From the archive: Katharine Whitehorn on the housewife’s lot, 1970

Launching a new series about ‘the housewife and her husband in the age of equality’ for the Observer Magazine of 22 November 1970, Katharine Whitehorn asked, ‘Does a housewife have to be a cabbage?’

‘To read half the newspapers,’ wrote Whitehorn, ‘you wouldn’t think there was a door in England that didn’t hide a housewife going mad with the monotony, cursing her husband with every shirt she washes and her children for every mouthful they eat.’

Conversely, if you read many magazines ‘you’d think that all housewives were rosily satisfied with their lot and that if a mild discontent ever did creep in a good clear-out of the broom cupboard, a bottle from the doctor or a new knitting pattern would set them straight directly’.

‘Housewives, at any rate those who can read the Observer, have never been so obsessed with children. And if we are lousy mothers it’s just because we are so self-conscious about it.’ Whitehorn compared this with the ‘relaxed view’ of the Gentleman’s Magazine in the late 18th century: ‘The company of children is exceedingly disagreeable to most people at all times.’

Reading that ‘The woman who hates housework can with a little organisation and good machines easily run her house in half an hour a day, thus leaving her free to widen her cultural horizons, etc,’ Whitehorn agreed, but with caveats: ‘The woman with all the above, plus two maids, three poodle keepers, a travelling hairdresser and Richard Burton for a husband, maybe.’

Whitehorn said that men going out to work often weren’t to be envied – ‘a good many have a tedious time and worry about it as well. They aren’t all Laurence Olivier any more than you are all Joan Plowright.’

To end, there was ‘a word of cheer’ to any slatternly housekeepers from Quentin Crisp, who never cleans at all. ‘After the first four years, he says, the dirt doesn’t get any worse.’