As a 21st century, American, urban dweller, I’ve always had a romantic notion of the home fireplace. I didn’t have one growing up, but the concept always conjured images of cozy, contented evenings basking in the warm glow of blissful security. While I knew intellectually that women have toiled at the hearth for centuries, this somehow didn’t penetrate my romantic haze.
Then, I got one.
This, objectively, is a good thing. When my spouse and I bought our house a year or so ago, it came with a defunct fireplace. Rather than simply fix it, we decided to upgrade it with a wood stove insert that would provide supplemental heat in addition to that romantic orange glow. To our great pleasure, the new stove works great. In fact, it even works better than our electric heat pump (more on this later).
However, I quickly discovered that wood-fire heat is a lot of work!
First, a fire must build for about 45 to 60 minutes before the stove gets warm enough for the blower to kick on for heating purposes. So, that’s an hour of fire tending without much direct benefit.
Second, the fire needs continuous attention. I quickly learned that every 20 minutes or so, I needed to add fuel, reposition the fuel, adjust the damper, or implement a combination of these tasks, otherwise the fire would either a) die down or b) burn so furiously that most of the energy just went straight up the chimney. More than once I’ve gotten involved with something for more than 20 minutes and by the time I came back, the fire had died down sufficiently that the blower had turned off. Then I’d have to sheepishly rebuild it.
It didn’t take long for me to appreciate just how much this must have drained my female ancestors. I will not freeze to death if this fire goes out. I am not trying to cook on this fire. I don’t have children ready to fall into this fire and die. If I decide to ignore this fire for an hour and do something else, that’s totally okay. The idea of being tethered to this thing is dreadful.
The “it must have sucked to be a woman 100 years ago” realization continued over the recent New Year’s break. As outside temperatures dipped well below freezing, the wood stove kept us nice and toasty. During the day, that is. Wary of leaving the fire running unattended over night, we’d let it burn itself out late in the evenings. Unbeknownst to us however, someone had wired our thermostat wrong, leaving us without auxiliary electric heat when it got too cold out for our heat pump to run efficiently (don’t worry, we fixed it almost immediately). Early one morning, I woke up to a 64 degree house.
Now, this wasn’t a huge deal, but I was reminded of all those Victorian novels I’d read where the protagonist is awakened in the morning by a maid coming in to start the fire. How much it must have sucked to be that maid! You live in the attic where it is probably literally freezing. Then you need to get up before sunrise to drag a tinder box around, getting down on your knees in the dust to fuss over the flames in order to heat a room (probably multiple rooms) for someone still in bed! Now multiply that by almost every woman ever. Og.
(I’m definitely checking my privilege in my mildly chilly 64 degree centrally heated living room.)
My spouse has inadvertently heightened my resulting feminist pique. Since I work from home, it has become my job to get the fire started during the afternoons so we can have cozy heat in the evening. Well. . . so he can have cozy heat in the evening. Unless it is extra cold outside, I’m totally okay with not stoking the fire all day. He, however, very much enjoys the flames, plopping down after dinner to warm his toes while researching VR gaming systems on his tablet. This seems like the modern equivalent of the Victorian man coming home from his place of business, eating the dinner his wife has prepared for him, and retiring to his study to warm his toes with some brandy and a cigar. I’ve had to repress my urge to brandish the fire poker at him and declare “I do not exist to stoke this fire all day so you can come home and warm your toes!!!”
No . . . I do it because I love him . . .
AND because the fire brings opportunities for gender equality. This whole thing reminded me of my old posts on Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s book More Work For Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave. Back in my first post on the book, I remarked on how
“For most of human history, basic survival required a lot of work from every person in the household. Men made leather goods, whittled tools, ground grain into meal (or hauled it to the mill), chopped and stacked wood, tended animals, and worked the fields. Women cooked, tended children, made soap and candles, sewed, and wove.”
Remember earlier when I said that wood-fire heat is a lot of work? I left out the part about wood cutting, wood splitting, wood hauling, and wood stacking. If I’m the one tending the hearth all day, guess who gets to do all that physical labor? That’s right: Mr. Toasty Toes gets to haul the wood from the back shed in the freezing winter cold if he wants his fire.
I think we’re even.