The Truth About Housewives
Don't make sexism aspirational
A TikTok romanticizing 1950s housewives went viral recently, the latest addition in a growing catalogue of online content and communities that suggest feminism actually made women’s lives worse and unhappier.
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The video is easy to pick apart, of course—this idealized version of 1950s housewives never really existed outside of advertisements and television shows. In reality, housewives were trapped. Literally. They had no financial security, no ability to apply for a line of credit or even have a bank account; they were victims of domestic violence, which was illegal in name only; they could be institutionalized by their husbands or fathers if they deviated from the norm, and were often medicated to the gills.
And that’s just the women who had husbands with enough money that they could stay at home. Women like my grandmother, who worked in bars and factories, didn’t have a white picket fence and starched aprons. Women of color didn’t have access to this ‘dream’ of American womanhood either; they were more likely to be domestic help for white housewives. (For some reason, the panoply of Pinterest board images never seem to feature housewives with domestic help—guess that racist history is too unseemly for today’s ‘tradwife’.)
It feels silly, in a way, to reiterate all of this; I think of it as information we all know. But more and more I see TikToks, tweets, and websites pushing traditional femininity as the solution to modern women’s woes. And just as I worry that ‘incel’ communities are radicalizing young men looking for answers, I’m concerned that this bizarre rewriting of history will draw in young women who are similarly struggling.
The timing is also important: It’s not a coincidence that this resurgence of housewife iconography comes at the same time abortion rights have been stripped from American women. What better way to quiet the next generation of girls, growing up in a country without reproductive rights, than to tell them it’s actually progress? They’re making sexism aspirational.
And this isn’t just harmless online chatter: The woman who helped the housewife TikTok go viral, for example, is an influencer who just launched a Peter Thiel-backed wellness company that provides women with health tips based on the dates of their menstrual cycles.
What’s also distressing is that this cultural pacification campaign relies on feminist rhetoric to lure in young women—whether it’s a website for natural family planning urging women to ‘listen to their bodies’, influencers using the very real issue of medical sexism to argue against contraception, or preying on the understandable financial and existential distress women feel under capitalism to push for traditional gender roles. I’ve even seen videos suggesting that becoming a stay-at-home wife is “making patriarchy work for you”—a subversive way for women to get one over on men.
There is never any mention, of course, of what financial insecurity can do to a person, or the idea that contributing to public life can actually be fulfilling. There’s no interrogation of how white housewives relied (and rely) on the labor of Black and brown women, or how depressed stay-at-home wives were. (No-fault divorce brought women’s suicide rate down 20 percent!)
I suppose saturated images of poodle skirts and roasts are better marketing than the reality of what participating in white supremacist patriarchy really looks like.
So here’s the truth: In addition to being more economically, professionally and socially vulnerable, stay-at-home moms are also much more likely to be depressed and anxious. We live in a country that is notoriously unsupportive to mothers and families, with a culture that tells moms they should be grateful to have the ‘most important job in the world’ even though it doesn’t pay and doesn’t come with time off. Studies also show that women are more likely to initiate divorces than men, that women tend to be happier than men post-divorce, and that marriage benefits men more than it does women.
All of which is to say: Do what you want, but let’s be fucking real about it. There is no version of American housewifery that has ever—or will ever—make women happier, healthier, or more fulfilled. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to sell you something. And it might just be your own oppression.