by Catherine Seipp
Better Homes and Ladies' Mags
by Catherine Seipp
Independent Women's Forum

Unlike most media folk, I get a huge kick out of women's service magazines: Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, etc. I particularly like the new kid on the block, the year-old Lifetime, a joint publishing venture between Lifetime TV and Hearst. Magazines have long provided the inspirational true-life fodder for the women-in-jeopardy movies that are Lifetime TV's heart and soul; Lifetime the magazine is synergy, repurposing, the media circle of life...all wrapped up in a big, pink, faintly hysterical Lifetime bow.
And it's remarkable how much entertainment value you get from the Seven Sisters and their cousins for less than three bucks per issue. I usually skip the ubiquitous sex articles, which always strike me as depressing and futile, with that rank odor of failing marriages. But I love the lurid pieces on accident survivors and couples drowning in credit card debt and mothers dealing with leering school bus drivers.
But these magazines almost never have anything to do any more with what for years was their core purpose -- keeping house -- and that's too bad, because God knows the post-"I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar" generation could use help in this area. I've had it with what I've come to think of as Do-Nothing feminism,  which is far more pervasive and insidious now than the much ballyhooed Do-Me Feminism.
Do-Nothing feminism makes domestic incompetence a point of pride: "I just CAN'T cook/sew on a button/clean up my house...I'm just..too...BUSY!" is its neurasthetic cri du coeur, the modern equivalent of 19th-Century fainting spells.
The rarefied version of this is exquisitely exemplified by, naturally, Susan Faludi, who assumed a memorably lofty Do-Nothing feminist stance when a New York Times reporter visited her and her boyfriend a few years ago at home -- a home which did not strike the reporter as particularly homey. That's because she basically lives in her head, Faludi cooly explained.

Oh, of course. Well, with a head like Faludi's -- a spacious site filled with ideas as self-important as a sprawling Donald Trump resort -- who'd ever want to step outside? When it comes to average women with average, non-Faludian brains, though, I wonder about the notion that their lack of housekeeping skills must mean they have better things to think about. Because usually, I've noticed, they don't.

Take Judith Scruggs, the Connecticut woman convicted last year (and sentenced to probation in May) for contributing to her 12-year-old son's suicide by keeping a pathologically messy house. She blames his death on school bullies and is suing the school district, partly because she maintains that "God sent [her son] here on a mission -- and that mission is to make sure that bullying is stopped."

Well, I suppose that is something to think about. But it might be possible to consider the problem of bullying while also making sure your children don't live in a house filled with the stench of rotting garbage. More about Judith Scruggs and her bad housekeeping in a minute, though. 

As it happens, recently women writers with impressive feminist credentials have begun to reconsider housekeeping as a topic worthy of respect. The surprise success of the 1999 housekeeping encyclopedia "Home Comforts," by former lawyer (and Ph.D in philosophy) Cheryl Mendelson, suggested that a rebellion against Do-Nothing feminism had been fomenting just below the surface. And last year saw the publication of Jean Zimmerman's intellectual domestic history "Made From Scratch: Reclaiming the Pleasures of the American Hearth."

"I believe revaluing 'women's work' is a feminist act," Zimmerman writes. She added in a phone interview that, like me, she regards Family Circle and Ladies Home Journal as "guilty pleasure" beach reading. As it happens, Zimmerman's first job out of college was as a Family Circle editorial assistant, at a time (she's now in her mid-40s) when housekeeping was disdained by all right-thinking feminists.

"So fast-forward 20 years," she said, "and here I am reading Family Circle at the beach when I used to think it was hilarious." 

The cheery attitude of old housekeeping magazines is a refreshing antidote to the constant, "but who has time?!?" wail that seems to be a de facto motto of contemporary feminism. I was struck, for instance, by the contrast between the August 2004 Good Housekeeping and my July 1964 issue (I collect vintage magazines).

The 40-year-old issue has entire separate departments devoted to Fashions/Patterns, Needlework, Decorating/Studio and Institute/Textiles. But although it retains its iconic title, the only advice the current issue of Good Housekeeping offers readers is in the Q&A column by the famous Heloise, who inherited her position as household hints expert from her mother.

Curiously enough, the August Good Housekeeping contains something of an apolgia for spectacularly bad housekeeping - a sympathetic article about our slatternly friend Judith Scruggs. "When Judith was first arrested," the article explains, "her story was dubbed the 'messy house' case -- and sympathetic mothers across the country wondered how they might be judged if faced with similar scrutiny."

The difference in attitude beteen today's and yesterday's Good Housekeeping is striking. The 1964 issue features a pert drawing of a woman next to "The Floor You're Looking For," who smiles happily as she scrubs her floor on hands-and-knees while wearing a cute headband and Laura Petrie pedal-pushers. The 2004 issue features the grim, puffy face of Judith Scruggs, and an inset shot of her filthy, cluttered-with-dirty-dishes sink.

