issue 181 - March 1988
Women who accept housework as their duty do not nag.
Women who reject it have no need to nag. But in between are
countless women caught between acceptance and rejection.
And nagging is each one's isolated political protest.
Juliet Kellner - reformed nagger - reports.
A historic change is about to happen in our household. I am going to give up nagging. The kids may not recognise this new woman: this person who vaguely resembles their mother but who no longer has a perennially defeated look in her eyes; whose voice is no longer a manipulative wheedle; who no longer complains (under her breath) that 'they never' while 'she always'. It'll be a relief to us all.
It's not as if the nagging ever did much good anyway. Nagging is quintessentially self-defeating. The more the nagger nags, the more the naggee retreats behind defensive barriers (newspaper, homework, sullen face, amnesia, deafness) that drive the nagger crazy. Not surprising, really. No-one likes being made to feel guilty. No-one relishes being on the receiving end of muffled rage, ambiguous messages, self-pity and blame. Everyone, but everyone, avoids the nagger, leaving her alone with the resentment that made her nag in the first place: more trapped, unrecognised and isolated than ever. So how is one to break out of this vicious circle?
Feminists have taught us that language is a good source of clues to why women find themselves trapped in miserable situations. I looked up 'nag' in my dictionary and found - sure enough - that the word applies 'esp. to women'. Q.E.D. But a second's reflection reminds me that not all women are associated with nagging.
The upwardly mobile, power-dressing career woman isn't a nag. Neither is the femme fatale, who lures one's male partner away with fantasies of free-spirited generosity. No, the stereotypical nagger, the nagger of comic routines, is a wife - usually a housewife, even more usually a mother, tied down with domestic responsibilities. And what chiefly differentiates her from the other two female stereotypes is powerlessness.
The career woman exudes material power, the femme fatale exudes sexual power. They are strong and free. The nag, by contrast, feels frustrated and stuck. She stamps around in a mixture of puzzlement and suppressed rage: rage, because she knows there is more to life than the thankless task of playing Mother Superior, suppressed rage, because she feels too guilty to admit she doesn't like her role; and puzzlement, because she doesn't really know what to think.
She has bought from her man, her mother, and the culture around her the idea that being the Perfect Wife and Mother is the role a truly womanly woman would prefer. Like a black slave who accepts the slave-owner's view that whites are superior, but feels painfully in her heart that she actually deserves justice and freedom, the brainwashed wife is internally riven. Both wife and slave are trying to live by a 'truth' they know to be false.
But how is the wife to speak out her conflict? Lacking in confidence, untrained in political analysis, she fires tiny salvos that are drowned out by the big guns of the opposition. Her lone, tentative voice is not enough. She is isolated in her pretty prison, which she continually decks out even more prettily, often to compete with neighbouring women in the Perfect Wife and Mother stakes.
Yet the sooner she drops the competitiveness and shares her frustration, the sooner she is likely to realize that her feelings are widespread, normal, and healthy. And, what's more, that they signify the beginnings of her scramble out of servitude; the beginnings of a realization that she does not want to die leaving as her only epitaph: 'she always kept her kitchen clean'.
Nagging is a start. It is the first sign that a woman wants more: more recognition from her family for what she has given so far, more opportunity to move onto something better.
'Every time my mother does something she just has to make a point about it,' sighs Pierre, a much-nagged teenager. 'Every time she washes the dishes or vacuums a carpet, she makes some loaded little comment to draw attention to herself. Why does she have to go on about every little thing?'
She has to precisely because it is 'every little thing' that she spends her life doing. It's hard to feel confident and powerful if all you've done from morning till night is trivial, predictable and commonplace. Anyone can vacuum a carpet. No-one will carve your name on a granite memorial for dedicating your life to your family's wellbeing (unlike the male soldier who is lauded for giving his life for the well-being of his country). There are no Pulitzer prizes for writing brilliant shopping lists. It is because her tasks are so unappreciated that Pierre's mother nags at her son for recognition.
Perhaps, instead of retreating, he should try to give her some of the recognition she craves - and deserves. And when he realizes just how much she gives, perhaps he might then voluntarily relieve her of a good chunk of her work so that she could spend more time doing what she really wants to do - for her own well-being.
Yet the nagger's tasks seem too mundane to justify powerful protests or claims to high public honour. The Perfect Wife and Mother has not been tortured (at least not in the sense normally understood by the word), or blown up, or suffered in any grand way. Her suffering is of an invisible kind. It is the suffering of the downtrodden, of the negated, slave.
The best slaves, of course, are those who make their sacrifices cheerfully. A grumbling slave, like a nagging woman, reminds everyone that the relationship is fundamentally unjust. My ex-husband made it clear that 'good' women were 'sunny' while 'emancipated' women were 'miserable'. Whenever I telephoned him at the office, I would hear his secretary laughing maniacally in the background. It seemed to please him - I think he thought she was being sunny.
