As women become liberated from domestic drudgery, are they in danger of losing something fundamental? Lesley Johnson and Justine Lloyd reassess the housewife
Journalist and broadcaster Virginia Hausegger recently created a furore in the Australian press with an article which vigorously contended that contemporary women had been failed by their feminist mothers. She told her readers that she was angry at her own foolishness in listening to Germaine Greer during her impressionable years. She rounded on other feminists for telling young women that they could have it all and carve out brilliant careers, without ever warning them to listen to their biological clocks. She herself had ended up childless, she lamented, because as a result of these influences she had failed to take sufficient time to nurture her relationships and partnerships. She had failed to become a satisfied human being because of the manner in which feminism had created a dichotomy between the downtrodden role of the housewife and the exciting self-actualisation that awaited the successful career woman.
This is not the only recent sign of a revival of interest in the figure of the housewife. In 2000, Cosmopolitan announced that young women had become the 'New Housewife Wannabes'. And in 2002, prompted by a new book by academic James Tooley, The Miseducation of Women, columnists discussed whether thirty-something women had been misled by feminists into thinking incorrectly that they could have a career and an independent life without forgoing motherhood.
It is certainly true that since the Second World War, feminists have had a troubled relationship with the 'housewife'. For many writers she was the 'other' against whom one could construct the notion of a modern emancipated woman. Simone de Beauvoir used the figure of the housewife in The Second Sex to encapsulate all that she saw wrong with women's lives.
Germaine Greer in The Female Eunuch (1970) condemned the life of the full-time housewife by characterising her life as one of absolute servitude. Women, she said, "represent the most oppressed class of life-contracted unpaid workers, for whom slaves is not too melodramatic a description". A few years later, Ann Oakley announced that "housework is work directly opposed to the possibility of human self-actualisation." Oakley's discussion of the housewife role reflected and made a major contribution to feminist theorising in the 1970s in which sex role theory and the social division of labour were major preoccupations. Her work was less polemical than de Beauvoir's or Greer's but her conclusions were no less forthright, and just as dismissive of the figure of the housewife.
But it is Betty Friedan who is best known as a critic of the housewife, as she emerged after the Second World War at least. Friedan took a less revolutionary stance than some of the early second wave feminists, but the impact of her work was profound, when she claimed to expose the 'happy housewife myth'.
In The Feminine Mystique (1963), Friedan argued that there had been a major shift in the popular media between the 1930s and 1950s. Women were prepared to accept this depiction of their lives and 'go back home', according to Friedan, because of a crisis in women's identity. Women growing up had no image of their future, of themselves as women. As the solution to this crisis, she proposed that all women should develop life plans, plans which were about their whole life as women, not just one part of it. They should refuse the housewife image and see housework for what it is: work to be done and got out of the way speedily and efficiently, not a career. De Beauvoir had spoken of the need for women to be self-actualising, drawing on existential philosophy. Friedan, too, spoke in these terms but within the framework of the humanistic psychology of the period and, in particular, the work of identity theorists like Erik Erikson.
But our research into the years after the Second World War, which looked at the popular press of the time, at films, radio programmes and popular magazines, shows that the feminists' rejection of the domestic woman failed to recognise the empowering capacity of this role, the manner in which it was a uniting force, allowing women to realise that they all had something in common. It gave women a means of recognising themselves as a social group. As a housewife a woman had powers, responsibilities and a sense of the future. Women spoke about their lives during this period through a variety of housewives' associations. They were not simply 'users' of the home, but intimately involved in constituting it. They were increasingly seen as 'experts on everyday life'. They were encouraged to take a role in the design of the modern home and became more and more visible and vocal in the public sphere, mobilised around planning and housing issues. The housewives' organisations of these years asked for public recognition of their contribution on equal terms with the male breadwinner. A proper recognition of such matters allows us to create a cross-generational dialogue with feminism; it enables us to realise that, far from being something which the feminist subject had to reject in order to achieve a proper subjecthood, the figure of the housewife made the feminist subject possible.
The re-evaluation of the housewife of the 1940s and 1950s prompts a debate about the nature of the domestic role in the contemporary world. For some people that role is almost redundant. It is now possible to have a nanny to look after your children, a person to clean your house or do your garden, as well as an agency to arrange your social life, your holidays, someone to let the washing machine repair person into the house when you are at work, buy presents for your children and your spouse, and so on. Indeed, lifestyle managers and consultants from companies such as the London-based TimeEnergyNetwork will run your household, co-ordinating all these sub-contractors to undertake your domestic chores. The housewife in this context, with all her caring and household management skills, is dispensable provided you have enough money to purchase the aggregate labour required to fulfil her role.
It is also true that the growth in migration, economic globalisation and new modes of work have now reconfigured the boundaries between public and private to such an extent that domesticity is no longer contained within the four walls of the home. As Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild argue in their recent collection Global Woman, women of the Third World increasingly move in "global survival circuits" in which "care and love [is imported] from poor countries" to rich ones, via the body of the nanny and sex worker. Ehrenreich and Hochschild show that the space and time of the home in the western world is intimately connected to the work of women from poorer countries. However, these migrant women do not have access to citizenship on equal terms with the families for whom they work, and as they care for the homes of double-income families, their own families have to make do in their absence. In this movement of care about the world, Hochschild argues that we should pay attention to the ethics implied in this transformation of the domestic economy: we should notice where care comes from and where it ends up.
Our earlier analysis also suggests that it is time to look again and more positively at the nature of domestic work, to resist its simple characterisation by earlier feminists as drudgery - a characterisation which ironically mirrors the traditional patriarchal dismissal of housework as a waste of time. But to value the virtues of domestic work does not mean recommending a return to the situation where housewives were financially dependent on men. At a time when there is a rising need for full-time care for children at home, and when both men and women are working longer hours in a more insecure workplace, the status of housework and childcare requires redefinition. The recognition of work in the home as work does not mean accepting the domination of one gender over another. Neither does it deny the fact that many women work outside the home, a fact that was as true in the heyday of the housewife as it is now. Exactly what happens after feminism acknowledges its own blind spots around these issues, embodied in the false opposition between the feminist and housewife, is still open to question.
Rather than rail at what damage feminists have supposedly done to women, we should return to a project that aims to transcend the deep divisions that feminists identified between public and private spheres. We sorely need to come up with a different idea of home that encompasses the new forms of daily life and intimate relationships that have been forged by second wave feminism as much as by globalisation. The way that we perceive home after the passing of the housewife will have to evade both the domestic entrapment of the 1950s and the focus on the vision of a perfect housewife that masks the real workings of the domestic economy of recent times. And we need to do it with a vocabulary that does not pose it as a choice to be made between two options, work or home, but one that encompasses a diverse spectrum of ways of living.