This 1981 documentary takes us back to the time when women were defined by laundry and, in many parts of the world, still are. As bizarre as it sounds, Director-Producer Roberta Contow shows us this truth—as stated in so many words by the women she filmed.
Some reading this review will not have the faintest memory of clotheslines—the time before dryers were common—and certainly not of washboards. I wasn’t around for the latter. But viewing the film caused me to look back through my early years to remember my mother setting aside Mondays for laundry day. How she’d set up the ironing board in the spare room, sprinkle water on clean clothes and iron for hours—even the sheets if memory serves—and starching my father’s shirts. My mother kept any complaints to herself. But just witnessing this drudgery made laundry an onerous task to me—one I put off until absolutely necessary to this day. And I never learned to fold sheets well, probably on purpose.
For some, the perfect fold brought a sense of pride and artistry. The surprising part to me —albeit presented with humor—was how women judged other women related to this totally irrelevant category, which spoke to how little power they had that they could only unleash any frustrations on their own kind. If the laundry wasn’t organized on the clothesline by color and type, or upon inspection a speck of stain remained…well, it said something was lacking about your neighbor. Heaven forbid if there was nice lingerie on the line. That said she was cheating on her husband.
I’m quite sure few women of those times recognized how something so trivial automatically became part of their identity by birth. It was just something expected and accepted even if they secretly hated it.
Watching this film caused me to reflect in what other ways any of us—women and men— automatically assumed, without question, stealth mores. Clotheslines is a film to watch especially for these times when—at least in Western culture—each of us has a voice…that we can make heard by our choices. What is onerous is not something to abide.
View Clotheslines online free on Folkstreams. Highly recommend setting aside the 32 minutes it takes. Also available on DVD for purchase directly from Roberta Cantow by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.