February 13, 2010
The Canberra Times & The National Times

Beware of the iron fist

Tony Abbott is God’s gift to women. He wakes us up, and slaps us in to action. He’s jolly, silly, sweet and stupid – all at once. But best of all, he makes us think. We may be thinking unholy thoughts, even nasty, angry ones. But at least we’re thinking. Which is a whole lot better than mindless ironing.

Many have mused over how odd it was that Abbott landed in the leader’s chair when the Liberal party shuffled seats. But his purpose is becoming clearer each time he’s unleashed. He’s slapping women out of our complacency. He’s waking up those who’ve drowned under the drudgery of domesticity, and forgotten to be angry about it. Or those who are so busy juggling multiple roles that they’ve forgotten what the feminist fight was all about. Abbott is the savior we had to have.

Most importantly, Abbott’s silly utterances about the role of women, the work of wives, and the value of girls treating their sex as a “gift”, is a timely wake-up call to a younger generation: girls who are yet to understand that the role of women in public life is still under threat.

Abbott’s appeal to “the housewives of Australia”, telling women what they “need to understand as they do the ironing”, are Howardesque screamers from the 1950’s. And no woman in her right mind should ever want a return to that era. It’s a time when gender roles were clearly drawn in favor of men being in control. Women managed the domestic sphere, while men attended to the serious stuff of building and fixing the world – that worked well didn’t it?

On Monday Abbott was right back there in that comfy place, as he giggled about not knowing how to iron his own shirt. He used the moment to appeal to women because doing “the ironing” is something they understand.

Now, here is something Abbott and his ilk need to understand: being a “housewife” is the most demeaning descriptor a man can give a woman. It means she is a wife of the house, and a servant to the husband. Her work is mindless, boring and repetitive. She doesn’t need a brain, as ironing, washing, sweeping and scrubbing are brainless activities. The work is never finished, as the same chores need to be done over and over again. Her work is so undervalued that she is unpaid, and her contribution to the economy isn’t recognized. There is no career path for housewives; no advances, bonuses, or emails of “congratulations, well done”. There is no job satisfaction in housewifery at all – except a clean house and a happy husband. (But of course he’d be happy – who wouldn’t be, when she does all the rotten, awful, tedious jobs, and does them willingly?)

It’s no surprise to hear house bound women describe themselves as “just” a housewife. There is no honour in it. No glory. Most women who introduce themselves this way usually do so with embarrassment, the “just” being a muffled apology. And no wonder, given the role of housewife robs a woman of her identity and diminishes her confidence and self-esteem.

What Abbott and his ilk “need to understand” when they’re preaching to women about the ways of the world, is that a nation that segregates men’s work from women’s work is a nation heading for trouble. The most backward and unproductive countries around the globe right now are those in which women are denied an equal place in public life and an equal share of power. They are failed states.

Men do not own the public domain. We all do. Consequently, the private, domestic domain must be a shared place too, where even men like Abbott do the ironing.

Not all work is fun and satisfying. Mostly it’s hard slog. But the reality is – paid work gives meaning to our lives. It gives us a sense of purpose and achievement, along with a sense of value. And the more we are paid, the more we feel valued. Whereas, the work of an unpaid housewife is afforded no value, and therefore neither is she.

Men who fail to understand the seething resentment brewing among those housewives “as they do the ironing”, are in danger of suddenly waking up one day and finding the housewife has quit. And they’re on their own.

The fact that the federal Opposition leader still sees women as home-makers and men as law-makers – who can tell housewives what they “need to understand as they do the ironing” – should knock women out of our feminist slumber. We’ve been dreaming while the patriarchs have refreshed and regrouped.

Men like Abbott and his ilk still peer at women through that ancient prism, where sex role stereotyping sits neatly with their singular view of the world. They still believe women like being lectured by men who really don’t have a clue.

While such naivety is kind of quaint, don’t be fooled. It’s dangerous and has the power to keep women homebound and shackled, wondering where the hell they should shove that bloody iron.

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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