clear. Men, like women,
make a mess--but the mess is left for women
to clean up. This has worked fairly well
in the home, but extend the metaphor to
the far reaches of our planet, and what
do you see? The mess men have made of things--in
our waters, our forests, the very air we
breathe--cannot be cleaned up by women because
women have been denied the
power to clean up anything outside the home
and its extensions (waitressing, maid service,
laundering, practical nursing, copy-editing
[here I intend that the field, so open to
women, focuses on cleaning up the messy
manuscripts of men], manicuring and
[men make the expenditures, women keep them
and neat], data entry [men are paid goodly
sums to amass materials, women are paid
bubkes to organize them], daycare and babysitting,
and kindergarten teachers). In homage to
that, I share with you the following women's
quotations on subjects ranging from toilet
bowls to order in the universe to women's
- In sisterhood, Elaine
Bernstein Partnow, Editor
QUOTATIONS ON DISHES:
A PREABLE TO WOMEN'S WORK
I stand here now, still at the kitchen
the belly of my dress wet and stinking
this running faucet of words
running out of my mouth,
the choking generations of daughters
spitting both privilege and bitterness
from their mothers' broken cups.
Jacqueline St. Joan (1945-; American
judge, attorney, poet, activist, women's
rights), Ms. (New York),
The Rose Bowl is the only bowl I've ever
seen that I didn't have to clean.
Erma Bombeck (1927-1996; American
author, humorist, columnist), Remark, n.d.
As women, our historical role has been
to clean up the mess. Whether it's the mess
left by war or death or children or sickness.
I think the violence you see in plays by
women is a direct reflection of that historical
role. We are not afraid to look under the
bed, or to wash the sheets; we know that
life is messy. We know that somebody has
to clean it up, and that only if it is cleaned
up can we hope to start over, and get better.
Marsha Norman (1947-; American arts
administrator, playwright; Pulitzer; Tony,
1983, 1991), in Interviews with Contemporary
Women Playwrights by Kathleen Betsko
and Rachel Koenig, 1987
Morality, like language, is an inverted
structure for conserving and communicating
order. And morality is learned, like language,
by mimicking and remembering.
Jane Rule (1931- ; American/Canadian
writer), Lesbian Images, 1975
He had a mania for washing and disinfecting
himself. . . . For him the only danger came
from the microbes that attacked the body.
He had not studied the microbe of conscience
which eats into the soul.
Anaïs Nin (1903-1977; French/American
lecturer, writer, diarist , Winter of
The house was immaculate, as always, not
a stray hair anywhere, not a flake of dandruff
or a crumpled towel. Even the roses on the
dining-room table held their breath. A kind
of airless cleanliness that always made
me want to sneeze.
Sandra Cisneros (1954-; American
educator, poet, writer), Woman Hollering
Gammy used to say, "Too much scrubbing
takes the life right out of things"
. . .
Betty MacDonald (1908-1958; American
fiction writer), The Egg and I, 1945
But I never cleaned thoroughly enough,
my reorganization proved to be haphazard,
the disgraces came unfailingly to light,
and it was clear how we failed, how disastrously
we fell short of that ideal of order and
cleanliness, household decency which I as
much as anybody else believed in.
Alice Munro (1931; American writer),
Something I've Been Meaning to Tell you,
Order, cleanliness, seemliness make a structure
that is half support, half ritual, and --
if it does not create it - maintains decency.
