When people ask me ‘is your husband home?’ (or variations on that theme), I correct them in the same irritating way I’ll hiss ‘Ms’ if asked whether I’m a ‘Miss or Mrs’. My partner and I aren’t married, and I used to think my initial burst of frustration when people asked for my ‘husband’ was because I didn’t like the assumption that all couples have to get married at some point. It’s not really that, though: what’s frustrating is how often I am asked – or expected – to defer to my male partner. As if he’s the CEO in our relationship, and I am merely his secretary.
My dude and I live together, and we own a house (not the WHOLE house, obviously, just a bit of the house – this is London and neither of us is Elon Musk). The owning of a house is an important fact because when you’re the boss of one, especially a rickety one like ours, every now and then bits of it start falling off. The boiler packs in, or the ceiling collapses, or you realise that the damp smell exists because there’s a fucking great hole in one of the drains acting as a kind of rainwater-funnel, channeling liquid directly into the brickwork of the cellar. No WONDER there are mushrooms growing down there.
Buying a home together, much like (I imagine) marriage and the decision to have children, is one of those life events where as a lefty couple you will suddenly find your happy bubble penetrated by all manner of sexist pricks. I’d forgotten what it was like, but I have come across this before. And I am going to rant in detail about it below. Before I start, though, it’s important for me to tell you two things:
- I am fully aware that the only reason I get to rant about this stuff is because I am incredibly fortunate – not everyone gets to buy a house with their partner, and the very fact that I do this/have this makes me incredibly, ridiculously lucky. None of the bad stuff outweighs my gratitude for the situation I’m in, but if the very fact of me sitting here with my mortgage and privilege is sick-making for you to begin with, me ranting about minor acts of everyday sexism may well annoy you even more so I implore you not to read on.
- I do not think that these tedious sexist comments are the most important issue facing society. They are simply annoying, and surprising, given how far it feels like we should have come in the last 10 years or so. I know also that other people get irritated by this shit too, and sometimes it’s fun to have a rant about it. Please feel free to contribute your own examples of household sexist douchebaggery in the comments and I will come and sympathise and be angry on your behalf.
Meet the double-glazed douchebag
When I first lived on my own, about 9 years ago, I called a couple of double glazing companies to ask if they’d come and look at my back door (ooh err). It was rotting to pieces, and had been picked up in the survey as something that Must Be Done when I moved in, or else. Having obtained one quote from a local tradesperson, I rang a Big Company to get a second quote. A guy in a shiny suit appeared and listed off a figure so large that I nearly fainted. So far, so entirely what you’d expect from a double-glazing company.
What happened next really threw me: when I told him his quote was too high, he immediately started packing up his things to leave. He didn’t haggle downwards, as you’d expect. He didn’t explain to me why his price was actually accurate. Instead he said:
“Look, love, no offence, but I don’t think you’re a serious buyer.”
I asked him why.
“Well you get me all the way out here, ask me for a quote, then tell me you’ve had other offers.”
Well, yes. As advised by every single consumer advice website I had ever read, and everyone I know who has ever bought double glazing.
“Maybe I should come back when your husband’s home.”
Reader: not only did I not have a husband, I didn’t even have a boyfriend! Imagine that! I was all adrift on my own, like a tiny little girl clutching a teddy bear and waiting for Daddy to rescue her. Tragic story, really, but that’s how it was. I told him I didn’t have a husband, and I also told him that I could more than afford the double glazing. I had a salaried job at the time, none of this ‘writer’ bollocks, and I’d saved my pennies so I could pay for it without taking out finance. Still he didn’t listen, he just left.
About a week later, I got a call from their head office, who were asking whether I’d like to take up the quote I’d been given. I said no and explained why: I didn’t think it was a serious quote, I thought it was deliberately high to try and put me off so the salesperson could get onto a better appointment more quickly. Probably one with someone’s husband, who’d be able to stump up the cash, rather than poor little womanly me, who gets paid in cupcakes and fairy dust. They said they’d send someone else round, and apologised profusely.
The next guy who showed up gave me a better quote – a realistic quote, which we then proceeded to haggle over for a bit. He was friendly and he did not ask where my husband was. He did, at one point, have to ‘call his boss’ – a trick almost all home improvement salespeople use to make you think that this already-pre-approved-by-Head-Office discount is, in fact, a generous favour on the part of the salesperson, so you should be grateful and sign on the dotted line immediately.
