Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Woman's Work

Laundry. We gather it up, sort it out, stick it in the machine and press the button. Sometime later, we unload it, hang it out or put it in the dryer. We may or may not iron it. We put it away. And we moan about having to keep on doing it. 

Back in the days when I was a student, our flats didn’t have washing machines. We either trekked to the laundrette (complaining, obviously), or did our laundry in the kitchen sink. Washing jeans by hand was no fun, but we did it, wringing them out, and putting them to drip on the rack. 

There is somewhere a recording of me singing my heart out whilst doing my laundry in the basement of a flat in Notting Hill. It was preferable to sitting in the laundrette surrounded by silent strangers watching the stuff go round and round, and at least I entertained the neighbours, whether they liked it or not. 

Laundry has always been a chore; but in the not so distant past it’s been much more than that. It was hard labour, and it was an escape for which women were actually grateful. 

The one thing men did not do (and I’ll leave you to debate whether they do it yet) was the laundry. France has always been a very patriarchal society, and women, especially in rural areas, are still very much second in command. Doing the weekly wash got a woman out of the house, and into the company of others, in the one place where no man dared to tread: she went to the lavoir

Make no mistake; this was back-breaking work, and it went on all day. She would push a wooden barrow containing her washing and a three-sided box with a shelf, inside which she would kneel to scrub and dunk and soak and rinse the household linens. She could expect to spend the entire day at the task, with harsh soap, in cold – frequently freezing – water. At the end of it, she would reload her barrow and trudge back home again. 

The lavoir was fed by and drained into a stream; it was constructed of stone, and, if you were lucky, had a roof. The woman would set up a pitch, and get to work, chatting to her neighbours as she did so; and here was the liberating part of the whole hard, exhausting exercise – the company of other women.
According to the words on the wall of one lavoir, they cleaned the linen and dirtied the people. They exercised their power in the making and breaking of their neighbours’ reputations. Here they could moan about their menfolk without courting the possibility of a clout round the ear. 

In our last village, the lavoir was sited between the Priest’s house and the church. Cleanliness may well have been rather too close to godliness in this instance, and the women were roundly condemned for their coarseness and their loud voices. It made no difference. Here they made the rules, and if men wanted their clothes and their sheets cleaned, they had to put up with it. 

Some of these lavoirs are now being restored, and seen as an important part of social history.  It’s an acknowledgement of the hard labour that constituted domestic life for women well into the last century, whether servants or members of the family, which is rarely given so much as a nod; and perhaps a grudging admission that behind every good man was a woman with a square bar of Marseilles soap and a scrubbing brush. It’s as good a place as any to start.
 © lms 2013


  1. I never used a lavoir, but mum and I used to boil sheets in the copper, pushing them round with a wooden paddle, and then haul them out with wood en tongs and fold them to the right size to fir through the wringer, ?Clothes hanging from an overhead rack was a part of my childhood.

  2. Lizy, our childhood house had a washhouse at the back, with mangle, but my Mum eventually had a single-tub machine with the 'wishy-washy paddle action' as we called it. She still had to feed it all in by hand and get it out and empty the water and refill it and rinse, repeat ad nauseam. And the pulley-rack in the kitchen was a fixture of all good homes - and is now back in fashion.