Politicizing the Housewife
Choice Is the Key to Individualist Feminism
NOVEMBER 01, 2001 by WENDY MCELROY
What it means to be a housewife is being revised ideologically in order to impugn the choice some mothers make to stay at home.
The revisionism has been fueled by the recent case of Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who drowned her five young children in a bathtub. The murders were allegedly committed because Yates suffered from postpartum depression aggravated by being a stay-at-home mom.
Cheryl L. Meyer, coauthor of the forthcoming book Mothers Who Kill Their Children and an associate professor of psychology at Wright State University, expressed a new feminist line on stay-at-home moms in an article at Women’s Enews (June 27), a popular feminist Web site. Meyer wrote, “The reality is that the mother who kills her child is every mother, any mother.” In positing Yates as an Every Woman, Meyer continues, “Most mothers just seem to understand how a woman could kill her child. When we target certain cases and try to ascertain how this particular mother could have killed her child, we mask the more important question, why don’t more mothers do this?”
Marcia Wilkie, coauthor of Marie Osmond’s autobiographical account of postpartum depression, intimately linked America’s sweetheart to the murderous Yates in a Newsweek article (July 2). In a column in the same issue, “Playing God on No Sleep,” the Pulitzer–prize-winning Anna Quindlen argued that every mother secretly identified with killing her own children. She described the typical stay-at-home housewife this way: “She’s tired, she’s hot and she’s been up all night throwing sheets into the washer because the smaller of her two boys has projectile vomiting so severe it looks like a special effect from ‘The Exorcist.’ Oh, and she’s nauseated, too, because since she already has two kids under the age of 5 it made perfect sense to have another, and she’s four months pregnant.” With housework added to the unsavory mix, this Every Woman lives on the verge of snapping and committing infanticide.
A myth created by PC feminism is dying and a new one is being created to replace it. The dying myth is that women do not commit acts of domestic violence: men do.
It has been well documented that wives assault husbands at approximately the same rate as husbands assault wives. The statistics regarding fatal child abuse are even more alarming. A Bureau of Justice report titled “Murder in Families” (NCJ 143498) surveyed murder cases tried in 1988 and discovered that 55 percent of defendants charged with killing their own children were women. “The Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect” (NIS-3, 1996) from the Department of Health and Human Services reported that mothers perpetrate 78 percent of fatal child abuse. Even granting that women are usually the primary caregivers and thus have much more opportunity and motive to snap, these figures are alarmingly high. They are so high and the subject of so much attention that it is no longer credible to claim that women are nonviolent in the home.
To preserve the image of women as victims of oppressive male society, however, PC feminists find it necessary to explain how the murder of a child by his or her mother is still the fault of men. The first step is to remove responsibility from the mother by blaming her acts on postpartum depression or some other “insanity” with which most women can identify. The second step is to castigate the traditional family with its stay-at-home mom as a breeding ground of pathology for women. Since PC feminists already decry the traditional family as a bastion of white male culture and a barrier to women’s actualizing their potential, the next leap of logic is easy. Murdering moms are driven to violence by the men who impregnate them and trap them in the psychologically devastating role of housewife. Thus many voices in the media blame Andrea Yates’s husband—a man whom no one has suggested was ever violent—even while they express sympathy for Andrea herself. They blame society for not recognizing Andrea’s plight.
Friedan Called into Question
Interestingly, the current debate about housewifery comes at the same time as the validity of the book that sparked the original debate is being severely questioned. In 1963 Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique, spoke of “the problem that has no name.” Stated simply, domesticity denied housewives their humanity and potential, making them suffer both physically and mentally. Friedan described the typical ’50s family as a “comfortable concentration camp.” Like camp inmates, suburban housewives had adjusted psychologically and become “dependent, passive, childlike” and lived at a “lower human level.”
Selling millions of copies, The Feminine Mystique became a powerful force in shaping American culture and has been credited with inspiring Second Wave feminism. Certainly it led to Friedan’s co-founding of the National Organization for Women (1966). The book has taken its rightful place as an icon of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s during which women flooded out of the home into the university and the workplace. As women continued to read Friedan’s book, the idea of housewifery as a pathology was cemented to feminism.
Recent works have thoroughly discredited Friedan’s arguments, the power of which was derived from 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. Horowitz’s analysis is all the more damning because as a leftist he is sympathetic to her politics. He argues that she hid her past because she was afraid of being persecuted during the McCarthy witch hunts. Whatever Friedan’s motives may have been, they make The Feminine Mystique appear disingenuous.
