Friday 6 July 2012

Let's Do the Time Warp Again, Or Not

There is a growing trend of young women choosing to embrace traditional gender roles and become housewives. I am not talking about women who are unemployed by circumstances rather than choice, nor women with children who have chosen to stay home with them. I mean, full-blown 1950s-era housewives, whose days consist of cooking and cleaning and other domestic drudgery. In most cases, the financial sacrifice that the couple is making requires many home economies to make ends approach, so the modern homemaker often embraces old-fashioned skills like sewing and mending, and making lunches for her hubby to take to work. This trend is both intriguing and alarming. It raises two obvious questions: Why is it happening and why is it so frightening?

The former query is easy to answer. As women have fought tooth and nail for equality under the law, in education, in the workplace, and in all areas of society, they have never lost the responsibility of homemaking. And making a house into a home is a full-time job. This means that women who work have two jobs, one of which must be squeezed into early mornings, evenings, and weekends. Some women can hire cleaning ladies, send out the laundry, and otherwise pay for others to do much of the housework, but that is a luxury for the wealthy. The more usual result is that the housework doesn't get done and the house is a place to crash but not really a home. Meals are not eaten together in a relaxed manner. Breakfast is a granola bar on the train, a yoghurt gulped in the car, or a bagel and coffee purchased on the way into the office, and dinner is microwaved or ordered in, eaten in front of the TV or computer. Parties are catered and cooking is reserved for special occasions, a rare effort when there is more time at the weekend rather than a daily ritual. In general, the necessities of life are purchased rather than made from scratch, and entertainment is passive, i.e., listening to music rather than playing it.

Back-to-the-Land Apparently Means Back in the House, Too

There is nothing wrong with the above scenario if hearth and home simply aren't important to you but, clearly, the lack of a home life is missed by some. It is a feeling that dovetails nicely with the slow food and locavore movements, the resurgence in chicken-keeping and small-scale farming, canning and preserving, knitting and spinning. The disconnection in the modern world from the sources of our food and textiles has become so extreme that it has spawned a desire in otherwise normal city folk to raise their own sheep, shear them, spin the fibre, and knit it themselves. Handmade items are wildly popular, and sites like Etsy are thriving. Work itself is also becoming less satisfying and secure. People change jobs frequently, and work longer hours for less money and fewer benefits. Not everyone has a profession that they chose, a fulfilling career that satisfies. Most people, women and men, are working to make a living and would gladly quit and take up gardening or knitting or bread baking if they won the lottery.

So, it is not difficult to see how a couple might decide that returning to an earlier model of the division of labour, with one spouse maintaining the household and the other working to pay for it, makes sense. The women who make this retro lifestyle choice report being happier, more relaxed, less stressed by the modern world. It's a retreat from the rat race, into the cocoon of the home, where one has more control.

Now, as to the second question, I think I can venture an explanation for why women who have fought for the opportunity to work outside the home frown upon women who make a choice to reclaim domesticity. One reason is that the hard-fought, hard-won gains of the women's movement are still a work in progress. Women are still fighting for equal pay, prestige, and respect in the workplace. There is still a perception amongst male, and even female, bosses, that women aren't as dedicated to their jobs, that they are apt to quit if they have kids, or be more likely than men to have competing demands outside work, such as taking care of children, elderly, the home, etc. This is true, of course, but it is usually a necessity for women, not a choice, because men refuse to take on or even assist with these responsibilities. But the result is that women are not taken seriously in the workforce. Men have never had a choice about working. Feminism liberated women to choose to work or stay at home but it did not create that choice for men (yes, there are a few SAHDs & SAHHs, but they are rare and ridiculed), so any perception that women are just playing at work, just dabbling in the working world but can retreat home anytime is anathema to equality.

And let's not forget that working gave women the freedom not to marry; they didn't need a man to support them any longer. A homemaker, unless she has a trust fund, needs a breadwinner. Women have fought hard to gain financial independence from men, to be single by choice, child-free rather than child-less. So reverting to a model of women as homemaker (or even man as homemaker) is a return to a scenario of dependency. The money-earning half of the couple always has the upper hand, even if they choose not to play it. A single worker can cope without a homemaking spouse; a homemaker cannot survive without money. Women entering the work force and paying their own way went psychically hand-in-hand with women being equal partners in marriage and not subservient to the master of the house, the controller of the purse strings. It wasn't so long ago—my mother remembers it vividly—when women could not get a mortgage, credit card, bank account, etc., in their own names, even if they were earning their own living. So there is a legitimate fear that women returning home takes us back to a time when men ruled the world and women lacked equality in every aspect of life. Yes, some laws have changed, some forms of discrimination on the basis of sex are now illegal, and homemakers are legally entitled to part of their husband's earnings in divorce, but the perception that going home is going backward in terms of women's rights is hard to shake, and the ability of women to make a choice to work or not leads to resentment on the part of men, single women, and others whose life circumstances don't permit that choice.

