“When it is no longer socially acceptable to be a housewife — or homemaker, in modern American parlance — has feminism overshot its objective?” asks Katrin Bennhold in a recent New York Times article. The article is about the increased stigma attached to being a housewife, particularly in Nordic countries, but also in the United States.
The work of housewives, Bennhold argues, is not recognized in the national GDP, nor is it respected and valued by society. Housewives are particularly condescended to in countries like Sweden, which have highly progressive policies encouraging both mothers and fathers to work. Being a housewife is only socially acceptable for very wealthy women; other women feel that they are looked down upon when the working woman is the (frequently oppressive) societal norm.
I remember a conversation with my stepmother on this issue. She married my father when I was three years old, and stayed home with my little brother and I after he was born. This was not a common decision in the 1990’s. She said she always felt that no one understood just how challenging her work was, or even recognized staying home with children and maintaining a household could actually be work. I encourage anyone to try and stay home with two small children for a day or a week and to insist this is not work.
Economics professor Nancy Folbre, quoted in the article, suggests that “it’s hard to find a balance between not romanticizing and not stigmatizing housewives,” but I wouldn’t frame the problem that way. I would say it’s hard for many societies to embrace women’s choices, be they staying home with children, not having children, working and raising children, or other kinds of choices, and that society has many more stigmas, roles, and limitations for women than it does for men.
If women work too much, they are compromising their children’s development. If women leave work early or scale down to take care of their children, then they are skirting their responsibilities at the workplace and are disrespected. If they stay at home, they are lazy, or backwards, or indulgent. There are many, many stigmas; the housewife stigma is particularly oppressive because “women’s work” (still stereotypically designated as cooking, cleaning, taking care of kids) is so undervalued in our society. Housewives are depicted as bored, repressed, pathetic, ridiculous.
And yet, women like, say, Hillary Clinton are vilified for their ambition, for being too much “like men,” and they are also ridiculed and stigmatized. So it seems to me that until society starts accepting and trusting women’s choices, there will always be another stigma around the corner.
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