In a 1973 article in the New York Times titled “Up From the Kitchen Floor,” Friedan claimed that when she wrote her book in the early ’60s, “I wasn’t even conscious of the woman problem.” Yet in 1951 Betty Goldstein (Friedan’s maiden name) wrote an article titled “UE [the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America] Drive on Wage, Job Discrimination Wins Cheers from Women Members” (UE News, April 16) in which she reported on a labor meeting. Goldstein described the women as “fighters” who “refuse any longer to be paid or treated as some inferior species by their bosses, or by any male workers who have swallowed the bosses’ thinking.”
The fact that readers of Friedan’s book identified with her as a sister-housewife who had naïvely bought into the domesticity myth was one reason for The Feminist Mystique’s huge success. The same readership would never have identified with the real Friedan: a left-wing labor journalist; a member of Marxist discussion groups; author of the union pamphlet “UE Fights for Women Workers” (June 1952), which critiqued wage discrimination based on sex; a rent striker; and a career woman who hired a “really good mother-substitute—a housekeeper-nurse” (Charm, April 1955).
In an article titled “Rethinking Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique: Labor Union Radicalism and Feminism in Cold War America” (American Quarterly, March 1996), Horowitz argued that an examination of Friedan’s communist past and her subsequent shift toward respectability illustrates a significant turn within the ideology of the left in the 1950s. It is a microcosm of how the Old Left has evolved into the politically correct New Left. The ideology expanded from economic analysis, which was based on Marxism, to include “humanistic psychology” and a focus on “the effect of consumption on the middle class.” In his analysis, contemporary feminism is merely a subset of the New Left.
In addition to questions about Friedan’s credentials as a housewife, grave doubt has been cast both on her interpretation of the experts on which The Feminine Mystique was based and the “facts” presented by the experts themselves. In the Atlantic Monthly (September 1999), Alan Wolfe, director of the Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, raised the question of whether a “book can arrive at the larger truths if the bricks on which it is built won’t stand up to time.”
This question is particularly relevant to The Feminine Mystique, which relies heavily on appeals to authority, from psychologists such as Freud and Abraham Maslow to the anthropologist Margaret Mead and the sex researcher Alfred Kinsey.
In using these experts, Friedan dips in and out of their work, citing the evidence that supports her position and ignoring whatever contradicts it. Even the supporting evidence no longer provides a real prop. In the years following publication of Friedan’s book, much of the selectively cited research has been discredited. For example, Derek Freeman’s book The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research (1999) effectively countered the claims made in Mead’s work Coming of Age in Samoa—a book highly touted in The Feminine Mystique. The credibility of Kinsey has fared even worse as rampant bias in his methodology has been revealed.
Wolfe concludes, “To make her case that women required freedom, Friedan felt it necessary to exaggerate the degree to which they lived in slavery.” Unfortunately for her argument, the “treatment of a serious social problem which relies on the authority of experts appears far less persuasive if the experts turn out to be telling just-so stories.” Without the backing of solid statistics and research, Friedan’s work does nothing more than offer anecdotal evidence of the unhappiness of some housewives and then proceeds to define the reality of most on that basis.
Friedan’s credibility has fallen on hard times. Even the admiring biographer Judith Hennessee is strangely critical of her subject in the book Betty Friedan: Her Life (1999). In the introduction she admits being disappointed in Friedan the person as opposed to Friedan the thinker. Hennessee speaks of a feminist who was often “rude and nasty” and “who . . . did not even like women”; of a wife who inflicted and received so much violence in her marriage that her three children required therapy “to distance themselves from the emotional fallout.”
Despite the criticism, however, it is undeniably true that The Feminine Mystique spoke to many women whose lives were changed as a result of reading the book. For them, being a housewife was a negation of their potential as human beings, and they discovered the courage to reach out to make a different choice. But voices within feminism were not content to view domesticity simply as a choice that appealed to some women and not to others. So a new political mythology of housewifery was born.
The Myth of the Housewife
In the ’60s the mainstream of feminism was “liberal” and contained a strong bias toward reforming marriage to make it more equal. For example, men were exhorted to do more of the housework and to share greater responsibility for child rearing. In short, The Feminist Mystique did not call for the abolition of marriage, merely for a transformation. Years later, when politically correct gender feminism built on Friedan’s work to argue for the abolition of marriage, she objected. In her book The Second Stage (1981) she explained that gender feminists were misinterpreting her meaning.
She pleaded with them to move away from antifamily rhetoric and back to a dialogue with men about how to improve the institution of marriage.
What is the substance of the antifamily rhetoric to which Friedan objected?
The gender feminist assault on the traditional family, including stay-at-home moms, can be dated from Kate Millett’s influential book Sexual Politics (1970). Millett’s views were extreme and her presentation radical. For example, in dealing with male-female relations (“sexual politics”), Millett dwelt almost obsessively on pornography and sado-masochistic literature. In attacking sexual politics she assaulted the entire structure of power in society—that is, the white male culture known as patriarchy. Marriage was posited as the agency that maintained the traditional pattern of man’s power over woman.