Whenever our domestic life was other than perfectly convenient and pleasant for him this signified an inadequacy on my part. It took years of surreptitiously reading 'emancipated' books, talking with 'miserable' feminist friends, and (unobtrusively) taking on a part-time job in the outside world, before I fully realized what a tyrant he was and what a fool I was to put up with him.
It is clear to me now that if I'd stayed isolated in my pretty little prison, without the benefit of these 'outside' ideas to challenge the mind-set (his mind-set) that dominated my domestic world, I would have continued to accept his view of the 'natural' relationship between men and women (mine is not to reason why, mine is but to do or die). It is characteristic of tyrants that they are very good at putting across an unambiguous and self-serving view of reality. It is equally characteristic of the tyrannized that they are so unable to develop their own.
My tentative nagging, needless to say, had no effect - because it had a built-in expectation of failure. Naggers expect the answer 'no'. They don't say: 'I expect this as my right'. They say: 'I don't suppose you'll ever get round to.'. Poet and activist June Jordan said: 'I'm not interested in struggling, I am interested in victory'. Now there's a woman who has gone beyond nagging.
Which brings us to the next clue from the dictionary. The verb 'to nag' comes from the Scandinavian for 'to gnaw'. That's a telling piece of information. To gnaw, nibble, pick at something - that's very different from taking a good, hearty bite. Naggers deal with their problem in little, niggling bits. They make small, pathetic requests, heavily laden with justification: 'I don't expect you to do much housework, after all, so couldn't you just do the rubbish-emptying - especially since you know I have a bad back and it's not good for me to carry heavy things and anyway you haven't been doing anything all day, really, except watching television.'.
Power-dressers are much more swingeing in their solutions. Their male partners don't do bits and pieces of housework in response to piecemeal wheedling and coaxing, They have whole responsibility days briskly assigned to them: 'Richard does Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays.' And the usual masculine get-outs ('Sorry, darling, but a meeting's cropped up') are simply outlawed: 24 hours' notice must be given - time enough to make a new, responsible and equitable plan.
So why am I thinking of giving up nagging now? Because at last I feel entitled to my share of housework-free time. I'm not going to fight for it or feel guilty about it. I'm just going to have it. Take it.
And what of my ex-husband, the tyrant I finally left? Well, his secretary (the one with the laugh) has moved in with him. Only now if I phone him, I no longer hear her laughing in the background. Her sunny voice has dissolved into an uncertain tremulousness - not unlike my own a few years ago. And she spends, I hear, long hours cleaning and cleaning his house.
Juliet Kellner is a freelance journalist.
UNDER HOUSE ARREST
'It all started 17 years ago, when my daughter was about three. Before that I used to force myself to take her out - to the playground, places like that. But I got more and more frightened of leaving the house, meeting people, feeling them looking at me.
I get these panic attacks, you see. My stomach tightens like it's turned into concrete and my throat and mouth dry up so much that I can't talk. My face goes bright red and sweat pours off me until I can't hear what people are saying, just can't take it in. It can happen any time - just sitting at the kitchen table. But at least at home I'm safe.
It's like getting ready to run away, but you can't run because you're stuck, trapped. So I get up from the table and just walk around - anywhere, just to get away from where I'm sitting. Anywhere - except out of the house. I can never plan to go out, because I never know how I'm going to feel. Last Christmas I spent the whole time by myself at home because I thought I might get a panic attack if I went out. People phoned up and came and knocked on the door, but I just ignored them and eventually they gave up and left me alone. That's why I've got no social life.
I can just about manage because I go to places like the launderette very early, before anyone else is there. And I go out for walks when it's dark so no-one can see my face. I can pretend that I'm invisible. That's why I like the winter, because it gets dark so early.
When my daughter was small it wasn't so bad. My neighbours would take her to school. I couldn't go to sports days and concerts, but I would spend hours playing with her, reading to her, teaching her things. Even though I never answered the door and couldn't go out more than once a week, I told myself I didn't really have a problem. I told myself it was natural to want to spend time with your little girl. She was my purpose in life and I suppose I used her as an excuse.
Sometimes I think: 'Why am I stuck in here?' I've got so much to give - I would have liked to be a nursery teacher or a nurse. But I'm not qualified. I just went from being at home with my parents to living with my husband when I was 18. So I've never really had a life at all.
If I was in prison, when my sentence was over I'd be free. But I'm never free of the prison I'm in. One morning I'll say to myself: "Today I'll go out". And I'll actually do it.'
Interviewed by Debbie Taylor