Recently, I wrote a piece about a real-life Rosie the Riveter and what she taught me about women during World War II. They were capable and confident, I learned, and I was surprised. Because I had always thought that they looked like “simple housewives” in old ads. I said that in the piece and the phrase ruffled some feathers. Now I get why.
Though the pressure to conform to the housewife image was strong, the truth is that a large segment of women simply couldn’t afford it.
Myths about housewives and stay-at-home moms are not rare in our society. In fact, they’re so prevalent that even people who should know better, including myself, hold lots of unconscious prejudices about them and spend years assuming that the work they do is “simple.” Despite decades of advancement for women, images of stay-at-home moms on TV, in movies, and in advertisements still show unrealistic women with immaculate hair and cheerful smiles, who chuckle about how tough their lives are. Depictions of these women also tend to be overwhelmingly white and, of course, middle to upper class.
When I say that I should know better, it’s because my sister recently had a baby and has transitioned into being a full-time mother. Observing her at work quickly shattered any illusions I had about modern-day housewifery. She works harder than anyone I know, and she’s complained more than once about how the media portray her job as one that should be accomplished with ease and elegance. I can’t even begin to imagine how hard it must have been before today’s modern conveniences, especially because being a present-day mom who stays at home seems so much tougher than most of us realize.
Myths about housewives go way back but still persist today, even among feminist circles and, until recently, my own brain. Let’s get to busting them.
Photo by Flickr / James Vaughan.
Myth #1: Before the 1960s, all women managed their homes alone.
Reality: The housewife as we think of her today is a relatively new phenomenon. For the vast majority of history, across multiple cultures, it was impossible for a woman to single-handedly do every chore and provide for every need in her household. Women in traditional cultures would (and still do) get together and allocate different tasks to different individuals. For certain jobs, like shucking corn, women would gather together and do all the work at once, chatting and lifting one another’s spirits.
The individual housewife of the 1900s was an image that was pushed upon women by religious leaders and literature starting as early as the 1830s. It was reinforced later by two institutions: the federal government, which during the post-World War I and II propaganda campaigns told women to march back home and get in the kitchen, and women’s magazines, which helped disseminate those messages and were mostly owned and operated by men. The invention of the television solidified the idealized version of the housewife, with 1950s shows like “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.”
Most housewives during this period never had a chance to spend time on their personal appearance, much less look as prim and perfect as the women in the ads.
However, even middle-class white women found doing all the housework impossible without turning to things like TV dinners and washing machines. In her book 1950s Housewife: Marriage And Homemaking In The 1950s, Sheila Hardy reveals that most housewives during this period never had a chance to spend time on their personal appearance, much less look as prim and perfect as the women in the ads: “They would have their husband’s evening meal ready, but it was doubtful if they would have had time to run a comb through their hair, let alone wash their face and apply makeup.”
Women of color rarely had the luxury of being able to stay at home, and had to work at least one job to help support the household. The same went for many poor white women. Child care was often performed by grandmas and great-aunts who could no longer work as maids or laundresses.
Photo by Flickr / Classic Film.
Myth #2: Women didn’t enter the workforce until World War II and Rosie the Riveter.
Reality: One of the many things I learned while creating the Rosie the Riveter piece is that World War II wasn’t the first time the government recruited millions of women to take over the jobs of men: It happened during World War I, when 1.6 million ladies joined the workforce. Plenty of riveters and other female laborers continued working after the men returned home, which explain why after World War II the federal government was so quick to play the being-a-housewife-is-super-fantastic-please-quit-your-jobs-immediately propaganda card.
There were already 12 million women in the workforce by the time Rosie appeared. Part of this was because, as stated before, many women didn’t have the luxury of staying home. But for women who had felt confined in the home and wanted more economic freedom, World War I gave them an opportunity to taste independence.
Myth #3: As more modern conveniences were invented, being a housewife became easier.
Reality: Paradoxically, women tended to do more work after appliances like the dishwasher and washing machine were invented. In fact, after the electric washing machine was patented around 1910, time spent on laundry per week went up from 5.5 hours to 6.25 hours. It appears as though with every new “convenience,” the expectations for housewives grew.
Stay-at-home moms on TV still show unrealistic women with immaculate hair and cheerful smiles, who chuckle about how tough their lives are.
Today, we have microwaves and instant macaroni and cheese, but serving processed foods to kids is less fashionable than it once was. Diverse, organic, handmade meals are what parents strive for now.
