It is written that she who does not work shall not eat. Unavoidable as a law of nature, I propose that the inverse is also true; she who eats must wash her dishes. In the course of my (admittedly short) life, I have spent what seems like an inordinate percentage of my life cleaning plates, cups, mugs, bowls, water bottles, cookie sheets, silverware, straws, serving utensils, can-openers, cutting-boards, Tupperware containers, and thermoses. I have chapped my palms, wrinkled my fingertips, wrecked my nails, and, worst of all, lost my aversion to getting my hands dirty. In one sense, washing dishes has helped me build my character, and taught me how to deal with the unpleasant necessities of life. And yet, I still hate dishes with a passion, even though by now, I should have accepted their inevitability, kept my head down, and stopped complaining about what I cannot change.
I have always hated doing the dishes. As a child, I hated this chore; not so much because of the rhythms of the task itself, but because it represented limitations on my freedom. I was allowed to spend my time as I pleased, but only after I had finished the dishes. Sometimes, my mom would even take a turn when I had a lot of homework, made dinner, did some other chore, or begged hard enough. However, no matter how hard I begged, or how dirty I let the kitchen get, my dad would never, ever, lift a finger to help. Even if I grant that he worked hard to pay for my comfortable childhood and excellent education, I never quite got over this small unfairness. Strangely, I have spent even more hours stewing over this particular injustice than those I have spent scouring dishes.
In the process of becoming an adult and trying to separate my childhood impressions from my more mature perspective, I tried sympathizing with my father. Considering my utter hatred for the dishes, I can force myself to understand why my father would never help. I probably wouldn’t wash dishes, either, if I had a choice, especially if I had been taught that dishes were a woman’s job, and if the women in my life would coddle me and wash all the dishes I got dirty. I wonder what would have happened if my imaginary little brother would have also assimilated this idea. If I had a little brother instead of two little sisters, he probably would have had to do chores, but he probably wouldn’t have been forced to wash the dishes as much as we had. Even though he doesn’t exist, I can’t help getting just a little mad at him. Why does he –even if nonexistent– get to do less work than me?
Upon arriving in college, I was shocked when I found out that the gendering of chores was not a quirk of my household, or even of my machista Latin American upbringing, but a statistical trend worldwide. I was surprised when I found out that a 2016 survey by the International Labor Organization in 33 countries concluded that the performance of household chores among the girls aged 7– 14 far exceeded that of boys, and absolutely outraged when I found from a 2017 study of children’s time use in 16 countries that 68% of Colombian girls do housework, as opposed to 43% of Colombian boys. 1,2
I stewed over the numbers. My outrage was a familiar one, comforting, a pet outrage, one that gave the depth of lived experience to this impersonal statistic. Since I am the eldest daughter of a Colombian family, I am expected to volunteer for the honor of being the de facto maid at informal gatherings. Of course, my role is never stated, but a pointed look or two from one of my parents reminds me that I ought to be helping out. Before the meal, I am expected to relish the chance to get up, leave the living room, and assist the lady of the house with whatever she needs. If she tells me not to bother, and to head back and enjoy myself, I am supposed to start washing her dishes, and to continue, even if she protests. If needed, I am supposed to help set the table and/or help carry the meal out. I am expected to eat everything on my plate, leaving a bite to show I’m not starving and educada, which can mean I am both educated and well brought up. After the meal, I am expected to help clean up and to help with the dishes. To add insult to injury, it must appear that I am doing this of my own will, because I was taught to be acomedida, obliging. I am supposed to smile sweetly, and pretend as if helping with the dishes is one of the main joys of my life.
I always thought this was rather unfair. It was not so much the dishes that particularly infuriated me, but the expectation that I, as the eldest daughter of my family, and not my best friend, who was the eldest son of his family, was expected to wash dishes. It was also the fact that I was forced to volunteer by tacit agreement, and to pretend that I was acting from my own free will. During these gatherings, I would have selfishly preferred to play video games with the boys upstairs, start a game of hide-and-go-seek, or even quietly read a book in the corner.