Florida Scott-Maxwell (1883-1979;
American/Scottish actor, writer, psychologist,
playwright, suffragist), The Measure
of My Days, 1972
As we drove on toward Lovedu* land, we
tried to imagine what it might mean to be
a queen in Africa. All around us, all along
the way, we saw women doing nothing but
work. Debo,** who had been filming women
at work, had footage of women hoeing, planting
crops, weeding, harvesting, gathering wild
edibles, shucking maize, pounding maize,
grinding maize at the mill, carrying maize
meal home, chopping wood, gathering firewood,
carrying firewood home on their heads or
on their backs, building fires, cooking,
serving food, washing dishes, scouring pots,
making clothes, buying clothes, washing
clothes (after first carrying the laundry
to the river, or carrying the river water
home), selling clothes and just about anything
else in the marketplace or beside the road,
building houses, painting houses, gathering
thatch, preparing mud plaster, polishing
floors with cattle dung (to keep out insects),
scrubbing floors, weaving palm fibers, making
mats, making baskets, making hats, dying
fabrics, sewing, knitting, embroidering,
making pots, minding children, doctoring
children, teaching children, feeding children,
washing children, dressing children, plaiting
hair, milking cows, feeding chickens, butchering
chickens, shopping, making brooms, sweeping
houses, sweeping yards, cleaning churches,
cleaning wells, planting trees and keeping
accounts. So far she had no footage at all
of women being queen. What would a queen
Ann Jones (1937-; American nonfiction
writer), "Finding the Lovedu,"
The Women's Review of Books, Vol.
XV, No. 5, February 1998
* A Southern African people.
** Debo Kinsland, Australian-born British-based
The intrinsic value of work, the ability
to have an impact and operate in relationship
with others, seem to motivate women more
than anything else -- more than climbing
to the top, more than financial reward,
more than power for power's sakes.
Virginia O'Brien (1946-; American
nonfiction writer), Success on Our Own
Terms: Tales of Extraordinary, Ordinary
If this analysis of history is approximately
sound and if the future like the past is
to be crowded with changes and exigencies,
then it is difficult to believe that the
feminism of the passing generation, already
hardened into dogma and tradition, represents
the completed form of woman's relations
to work, interests and society.
Mary Ritter Beard (1876-1958; American
historian), Understanding Women,
. . . the history of women's work in this
country shows that legislation has been
the only force which has improved the working
conditions of any large number of women
Helen L. Sumner (1876-1933; American
children's rights advocate, government official),
History of Women in Industry in the United
States. Vol. IX, 1911
The story of women's work in gainful employment
is a story of constant changes or shifting
of work and workshop, accompanied by long
hours, low wages, insanitary conditions,
overwork, and the want on the part of the
woman of training, skill, and vital interest
in her work.
Women can do nothing that has permanence.
Selma Lagerlöf (1858-1940; Swedish
writer; first woman elected to and director
of Swedish Academy; Nobel Prize for Literature,
1909 (first woman to receive award) The
Miracles of Anti-Christ, 1899
It is impossible for a small artisan, a
shopkeeper, or a clerk in normal times to
feed not only his family, but all destitute
kinswomen, and to secure an income sufficient
for his wife and daughters to refrain from
paid labor in the event of his death.. Not
only does every father know this, but all
men know it. Nonetheless, men are against
the women's movement, calling it nonsense.
They must have been born mad to be able
to honor their prejudices by naming them
(1847-1926; Czech critic, social, poet,
critic, literary, translator, librettist,
children's writer, feminist; edited the
first Czech women's journal; co-founder,
first Czech girls' gymnasium [college prep]),
Women Question, 1871
During World War II, for instance, when
the young men were off at war, dating did
not consume the time of the college co-ed
and she redirected her energies to study.
. . . Work became an alternative even for
those who did marry. Once engaged in an
occupation, many had so firm a foothold
they were loath to give it up.
Cynthia Fuchs Epstein (1933-; American
educator, researcher), Woman's Place,
When her last child is off to school, we
don't want the talented woman wasting her
time in work far below her capacity. We
want her to come out running.
Mary Ingraham Bunting (1910-1998;
American educator, microbiologist, bacteriologist),
Quoted in Life (New York), 13 January
There is perhaps one human being in a thousand
who is passionately interested in his job
for the job's sake. The difference is that
if that one person in a thousand is a man,
we say, simply, that he is passionately
keen on his job; if she is a woman, we say
she is a freak.
Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957; English
writer), Gaudy Nights, 1936
aren't supposed to work. They're supposed
to be married.
