In defence of being a housewife: Writer Helen Ellis on what it means today

03. February 2016 All About Children 9

I shred cheese. I berate a pickle jar. I pump the salad spinner like a CPR dummy. I strangle defrosted spinach and soak things in brandy. I casserole. I pinwheel, I toothpick. I bacon. I iron a tablecloth and think about eating lint from the dryer, but then think better of that because I am sane. I rearrange furniture like a Neanderthal. I mayonnaise water rings. I level picture frames.

Helen Ellis’s new short-story collection American Housewife is a savagely funny and absorbing look at domesticity, the extreme variety. Whether her homemakers are bracing for another epic dinner party, battling over wainscoting in a shared hallway or indoctrinating a new member into their book club, these women are charming, vengeful and totally manic – “passionate,” Ellis would say.

Raised in Alabama, Ellis, 45, keeps house at , where she lives with husband Lex Haris, executive editor of CNNMoney, and two large cats. The author is also a high-stakes poker player, competing at the World Series of Poker tournament. This book – arresting for the sparseness of its language and tight comedy – was born out of Ellis’s Twitter account , a satirical retort to the question she would suffer as a modern day housewife with no children (sample tweets: “I have Pyrex envy” and “Every day I don’t have to re-enter society is a good day”).

Ellis has been compared to Margaret Atwood, feminist singer Nellie McKay and Flannery O’Connor, the Southern Gothic master of grotesque characters. Asked where she sees herself in the cultural canon on homemakers, Ellis locates herself somewhere between I Love Lucy and Carol Peletier, the cardigan-wearing, M16-toting former housewife on : “I like to be at home and I like to entertain but if you cross me, whether that be insulting my meatloaf or bringing an infected zombie into my house, I am going to defend myself.”

The author spoke with The Globe and Mail from New York about the art of making a home, and what housewife – or stay-at-home mom or “home manager,” if you prefer – means today.

More than 50 years after Betty Friedan described “the problem that has no name” – the frustration and anger of unfulfilled housewives – why would any woman choose to identify as a housewife today?

I myself am an American housewife. Am I reclaiming the word? It has never left my vocabulary. It’s something that, in my life and among the women I know, never went away. I keep hearing that it’s retro but I was raised in Alabama and my mother was a housewife until she went to law school at 40 years old. In the circles I have always run with, it’s never been a dirty word. I don’t say “just a housewife.” I say “housewife.”

But the housewives in your book are not so quietly unhinged.

That is the word du jour: “unhinged.” I think I’m going to get a T-shirt that says it.

They seem so full of rage, endlessly grocery shopping, cooking, hosting and tidying up.

Aren’t we all?

Why do you think the term scares women today?

I guess they fear a lack of control. Maybe they feel that housewife is a subservient word, but I don’t have that. You never know what goes on inside a marriage. Maybe that’s what’s scary.

Between The Real Housewives franchise and Wednesday Martin’s recent book Primates of Park Avenue, as well as a of , where does the archetype actually stand today?

There is a mockery with the shows and with that book, which looks at the Upper East Side from an outsider’s point of view. With the television shows, it’s us feeling like outsiders looking in on a world that we don’t belong to. But I will tell you, I enjoy the Beverly Hills housewives. I would love to step into that world: so many flowing gowns and pink nails – it looks delightful. And .

But what I see on Bravo is not my way of life. For me, it’s more of a traditional appreciation, an old-school housewifery.

What is old-school housewifery to you?

My idea of old-school housewifery is I Love Lucy. I live in an apartment, I cook and I clean. I see friends. I see my husband.

I live a quiet, 1950s life – without the sexism or racism. My home is my pride, my home is art, my home is my kingdom, my home is my domain. It’s my turf. It’s just a contained place that I like to be.

What did you enjoy most about your decade at home?

Well, I’m still there. I think we all are artists. When you go into a woman’s home what you see is a reflection of her: what art is on the wall; which curtains are up; what colour the walls are painted; who lives in the house; what’s stuck on the refrigerator; what’s piled up in the hallway; what books are on her shelf; what placemats are on her table. It has nothing to do with what things cost. Sitting in my bedroom right now, the walls are very dark and the curtains are pale white and my ceiling is wallpapered with a geometric pattern and I’m sitting between two very fat cats on my bed. That can tell you a little about me: I’m a quiet, quirky, loving individual.

Are you ever bored?

No, I’m not bored. I’m someone who likes to be by herself. I am my own best friend. I am my own maid: I clean the house, I cook the meals. That takes up some time, but there’s always time for . We do have a little time on our hands. It’s the housewives who are going to buy your book, see your movie, buy your brand of your detergent, support you and run your political campaign. We are a force to be reckoned with and we don’t really like to be reckoned with.

How do career women killing themselves to “have it all” view the housewife?

Women are very varied. But I think all women value and treasure their home whether they spend 40 hours or 10 hours away from it a week.

Do working women envy modern housewives their luxury of time?

I was in the workforce for many years – I was a secretary – and I didn’t envy it. But I will tell you that when I wake up in the morning now and don’t go into an office at 8 a.m., I enjoy that. But I hate to say “a working woman” because goddamn, I do a lot of work around here.

