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Some 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, crucial--and non-negotiable!"

Symbolically, 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 pedicuring, bookkeeping [men make the expenditures, women keep them nice
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 work.

- In sisterhood, Elaine Bernstein Partnow, Editor


I stand here now, still at the kitchen sink
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 Artifice, 1945

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 Creek, 1991

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, 1974

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 do?
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 filmmaker.

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 Businesswomen, 1998

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, 1931

. . . 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 wage-earners.
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 "principles".
Eliška Krásnohorská (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, 1970

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 1961

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

Women 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 lifelong necessity.
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, 1976

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, 1965

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 Unions, n.d.

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, 1940

. . . 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, 1926

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 1973

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 1933

Celebrate my death for the good times I've had,
For the work that I've done and the friends that I've made.
Celebrate my death, of whom it could be said,
"She was a working class woman, and a red."
Malvina Reynolds (1900-1978; American political activist, songwriter, folk singer), Last song, untitled, 1978

We are the women of daylight; of clocks and steel
foundries, of drugstores and streetlights,
of superhighways that slice our days in two.
Our dreams are pale memories of themselves,
and nagging doubt is the false measure of our days.
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, 1914

"You did this carving?" Daedalus asked. It was obvious he did not believe her.
"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, 1997

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 come,
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 1974

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 Mystique, 1963

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 job market.
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, 1991

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 working-class environment.
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 a bull-dyke.
Penelope Gilliatt (1932- ; English scenarist, writer, film critic), The Hollywood Screenwriters, Richard Corliss, ed., 1972

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, ed., 1970

There are very few jobs that actually require a penis or vagina. All other jobs should be open to everybody.

Return to "Women of Wisdom" Main Page

Elaine Bernstein Partnow is the editor of "Women of Wisdom," and she is a perfect fit for this task. Compiler of the noted work The 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. The 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, The 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 site: www.TheQuotableWoman.com.


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