Millett’s work was followed up and fleshed out by other extreme voices. Consider a small sampling of some books that quickly ensued: Ellen Peck’s The Baby Trap (1971) argued that babies block liberation; Kathrin Perutz’s Marriage is Hell (1972) defined heterosexual sex as a political power struggle; Jill Johnston’s Lesbian Nation (1973) called heterosexual females “traitors.” The popular anthology Sisterhood is Powerful (1970) contained 74 essays; only one of them had anything to do with motherhood.
A new theory of the housewife was evolving in which the role had the political status of chattel. To gender feminists, marriage and the family became inextricably bound up with private property, the class structure, and the mode of production. In other words, the family was an aspect of capitalism.
The seeds of their analysis are to be found in Friedrich Engels, coauthor of the Communist Manifesto and an author much quoted by Millett. In his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) Engels argued that the oppression of women sprang from the nuclear family, but he did not believe that this oppression had occurred throughout history. It had emerged with the dawn of capitalism before which, he claimed, the work of men and of women was valued equally. In the nineteenth century, however, industrialization supposedly brought a separation between home and productive work and caused a transfer of men’s labor from the home or farm to the factories. Women remained at the hearth. Thus men came to dominate the public realm and women were confined to the private one. Although some women ventured into the factories as well, they received lower pay and their independence was illusory.
With the emergence of wide-scale capitalism, women were said to be relegated to the roles of breeding, maintaining men, and buying consumer goods. Mothers provided the next and appropriately indoctrinated generation of laborers for the capitalists; housewives maintained the male workforce by cleaning and cooking; housekeepers enriched the capitalist structure by consuming the products it produced.
As the early gender feminists Nicole Cox and Silvia Federici explained in their pamphlet “Counter-Planning from the Kitchen: Wages for Housework,” “Housework . . . is servicing the wage earner physically, emotionally, sexually, getting him ready to work day after day for the wage. It is taking care of our children . . . and ensuring that they too perform in ways expected of them under capitalism.”
To gender feminists housework is a direct expression of man’s oppression of women and capitalism’s exploitation. As such, housework is surplus labor. To restate the feminist concept: Capitalism is a process by which those who own the means of production pay wages to workers who produce goods worth more than the wages paid. The worth in excess of the wages paid is called the “surplus value of labor” and it is absorbed by capitalists as unearned profit. The surplus value of housework is that it enables men’s labor. Men’s labor is the unearned profit that capitalism absorbs.
Thrown into this economic condemnation of housework and the traditional family as bastions of capitalism are other accusations. For example, housewives are said to be kept in an isolation that encourages domestic violence.
From such analysis sprang the popular feminist slogan “The personal is political.” Susan Moller Okin explained the origins in her book Justice, Gender, and the Family (1991). Okin wrote, “The earliest claims that the personal is political came from those gender feminists of the 1960s and 1970s who argued that, since the family was at the root of women’s oppression, it must be ‘smashed.’” She disputes the assumption that family arrangements should be treated as personal, private matters rather than as political ones: the state can and should enter the domestic scene.
To those who object, Okin replies that the state already intervenes by establishing the social and political background in which the family functions. Expanding the intervention by, for example, requiring payment for housework is a matter of degree, not of kind.
Whether or not Friedan is comfortable with the manner in which her theories have been spun out, this is the logical conclusion to her calling the suburban household “a concentration camp” for women.
And so the new myth appears: stay-at-home moms are oppressed women who are so psychologically damaged by being trapped that they are likely to snap under the pressure. As isolated victims of male society, it is understandable if they experience psychotic episodes in which they kill their own children. Indeed, in doing so, they are expressing their victimhood, which has gone unrecognized by society at large.
A New/Old View of Housewifery
Fortunately, voices of sanity remain. One of them belongs to Mimi Gladstein who speaks out in the individualist feminist anthology Woman and Liberty (Ivan R. Dee, spring 2002). Individualist feminism views staying at home to raise a family as a choice every bit as valid as entering the work force. Gladstein’s essay begins, “We don’t hire housewives,” because that is the response she received 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, “All I really needed to know about chairing a department, I learned by being a Jewish Mother.”
Gladstein describes how being a suburban housewife trained 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 juggling her children’s schedules, planning the family budget, and being a hostess at her husband’s business events.
Choice is the key to individualist feminism and to whether or not housework is damaging to women. To those women who choose to stay home and raise a family, it can be not only the most fulfilling use of their time, but it can also teach management skills that translate well into the workplace afterwards. In approaching marriage and the family, the feminist slogan should be: “the personal is personal.” Individuals should choose, and the state should have no role.