Thoughts on Good Housekeeping’s 125th Birthday

I spent a fun evening last night at Shine On, the show celebrating Good Housekeeping’s 125th anniversary. It was not a “show” per se as there was no plot (though a few dramatic portrayals by Meryl Streep and Sarah Jones and a dialogue between Marlo Thomas and Miss Piggy kept things moving along). But as I posted on Twitter (@lvanderkam), I think I could die happy now that I have heard Aretha Franklin belt out Respect. The fact that the Queen of Soul’s white, feathery dress was like the classier cousin of that Bjork swan dress from several years ago just made the image all the more memorable. Other memorable attire: Martha Stewart’s very shiny gold pants. I tweeted that I liked them, and shortly thereafter, got an email in my inbox that Martha Stewart was now following me on Twitter. Yes, yes, she’s following 6208 people. But since she has like 2 million followers, I thought this was a small victory.

Anyway, the big name ladies were out in full force last night to celebrate the past 125 years, in part to raise money for the new National Women’s History Museum (ground will be broken, Rep. Carolyn Maloney said, in the next 5 years. Washington moves glacially).

The 125 years since 1885 have indeed been an exciting time for the female half of our species. A century ago, women couldn’t vote in the United States. Now, women have run, seriously, for president and vice president, and have headed the governments of our European friends (Margaret Thatcher in the UK, Angela Merkel in Germany). They become billionaires on their own (J. K. Rowling and Oprah Winfrey) and lead huge companies that focus on women (Martha Stewart, Andrea Jung at Avon) and those that don’t, per se (Angela Braly at WellPoint, Indra Nooyi at Pepsi).

So what does this have to do with 168 Hours? More or less this: The reason I dislike the narrative of the time crunch is that it makes it sound like it is not possible to have a fulfilling home life and still change the world.

This is nonsense. Margaret Thatcher and Hillary Clinton are mothers. Nancy Pelosi and Sarah Palin have five kids apiece! Angela Braly and J.K. Rowling, who has changed the field of children’s literature forever, have three kids.

These women are special, of course, but they all have the same exact amount of time as the rest of us: 168 hours a week. The narrative of the time crunch sends a message to young women that to make it all work they should work part-time or otherwise not be too ambitious. Because if you’re really truly going full-in to change the world and change institutions, to struggle and fail and take your blows and get better and keep going, when are those nice made-from-scratch dinners featuring locally-grown organic produce going to get cooked?

Last night Good Housekeeping was celebrating women who did change the world, though there is an irony to this. One woman highlighted in the May 2010 collector’s edition issue is Virginia Woolf, who reminds us “what remarkable things women might have written throughout history if they hadn’t been too burdened by household cares.”

While Editor Rosemary Ellis noted that a century-old issue says “don’t do unnecessary work just because your grandmother did,” this is a certain spin on the magazine’s history. Yes, there are plenty of pioneering touches of feminism in the yellowed copies I own, and the even older archives Good Housekeeping has graciously showed me (the 1880s issues honestly seem like you’re reading the King James Bible).

But Good Housekeeping is as responsible as any other magazine for extolling the virtues of these household cares. Elaborate household cares. I write in 168 Hours about the instructions for ironing electric blankets, sewing your own party tops, and a cake recipe that requires 2 days to make and involves tinting raspberry jam more red than it already is. (I also covered some other women’s magazines in this USA Today piece: Mags show just how far women have come).

Fortunately, Good Housekeeping has changed its tune these days, as has the culture at large. There are no more instructions on ironing electric blankets; the section on cleaning is called Good (Enough) Housekeeping. More often than not it centers on organizing tasks, which in theory can save you time, not scrubbing, which doesn’t. We are slowly learning that professional ambitions and families don’t have to be at odds. When you stop making 2-day cake recipes and stop worrying about more than the bare minimum of household cares, there is time enough for both. It is the answer suggested by the question in an ad in this month’s Real Simple for Hormel’s beef roast au jus: “How can I make a quality roast that doesn’t eat into my quality time?” Work, creativity, crusading, ambition all need not conflict with children – it is vacuuming, dusting, laundry, elaborate recipes etc., that conflict with both.

Our housekeeping may not be as good as it has been during other times in the past 125 years. But I am glad that people like J.K. Rowling spent their time creating ideas, rather than buying into a myth that 168 hours isn’t enough because there are so many household cares to attend to. We all have all the time in the world. That’s an idea that deserves a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and over the past 125 years, even Good Housekeeping has slowly come on board.


2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Good Housekeeping’s 125th Birthday

  1. Ironically, Martha Stewart is Reigning Queen of the Needlessly Complicated, Absurdly Time-Consuming, Pointlessly Fussy Recipes. I’ll never forget the Xmas dinner where a family friend with two young children volunteered to make the dessert and most unfortunately chose a Martha Stewart recipe for a cake so complicated she ended up having to enlist her father (who’d already cooked the rest of the Xmas dinner) to help assemble it at the last minute while everyone sat uncomfortably around the dining room table getting tired and cranky–only to find, after all that stress and time and effort, that the cake was dry and tasteless.

    Meanwhile, a woman from NJ recently won $1 million in the Pillsbury Bake-Off recipe contest after spending 3 days trawling the supermarket aisles and experimenting in her kitchen till she found a palatable means of combining enough Pillsbury and other General Mills products to fulfill the contest requirements. $1 million for 3 days’ work ain’t a bad cost-benefit ratio; on the other hand, who in their right mind, who wasn’t gambling on the hope of a $1 million prize, would ever want to use this recipe, which involves fitting pre-made sugar cookie dough into mini-muffin tins; then baking them; then making a hole in each one with a wooden spoon handle; then dipping the rim of each one in melted chocolate chips; then rolling the rim of each one in chopped walnuts; then filling each one with seedless raspberry jam melted down in the microwave; then freezing them all to harden the chocolate; then filling each one with vanilla ice cream; then topping each one with a fresh raspberry. In the time it takes to do all that fiddling about combining ready-made “convenience” products, you could have made real homemade cookies from scratch with your kids and taught them how to bake for real in the process.

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