Scanning these , there is a recurring theme of controlling the daily chaos. What role does control play for your characters?

They’re all battling a little bit with keeping control of their kingdom. Some of them keep it; some of them don’t.

Alongside traditional baking and quilting, today’s blogging housewives are doing a , from to . It’s a portrait of OCD. What’s the connection here between an ordered home and an ordered mind?

One of the most popular books out there now is Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It’s delicious. If I’m ever feeling a little down, my meditation is cleaning. My husband will come home many a time and see that the house is just sparkling. He says, “I’m torn. The house is gorgeous and yet I know that you’re upset about something.”

Of course it’s nothing new. When I was a secretary, if my desk was ordered, my mind was ordered. They say “get your ducks in a row” for a reason.

Like their health regimens and parenting techniques, home is an arena where women compete. What do we get out of the painful comparison game?

I don’t play that game. It’s just not my bag. That’s something you see on television because domestic drama makes for good TV. But it’s nothing different than in any other realm. Nobody’s going to say to a lawyer or a swimmer, “You’re so competitive.” Of course you are.

I write about it myself with “The Wainscoting War,” which is about a competition over a hallway and how it’s going to be decorated. In my own life, my attitude is, if you want to redecorate our common hallway, have at it. If I invite you into my home I expect you not to be critical, and when I go into your home I am not critical. When I go into a person’s home, I appreciate what it took for you to clean those oven dials or to organize that medicine cabinet, because believe me, I’m looking in your medicine cabinet. I appreciate what you’ve done for a dinner party: look at that runner, look at those monogrammed napkins, look at the flowers on the table, look at the name cards. There’s an investment there. I appreciate it and I will tell you so.

Are you making fun of your characters?

Absolutely not. I love my characters. Whether you agree with their motives or their practises, I understand, appreciate and applaud what they are doing. I don’t see them as angry, I see them as passionate.

What are your readers telling you?

That it’s a feminist manifesto. Who knew? It really is. Every woman in the book chose to be in the role she has now, just as I have. You can be a housewife and a feminist, I promise you. I am both.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

9 thoughts on “In defence of being a housewife: Writer Helen Ellis on what it means today”

  • 1
    z55man on January 23, 2016 Reply

    Being a domestic goddess and a good poker player require many of the same characteristics­. Patience….pro­cess orientation….­good physical stamina….and ability to abosrb human emotion. Good “housewives” are under rated, which is curious becasue there are so few of them who are really professional about their craft.

  • 2
    shoshanab on January 24, 2016 Reply

    Sorry a “housewife” with no job even part time, and no kids under 6 years old, is just a “kept” woman, aka a consort who also has day time duties.

    But his woman isn’t a housewife. She is an author. The question is why is she choosing to disrespect female authors and call them “housewives”?

  • 3
    to YOU on January 25, 2016 Reply

    The media lies – Fine.

  • 4
    Butterfly131 on January 25, 2016 Reply

    I don’t really understand why she’s considered a housewife.. she has no kids, but shes married. So isn’t she just unemployed? why does she have a book deal?
    if every married male who was jobless had this kind of attention, there would be a ton of new books being published.

  • 5
    Karen109 on January 26, 2016 Reply

    as a graduate school professor (a woman) of mine once said, “nobody needs a housewife,” not a man and not a woman. i’ve worked full-time all my life and i can take care of my own home and meals and anything else that needs doing. it’s certainly a good gig for the man – all you have to do is go to work – and everything else in your life is taken care of by the maid…. er, housewife/wife. women were lured back into the home after the second world war, when men came back to reclaim their jobs, by astute marketing of modern appliances and terms like “home engineering.” they tried to make housekeeping seem like something special to do, in order that women would give up their work and go meekly back into the home. for the large part, it worked. i hope this writer at least does something for other people with her privilege and free time.

  • 6
    Georgia An on January 27, 2016 Reply

    With the sky high price of homes, it’s no wonder that people think they are shrines or museums that have to be fiercely decorated and “curated”.

    If you borrow a million bucks for a 1000 sq foot bungalow or condo, no wonder you lose your mind and start cleaning your oven knobs with q tips.

  • 7
    crepuscule on January 27, 2016 Reply

    in what way is a serious writer a housewife? I thought it implied having no paid work, even as precarious as a writing career. And I think it also means having children, or at least planning to. When I retire from my full time career, I will not be a housewife, as I don’t have children to care for, and won’t be planning any, and that was not my predominant occupation during my working life. Men who are retired are not househusbands, male writers who work from home are not househusbands.

  • 8
    Linda999411 on January 27, 2016 Reply

    What Twiglets says is a concern, but mostly I am jealous. I need the income from working full time and don’t really have any energy left to clean, tidy or do any of the things I’d love to do. I’d love the energy and income from a working spouse to pursue all those things. I am also jealous of teachers who at least have that window in the summer to fix gardens, tidy cupboards. Its a privilege. I know teachers who whine an awful lot, then retire at 58 with a huge pension. Now that’s the life. Income AND time.

  • 9
    Twiglets on January 28, 2016 Reply

    I’m glad she’s happy. It wouldn’t be my choice to be financially dependent on another person–even in happy marriages, accidents, job loss and untimely deaths occur. A backup income is a very good idea, especially nowadays.

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