Johnnie Tillmon (1926-; American
welfare rights activist), The First Ms.
Reader, Francine Klagsbrun, ed., 1972
But I think women dwell quite a bit on
the duress under which they work, on how
hard it is just to do it at all.
We are traditionally rather proud of ourselves
for having slipped creative work in there
between the domestic chores and obligations.
I'm not sure we deserve such big A-pluses
for all that.
Toni Morrison (1931-; American editor,
book, novelist; first black woman to win
Nobel Prize, 1993; Pulitzer, 1988), Newsweek
(New York), 30 March 1981
. . . black women . . . are trained from
childhood to become workers, and expect
to be financially self-supporting for most
of their lives. They know they will have
to work, whether they are married or single;
work to them, unlike to white women, is
not a liberating goal, but rather an imposed
Gerda Lerner (1920-; Austrian/American
writer, lecturer, educator, historian; founder
of university-based women's history), Black
Women in White America, 1972
Most so-called women's work is not recognized
as real activity. One reason for this attitude
may be that such work is usually associated
with helping others' development, rather
than with self-enhancement or self-employment.
Jean Baker Miller (1927-; American
psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, editor, teacher,
author), Toward a New Psychology of Women,
The great artist speaks a truth so personal
it becomes universal. There's no way you
can do that with one eye on the marketplace.
Karen Malpede (1945-; American theater
historian, peace activist, playwright, educator),
Interviews with Contemporary Women Playwrights
by Kathleen Betsko and Rachel Koenig, 1987
"There was such a thing as women's
work and it consisted chiefly, Hilary sometimes
thought, in being able to stand constant
interruption and keep your temper. . . ."
May Sarton (1912-1995; Belgian/American
writer, poet, novelist, playwright), Mrs.
Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing,
Women's work is always toward wholeness.
And this exclusion of "women's work"
continues, despite United Nations data gathered
since 1975 (the beginning of the UN Decade
for Women) indicating that women globally
contribute two-thirds of the world's work
hours, for which -- given the imbalanced,
unjust, and truly peculiar nature of the
accounting characteristic of dominator economics
-- they globally earn only one-tenth of
what men do and own a mere one-hundredth
of the world's property.
Riane Eisler (1931- ; Austrian/Cuban/American
author, social historian; founder, Center
for Partnership Studies, International Partnership
Network), Sacred Pleasure: Sex, Myth,
and the Politics of the Body, 1995
. .women are house as well as factory slaves
and are forced to bear a double workload.
Klara Zetkin (1857-1933; German political
activist; co-founder of Communist Party
of Germany), The Organization of Trade
I know your breed; all your fine officials
debauch the young girls who are afraid to
lose their jobs: that's as old as Washington.
Christina Stead (1902-1983; Australian
novelist), The Man Who Loved Children,
. . . if I had been a man, self-respect,
family pressure and the public opinion of
my class would have pushed me into a money-making
profession; as a mere woman I could carve
out a career of disinterested research.
Beatrice Potter Webb (1858-1943;
English reformer, sociologist, writer, historian;
co-founder of the Fabian Society, 1883,
and of the New Statesman, 1913), My Apprenticeship,
A trade unionist -- of course I am. First,
last, and all the time. How else to strike
at the roots of the evils undermining the
moral and physical health of women? How
else grapple with the complex problems of
employment, overemployment, and underemployment
alike, resulting in discouraged, undernourished
bodies, too tired to resist the onslaughts
of disease and crime?
Maud Younger (1870-1936; American
suffragist, union activist, writer; a.k.a.
"Mother of the Eight-Hour Law"),
Quoted in Ms. (New York), January
But, oh, what a woman I should be if an
able young man would consecrate his life
to me as secretaries and technicians do
to their men employers.
Mabel Ulrich (1882?-?; American civil
servant, physician, Scribner's, June
Celebrate my death for the good times I've
For the work that I've done and the friends
that I've made.
