Housewives: An Endangered Species


Says the New York Times, “The few who still do exist don’t really dare to go public with it.” Or, at least, answer to that title.

My mother was a stay-at-home mom. But would she have called herself a “housewife?” No way: that was a product of older generations, implying drudgery and servitude. “Homemaker,” slightly more modern, still wouldn’t have fit the bill: the energy she invested in that was negligible and someone less interested in housekeeping or decor I have yet to meet. Besides, clearly she felt her role was defined not by being a wife, or a housekeeper – but by being a mother.

Says Catrin Bennhold
, “Across the developed world, women who stay home are increasingly seen as old-fashioned and an economic burden to society. If their husbands are rich, they are frequently berated for being lazy; if they are immigrants, for keeping children from learning the language and ways of their host country.” And TV isn’t helping much. Nowadays, of course, thanks to Bravo and Wisteria Lane, “housewives” has a very different connotation. It implies rich, leisured, spoiled. They have houses. Some of them are wives. But there all similarities end.

Is it inevitable, then, that in a world geared towards “opportunity,” opting out of the workforce should automatically mean falling off the grid?

Their daily chores of cleaning, cooking or raising their children have always been ignored by national accounts. (If a man marries his housekeeper and stops paying her for her work, G.D.P. goes down. If a woman stops nursing and buys formula for her baby, G.D.P. goes up.) In a debate that counts women catching up with men in education and the labor market in terms of raising productivity and economic growth, stay-at-home moms are valued less than ever. This is so despite the fact that from Norway to the United States, economists put the value of their unpaid work ahead of that of the manufacturing sector…In countries where mothers still struggle to combine career with family and quit work less out of conviction than out of necessity, they are often doubly punished. In Germany, the biggest economy in Europe, most schools still finish at lunchtime, and full-time nurseries for children under 3 are scarce. Yet in this generation of young mothers you are more likely to find women saying they are on extended maternity leave or between jobs than admitting they are housewives.

The article’s making the point that the “blunt instrument” of policy inevitably leads to some form of marginalization, however laudable the goals. But it also raises another interesting point, that of perception. And call this reductive, but can we ignore the fact that the Bravo franchise has single-handedly succeeded in making the word “housewife” synonymous with “parasitic?” And not just “housewives” – real housewives, yet! Call it an act of reclamation if you will – an alternative to the “problem with no name” – but I’d call it lateral, and an unfortunate contribution to this discussion. For those of you who’d say one franchise with an arbitrary title can’t affect the world’s perception of a word or a job, I’d remind us all that Housewives is shortly coming to a European country near you. Let’s hope something is lost in translation.

The Stigma Of Being A Housewife [NY Times]

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