(I help teach a college, writing intensive, first year seminar called “That’s what little girl’s are made of.” We talk about what it means to be a woman and things like gender roles and stereotypes. This short story mirrors the first essay assignment. I’ve given myself a little more freedom of structure and changed the audience, but I hope my students, and you, enjoy this piece.)
Gustafson family dinners always began with smells that made me salivate. Scrumptious foods were always simmering on the stove, like my mother’s homemade spaghetti sauce. Rich with garlic, zesty tomatoes, onion, and the tang of basil and oregano, mom’s sauce always pleased. I considered myself very lucky to be the family taste tester, especially on spaghetti night. Mom would call me in to see if the sauce needed something more. I’d taste, give her my opinion and then, when her back was turned to get the noodles from the pantry, I would sneak a few extra spoonfuls. Blissfully satisfied, I’d try to sneak back to the couch to finish an episode of Who’s the Boss, but it never worked. Mom inevitably asked, “Sweetie, could you please pull down the plates?” (This was one of those special occasions when parents disguise a question as a command by saying “please.”) After I’d pull down the plates, I was asked to gather five glasses, forks, knives and napkins. Then I was asked to set the table. I didn’t hate setting the table, but I didn’t love the job either. Internally I would grumble – couldn’t a girl, just once, get the privilege of being the taste tester without the added labor of table setter? Not in my household.
Eventually I realized that I was always setting the table. At first I thought it was a problem with my sneaking skills. I thought I needed to be stealthier as I slipped from the kitchen back to the living room. No matter how quickly or quietly I tried to escape, my mother always caught me before I got one foot out of the kitchen. It wasn’t long before I realized that being the taste tester was a ploy to get me into the kitchen to help. The more tables I set, the more episodes of Who’s the Boss I missed, the more frustrated I became. Why weren’t my two brothers being asked to help? They were around. They had hands. But it always seemed to be me who was expected to set the table. Not only did I set the table, I was also asked to clean the dishes after the meal. Were my brothers expected to do this? No.
Frustration eventually grew to indignation as I compared the expectations between my brothers and me. Brock and Brandon were asked to take out the trash, mow the lawn and help dad with other outdoor jobs. I was asked to help cook, set the table, wash the dishes, clean the bathrooms, and help with the laundry. I realized that my brothers’ chores were downright minimal when compared to mine. With an extra-large garbage can for a family of five, the trash only needed taken out once or twice a week and there were three males in the family sharing that single task. Mowing the lawn and raking leaves were seasonal. My mother and I folded the family laundry from January through December. Weekly, I scrubbed our bathroom sinks clean of caked-on toothpaste and our toilet bowl free of unmentionable debris. Nightly, I helped with dinner. I asked myself, could males not be taught to load a dishwasher? Was there something about boys that limited them from doing indoor chores like cleaning and table setting? No and no!
The contrast was clear. I spent much more time contributing to the running of our household than my brothers did and it had nothing to do with my abilities or their inabilities. It was all because I was a girl. As a girl, I was expected to do as my mother did. I understood the simplicity of this arrangement, but I couldn’t let go of the fact that it was unfair, arbitrary, and utterly silly. A burning feeling of injustice lit me up like full stage lights slapped on in a dark theatre. Suddenly I was compelled to fight for change. I was determined to show my family, especially my brothers, that we all could share in every chore, and that we should, no matter what our gender. But how could I do this? I knew complaining wouldn’t get me anywhere, neither would nagging or, if I were forced to resort to it, clear reasoning. So I did what all females must do raise awareness of important issues in an unjust system. I trashed for equality. I mowed for equal opportunity choring. I took on all the family chores regardless of gender assignment and showed my family that I could do what only boys were supposed to do.
My subversive campaign to change the unjust family chore system was brilliant for a twelve year old. Unfortunately, my plan was like a low quality diamond ring, beautiful and meaningful but, no matter how you looked at it, flawed. Sure, I showed that I was capable of doing my brother’s chores. I could gather and tie of a plastic sack with the best of them and once taught the intricacies of the push mower, I could easily mow our lawn. The problem was that my show of physical prowess and selfless volunteerism did not motivate my brothers to reciprocate. They didn’t ask to do the dishes for me, or jump up when mom asked someone to get the laundry from the dryer. And they certainly weren’t more careful with toothpaste application. In fact, they never said a thing about me taking on their chores. The only comment I received about all my work was from my father. Sometime in the summer, dad, in his deeply loving way, thanked me for being willing to mow the lawn. Then he said he would take over for me because he wanted the mow lines straighter than I could produce. (We had a rooty lawn.)
Of course I was disappointed in the failure of my campaign. It was like I had torched a thousand bras and no one flared a nostril at the stench of charred underwire. Rather than expanding my brothers ideas about gender roles their new thoughts were limited to things like, “our sister is more insane than we thought – she wants to do twice as many chores.” My parents still held to the status quo. Boys followed dad, girl followed mom. I went back to setting the table, doing the dishes, scrubbing the toilet, folding the boxers and briefs.
One day, while soaking and scraping the Crest cap free of dried paste, I realized that I wasn’t a complete failure. I couldn’t control, motivate or manipulate the thoughts and actions of others, but I certainly could influence my own thoughts and actions. My thinking had changed, my worldview and self-understanding expanded, and I was proud. I determined that some day, when I had kids of my own, chores would not be assigned by gender. Instead, I would design my household to be a place where all girls and boys are created equal. A place where, if you have hands you will do, for the mutual benefit of all.
Seventeen yeas later, I am 29, single and live alone. I do all the chores. I think back to my adolescent feminist awakening and think – at least I’ve had lots of practice.
Ah, this reminds me of that staff meeting when we each brought in an object that symbolized what it means to be a woman for each of us. What a great way to explore the idea of gender. Kudos to you Corrie. You rock.
how’s that poem about the mail chute/tunnel coming along?
At least in my case, the story doesn’t change much when the male involved is your husband instead of your brother. When I climb up a step stool to change a light bulb or hunt down the hammer and screw driver to fix a bent hinge or rickety chair, he does not feel compelled to start washing dishes or folding laundry. At least I too had years of experience of doing it all!
Kudos to your 12-year-old self for being able to see success in what seemed like failure. I think your students will gain a lot of insight from your piece to become good writers and strong women.