Celebrate my death, of whom it could be
"She was a working class woman, and
Malvina Reynolds (1900-1978; American
political activist, songwriter, folk singer),
Last song, untitled, 1978
We are the women of daylight; of clocks
foundries, of drugstores and streetlights,
of superhighways that slice our days in
Our dreams are pale memories of themselves,
and nagging doubt is the false measure of
Paula Gunn Allen (1939- ; American
critic, poet, novelist, educator), Native
American studies, antiwar activist), That's
What She Said, Rayna Green, ed., 1984
In my apron I carry nails, pliers, a heavy
hammer, and pride.
Moira Bachman (fl. 1940s; American
labor activist), Organization for Equal
Education of the Sexes, n.d.
Women of the working class, especially
wage workers, should not have more than
two children at most. The average working
man can support no more and the average
working woman can take care of not more
in decent fashion.
Margaret Sanger (1883-1966; American
editor, civil rights activist, nurse, writer;
pioneer of birth-control movement; founder,
International Planned Parenthood Federation,
1948; organizer, first World Population
Conference, 1927), Family Limitations,
"You did this carving?" Daedalus
asked. It was obvious he did not believe
"Certainly." Hebe flushed. "Why
do you doubt it?"
"A woman! Who taught you?"
"My mother, who else? My father also.
My family have been carvers and workers
in wood and metal for generations. Jewelers,
sculptors, potters, sometimes a needlewoman
or a weaver. My mother was a great artist,
and artists are honoured at this court.
Why are you surprised? Are there no women
in Athens who do this work?"
"Needlecrafts or weaving, yes. Those
are women's work. The others, no."
Hebe snorted. "And people call Athens
a civilized land!"
Priscilla Galloway (1930- ; Canadian
writer, educator), Daedalus and the Minotaur,
Usually I object when someone makes overmuch
of men's work and women's work, for I think
it is the excellence of the work that counts.
Margaret Bourke-White (1906-1971;
American writer, war correspondent, photographer),
Portrait of Myself, 1963
NELL. Because that's what an employer is
going to have doubts about with a lady as
I needn't tell you, whether she's got the
guts to push through to a closing situation.
They think we're too nice. They think we
listen to the buyer's doubts. They think
we consider his needs and his feelings.
Caryl Churchill (1938- ; English
playwright), Top Girls, 1982
Archie was an expert at dividing the affairs
of life into men's business and women's
business. An empty cupboard and a full plate
were the man's business, a full cupboard
and an empty plate the concern of the woman.
E. Annie Proulx (1935- ; American
writer, short story, novelist; Pulitzer,
1994),The Shipping News,1993
Our Toil and Labour's daily so extreme,
That we have hardly ever Time to Dream.
Mary Collier (1689/90-post-1759;
English poet, laundress, writer), The
Woman's Labour, 1739
In gleaning Corn, such is our frugal Care.
When Night comes on, unto our Home we go,
Our Corn we carry, and our Infant too;
Weary indeed! but 'tis not worth our while
Once to complain, or rest at ev'ry Stile;
We must make haste, for when we home are
We find again our Work has just begun;
So many Things for our Attendance call,
Had we ten hands, we could employ them all.
The definition of women's work is shitwork.
Gloria Steinem (1934- ; American
feminist, editor, writer; New York magazine
co-founder, 1968; Ms. magazine co-founder,
1972), Writer's Digest, February
I stop writing the poem
to fold the clothes. No matter who lives
or who dies, I'm still a woman.
I'll always have plenty to do.
I bring the arms of his shirt
together. Nothing can stop
our tenderness. I'll get back
to the poem. I'll get back to being
a woman. But for now
there's a shirt, a giant shirt
in my hands, and somewhere a small girl
standing next to her mother
watching to see how it's done.
Tess Gallagher (1943- ; American
screenwriter, educator, poet, writer), Instructions
to the Double, 1976
Women, because they are not generally the
principal breadwinners, can be perhaps most
useful as the trail blazers, working along
the bypaths, doing the unusual job that
men cannot afford to gamble on.