When he called his boss, and told him my name, through my awesome powers of deduction I worked out that the guy he was speaking to was the one who’d tried to stiff me the week before. I’m not sure if it was the awkward, embarrassed look on New Salesperson’s face, or the fact that I could literally hear Old Salesperson yelling down the phone:
“HER? Oh don’t bother, she’s a bitch. I went round there last week and she’s a fucking timewaster.”
That was 9 years ago. And from my recent forays into home repairs, I can tell you that sadly absolutely fuck-all has changed.
His and hers sexism
When my boyfriend told a tradesperson that one day in the far-distant future we’d like to redo the kitchen, because he really wants a new cooker, the tradesperson pointed to me and said:
“Whaddaya mean you want a cooker? You’ve got one already – it’s HER!”
When we needed to get some work done, and I asked for a slightly-less-than-cheapest option because I’d researched and felt it was worth the cash:
“Spending his money are we? Why not, eh?”
It doesn’t just happen with my partner – a few months’ ago I went to a DIY shop with my Dad, and I asked someone where I could get a certain kind of wood. The guy looked at me blankly for about two seconds, then turned to my Dad and asked what it would be used for.
There are plenty more examples. And on top of the weird little comments, there is outright rudeness of people who – having been given my email address – then ask for his as well ‘so we can send stuff to both of you.’ This has never – EVER – happened the other way round. Or those whose first question is whether my husband is home, regardless of the fact that – so far – the only person they’ve spoken to is me. The odd looks and occasional actual comments when I’ve handed over my debit card to pay for things, rather than batting my eyelids at my partner and expecting him to pay.
Who wears the trousers?
This kind of sexism annoys me more, and is likely a million times more noticeable, because in our relationship I take on the lion’s share of the planning and organisation. I’m the one ringing builders for quotes. I pop to Homebase to get some mortar to repair cracks. I navigate the ridiculously confusing boiler cover terms and conditions to work out if we can call them. I’m the one who has to talk to Thames Water about getting meters installed. He rarely does this shit. It’s partly because the very thought of planning for the future makes him panicky and stressed, partly because I’m more efficient at it but partly because… *drum roll* …
Society often expects women to take on the majority of the household admin.
He has grown up learning that it’s the women who plan and book appointments and remember that the boiler’s fucked. I have grown up learning that – much like the household chores – if I don’t do this stuff it simply won’t get done, so I need to roll my fucking sleeves up and get on with it. If tradespeople want to play into gendered stereotypes, surely it’d be more accurate for them to ask him if his wife is at home, and refuse to sell him double glazing without my approval. After all, it’ll be me picking up the phone and arranging when the fitters can come and do the work; me who takes time off to let them in and look after them and discuss the details; me who has to write complaint letters if they fuck things up, or chase for a refund if they never arrive at all.
It’s usually clear – or at least it should be – that I do the majority of this work. I’ll be the person who’s spoken to them first, the one who’s researched it and has the info, and the one who can answer their questions with something other than a shrug. My ‘husband’ is not more knowledgeable and capable than me, and nor is he the Keeper Of The Money. I demonstrate this in every interaction with people who sell us stuff, in many cases laying it out explicitly in the same hiss with which I correct ‘Mrs’ to ‘Ms’ on the phone. I write the emails, make the calls, arrange payment, answer questions, let people into the house, schedule things in our calendar and every other conceivable thing that needs doing in order to get this dodgy thing fixed. So what exactly do they need from him that they cannot get from me?
It’s permission, isn’t it?
No one needs my permission on the rare occasions when he contacts a tradesperson. Though he’s had the occasional jokes about what I might think or say about what he’s doing, it has never been a question. Never has he been asked ‘is your wife home?’ with the same urgent tone that implies this deal can only go through with my say-so. They’ll talk to me, and let me plan and organise and phone and email and budget and chase and prepare… but then I’m the secretary, aren’t I? My partner’s the CEO.
When people ask ‘where’s your husband?’ they aren’t looking for consensus between the two of us – they just want to know that there’s a responsible man somewhere in the picture, and he’s keeping an eye on my work.