This is Interesting! A Brief History of the American Housewife
Jun 30, 2019
Daycare getting expensive? Consider being a modern housewife and be proud. The concept of the stay-at-home spouse is slowly regaining the respect it once had and it's not limited to moms - househusbands too can take pride in their 'foremothers'.
Find yourself unemployed? Embrace your inner housewife! Even if you're a man. Yes, modern society looks upon the stay-at-home spouse with scorn, assuming they are just too lazy to find "real" work.
Anyone who has spent time taking care of the home knows this is not true, but the housewife used to be more respected in American society. That respect is slowly returning, as more women choose to remain at home instead of seeking outside employment.
By the end of the Revolutionary War, the woman of the house was seen as instrumental in providing for the family. Home was not just where you kept your stuff, it was a refuge from the rest of the world.
A good housewife provided food, clothing, medical care, education, spiritual and moral guidance, and kept the home itself in good repair. Women took pride in their ability to do these things, and passed the skills down to their daughters.
These skills were absolutely essential for a comfortable life for the entire family, and the "quality" of the family was often judged by how well they were kept.
They Had Help
Of course, the average middle-class family had three or four servants to help out - but this didn't allow the lady of the house to rest on her laurels.
The fact is, there was just so much work to be done, it would be physically impossible for one person to do it all. Yes, servants were necessary, and sometimes even the servants had servants of their own.
They Got Vocal
Eventually, after the Civil War, housewives began taking sides on outside political and moral issues. They became activists, with Prohibition being a pet cause.
A drunk husband cannot provide his family reliably, and become abusive. In an effort to protect her home and her family, the housewife became an outspoken opponent of "the drink", and succeeded in passing 13-years ban on alcohol. Pretty impressive, considering women at that time had won the right to vote, and still couldn't own property unless unmarried.
About this time, housewives in literature began transitioning from the loving, doting angel to the nagging, nasty shrew. The aggrieved male writers of the time grew tired of women having a say in how things worked outside the home, and subconsciously or not, cast them as villains where they were once angels.
The Industrial Home
As the Industrial Revolution gained a foothold, technology began making its way into the home. Appliances became automated, allowing women to cook, wash clothes, store food and clean the house without help.
Before too long, servants were only for the wealthy. After all, if the washing machine washed the clothes, the refrigerator stored several days worth of food, the sewing machine made mending a breeze and the vacuum cleaned the floor instantly, who needs help?
Well, the help could still come in handy, even with all the modern conveniences. Because housework involved much less labor, housewives were held to an even higher standard than before. A clean floor wasn't enough, it had to be waxed.
A tasty dinner wasn't enough, it had to be gourmet and nutritious. Neat clothes weren't enough, they had to be stylish and current. Housewives were increasingly isolated as they toiled alone at home all day, and as cars became common, they didn't even get to socialize much when running errands.
This dynamic reached its peak in the 1950s, just as "woman's work" was being devalued. Women were gaining outside employment in record numbers, and anything done inside the home was seen as less important.
Those women who chose to stay home were encouraged to stay "stupid" about outside events, and focus all their energy on the family. They were to let the men worry about the world, and simply provide a comfortable chair, a hot meal and a pretty face for their husbands.
Many blame the rise of feminism for the downfall of the housewife, and it does share some of the blame. Feminism is supposed to be about women being allowed choices, but some of its most vocal supporters were very loud about the "demeaning" nature of housework, casting lasting derision upon the woman who chose it as her work.
The real culprit, however, is the rise of consumerism and our "disposable" culture. It quickly became more common to throw things away rather than repair them, and meals more frequently came out of a can rather from the farmer's market.
This was all driven by advertisers, who saw housewives as a ripe market - they did, and made the purchasing decisions. So before, people wondered what the housewife did all day if she just bought new clothes instead of mending, heated frozen or canned foods instead of preparing fresh - so she was encouraged to perform charity work to "fill up her time".
Perform charity work she did, and she was happy to get out of the house.
The trend continues today - more and more activist groups identify themselves first and foremost as mothers - 'Mothers Against Drunk Driving' and 'The Million Mom March' are two extremely successful housewife-led movements.
In today's economy, it is often impractical for a family to survive on one income, so would-be housewives frequently find themselves unable to stay at home out of financial necessity. But with so many people out of work, many wives (and husbands!) are finding themselves at home all day.
Home cooking and a return to homestead values is making a comeback, and the "slow living" and "retro housewife" movements are picking up steam. We are experiencing the return of the housewife, and there is no shame - only pride - in that.