Yes, the cheerful 1964 floor-scrubber was unrealistic; but so is the notion that the housekeeping habits of someone like Scruggs are not all that worse than those of sympathetic mothers across the country. Obviously, her problems were bigger than her messy house; but I'll bet forcing herself to clean it up would have gone a long way toward improving her family's life. And modern women's magazines do women no favors when they not only suggest that housekeeping is hugely difficult, but offer almost no help in making it easier.

Catherine Seipp is a writer, and she blogs at her website "Cathy's World."


Copied below is a National Post backgrounder on the IWF - Independent Women's Forum ( and the hypocricy by contrast of North American gender feminists on the issue of the war in Iraq.

"Selling Out Our Veiled Sisters" by Elizabeth Nickson

National Post (Canada), July 10, 2004

Last week, the Independent Women's Forum, a right-leaning U.S. non-profit group, published a list of 25 prominent women in the new Iraq. Pre-Saddam Hussein, Iraq had been one of the Middle East's most forward-looking countries, one of the first to grant women the vote. Under Saddam, not only was voting a joke, but women were habitually imprisoned, raped and tortured. Some even were hanged by their own feet during menstruation, so they became "poisoned by the infection generated by their own blood," according to Affra al-Barak, who spent seven years in an Iraqi prison and now runs a free clinic in Baghdad.

Today, women hold the following portfolios in the Iraqi Interim Government: Agriculture, Environment, Immigration, Labour, Municipalities and Public Works, and, of course, Women's Affairs. When Iraq holds free elections, 25 percent of the seats in the new Parliament will be held by women. Voters will be guarded by more than 100,000 U.S. and allied soldiers. Canadian soldiers will not be there.

In Afghanistan right now, as groups of Afghani women travel around the country registering female voters, U.S. soldiers are running interference, defending their rights. The Taliban, of course, are not interested in women voting.

Do "mainstream" feminists even comment on these changes, much less praise the U.S. government for its work? Crashing silence from their hundreds of publications.

The disconnect between Western feminists and Middle Eastern women has been critical. The Beijing Women's conference of 1995 identified the Middle East as the region most in need of attention. Just virtuous bloviating, as it turns out.

Since then, the situation has deteriorated. The 2003 Cairo Conference on Violence and Arab Women found that the doctrine of aib, Arabic for shame, brands women who forsake the home for the workplace. More and more, Arab women are veiling, from 20 percent in Lebanon and Syria to 80 percent in Iraq and Kuwait. Women living on their own are outcast. Fifty percent are illiterate. Men can divorce women on a whim, but when women choose divorce, it takes years. If granted, she typically must give up her dowry, children and most of her possessions.

Honour killings, whereby women are killed by members of their family for being raped or marrying against parents' wishes, are still punished lightly, if at all. Islamist groups in Algeria and other Arab nations rape and kidnap women, and no action is taken by the government.

Pre-9/11, like every other sentient Western female, I received e-mail after e-mail urging me to pressure "our government" to do something about the plight of women under the Taliban. Well, guess what: Something was done. But As Neil Boyd describes in Big Sister: How Extreme Feminism Has Betrayed the Fight for Sexual Equality, the hard left stance of feminism precludes acknowledgement.


The history behind this disconnect is revealed by an extraordinary memoir. Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, which has sat on the New York Times bestseller list for most of this year, last week at number one, is a brutally frank account of what happened when Islamists took over Iran. Nafisi's father was the youngest mayor of Tehran, and his family descended from poets and intellectuals. Nafisi, who was educated in the United States, was a Leftist who worked to get the Shah thrown out of power, and in 1979, went home to celebrate the fruits of the revolution she'd helped create -- to watch, for the next 20 years, as friend after colleague after acquaintance after family member was arrested, tortured and assassinated.

A turning point arrived for her when a highly respected woman judge was put in a sack and stoned to death by government thugs. The melding of the hard Communist left with religious extremists had created one of the most brutal governments in history. This was a regime bent on replacing your own thoughts with theirs. If you resisted, you were killed. A pair of pink socks peeking out from under a chador meant arrest, imprisonment, and if the guards were so inclined, death.

"My generation complained of a loss, the void in our lives that was created when our past was stolen from us," Nafisi says. "Yet we had a past to compare with the present; we had memories and images of what had been taken away. But my girls spoke constantly of stolen kisses, films they had never seen, and the wind they had never felt on their own faces. This generation had no past."

Nafisi's architect husband regrets his early, thoughtless hard-left activism. We'll live with this guilt for the rest of our lives, he tells her, as they finally make their plans to leave their beloved country. Western feminism will live with that guilt too.

Reprinted with permission of the author.