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Why tradwives aren’t trad enough Housewifery in the Fifties literally drove women insane; it's Medieval wives who had it all

Credit: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Credit: GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

January 30, 2020   5 mins

Back in 1963, a book changed the world profoundly:

“Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night — she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question: ‘Is this all?’”

And by giving voice to that question in The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan kick-started the fightback against housewifery.

Half a century later, women’s exodus from the home into the workplace is well advanced. Some three quarters of UK mothers with dependent children now work. But, in its turn, housewifery is now fighting back — complete with its own digital subculture and hashtag. The #tradwife movement rejects Friedan’s call to each housewife to “find herself” via “work of her own”, in favour of staying at home to care for children and the household and, as tradwife Alena Kate Pettitt  sets out in articles on her Darling Academy website — submitting to their husband.

A flurry of press articles has seen tradwives accused of being nostalgic, anti-feminist and even alt-right. No one, however, seems to question the notion that they are ‘traditional’. But the problem with the ‘tradwife’ is that this role is not traditional enough. ‘Tradwife’, in fact, is about as ‘trad’ as the ‘paleo diet’ is a return to the eating habits of the Paleolithic.

Paleolithic Age Britain did not contain many avocados, dates or coconuts — to name three anachronistic, imported ‘paleo’ staples. And, for most of human history, none but the very wealthiest households ever contained women who were disengaged from economic life.

The #tradwife division of labour, between a male wage-earner outside the home and a non-earning housewife within it, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Prior to the industrial era, households were conceived of as economies. That is, until very recently it was normal for all members of a household to contribute, according to capacity, to a common enterprise that might include craft, agriculture, animal husbandry and other productive activities as well as the care of the dependent young and very old.

It is only over the course of industrialisation, and the demise of the medieval ‘commons’, that growing numbers of families were obliged to sell their labour in order to survive. As work increasingly became something that took place outside the home, so, correspondingly the home came to be viewed as a private place, untainted by worldly matters and imbued with sentiment and feminine virtue.

Thus, according to Dr Petra Bueskens, author of Modern Motherhood and Women’s Dual Identities (2018), stay at home motherhood in the 1950s sense is not traditional at all. Rather, she told me, it is “an artefact of modernity”. Its era, beginning in the 19th century and flourishing up to (roughly speaking) the publication of Friedan’s book, was “a brief and historically atypical social arrangement.”

Since the 1960s, the twin engines of second-wave feminism and the rising cost of living have combined in a pincer movement against housewifery. In our brave new dual-income world, household management and the care of children and the elderly are increasingly outsourced, contested, or covertly loaded onto women as the ‘second shift’.

While this has afforded many women greater opportunity for life satisfaction than that offered by suburban domesticity, it has not been cost-free. Side effects of the denigration of the domestic have included behavioural problems in infants, an epidemic of loneliness in the elderly, and a withering of civil society as the mothers who once ran clubs and societies applied for jobs instead.

The rise of #tradwife suggests a feeling, among some women, that the emancipatory promises of second-wave feminism have not really delivered. It is understandable that some might wish to hark back to 1959: it does not take much imagination, and one can see the appeal for social conservatives. After all the conditions in 1959 were broadly similar to our own, just with pretty dresses, unionised jobs, more Christianity, social conformism and (for the alt-right end of #tradwife) lower immigration.

But in taking the 1950s as its template, #tradwife offers not tradition, but just a slightly older version of modernity — a version which, literally, drove women insane. In parallel with the neutering of women’s economic contribution, the post-industrial division of domestic labour also saw the rise of a whole branch of psychiatric medicine devoted to managing the pathological effects that division had on women’s mental health.

In a post-industrial private household, as American agrarian writer Wendell Berry points out, the role of housewife shrinks from productive partner in a shared enterprise to that of a kind of consumer-in-chief. Berry sees this as summed up in the cartoon character Blondie, “a mostly decorative custodian of a degraded, consumptive modern household, preoccupied with clothes, shopping, gossip, and outwitting her husband.” The #tradwife movement is unlikely to have much luck persuading more than a tiny minority of women that there is much appeal in this stunted role.

