Happy Housewives

Women like Sarah Palin are calling themselves “housewives.’ What does the term mean?

Sarah Palin with son, Trig

Earlier this month, Sarah Palin wrote a Facebook note responding to a critic in the Wall Street Journal. “Now I realize I’m just a former governor and current housewife from Alaska, but even humble folks like me can read the newspaper.” (The critic was probably right, but that’s another story.) There are many words one could use to accurately describe Palin’s current status— reality television star, unofficial leader of the Tea Party, national demagogue —but housewife, a woman whose main occupation is taking care of her home and children, is not one of them.

Does the term have any meaning at all anymore? After all, “housewives” are currently ubiquitous these days but very few of them are actually housewives. Among the Real Housewives and Desperate Housewives, some of the women work, some aren’t married, and if they have children they likely also have an entourage of four nannies to help care for them. By “housewife” they seem to mean a woman who uses her domestic credentials to hawk margarita mix and skin-care lines.

It’s not just on TV that the term is losing its meaning. Evangelical leader Priscilla Shirer, profiled this weekend in an article called “Housewives of God,” insists that her husband is the head of the household and she submits to him. But in fact he does the cooking and at least half the child care while she pursues her career. So what are housewives, anyway, and did they ever exist?

Sarah Palin and her pals continue to use the term housewife, even though they’re clearly not against women working outside the home, as a way to signal that they care about family values, and also as a way to divert attention from their not-so-traditionally-feminine ambition. It’s also a way to shadowbox with the liberal feminists who originally reviled the word housewife in the ‘60s, says Suzanne Leonard, an assistant professor of English at Simmons College. Sure, there’s a certain cognitive dissonance when a woman with a very public and successful career that has nothing to do with domesticity calls herself a housewife, but conservative women have been doing that for years—see Phyllis Schlafly, who invented this move 40 years ago. And it’s also a trick that’s been tried before.

Housewife didn’t always mean cooking and cleaning and caring for kiddies. In the 1600s and 1700s, when the economy was mostly domestic, becoming a housewife meant that your husband was a property owner, and that you were basically deputy husband, explains historian and author Stephanie Coontz. This job description was more about being good at math, being able to bargain shrewdly, and selling at market whatever the household produced. Sarah Palin and her Mama Grizzlies draw on this colonial meaning by proclaiming that they will balance the national budget just as they balance their household budget. Real Housewife Vicki Gunvalson prides herself on her money-management skills and her thriving insurance business. She even holds seminars for college-age kids about responsible budgeting and finances.

In the 19th century, when men started working outside the home, a housewife’s job increasingly became making the home comfortable for her husband, Coontz says. She was also at the helm of providing love, affection, and moral guidance for the children, though she could outsource the actual tasks to nannies and governesses.  Women remained pure by staying home, away from the corrupting influence of the money-driven world, and could keep their husbands on track. This is what Palin has in mind when she invokes the term housewife—pure, domestic, uncorrupted by the troubles in the daily newspaper—though of course it has no relation to how she actually lives.

Betty Friedan famously helped kick start the feminist movement in the 1960s by tearing down the Donna Reed model in TheFeminine Mystique, and as a reaction to this critique, conservatives began to valorize the housewife, marriage, and children. However, the 1950s notion that women ideally shouldn’t work outside the home is a pretty unacceptable, retrograde idea at this point, even among conservatives, as the vast majority of women now work—about 75 percent of women ages 25 to 54 were either looking for work or working in 2006, up from about 40 percent in the late ‘50s.

So if Palin had intended to start a rumble by calling herself a housewife, she chose her words poorly. If she had said “mom from Alaska,” that might have resonated, but housewife just sounds out of place. The term is so thoroughly ironic at this point that it’s beyond being politicized. A housewife is a faintly ridiculous lady on TV who advises women to put sugar in their vaginas, but it’s not something any woman actually owns up to. These days, if you want to start a culture war, say “mom,” not “housewife.”

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