Additionally, some of the basic tenets of the women's movement revolved around the idea that homemaking was stifling intellectually, that women were capable of being doctors and lawyers and engineers and using their brains as well as men. In an era when education for its own sake has been devalued, when it is seen as solely vocational, will women's access to higher educational programs and scholarships be threatened by the possibility that she might choose not to use her degree? It is dangerous: women lawyers, for example, rarely make partner. If the male partners thought the female associates might leave to stay at home, it would be the kiss of death for any hope of female advancement in the workplace. Can losing voting and property rights be far behind? 

Obviously, this is an absurd situation for women. We are caught between a rock and a hard place. We have gained the right to work, but we haven't lost the responsibility to be the main parent and homemaker on top of it. Most women who work still do the bulk of the housework, childcare, elder care, social planning, etc. Women who made the choice to trade their aprons for briefcases just have 40+ hrs less per week to get done everything they had to do before. The home still needs to be made, the family cared for, whether both spouses work or not. And, as the author of an experiment in 1950s living called "The Apron Revolution" has been pointing out since she started her project, quality of life suffers. Few women have a career that provides intellectual stimulation and other forms of gratification; most women have jobs they hate but they need them to pay the bills. They're stuck in jobs as they were once stuck at home. As more women worked, the cost of living grew to the point where tremendous sacrifices must be made for a family to live on one salary.

Of course, most women would agree that, as difficult as it is to Do It All, it's a highly preferable problem to have than in pre-women's rights days when women had no legal rights and few professional opportunities, when they were frustratingly and absurdly perceived as both intellectually and physically unfit for public life. But women are exhausted from trying to do it all, and the solution of reclaiming homemaking is increasingly appealing. In a new, feminist guise, it is growing (Anyone read "Radical Homemakers"? I just ordered it from Amazon.), but it still forces women back into subservience to men and it is still mainly practiced by religious women, which justifiably gives it a bad name. If you are a SAHW or SAHM, and especially if you are a homeschooler, people like me will assume you are some type of fundie. That's a fact. There used to be a blog called "The Atheist Homemaker", started by a SAHM who tried to find others online but all the homemaking sites she found were run by Xtian women blathering about "obedience" to their husbands. That nauseating tripe taints the idea of homemaking; no-one sane wants to be tarred with that Stepford Wife brush.  Unless you are brainwashed by religion, it is a lifestyle choice that will be met with resistance, both internal and external.

Notice that it is the mothers (and other older female relatives) of homemakers who are the most vocal opponents of this lifestyle choice. They can still remember when women were fired when they got married, denied promotions, excluded from degree programs and professions. It hasn't been that long since women lacked legal rights, since they went from being their father's property to their husband's property, symbolized by the father walking them down the aisle to their husband, and changing their surname from their father's to their husband's. It hasn't been that long since women couldn't vote or run for office. It hasn't been that long since women were expected to be support staff and not the boss, secretaries and receptionists instead of executives or lawyers, nurses instead of doctors, elementary school teachers instead of university professors. It hasn't been that long since women could not open a bank account or obtain a credit card or a mortgage without a man's signature. It hasn't been that long since women lacked control over their fertility. It hasn't been that long since women were denied an education because how much did they need to know about philosophy or science in order to cook and clean and look pretty for the men, who were the only sex expected to have any brains or intellectual life. It hasn't been that long since a woman had no financial independence and could be left destitute if her husband left her or died. It hasn't been that long since women could not sue for divorce, and custody of children and property went automatically to the man.

Every gain in women's legal and financial equality has been hard won by women who fought doggedly against sexism and patriarchy, who stood up to men who said they shouldn't worry their pretty little heads about politics and law and medicine and world affairs and should stick to their ironing and sewing and let the men make the big decisions that affected their lives. If you can believe it, one of the arguments put forth against female suffrage was that a woman would never vote differently than her husband so he could cast the vote on behalf of the household. Many of the "firsts" for women happened within the lifetime of women alive today. Many gains, such as equal pay for equal work and equal political representation, have yet to be achieved.

There is a rational and legitimate fear that if women choose to be homemakers, they will not be taken seriously in the workplace. Women were once not paid as much as men for the same work because it was assumed that the man was supporting a family but the woman was just biding her time until she snagged a man to marry. This pay gap still exists, in the 21st century, and a return to traditional gender roles can't help but exacerbate it again. I read an article recently about a woman with a PhD in engineering who was taking time out from her career whilst her children were small. She was worried about the mommy penalty: losing ground in her field, losing up-to-date skills, and not being able to find a job when she re-entered the workforce. A man responded in the comments that her choice to stay home means that women should not be given scholarships nor places in graduate programs because they were denying space in those competitive programs to another (male) applicant who would use the degree.  It is scary to see that attitude, but that commentator is far from alone in his view.

So, in sum, it's difficult to negotiate a return to homemaking in the 21st century. It's hard to find a way for women to be homemakers yet not be guilty of intellectual vacuity, or religious zealotry, or anti-feminism, or financial dependence on men, and, above all, of not harming the careers of women in the workforce.

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