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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To the idiots who say that being a housewife -is lazy--you just sound jealous.. I am a housewife & have 3 well developed adult children--mostly because I was there & did not send them to daycare & have other people raise them..It is a sacrifice to stay home --we CHOOSE to live like this--it's very strange to me that others put us down because of our Choice--that is what womens lib was all about --we have the right to choose what we do with our lives--work & have our kids in daycare & have 2 cars & big house, or stay home & raise them ourselves--not lazy-just smart!

November 15 2011 at 11:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have read so many positive comments this morning regarding stay at home mothers. The BIG reason things are as they are in so many homes across the USA is because of laziness! That's the key right there. There is so much laziness in homes anymore at all levels. Kids who are lazy & parents as well.

We also need to remember those single dads out here as well, who are raising their kids due to various circumstances. There ARE some great fathers out here being REAL men, fathers & husbands as well. Let's not forget them while we are on the subject of homemakers.

So many parents don't want to be parents, but be their kids friends instead. that's not how God meant for it to be. He meant for kids to know their place, respect their parents & themselves & when they don't respect their parents then the parents are to do what is neccessary to get those unruly children back into their place quickly.

That's what's wrong in this country & places around the globe. Folks don't know their place at so many different levels. Kids are allowed by the various government agencies to say what they want & do what they want with no consequences. And people are scratching their heads wanting to know what's wrong with kids today! Ha! I know what's wrong & those like me who are older KNOW what's wrong with young people today. They need a good old fashioned spanking & they needed some good old fashioned discipline while they were growing up with government agencies minding their own business & butting out of others folks dealings with raising children. That's what's wrong in this country & needs fixed.

Nothing like REAL women & REAL men who aren't afraid to roll their shirt sleeves up & get out there TOGETHER raising THEIR family as they feel the conviction to do so. Amen! REAL parents DO work as a team being parents. I always said the only thing a man can't do is breastfeed & birth a child. Anyone who says otherwise doesn't have a clue about the capabilities of a REAL man, REAL husband & REAL father!

Some of us ladies out here got the REAL deal when we got married & not some momma's boy who whines about every little thing that needs done! Kick that ballbag right back to his mommas place! Don't you support that lazy good for nothing bum who won't get out there is support his family! Thank God there was a time when men were men & women were women! Society has become so twisted & freaky anymore it's no wonder the USA & loads of other places in this world are in the crisis they are today.

When you get out of the boundries of what God meant for roles to be then this is exactly what happens & is exactly what you get; A BIG MESS! Somebody say amen now!

November 15 2011 at 9:27 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Things are going to remain unchanged for stay at home wives and mothers until people get income and experience credit for unpaid work; that is, taking care of children, the sick, aging parents, housework etc. People (usually, but not always women) who devote themselves to raising children or nursing elderly relatives are not inexperienced or unemployed. Staying home to care for a parent means that my siblings will have pensions and substantial social security benefits, whereas my retirement will be spent in poverty. This example of unfairness is why many women reject traditional roles.

November 15 2011 at 1:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

god created man ...and saw this was good.........then god saw that the windows were dirty and dishes pilling up so he created woman......after the windows and dishes were cleaned ...he saw this was good.

November 14 2011 at 11:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Michelle Neff

I was one of those cripple kids to a litle dyslexic hope you can read it.

November 14 2011 at 11:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Michelle Neff

The term Housewife has lost its impotantce God bless my Mom and Dad I was a baby boomer, and that housewife or my Dad's wife and my Mother was the most important person in the world to me. Its A Shame that women then and now do not see the importance of a Stay at home Parnet be it Mom or Dad, but someone that is the parent needs to be home. Childre today are rasied by Coporations that operate for profit, and do little to shpe the values of the children they care for.

Moms fot that day shaped a nation it was they that tauiught us the valune of perosnal ethics, right and wrong, and to be responsible people, How can someone that conttributes so little as you say do all of that? Mom was nuch nor value for her contribution to soclety nmy My Father ever was even if he did Get John Glenns rocket into orbit-- and you know mt Mom could do anyhtinbg that he could do she chose to raise us , and she did a good job! Her effort c annopt be preiced in dollars abd centsm and oh she used House work to teach us responsibility those were our duties. We learnd quicky what happens if you sluff off your repsonsibility. My Mom -- the housewife is a role model, and remains a corner stone in our home althiugh she went to be with the Lord years ago her social values remain pretty much unchanged.

November 14 2011 at 10:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'm lucky enough to be able to provide a single income for my family that's more than most two income families make. My wife is a homemaker and while my job is demanding and stressful hers is even more so. I manage my business and she manages our home. To call her lazy, shallow, or crazy for wanting to manage our household is in its self crazy. Women who take on that responsibility are just as strong as women who goto another place to work. I do my best to give her the best I can, because she deserves it and more. What she does for our family isn't measurable in money or materialistic things. It's literally priceless and I wish more people would realize that women like her are what make a strong and healthy family.

November 14 2011 at 10:12 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I am full of admiration for a woman who is a "housewife" and realizes how much housewives have contributed to our nation and our society! These housewives do so much to care for and nourish their kids! I hope they realize this and I want to thank all of them!

November 14 2011 at 10:11 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Molly Daunen

I'm a housewife. And no, I do not "contribute nothing to society". I homeschool five children, one of whom has autism. I make it possible for my husband's career to flourish. And most importantly, I am always available to my family, and take care to raise the kids well. When those kids join the economy and start paying taxes, rather than ending up in prison or on the dole, perhaps you will re-evaluate whether the housewife "does nothing".

November 14 2011 at 9:49 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

I would love to be a housewife again. I miss it terribly. I feel like I have been cheated that I have to go to work and not devote my attention to where it really should be: my home and my husband. Thanks but no thanks, women's movement. :p

November 14 2011 at 9:40 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

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