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In Praise of Housewives
July 10, 2001
by Wendy McElroy, mac@ifeminists.com

"We don't hire housewives." That is what Mimi Gladstein heard when she asked about joining the faculty of the University of Texas at El Paso, where she is now Associate Dean of Liberal Arts.

Gladstein refused to be devalued as a human being because she was a housewife. That "job" -- no less than teaching university English -- expressed her worth and her competence. Even more...being a housewife was the training ground where she learned skills such as setting priorities and budgeting time. Gladstein writes in an upcoming anthology "Women and Liberty" (Ivan R. Dee, winter 2001), "All I really needed to know about chairing a department, I learned by being a Jewish Mother."

In the 60's, a "Father Knows Best" image of the housewife stereotyped women who stayed at home. Today, PC feminism creates a stereotype that denigrates the housewife or, more accurately, views her as a paradigm of how men politically oppress women.

In 1963, Betty Friedan's book, "The Feminine Mystique," spoke of "the problem that has no name." Stated simply...Domesticity denied to housewives their humanity and potential, making them suffer both physically and mentally. Friedan described the typical '50s family as a "comfortable concentration camp". The book helped to spark a cultural revolution. It also cemented into feminism the idea of housewifery as a pathology rather than as a choice any healthy woman could make.

Recent works have thoroughly discredited Friedan's arguments that exerted power through two basic means: her claims of personal experience; and, the authorities she cited to support her claims.

In his book "Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique" (1998), Daniel Horowitz explored Friedan's background and debunked the myth that she ever represented the typical suburban housewife as she has persistently claimed. Friedan had been a staunch political activist on the Communist left for decades before her first book appeared.

In the Atlantic Monthly (09/99), Alan Wolfe devastated both Friedan's interpretation of experts, such as sexologist Alfred Kinsey, and the facts presented by those experts themselves. Without their backing, Friedan's work does nothing more than offer anecdotal evidence of the unhappiness of some housewives as a way to define the reality of most.

Even the admiring biographer, Judith Hennessee, casts a strangely critical light on Friedan. In her book, "Betty Friedan: Her Life" (1999), Hennessee speaks of a feminist who was often "rude and nasty", "who...did not even like women." Of a wife who hurled and received so much violence in her marriage that her three children required therapy "to distance themselves from the emotional fallout."

And, yet, it is undeniably true: "The Feminine Mystique" galvanized many women to whom it spoke the truth. For them, being a housewife was a negation of their potential as human beings.

These politically roused women created another mystique: being a housewife meant to every woman what it meant to each of them personally. They denied the reality of the many women who found domesticity to be the best expression of who they were as human beings.

At first, mainstream feminism aimed at the ideal of "equal marriage" -- that is, a marriage in which men and women equally shared responsibilities, including housework. Quickly, more radical voices began to call for the abolition of the traditional family. They did so for the very reason that the family is usually defended: it is the basic building block of society. Given that the radical feminists thought society was inherently unjust, it is not surprising that they wished to kick out the building blocks.

In the '80s, political correctness began to dominate feminism and housewives were subjected to further political analysis. For example, their work was labeled as "surplus labor" -- a Marxist term that describes the unpaid labor stolen by capitalists from workers. Housework became the labor that men steal from women. It became another political injustice against women.

Such analysis is almost always phrased as a defense of the "true" interests of housewives. If housewives disagree, if they believe feminism is demeaning their choices, the disagreement is ascribed to the political naivete of stay-at-home moms.

Gladstein's analysis of housewifery is like water in a desert. She describes how being a housewife taught her to handle taking over as Executive-Director of her University's Diamond Jubilee celebration. She writes, "That job allowed me to use my housewifery skills to create and manage events as diverse as football half-times, city-wide street festivals, physics fairs, student retention programs, Vietnam Memorial dedications, city and university planning commissions and a year-long program of national and internally renowned speakers." She learned the necessary skills while giving parties and being a hostess at her husband's business events.

I hope that feminism comes to understand that being a housewife is an honorable option. For some women, it is fulfillment. For others, it constitutes self-denial. In short, domesticity is the same as any other choice women confront -- right for some and wrong for others.

Women who become housewives deserve the same response from feminism as those who don't -- they deserve a bit of respect.

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