Spain's bullheaded men being cowed into dosmesticity

Posted: Jul 06, 2005 12:00 AM

You have to hand it to the Spanish. They've got a knack for inquisitions. The latest doctrine to which Spaniards now must pledge their fealty is equality in housework.

Under a proposed law, the male half of couples electing a civil wedding will have an additional vow. Not only "I do," but also "I will:" wash the dishes, change the diapers, make the beds, mop the floors, tote granny to elder care and lower the seat when I'm finished.

Or does Senora prefer I learn to sit? Oh, and bark? Did you want me to bark, too? But of course "meow." What was I thinking?

It is impossible to resist hyperbole when life becomes this absurd, but I exaggerate only about toiletries. Still, it can't be long before men are required to sit to do that which a dwindling majority still do standing.

Already in Europe the WC Ghost is a big seller. That's the German-spawned gizmo that admonishes a water-closet visitor when he lifts the toilet seat. In Germany, a voice that sounds like Gerhard Schroeder warns that standing is not permitted and that violators will be fined.

In Spain, men may be able to stand a while longer, but at home they'll be expected to tidy up afterwards. While no civilized person would argue against the virtue of cleaning up after oneself, is it really necessary to involve the government? The world's erstwhile conquistadors apparently think so. (And Southerners think they know something about guilt.)

This week the Spanish Senate is expected to pass a reform to the nation's divorce laws that would require men to contribute as much as their wives to housework and dependent care. The measure reportedly is in response to Spain's tardiness in embracing feminist notions of equality.

A survey by Spain's Labour Ministry Institute of Women reported recently that Spanish men spend only 44 minutes a day on housework and 51 minutes on childcare, compared with their wives, who spend nearly six hours daily on such chores.

Apparently men now will pledge to do better, and it's high time, says Margaret Uria, one of the reform's champions and a Basque Nationalist Party lawmaker.

"Feminists have been wanting (the reforms) for a long time," she said, adding that the "idea of equality within marriage always stumbles over the problem of work in the house and caring for dependent people."

As a wife, daughter, sister and mother who has lived mainly with men - I was raised by my father and helped raise three boys - I can sympathize. At my house, I regularly perform "magic tricks" wherein I demonstrate to the male creatures lounging about my kitchen how, for example, one makes a fresh roll of paper towels appear from behind a pantry door and slip onto the empty spool by the sink.

"Ole!" I say, and they laugh and applaud, amazed. With time, patience and diligence, they, too, eventually learn to master the trick. This same technique works for bed-making, towel-hanging and clothes-folding.

Arguably, the Spanish have created a neater trick. Force husbands to promise in advance to be nurturers and nesters (just what you want in a man), and, like biological clockwork, households will bustle with gender-equal equanimity.

The mind naturally wanders amid all this domestic bliss to other stations of marital unrest. The bedroom. You know the old "never/all the time" saw when couples are asked how often they share the joy.

If one were truly concerned with gender equality in marriage, one might suggest that men's duty to clean house is matched by women's duty to meet his various appetites. Or perhaps, fairly speaking, women should vow to work outside the home as many hours as their husbands, or take out garbage, or do whatever men do that women typically don't.

You see how ridiculous it becomes. Most couples - even in patriarchal Spain, I'd bet - figure out a way to get the job done. Meanwhile, inviting government to participate in defining what a private relationship should be opens the door to scrutiny and, in time, punitive measures.

Can jurists long resist passing judgment where broken vows are involved?

Uria says the gender-equality laws are symbolic only, but symbols have meaning, words matter, and signed pledges have a way of becoming legally binding. When Spanish couples find themselves in divorce court and child custody has to be determined, kids most likely will go to the squeakiest clean. Her name is "Madre."