The Evolution Of The Housewife

real housewives"We are all housewives. We would prefer to be persons." -- Jane O'Reilly, in the 1971 premiere issue of Ms. magazine.

Two-thirds of stay-at-home mothers in the U.K. dislike the word "housewife," according to a recent study. A third find it insulting. The housewife has taken a beating ever since she was born, and the last few decades have been especially unkind. These days, "housewife" tends to conjure an image of quivering Freudian repression, someone who vacuums the living room with a face full of makeup.

"Housewife" began to fall out of usage in the late 1970s. But in recent years the term has been bandied about, thanks to those real ones in Orange County, New York, Miami and Beverly Hills.

But often these housewives aren't actual housewives. Some have careers. Some have whole product lines. Some aren't wives at all. So what does the label "housewife" even mean?


Nothing Of Value

The shows are "all about people who have nothing better to do but furnish their houses," in the words of Stephanie Coontz, the author of "Marriage, A History." Sure enough, its stars tend not be great contributors to society. And that is what housewife has always meant.

By 1900, the census formally categorized housewives as "dependents," bundled up with young children, the sick and the elderly, according to Sonya Michel, the director of United States Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and an expert on child care policies and mothers' rights.

Up until the early 19th century, both men and women were the housekeepers, because there was no real separation of home and work. Everybody had to help out. "Prior to the industrial period, housewife made no sense," says Kathleen Gerson, author of "The Unfinished Revolution."

But slowly, housework became women's work. In the postwar years, new-found prosperity made it possible for women to stop making money altogether. Middle class families packed their bags and moved to the suburbs, the father working in the city, with a salary attached, and the mother labored inside the home, without one.

"It wasn't until the '50s that you get the height of the family form, where the woman didn't have to produce," says Sharon Musher, who teaches the course "Meanings of Motherhood" at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. "And she was cut off from the world."


The Housewife Gets "Liberated"

Women were told to get all their satisfaction from making a beautiful home. To stop nagging, and get dinner on the table.

"This propaganda was so widespread that many women really believed it," says Musher.

A 1962 Gallup poll studying the attitudes of the "typical American woman" found that this woman (on average 35 years old, married with two kids, and a full-time homemaker) was in fact quite satisfied. The question of whether "the man should be number one," was answered with a resounding yes.

This was legally established too. Under the definition of marriage, the woman was obligated to keep house, provide sex and care for the children. The concept of marital rape didn't exist, and "Head and Master" laws in many states meant that the man could do whatever he wanted with any property acquired after the marriage, without the wife's knowledge or consent.

The year after that poll, however, Betty Friedan published a rather passionate complaint about this whole situation.

"Women thought they were crazy in thinking they didn't get all their satisfaction from housework," says Musher. " 'The Feminine Mystique' gave them permission to say that housekeeping is boring. Women really jumped at that chance."

As part of her research for her new book "A Strange Stirring," Coontz interviewed over 200 women who read Betty Friedan's book when it first hit stores.

"For a modern woman, it's just inconceivable how much guilt they were carrying for wanting to be something other than a wife. Many were seeing psychiatrists. Many were taking tranquilizers."


Lazy, Shallow Or Just Plain Crazy

Freidan's entreaty "Is this all?" ricocheted through the '60s and '70s, as women began to demand that men do a greater share of the housework. Far more women began working too; the percent of married women between the ages of 25 and 44 in the workforce jumped from 26 percent in 1950 to 67 percent by the mid-1980s.

"Housewife" was no longer just an unproductive person; she was an unliberated one.

"I deeply resent the implication that I am lazy, shallow, or just plain crazy for staying home," wrote an anonymous woman in a 1978 letter to the editor of The Washington Post. "For all that has been written about the decline of the American family, society is increasingly intolerant of those women who wish to devote their lives to its support."

"The Real Housewives" are perfect Betty Friedan case studies: bored, neurotic and unstable. "Those 'Real Housewives' may be the ultimate expression of American affluence gone wrong," says Michel.

They are exactly what the post-Friedan housewife wanted to persuade the world she was not: "lazy, shallow or just plain crazy."

The "Real Housewives" may not be housewives in the literal sense, but they are a reservoir of all the stereotypes that have saddled her for over a century. It is no surprise then that British stay-at-home moms cringed at the term. They probably do not consider themselves unproductive, unsuccessful, and dedicated to the pursuit of clean countertops and modish upholstery.

Housework, most women today agree, isn't their sole responsibility; their husbands should help out. Men are certainly doing more of the household chores, but women still do an average of 30 minutes more a day, according to the 2010 American Time Use Survey. That adds up to four extra 40-hour workweeks.

We are only in the middle of a 70- or 80-year trend, according a study published this year. Supposedly women and men will be doing an equal share of the work by 2050.

The housewife may be dead, but her ghost lingers on.


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Claire Gordon

Staff Writer

Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin.

Follow Claire on Twitter. Email Claire at claire.gordon@teamaol.com. Add Claire to your Google+ circles.

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