1

Male suicide rates, closed mines and scalding hot water

What makes the men in the north-east of England so violent, both to themselves and to others? British artist Grayson Perry suggests it is because they have a history of doing tough work. But his question may need to be turned around.

In the first episode of his sensitive TV series on masculinity, All Man, currently running on Channel 4, Grayson Perry visits several communities of men: Durham ex-miners, mixed-martial-arts fighters, and the mates of a 30-year-old man who has unexpectedly killed himself. He asks himself why violence plays such a large role in their lives; and in particular, why the north-east of England has the highest suicide rate of England. It’s all to do with machismo. These men are not comfortable talking about their feelings. Nor are they attuned to listen to their own feelings. They bottle up fear, anger, and unhappiness. This explains why the professional fighters whom Perry interviews have a much more healthy mental life than the other men: they have an emotional outlet.

A photo taken in another place of high unemployment and (apparently) machismo: the south of Spain (Granada, May 2016).

A photo I took in another place of high unemployment, and apparently machismo: the south of Spain (Granada, May 2016).

But why the north-east? Because the work the men there used to do in the mines was so tough – the physical exertion, the risk of injury and death, the regular loss of friends and colleagues. Silence was the easiest way to deal with this toughness. And this silence has survived the closing of the mines.

This provides a fairly convincing explanation, except for one thing: the women’s work was tough as well. They lived in tiny cottages or cellars, dark, cold and damp, in most cases working longer hours than their husbands, which work involved things like carrying heavy buckets of water and handling scalding wash and laundry tubs and irons – even more than elsewhere, the men in the mining regions needed a daily scrub and change of clothes. They continued work throughout pregnancy, gave birth many times in their lives in very difficult circumstances, and saw many of their children as well as other family-members and neighbours succumb to disease and accidents. In sum, there is no reason to see their working lives as less tough than that of the men in their communities. And yet, they did not develop the same machismo, the same emotional silence, that Perry sees in men.

The bigger question therefore, is probably not why the men of the north-east are so tough, but why the women managed to stay ‘soft’ and in touch with their feelings. If soft is indeed what they are – they certainly commit suicide less often (three times as little, in the UK). But maybe we need a further explanation for that, one that goes beyond being able to work through one’s unhappiness by talking about one’s feelings: an explanation that includes social roles.

It may have something to do with feeling a useful and valued member of the community; with feeling that your continued presence is necessary for the survival and well-being of the people around you. Social expectations for men and women still differ: working-class men and women in the north of England face different responsibilities. Unable to function as mothers or housewives, when men’s task as breadwinner falls through because of unemployment they may have a harder time than women finding accepted roles in their community.

The cage-fighters have found a marvellous solution to this challenge in their role as knight or gladiator.

6

Are we done with ironing?

Time for the follow-up post to ‘Ironing board will soon be obsolete‘!

Do you iron?

We were lying by the pool, so my friend’s question was an unexpected one. She herself is a non-ironer, and she seemed to be gauging whether this makes her a bad person. Luckily, I could set her at ease: I do not iron my laundry either.

And your mother?

Well yes, the works: from cardigans to underpants.

While the recently released UN report ‘Progress of the World’s Women’ draws attention to the burden of unpaid care and domestic work that falls on women globally, it also allows us to ponder how the more affluent parts of the world deal with these tasks.

Clearly, women in wealthy countries are no stranger to the difficulty of juggling different duties within the limited hours of the day. However, I found that the question my friend asked me by the poolside signals a remarkable change that we see with today’s young people. This generation of emancipating women are using their time in a new manner.

In the second half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, housewives set towering standards when it came to the proper maintenance of furniture, floors, windows, linen and clothes.

To give an early example from a British housekeepers’ manual (pp. 6-7): every day, the blankets but also the sheets had to be taken from all the beds, and mattresses had to be

turned over daily. Feather-beds must be turned over and shaken in all directions.

The bed should then be completely remade,

and drawing your hand along the lower edge of the pillows, so that their form may be seen, the bed is made.

Before making a bed, wash your hands, and take care that your apron is not dirty.

Although these efforts may have yielded some health benefits, they were primarily aimed at enhancing a family’s respectability. Next to this, they may have helped mothers who were caring for only a small number of children, but who had nevertheless been excluded from the work force (it was a matter of pride for couples when the wife did not ‘have to’ work), to give purpose to their life: to feel needed.