Betty Friedan (1921- ; American feminist,
writer; founder of National Organization
for Women (NOW), 1966), The Feminine
The backlash against women's rights would
be just one of several powerful forces creating
a harsh and painful climate for women at
work. Reagonomics, the recession, and the
expansion of a minimum-wage service economy
also helped, in no small measure, to slow
and even undermine women's momentum in the
But the backlash did more than impede women's
opportunities for employment, promotions,
and better pay. Its spokesmen kept the news
of many of these setbacks from women. Not
only did the backlash do grievous damage
to working women C it did on the sly.
Susan Faludi (1959- ; American feminist,
nonfiction writer; Pulitzer 1991), Backlash:
The Undeclared War Against American Women,
The women who do the most work get the
least money, and the women who have the
most money do the least work.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935;
American lecturer, poet, publicist, writer,
social critic; great-niece Harriet Beecher
Stowe), Woman and Economics, 1898
During the present interval between the
feudal age and the coming time, when life
and its occupations will be freely thrown
open to women as to men, the condition of
the female working classes is such that
if its sufferings were but made known, emotions
of horror and shame would tremble through
the whole of society.
Harriet Martineau (1802-1876; English
writer, feminist, critic, social), Society
in America, Vol. III, 1837
Solidarity among the male and female workers,
a general cause, general goals, a general
path to that goal -- that is the solution
to the "woman" question in the
Nadezhda Konstanitovna Krupskaia
(1869-1939; Russian activist, women's rights;
wife of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924;
Communist leader and founder of the Bolsheviks),
Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker), 1913
Would you exalt your profession, exalt
those who labor with you...increase the
salaries of the women engaged in the noble
work of educating our future presidents,
senators and congressmen.
Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906; American
editor, suffragist; founder of Woman's State
Temperance Society of New York; Hall of
Fame, 1950), Quoted in Women Suffragists
by Diana Star Helmer, 1998
It would be difficult for a woman to be,
I should think, the production head of a
studio or a manager without being called
Penelope Gilliatt (1932- ; English
scenarist, writer, film critic), The
Hollywood Screenwriters, Richard Corliss,
Meeting needs and keeping people happy
are tasks women do outside the workplace,
in the home. When women arrive in the workplace,
the gendered expectation is that they will
still perform that caretaking role.
Stephanie M. Wildman (1949- ; American
writer), Privilege Revealed: How Invisible
Preferences Undermines America, 1996
Women are dirt searchers; their greatest
worth is irradicating rings on collars and
tables. Never mind real-estate boards' corruption
and racism, here's your soapsuds. Everything
she is doing is peripheral, expendable,
crucial, and non-negotiable. Cleanliness
is next to godliness.
Florynce Kennedy (1916-; American
civil rights activist, lawyer, feminist),
Sisterhood Is Powerful, Robin Morgan,
There are very few jobs that actually require
a penis or vagina. All other jobs should
be open to everybody.
to "Women of Wisdom" Main Page
Bernstein Partnow is the editor
of "Women of Wisdom," and she is a perfect
fit for this task. Compiler of the noted
Quotable Woman, The First 5,000 Years,
Elaine started working on the first edition,
way back in 1974, she was making the transition
from actor to writer. Now in its 5th edition.
Quotable Woman has become the standard
book of quotations for women's studies programs
and organizations all over the English-speaking
world. She also wrote The
Female Dramatist a few years back, and
has just came out with a new collection,
Quotable Jewish Woman, Wisdom, Inspiration
and Humor from the Mind and Heart. Elaine
has marveled at how her work in women's
history has changed who she is and how she
is. Ever eager to share that experience
with others, she merged her two passions
- acting and women's studies - and began,
in 1984, to present living history portraits
of notable women to civic and educational
institutions. To date she has given more
than 400 such presentations to upwards of
50,000 people, not only across the U.S.A.,
but in Mexico and even China! You can find
out more about Elaine by visiting her web