Yesterday, I talked about Linda Hirshman’s book Get to Work, and my fear that her focus is too limited. Hirshman seems to make the conclusion that important work is Google-able. If our names don’t show up on the search engine (and she is not talking about Google blog search), then we need to rethink our lives. Hirshman champions the early Betty Friedan who compares housework to the work of animals.
She really didn’t have to go there, did she?
Hirshman makes the important case that upper-class women matter to all of society. She argues that none of us would say that elite men do not matter to society. But, she makes the damaging misstep of depreciating household labor.
We all know that someone’s got to clean the bathroom. After years of extensive research, I haven’t found an animal that can vacuum my living room. And if the chore is outsourced, most of the time, the person behind the mop is a woman. If the elite women in our society go around thinking that scrubbing those floors is for the four-legged, then none of those privileges are going to be trickling down, and we are headed for a huge problem.
This is where David Jensen’s Responsive Labor comes in as a much-needed corrective. The first words of the Preface made me breathe a little deeper:
“Daily work matters for the Christian faith. Our ordinary labors–cleaning, cooking, caring for children, teaching, writing, investing, sculpting, trading, and building–are responses to the life God gives to the world.”
He is no Phyllis Schlafly, the Presbyterian (is she still Presbyterian?) who works against equal rights. Instead, he listens to important women like Dorothee Soelle and Sallie McFague. He broadens our idea of work as he questions our assumption that “real work is paid work.” Jensen begins his survey of work in America with the unemployed and underemployed. He studies the working poor, the work of women, and acknowledges that often a woman’s “second shift” begins at home. He’s not just pointing out the work of the upper class, he’s taking a good look into the face of the women who are cleaning house as well.
Jensen’s concern is that our faith often speaks to the things that we do away from work: church, prayer, contemplation. In doing so, we ignore business of our everyday lives. And so Jensen helps us to reflect on our leisure, our consumption, and our work.
Yesterday, I spent my lunch hour at Miriam’s Kitchen, the feeding and social services program in our church. We serve breakfast to a couple hundred homeless men and women every weekday morning, and we also open up a couple times a week for a “cafe” lunch, where people can gather for sandwiches, music, haircuts, and social support. Most of our clients are chronically homeless, but I met a twenty-three-year-old woman (I’ll call her Irene) yesterday who had only been in a shelter for a couple of months. Irene’s from out of town. She fled to D.C. with her two children to escape her violent husband.
She was staying with a friend, but when her husband began threatening her friend over the phone, Irene found herself and her children out on the street. Now, she works full-time at a coffeehouse, attends UDC to earn her degree in nursing, and in her free time, she’s trying to find a place where she can live with two children. She keeps a neat, detailed list of all the places that she has been in her daytimer. I sat there, exhausted, just talking to her. She has to do a whole lot of work.
Irene’s story has a happy ending. After just a few minutes at Miriam’s, the staff of social workers found her a home. Now she has a safe place for her children, a place where she can continue her education, and she can work.
As theologians, pastors, academics and politicians think about work in our country, we can’t forget about Irene. We cannot relegate her work to the work of animals, nor can we assume that the privileges of elite women will trickle down in her favor.