But you have to choose your fights. Like the dishes, the patriarchy is a hard taskmaster, and my dishes-hating inner feminist preferred to be polite, not be thought of as that-girl-who-thinks-she’s-too-good-to-wash-the-dishes, do justice to my excellent upbringing, grit my teeth, add my hour of labor to the enormous log of the non-remunerated work women are expected to do, and just wash the damn things. Of course, it is all very reasonable, I was hosted, and someone must do the humdrum tasks of daily living, and I suppose that the sooner that I learn some humility and the inevitability of “a woman’s place”, keep my head down, and stop complaining about what I cannot change, the better for all involved.
I have never been told that I am the main doer of the cooking, cleaning, childcare, and dish-washing; I have simply absorbed and internalized this message so much, that it becomes difficult for me to tell where the patriarchy ends and where my volition begins. It is the same for chores. As Clare Miller argues in correspondence with the New York Times, Since chores are trial run for being an adult, the expectation that girls do the household work is perpetuated well into adulthood and has long-lasting implications for the division of labor later on in life.3 This holds true on an international level, as well. According to the ILO: “Early gender division of labour follows women into their adult lives and firmly establishes the unequal division of household and care work.”4 This means, of course, that, growing up as I did, even with the knowledge of statistics and an education, despite my best efforts, I probably still espouse gendered perceptions of the division of labor and will probably unintentionally perpetuate the cycle if I choose to get married and have children. Thanks a lot, patriarchy.
Recently, I flew back home and invited some of my high school friends to catch up. After our meal, it is customary to linger at the table and for the hostess to ask her guests if they would care for coffee or tea. Happily fulfilling my role, I took their orders and went into the kitchen. One of my friends followed me in and asked if he could do anything to help. Since I was just waiting for the water to boil for the coffee, and didn’t need help, I informed him not to bother, and to go back and enjoy himself. He said that he would accompany me, and as I watched for signs of bubbling in the coffee pot on the stove, he leaned his lanky frame against the wall behind me. Having not seen him in a while, I casually asked him how things were going with a girl he was seeing. It hadn’t worked out, he said, and I offered my condolences. He continued, mentioning that she was too feminist for him. Still facing the stove, I half-turned, raised my eyebrows, and asked, as innocently as I possibly could, if it was possible to be too feminist. He didn’t say anything, he didn’t have to. He me a look that clearly said back off.
Not caring to lose one of my friends over an apparent triviality, I smiled sweetly, turned back around, and changed the topic. We made small talk as I prepared the coffee, warmed the milk, and steeped the tea. He helped me carry the trays out. Unsurprisingly, even though my friend is the eldest son of his family, and I was hosting him, he didn’t try to wash my dishes or his, probably because he didn’t even consider that he was obligated to volunteer. I didn’t even expect him to volunteer, or even consider asking him. I wonder what would have happened if my friend had received the socially tacit message, broken the gendered chores divide, and started to wash my dishes while we waited for the coffee. Maybe things would have worked out with the girl that was too feminist for him, who knows?
As much as I would relish the petty revenge I could wreak on the dishes if I were to say that they have single-handedly caused the downfall of society, I cannot say so in all good conscience. However, I can say that they are representative of larger trends. Namely, who washes the dishes, and why, is very telling of the gendered stereotypes that we inherit and perpetuate from our parents. Like me, thousands of other educated women have chosen to stick to the status quo and not defy the tacit expectations placed on us. Perhaps that’s why the patriarchy is still in charge; because we have washed its dirty dishes. I think it’s high time we stopped.
- ILO, Women at Work: Trends 2016 (Geneva : ILO, 2016), Accessed March 10, 2020, ProQuest Ebook Central.
- Gwyther Rees, “Children’s Activties and time use: Variations between and within 16 countries.” Children and Youth Services Review, Volume 80, September 2017, Pages 78-87.
- Claire Miller, “A ‘Generationally Perpetuated’ Pattern: Daughters Do More Chores.” The New York Times, 8 Aug 2018.
- ILO, Women at Work, 67.