Everything in the modern home needs to not only be spotless, but perfectly sterilized (think the 1990s antibacterial craze). And there’s more home to clean: The size of the average house has increased 1,000 square feet since 1973.
Housewives can’t seem to catch a break. The second something seems like it will become easier, it becomes twice as hard.
Myth #4: Homemaking is not a feminist choice.
Reality: Though a lot of feminists in the 1960s criticized domesticity, many women today are defending their choice as feminists to stay home. They’re pushing back against the new ideal of the woman who does it all (which, by the way, is still impossible)—has a career, maintains a spotless home, raises the kids on organic, gluten-free meals, and takes great care of her body and beauty. This 21st century model is even more impossible to achieve than ones from before.
Some of today’s feminists are instead demanding that housework, which society has long assigned to women, be recognized as a valid career. They call housework and child rearing undervalued “unpaid labor,” and are advocating that this work—arguably the most important a person could do—be subsidized by the government.
It makes sense when you consider that people will pay for just about any kind of service. But when it comes to maintaining the stability of the home and raising the next generation of humans, people get cheap. Maybe if more men tried it, this attitude would begin to change.
Photo by Flickr / James Vaughan.
Myth #5: Homemakers are uneducated and unambitious.
Reality: Many of today’s stay-at-home moms were professional women before they started having kids. A study by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett found that 31 percent of working mothers eventually leave the workplace, usually because they had a second child. And while it’s true that housewives tend to have less formal education, more than half of them have some college classes under their belts, and that number is rising.
Unfortunately, the reason that many housewives choose to stay home is because they felt they didn’t have a choice to work, not because they didn’t want to.
More than half of “career-oriented” stay-at-home moms say they want to do paying work (on top of their unpaid work) and try their best to do so in some capacity, according to the Working Mother Research Institute. The top reason they don’t is for “the needs of the child,” followed by the high cost of child care. They also cite inflexible policies in the workplace that don’t allow them to meet their children’s needs.
With a child, your job never ends.
Even more disturbing is a survey by sociologist Kathleen Gerson that found that 25 percent of young women felt they were the only parent who was “available” for the job and who would provide “an acceptable level of care.”
Though plenty of homemakers love what they do and wouldn’t choose anything else, a large section of them would pursue more if they felt they had the option.
Let’s rethink our definition of “ambitious.” Are the only ambitious people those who want an advanced college degree and a lot of money? Or is raising a physically and emotionally healthy child in a world full of problems perhaps the most ambitious goal a person could have?
Myth #6: Men are now doing almost as much around the house as women.
Reality: Though things have been slowly improving, women still do more than double the amount of child care and housework than men. According to a 2014 survey conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 19 percent of men do household chores on any given day, compared to 49 percent of women. Plus, for every hour a woman physically cares for a child of 6 or younger, a man provides an average of 26 minutes.
Data from the same survey found that even unemployed men manage to do less housework than women.
Which takes me to my next point.
Photo by Flickr / James Vaughan.
Myth #7: Men don’t want to be homemakers.
Reality: Tell that to my boyfriend.
There’s even a TV show airing in Australia called “House Husbands.” More and more men are rejecting gender roles that deny their nurturing sides and are living their dreams at home with their families. Now we just need about a couple dozen million more of these guys and women will have more time to pursue their careers, run for office, and, who knows, maybe finally get paid as much as men. This is especially important for women of color, who make even less than white women do.
Many of today’s stay-at-home moms were professional women before they started having kids.
The fact is that myths about homemaking hurt everyone, not just homemakers. I can’t help but think after watching my sister take care of a single baby that it’s harder than any job. In fact, it’s nothing like your average job. Jobs end. You get to clock out at the end of the day, come home, and do things unrelated. With a child, your job never ends. You’re on call while you’re asleep. There is no job in existence that compares to being a stay-at-home mom.
Expecting women to do it all because you think housework and child rearing are easy or because you worry it’s unfeminist to think they could do less—well, it’s just unfair and stresses a lot of people out, which no one needs these days.
So how do we break free from our assumptions about homemakers? Start by talking to them and respecting what they have to say. While you’re cooking them dinner and washing their dishes.
Lindsey Weedston is a freelance writer and journalist. Her work can be found on her blog, Not Sorry Feminism, as well as The Fix and The God Show Podcast.