Wednesday, June 30, 2010

William James and The Ironing

I haven't included The Ironing as a category of activity in my life for many, many years now. It's not that I never iron anything; if something needs to be ironed, I iron it. But I have no Ironing waiting to be done, no unironed pile, no task called "Ironing" that intrudes on my consciousness until I complete it. (My mother would tell you that, despite her best efforts, this has always been true!)

For some years, as a young adult, I felt that perhaps I should have The Ironing in my life - all my female role models did so. It must be a generational thing; not many of my peers think of The Ironing in the way our mothers and grandmothers did.

The Ironing has ceased to be for my generation (and probably subsequent ones) what William James would call a "living option."

I was reminded of this by an excellent article by Jonathan Ree, in The New Humanist (Jul/Aug 2010), which reflects what I felt about reading William James in university:
I love William James. He’s just about the only philosopher who didn’t end up as either a pettifogging nit-picker or an overbearing egomaniac with delusions of genius. He was generous too – witty, honest, modest and flexible – and more interested in promoting productive conversations than hogging the last word. He was also a brilliant writer.
The discussion of options, from his famous essay "The Will to Believe" (1896) is my favourite "takeaway" from reading James.

A genuine option must be three things; living, forced, and momentous.

A living option has to have inner, emotional appeal: either this or that, where both this and that are subjectively meaningful. A dead option does not compel.  Either do The Ironing or be a bad housekeeper; the idea of being a bad housekeeper must be something to be avoided at all costs.

A forced option is a real either/or situation: no way out, no third choice. The Ironing is a forced option only if being a housekeeper is the only choice and only if being a housekeeper means doing The Ironing oneself.

A momentous option carries grave or serious consequences: for example not doing The Ironing will result in the total demise of western culture and society, financially and morally.

For some, for sure, doing or not doing The Ironing is still a genuine option. For many, it has ceased to be living, forced, or momentous. Being a housekeeper is no longer the only choice, or one of the few choices, for women. The idea of being a good, bad, or indifferent housekeeper is no longer so compelling.

And I have found that there are virtually no consequences at all for not doing The Ironing - except that my older female relatives sometimes roll their eyes at my rebelliousness.


Janice said...

Okay I'm 50 (is that older in your terms?)and I don't do ironing in that slavish way either. Lots of my younger friends seem to iron everything including their socks, life's too short!

Ciss B said...

Except for some of my cottons (and linens!), the ironing is now mostly done by the dryer!

ChrisJ said...


Aargh! 50 is younger in my terms! Interesting that the younger women are ironing; somehow I think it's a bad sign.

ChrisJ said...


Permanent press is a wonderful thing!

Hels said...

oh yes!! I also have no Ironing waiting to be done, no unironed pile. But even more than that, I don't have a specific ironing day that older housewives had. Monday was always for laundry, Tuesday was for ironing, Wednesday for the big weekly shop, Thursday was for baking etc etc.

ChrisJ said...

I had forgotten that. As kids we used to sing a song - "Monday's the day we wash the clothes, wash the clothes, wash the clothes. Monday's the day we wash the clothes, so early in the morning." Next verse was about ironing on Tuesday's.

They trained us young!

lifeshighway said...

I remember the wash our clothes chant. In fact, when I stayed at home with my kids I did the wash on Monday. I was brainwashed and never knew it.

I have an ironing pile because I love cotton in the summer. :(

Judie said...

I can iron a man's dress shirt in 3.5 minutes. But do I? Absolutely not!

I love ironed and starched sheets! They smell so good when you first get in the bed, and they feel so cool. After a couple of minutes trying to get yourself comfortable, that smell goes away. Not worth the effort.

I don't buy anything that has to be ironed, and if I accidentally slip and DO buy something, I simply bury it in the back yard.

In my household, Monday was always wash day. My husband wanted his laundry done more often, so I told him that was fine--and showed him how to use the washer and dryer. Problem solved!!

ChrisJ said...


I wish someone would invent cotton and linen that don't have to be ironed.

ChrisJ said...


Good strategy with your husband. I can see it working for all kinds of things!!!

P. M. Doolan said...

Neither my wife nor I ever do much ironing. We've simply lived the wrinkled look for many years. When, on the four or five times a year I really need to have an ironed shirt, I usually have to ask her where the iron is. Mostly, she can't remember either. Then I have to hunt about in the cellar and, unfortunately, I find it.

ChrisJ said...


Yes, the wrinkled look does very well for much of the time.

Judie said...

Actually, it does! He now cleans up the kitchen as well. I'm working on the rest of the housework so I can really retire at some point!

ChrisJ said...


I'm taking notes!

askcherlock said...

Hah! "Ironing" is not in my vocabulary, a momentous decision upon which the local dry cleaner can reap rewards. And unlike some decisions in my life, this one carries no guilt whatsoever.

ChrisJ said...


I'd never thought of it, but we who rebel against ironing are good customers.

Judie said...

Ah, what a great life I have! When we moved to Arizona, Rod dumped all his clothes that required ironing, except one dress shirt for weddings and funerals. His ties are collecting dust (also not my problem). Now when we go out, the dress is "Tucson casual" and I am a happy girl!

ChrisJ said...


Tuscon casual sounds like a nice style.

Judie said...

Chris, it is whatever you deem it to be as long as you have on a shirt and shoes. It is hard for me to believe that I live in a state that is so casual, but has a governor who never got out of the 50's, and a state government who have corks up their asses.

Annemieke said...

This is now the third time this week that I come across the name of William James. Time to find out more about him.

ChrisJ said...


His work has stuck with me since university days - very interesting.

Thanks for commenting.