Liberation from paid work drove my grandmother’s generation to Valium. But liberation from domestic drudgery has also had some less than ideal societal side effects. How do we resolve this?

For Berry, the solution to the internal self-contradictions of liberal feminism (as well as to hyper-consumerism in general) is a general return to the preindustrial household model as a social norm. That is, rather than harking back to 1959 we should be aiming more for — say — 1359 (albeit maybe without the Black Death.) Tradwife, from this perspective, needs to think tradder.

Bueskens told me that her research suggests “most mothers want to work”, but that “work is not the central or most meaningful life activity for most women”. Berry’s call for a return to household economies finds an echo in Bueskens’ view, that one key solution to this tension is “the capacity to work from home.” From this point of view, the way forward might be less ‘tradwife’ than ‘tradewife’.

But this can hardly follow Berry’s template. The population of England in the 14thcentury was around 3.7 million, only around half a million more than the population of inner London today. Even if we could wave a magic wand and give the whole population of England a burning desire to fulfil their destiny as subsistence farmers, there is no longer enough land to go round.

How, then, can a suburban family with a tiny garden transform their private home into a 14th-century-style household economy? The digital economy offers some help on this front: Pettitt herself extols the virtues of ‘tradwife’ while running a digital business from home. But more could be done to support a blossoming of tradewives (or tradehusbands).

We could start by removing regulatory disincentives to mutualistic childcare. Today, anyone caring for a friend’s children more than 3 hours a day for any kind of reward at all needs to be Ofsted registered. But if tradewives were able to form childcare collectives, perhaps around a shared enterprise, the result might be a flourishing of small, largely home-based businesses.

We could further support the blossoming of tradewives with a radical deregulation of cottage industries. Existing regulations such as GDPR are oriented toward larger organisations but place a daunting burden on tiny home-based businesses.

The intricate field of law governing residential and commercial property usage could also be reviewed. As long as the neighbours do not object, why should a mother with young children not run a shop part-time from her sitting room? A blossoming of tradewife-run front-room retail would greatly improve the sterile atmosphere common in newbuild housing estates.

And surely it is not beyond the wit of policy wonks to come up with a means for tradewives to cooperate on collectives such as craft or market gardening, which could be done in the company of small children.

The desire of ‘tradwives’ to revalorise family life and the domestic sphere is commendable. On its own, though, it does not get much beyond nostalgia for a younger, more hopeful iteration of industrial modernity. But if we can build on the emancipatory desires of women since the 1960s, taking our inspiration not from the 1950s but the 1350s, perhaps we could rethink the split between home and work and support a rebirth of the far older tradition of ‘tradewives’. We might even find this brings with it a renaissance of community connection and social capital across our struggling villages and small towns.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.


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3 years ago

Brilliant piece. I’ve always thought this common idea of the 50s housewife being treated as some universal historical female experience was really unfounded.. I meet so many people who seem to think this is some kind of norm when clearly it isn’t. Of course women got depressed spending most of their time alone with young children.. it’s not because they don’t like spending time with their children, but traditionally women would be working and socialising with other adults at the same time as doing childcare, which ticks all the boxes of a fulfilling life. Even in tribal societies you don’t see women working all alone in a hut with their kids, they are in groups of women chatting and working while older kids help look after younger ones. Communal parenting is the way to go, and projects that allow a combination of childcare and other pursuits.

Aaron Kevali
Aaron Kevali
3 years ago

The suburbs are very empty and lonely places during the day. I can see why a wife would want some interaction other than a courteous ‘hello’ at the grocery store checkout.

Maggie Kelly
Maggie Kelly
2 years ago

I wish I could assign this piece to approximately six tradfriends and several dead popes, as well as to all the dudes who write for OnePeterFive.

Grace Darling
Grace Darling
1 year ago

I agree with the analysis, but the suggested solutions seems to fall short – where is the husband and extended family in the ‘tradewife’ model? Where is the shared household / family enterprise?

Cheryl Zacharias
Cheryl Zacharias
1 month ago

Excellent article! Even more relevant now, four years later. Please write more about this topic, MH! If only you weren’t so prescient–this article would be really hitting the spot if it had only just been posted.