By Nadja Briscoe
Is Michelle Obama, a former lawyer and now first housewife of America, helping reintroduce and redefine the modern housewife?
There is a typical argument, usually postured by what I like to call ‘amateur feminists’ (and I count myself as one,) which follows: “With a brain like yours, why would you waste your talents cooking dinners and cleaning house?”
If by choosing to be a housewife, I were to become fixated on keeping a perfect household – think 1950s television – the argument would be compelling. However, staying home supposedly no longer means becoming a sheltered woman.
My colleagues and I have had numerous conversations on the role of women, both in society and the family. Is she forgoing her comparative advantage as the home’s primary care giver, nurturer, bearer of children, and first agent of socialization and instilling of values to the children, in order to have that for which we have fought and died – the right to have a corporate job and the right to be the career women? The right to CHOOSE!
Feminists are horrified at the very idea of a woman with an MBA making the choice to be the domestic supporter of her family – washing dishes and doing laundry – but, they also discount the fact that they can also be socially active bloggers, readers, entrepreneurs and rearers of socially aware children.
Is it possible to have it all? As housewives, can we continually exercise our minds as well as our domestic muscles? Can we prevent ourselves from any backsliding that could occur from ‘perfect household syndrome’?
Linda Hirshman, in her 2006 book “Get to Work … and Get a Life Before It’s Too Late,” disagrees vehemently. Linda Hirshman claims “the family — with its repetitious, socially invisible, physical tasks — is a necessary part of life, but allows fewer opportunities for full human flourishing than public spheres like the market or the government.” This view point is easy to run away with, especially after watching my mom be the domestic supporter of a family of 8, do the same repetitive tasks for 20 years, as my father had a social life and was never home. As much as I adore and admire my mother, this is something I never wanted for my life; and, neither is it something that she wanted for me.
But, as we examine the economics of the two income family, the fact that women earn approximately 60-80 cents for every dollar a man earns, the inability to create wealth due to the financial cost of daycare, and the social cost of not having a constant supervisor at home when a child arrives from school, maybe we need to re-define what it means to be a housewife and the importance of that role.
The opportunities of today’s world offer an essential difference between the housewife of today and the housewife of our parents’ generation. We now have easy access to contraception, which allows us to more effectively decide how many children we would like, and when to have them. We thaw most of our family’s meals, so there is no need to prepare the night before and spend hours cooking. Sewing is limited to replacing buttons. And, while we adore gossip in all forms, it is much less over picket fences, but rather over the Internet.
Neil Gilbert’s book, A Mother’s Work: How Feminism, The Market and Policy Shape Family Life, describes how women have responded to the contraceptive revolution, advances in civil rights, and the changing structure of the labor market since the 1960s. He notes that recently there has been a significant decline in childbearing, childrearing, and household production. The rate of childlessness has climbed to historic proportions for a period of relative peace and prosperity. Women are having fewer children; and, early childcare is being passed on to other women, as mothers shift their labor from the household to the marketplace. Feminists would say that women have finally been given the chance to do what they want, and rightly so. Others like myself would argue that it is out of economic necessity and desire to be independent of men, who have a history of using their financial power to oppress women, that drives women to the market place. However, Gilbert argues, and I am sure my colleague William would agree, that women are moving to the marketplace for three reasons: 1) the culture of capitalism undervalues the economic worth of childrearing activities and domestic production, 2) prevailing feminist expectations overestimate the social and emotional benefits of labor-force participation, and 3) that the family friendly policies of the welfare state create incentives that reinforce the norms and values of capitalism and feminism. So, as my dear friend William would say, despite societies needs and predilection, when women have to decide how much to invest in childrearing and paid employment, the majority of women chose to invest their time and energy in the latter despite the lack of economic and social sense to do so.
As a result, instead of critically evaluating important questions such as: Does having children make economic sense? Is sexual division of labor a rational choice? How has the time devoted to childcare by employed and non-employed mothers changed overtime? What are the educational and social outcomes of children in homes with non-employed mothers vs employed mothers? There is an emotional response to avoid these questions out of fear that the answers might result in retracting to traditional ways, which would deny the progress women have made over the past couple of decades.
The financial and social cost that society is paying, as women try to redefine their role in society, is typical of every stage of progress and evolution, which eventually runs into its own inherent limitations, creates a type of turmoil, even chaos, and causes the system either to break down (self-dissolution), or escape chaos by evolving to a higher degree of order (self-transcendence). This new and higher order escapes the limitations of its predecessor, but then introduces its own limitations and problems. As a result, old problems are solved or defused – in this case women are no longer as oppressed, and are given the right and the choice to engage in civic, political, and economic activities, but comes at the price of introducing new and more complex difficulties such as higher divorce rates, dysfunctional families, and a negative birth rate, just to name a few. Despite these complicated and difficult problems however, it is perverse to take the problems of the present, compare them with the accomplishments of the past, and thus claim everything has gone downhill. I feel this is what my friend William often does; although, maybe no worse a tactic than the opposite of comparing the problems of the past with the accomplishments of the present and saying everything is for the better, which I may be guilty of.
I agree wholeheartedly with retrogressive romantics like William, who argue passionately, and at times convincingly, that we need to honor and acknowledge the many great accomplishments of past, and attempt to retain and incorporate as much of their wisdom and accomplishment. But I also argue that no mater the problems we have now, the fact of the matter is that the train, for better or worse, is in motion. And, driving while looking in the rear view mirror is likely to cause an even worse accident.
The fact of the matter is that for most women, though not all, the labor of motherhood is undervalued; and, the personal benefits of paid work are overestimated. We all fantasize about work that uses our creativity, is self-directed, happens during the hours we choose, and occurs in an attractively lit setting with fascinating people — you know, jobs like women have on TV. Oprah’s job!
But, in this reality, it is probably more realistic to be a housewife with a supportive husband, who encourages you to start a business or work from home.
So, with all this said, as I move closer to 30 while childless, well educated, and on the verge of having the career that I have always wanted and worked so hard for, what will I decide? Will fear of the known – my mothers depiction of a housewife with repetitive menial tasks, and allowing a husband to be my provider who might use this financial power to oppress me – prevent me from having the image that my white educated women portray of the housewife: the NPR-listening, car-pooling, yoga expert, avid volunteer, foundation director? To be honest, I really don’t know. But, even more important to me is the question: if I do decide to be the career women that I am on the verge of becoming, am I doing a disservice to my community?
Ms. Briscoe is a graduate of the University of West Indies with studies in International Relations and Management Studies. She also holds a dual MBA from Brandeis University in Social Policy & Management and Marketing. Her work has seen her spend time as a consultant for major hospitals in New England and now serves as a business development analyst for a multinational healthcare company.