In the 1970s and 80s, second-wave feminists were already different wives from their mothers. No longer did they just take care of home and family: they turned to paid work in massive numbers.

Still, they had been raised with their mothers’ domestic ideals: a perfectly neat interior, especially when receiving guests, the children always scrubbed and combed… Beside their paid jobs, wives and mothers continued to spend twice as many hours on home and care as their husbands, both in the UK and in many other countries (see the Multinational Time Use Study database). This ‘second shift’ of work is what led to the feelings of stress and inadequacy many women know so well.

In other words, the baby boomers were stuck with a historically high bench-mark in all matters domestic. In spite of a substantial growth in paid labour participation, which now absorbed much of women’s time, the baby boomers have never really rid themselves of this standard.

This is a thing which we do see happening with their children. Many of the young women who are starting a household today, and their partners, too, are taking on a new mentality. Of course, women’s time scarcity can also be alleviated by men’s greater involvement in the home, and by hiring professional help. Partly, this is also what is happening. However, the other obvious option young people see, is to simply lower their expectations.

A photo by the USA Department of Agriculture. Extension Service: 'Washington, D.C. Dusting mits with which dusting can be done with both hands develops speed and efficiency. Dusting mit or dust cloth in the pocket, dusting as you clean, eliminates travel time.'

A photo taken by the USA Department of Agriculture, Extension Service, around the 1940s: ‘Washington, D.C. Dusting mits with which dusting can be done with both hands develops speed and efficiency. Dusting mit or dust cloth in the pocket, dusting as you clean, eliminates travel time.’ (Currently in the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park. Photo provided on Wikimedia Commons.) Did the federal government occupy itself with the efficient cleanliness of American homes? I’m no expert on this, but it would seem so.

Hoovering, mopping, replacing linen and making beds: everything happens less often in this generation. Except for a formal shirt now and then, none of my friends ever iron as far as I can tell. Even folding is occasionally abandoned. (A weekly dusting has already been history for a while: in my work as a professional housekeeper, the different priorities of different generations of clients have become abundantly clear.)

Yes, guests like to sleep on clean sheets, but that does not mean the entire house must shine. Kids don’t like to worry about their clothes in the first place. And who knows what will happen to the pressing iron? It might do nicely enough as home decoration next to the washboard and the spinning wheel.

If these first indications persist – if women are grasping this opportunity to turn their back on perfectionism, and men are growing just as modest in their expectations – then, perhaps, we can look forward to a little less pressure in our stressful lives. Which is why the best place imaginable to start a discussion about housekeeping, was indeed the poolside.

This column has also been published in the University of Sheffield’s History Matters and, in a different version and focusing on the Dutch instead of the British situation, in NRC Handelsblad on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2015.

1

The perfect gift for…

Spring-time is here again (on the Northern Hemisphere). All over the world, countries get ready to celebrate Mother’s Day.

In Britain, a large household retailer has found a striking way of using this day to remind mothers of their duties.

shop window of large chain of household goods, 12 March 2015

Shop window of British chain of household shops, 12 March 2015.

It’s not altogether clear here who needs to get set: children, by buying a gift? Or mothers, by making everyone look their best on this festive Sunday?

Either way, we all know a happy mother is a mother dallying around the home. And her children are urged, by this shop, to help her remember in case she forgets.

Or should we assume that British mums are still pounding, rinsing and mangling their beloved’s blouses and bloomers by hand? In that case, they will be truly delighted with this gift, as it will open the way to an ocean of leisure. No better present imaginable.

If you are a particularly dirty child or spouse, you can even buy her three. Or give one to each mistress.

With thanks to my mother.

1

Ironing board will soon be obsolete

8 March is International Women’s Day. A day to think about the freedoms women and men have. And about the question: if these freedoms are unequal, how come? If even relatively rich, well-educated women are less happy in life than men, how come?

Photo of a Coleman's gas-heated pressing iron form the 1930s, by Sobebunny, 2010.

Photo of a Coleman’s gas-heated pressing iron from the 1930s, by Sobebunny, 2010.

A small contribution to an answer and a solution appears in today’s issue of Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, under the somewhat fanciful title ‘No More Dusting, Ironing or Hoovering’.

An English reworking of this article is now on Historian at large as well.