The XX Factor

Nagging: The Personal Is Political

Mowing the lawn.
Where does “nagging” to do chores really come from?

Getty Images for John Deere.

The phrase “the personal is political,” coined by second-wave feminists, has been distorted and manipulated far beyond what it was originally meant to describe–basically, it was encouraging women to realize that many of the problems that seem personal are due to political forces of misogyny and sexism–but I can’t think of a better opportunity to revive it than in response to this obscenely apoliticized article by Elizabeth Bernstein, writing for the Wall St. Journal, about couples who struggle over nagging. Bernstein admits that women are more likely to be labeled nags than men, but she downplays the problem. More importantly, she frames at as a problem that rises out some mysterious, unchangeable struggle between men and women–despite her claims that it goes both ways, unsurprisingly she could only find examples where the wife was labeled the nag–that has to be mitigated, mainly by the nag doing even more work to seem placating and passive, to avoid annoying her husband.

What Bernstein fails to acknowledge is that “nagging” is not an objective description of a behavior. For a nag to take place, it requires that the person being asked to do a household chore feel put upon. Without the recipient labeling it that way, it’s not nagging. It’s simply asking. The reason that women “nag” more is because of the power difference between a woman and her husband in typical marriages; women don’t have the social space to ignore requests or to procrastinate endlessly, creating a situation where the ask has to come up again. 

Because the analysis assumes that there’s no political angle to this, the solutions to a nagging cycles are–surprise!--mostly on the backs of women. Ironically, women nag because they’re trying to get their husbands to do their fair share of household chores, but of course, the solutions for nagging always translate to women doing more work. To Bernstein’s credit, she does avoid recommending what most women who get labeled “nag” have to do to escape it, which is to stop expecting their husbands to share in the work and just do it themselves. But her solutions are nearly as bad, and lean on the already-existing expectation that women’s job is to do the majority of the emotional work in a relationship: be more placating, lower your standards (which, in real life, usually ends up as doing it yourself), hold his hand through it by giving him a timetable, or hiring someone else to do it (which only works if you have the money, but for most couples means that the wife does it herself).

I have an alternative solution that I’ve seen work really well for many couples: If the male partner stops viewing it as women’s work to anticipate what needs to be done, and instead chooses to do his work without being asked, that works really well! And if he is asked to do something, as long as it’s reasonable of course (it usually is), he does it without having to be asked twice, either by getting right on it or telling his partner when she can expect to see it done. Interestingly, I’ve seen bona fide conservative couples who managed to figure this magic formula out, so it’s not like you need to be radical feminists to embrace this frightening new lifestyle. It just requires abandoning the notion that domesticity is emasculating or that open communication is more difficult than it is.