I’ve blogged before about ironing. I iron — or at least I did before. I got teased for it a little bit last summer by Patrick and his girlfriend — they’d come over for dinner in the backyard and we’d have a nice, ironed tablecloth and ironed napkins. I believe in table linens, they were the first thing I learned to iron years and years ago at the resort we’d go to in northern Wisconsin. I was a kid who was often bored, and who liked to help, and somehow I took to hanging around the laundry (the bag of candy that “Auntie” Min kept in the linen closet probably had something to do with it). Auntie Min was a lovely old lady with a cloud of white hair — I don’t know whose aunt she actually was, we all called her Auntie Min — and the laundry was a fascinating place because she washed all the sheets for the resort in a double wringer washer. Us kids were obsessed with the wringer, and if we were good we were allowed to poke the sheets through with the big wooden stick Auntie Min kept for just that purpose. She also had a mangle, that she used to press the dining room tablecloths, which was terrifying and magnetic and we were most definitely not even allowed in the same corner of the room with that big, steamy, whooshing contraption. Auntie Min taught me to iron napkins — I think I must have been standing on a milk crate or a chair, because I was a tiny child, but I clearly remember her showing me how to use the iron, how to smooth out those heavy restaurant-linen squares. I loved watching them get smooth and flat, but most of all I just liked being in that friendly laundry with Auntie Min and whichever of the Cabin Girls had been rotated in to help her that day, loved being in that steamy warm room, loved being allowed to help. It was a happy place that laundry room, full of women doing good work at a pace they were comfortable with, and who were producing stacks and stacks of beautifully clean linens.
The last few months Leah, over at Struggle in a Bungalow Kitchen has been wrestling with the ways that (mostly second-wave) feminism has constructed domesticity as always and only a site of female oppression. In her experience, domesticity has been a source of so much real joy and pleasure that she’s been wondering if there’s a way to re-figure the feminism argument in order to encompass domesticity as a positive choice in a woman’s life.
I sort of feel this way about ironing. For me, ironing is a sign of domestic health — that is, when I’ve got the psychic energy to get the ironing done, I know that my little domestic ecosystem is working. I like setting a nice table for both my friends and for myself. Finding myself, these past few weeks getting the ironing done, finding myself sitting down at the table in my kitchen again for dinner, with a proper place setting rather than camping on the couch with a tray, feels like a return to an ordinary life that I wasn’t sure I’d ever get back to. Finding myself reaching into the napkin drawer when I have people over and finding a stack of matching, ironed napkins with which to set the table is a good thing.
I don’t have an answer for the big philosophical questions about feminism and housework — it’s an area so fraught with expectation that I think it’s difficult for each of us to navigate. What I know is that I find great comfort and peace in having returned to a place where I can keep my house reasonably clean, and where I have the energy for niceties like ironing. My hunch is that like so many of these issues, it all comes down to choice and agency — if someone was looming over me expecting me to iron the napkins, I’d probably get my back up and rebel. But having discovered that I like this particular domestic chore, that it is a pleasure and that I’m not doing it out of some sense that I must iron the napkins out of some imposed standard of perfection, well, perhaps that makes it possible to be a feminist and a person who irons!