Radical Homemaking Week: (1) Beyond Housewives and Feminism
I have nothing against housewives: I just never intended to be one. For good reason: I am a TERRIBLE housewife (see here and here). I cultivate cobwebs and laundry mountains in my home with as great success as the courgettes and coriander I grow in my garden. I try to breathe mindfully whilst I do “my duties”, rather than fuming against my family, my husband and biology. I would not class my domestic skills (except cooking) anywhere in my top twenty of “things I’m good at”. They don’t come naturally. I don’t enjoy them. In fact, often I feel like I would rather gnaw off my own arm than empty the dishwasher or tidy the toys for the umpteenth time today.
A brief history of housewives
Housewives, argue Hayes in Radical Homemakers, are an aberration of our consumer culture. According to her“the household did not become the ‘woman’s sphere’ until the industrial revolution.” Housewife and husband were related terms. Husband meaning bonded to his own house, rather than to a lord. In the past men and women shared a home based life with a division of labour according to tradition and skills passed down over generations. Men doing leather work, chopping wood, butchering animals, threshing, fire making, woodworking. Women would play their part childrearing, cooking, preserving, tending kitchen gardens, healing. Domestic work was valued, requiring skill, creativity and ingenuity, and was satisfying. But economics changed this, first drawing men, then women out of the home. No longer would home be a place of family, food production, education, work and leisure – instead all of these functions were externalised, and bought, requiring money, and thus further work outside the home, and round the circle goes.
Friedan details ‘housewife syndrome’ thus: ‘“American girls grew up fanticising about finding husbands, buying their dream homes and dream appliances, popping out babies and living happily-ever-after.” In truth, pointed out Freidan, happily-ever-after never came.’
She documented the loss of potential, the depression, boredom and bewilderment of post-war American housewives, and spoke of ‘the problem that has no name’. Her words hit the American psyche deep, helping to spark the second wave of feminism in the 70s, and sending women out to work, and away from their homes, in droves.
“Before long, the second family income was no longer an option. In the minds of many it was a necessity. Homemaking, like eating organic foods, seemed a luxury to be enjoyed only by those wives whose husbands garnered substantial earnings…At the other extreme homemaking was seen as the realm of the ultra-subjugated, where women accepted the role of servants to their husbands and children….” (Radical Homemakers)
I remember clearly reading The Feminine Mystique at university, as part of my self appointed women’s studies. I may have been studying a degree, but also found myself doing far more than my fair share of housework. My head may have been full of feminist furore, but my heart was heavy with the knowledge that my ovarian ownership meant that our culture would expect the domestic sphere to be mine, especially if I were to ‘opt’ (for me it is not a choice, but a pre-requisite) to ‘stay home’ (it’s WORK people, just not paid!) with my children for their early years. I had put so much of my time and being into attaining top academic achievements through to graduate level, I was not prepared to give up my creativity or life of the mind to keep house. Nor was I prepared to sacrifice my deep soul need for a homemade home and loved family and kitchen garden for a glittering career and loadsa money.
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