Monday, February 13, 2006

How clean does that toilet really have to be?

There has been a recent flurry of excellent posts discussing the nature of domestic chores and the inequities surrounding both the completion of tasks and the difference in acceptable standards of cleanliness expected by men and women. One of the most interesting was from Scott who presents a coherent argument that the arbitrary standards set for repetitive household duties, most of which unfairly fall into the woman's sphere of accountability, are responsible, at least in part, for creating a larger than necessary burden of work.

There seems to be a thread running through most arguments that men are willing to accept a lower standard of cleanliness than women and that men use that as a strategic argument to avoid, in the short term at least, most of the household cleaning functions. From the commenters in Amanda's post came this observation from The Happy Feminist:

... Because in fact cleanliness and orderliness are CRUCIAL. Consider the military. A historically all-male and still overwhelmingly male-dominated. In the military, which is all about getting things done in potentially life-threatening situations, being clean is considered absolutely essential and is insisted upon. The military understands that cleanliness and organization are necessary in order to function effectively,
But somehow in the civilian world women have been gulled into thinking cleanliness and orderliness are something too petty for the men to worry about.
A good and succinct observation bringing the following responses from Amanda:

One commenter at Feministe noted that he/she had a male friend who was clean, but he was in the military before. I think military service does give an excuse for men who otherwise might disdain cleaning to participate without being emasculated.
I found the need for an "excuse" a little amusing until I realized that I have actually used that very tactic in defense of both my participation and our shared standard. My wife uses it for a different reason in defending to some of her friends her reason for having me take on some of the more distasteful jobs because, "he is actually trained to do it better than I can." As Amanda says, it's an excuse; not necessarily the truth.

That brought me to this comment, in response to The Happy Feminist from BitchLab:

In the military, cleaning still has highly negative connotations and is usually associated with punishment. ON paper, everyone has to do some kind of maintenance/cleaning. In practice, it is also junior members of the military who end up doing the bulk of the work.
Not true and true. (I will refer to ships although I am intimately familiar with garrison routines as well.) While there are some punishment routines which involve cleaning, they involve extreme methods employed as corrective discipline. It is also a fact that there is a direct correlation between the cleanlinesss of a ship and unit discipline. The cleanest ships having fewer or no disciplinary problems. The bulk of cleaning is conducted during scheduled periods of the day and week. There is a formalized assignment of cleaning tasks, however the standard, which is purposely set high, is the responsibility of all. It is quite true that the bulk of cleaning falls to the corps of junior sailors and the least appealing of those cleaning jobs usually goes to the most junior. That could be viewed as unfair, except that rarely does anybody join the service as a Commander or a Chief Petty Officer. Virtually everybody joins as the most junior level of seaman or midshipman, thus everyone has been a direct participant in twice daily cleaning tasks during the early parts of their service. Despite the fact that cleaning is viewed as an unpleasant necessity, everyone knows what to do and how to do it... for the rest of their lives.

BitchLab goes on:

As you say, it's also something that is associated with one's identity as a member of the military. You live up to the ideal of the military by keeping things clean. But it's taught in a very utilitarian way: you pick up trash because it's a fire hazard, you keep floor mopped and toilets scrubbed for health reasons.
Agreed, but that's only a part of the raison d'etre. Indeed, there is a damage-control imperative surrounding shipboard cleaning, but it goes much further than that. Unit efficiency and morale are affected by the cleanliness of surroundings. The health and safety factors are real and they do not really diminish in a house. While the military/naval situation may be exacerbated by numbers of people using limited facilities (e.g. 22 toilets vs 250 people), it simply forces increased frequency of tasks which are the same as those carried out less often in a household. While the standards in the military are high, there is an element of personal and unit discipline which are a part of the equation. General tidiness is often a reflection of personal standards and pride. A junior officer who keeps a messy desk or office is viewed as lacking the personal discipline necessary to effectively lead troops. Not only is it a demonstration of a lack of organization on the part of the "offender", it is a poor example from which troops will receive a message that they too can pattern like behaviour. In short, cleanliness and tidiness, or lack thereof, in the military is used as a gauge to measure some of a member's personal attributes, one of which is attitude and the ability to live up to a constructed standard.

All that said, I know hundreds of service members who leave their unit, go home and leave those particular standards behind. In some instances, this is a good thing. To invoke a military standard of cleanliness would be pointless, and would likely incite resentment, particularly if those standards were imposed on a spouse. As Scott provides, such a standard in the household would create an arbitrary expectation which makes the burden of inequality more crushing.

I think the frustration most women feel is that men in a relationship know what standard is expected and still cannot get them to participate in a reasonable share of the burden even if women are prepared to negotiate a change in the standard. The military example serves to demonstrate that household chores are not the sole domain of women and could fall exclusively to men, sans the emasculation argument.

Men suggesting that they accept a much lower standard of household cleanliness may be couched in some minor truth, but it is too often employed as a strategy to avoid the direct involvement in repetitive cleaning. There is, however, a lesson to be learned from the military example and that is a demonstration of attitude. In my view, two things standout: (a) personal pride and (b) a willingness to negotiate, not just standards of cleanliness, but most other things affecting a relationship as well.

In this post I made a bit of a joke about how tools would be different if men were actually doing the housework. However, my experience in a predominantly male environment actually bears that out. Long before they became commercially available I saw sailors invent some unique cleaning devices, an automatic toilet scrubber and a floor cleaning device known as a doodlebug, being the first two to come to mind. It is not a wrong argument made by some women that a majority of household labour-saving devices are designed by men to be used by women. It is certainly wrong that many men won't use them. If they do indeed reduce labour and investment of time then men using a strategic argument that they will accept a lower standard should find regular involvement in household tasks quite simple and less time-consuming than it was when, sometime in the past, the male priviledge somehow became entrenched.

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