Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Calling yourself a Housewife

My grandmother, Ellen, standing proudly with her mother, after getting lunch for the threshing crew.
What images come to mind when you hear the word 'housewife?' Do you think of a woman that the times have forgotten, scrubbing clothes on a wash-board, chained to the sink or the stove? Or maybe June Cleaver flits across your imagination, in all her pearl and high-heeled glory, waltzing with a vacuum cleaner.
Or maybe your idea might be hazier, but a lot more toxic... a depiction of someone timid as a mouse, a doormat, someone who drifts through their days at a loss of what to do, or doing silly, trivial things. Rest assured, many societal influences over the past century have worked tirelessly to get these ideas into our heads. 

How many times a day does THIS happen??
Housework has always been hard, humbling work. It requires a quieting of the soul, a desire to comfort others at the expense of oneself. The Bible speaks about how we are to go about showing hospitality 'without grumbling', tipping us off to the full implication that feeding and sheltering others involves many tedious, grumble-worthy tasks. The Savior washing the dirty feet of his disciples was an example of housewifery for the times, and a pinnacle of servant-hood. The story of Mary and Martha, where Martha is complaining (hand on hip, I imagine) to Jesus about how Mary is not helping her in the kitchen is the same complaint we hear so often in the 'we all need to pitch in and help' modern day.  (Although if that scene happened today, shamefully, I believe a feminist version of Martha would probably have been hustling the King of Kings in to 'help' cater his own party, but I digress.) 

Calling yourself a housewife is different than calling yourself a stay at home mom. 'Stay at home mom' has a hip sort of ring, and connotes a woman who wears yoga pants to play-dates and spends afternoons at the gym or a girls' book club. No, a housewife is a decidedly old-fashioned term, one that summons up aprons and rolling pins. And for some it is a word that connotes an undertone of quiet desperation, of captivity, and helplessness. 

It was indeed not always that way. A woman used to call herself a housewife with quiet pride and certainty. This title in past generations was like a hope chest filled with traditions, methods, and skills passed down from generation to generation. It was a job title about capability, strength and support. The fact that such a stable, serviceable word, referred to women since medieval times, is now derided took some work to destroy, but it has happened, nonetheless.

A pamphlet from 1915, showing clearly the link with feminism and socialism.
We often think that the early suffragettes were commonplace women simply fighting for the right to vote. This just was not so. Not only were many of the prime activists well-to-do women that had their own domestic staff, but they also had far bigger societal plans in store than just to be able to put their ballot in the box.  So much history has been trimmed conveniently away on this matter, because it doesn't fit neatly into the narrative created by women's studies programs. Actually, many of the early feminists were scarred mentally by adverse home or family experiences and externalized this pain onto the public sphere with the fervent desire to eliminate the traditional housewife role for every woman-- whether she wanted it or not.

Extreme concepts abounded even in that era--like doing away with the cozy home kitchen and replacing it with mandatory neighborhood communal dining rooms, courtesy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  Victoria Woodhull spearheaded a 'free love' movement that proposed prostitution should be legalized and criticized monogamy, coupled with the work of Margaret Sanger to promote birth control and abortion. Elizabeth Cady Stanton challenged the idea of Biblical female submission, writing a two volume treatise entitled "The Woman's Bible". These early feminists were not only well-acquainted with Marxist thought, they strongly supported it, and desired to completely overturn our capitalist society. As you can see, the vote was only the beginning. 

The Women's Anti-Suffrage League
 It is an often ignored fact that huge numbers of real housewives fought this movement--tooth and nail. Women-- not just men-- protested the radicalism of the early feminists. I believe that they correctly saw the feminist agenda as a deadly threat to home and hearth...and a movement that could destroy the foundations of civilization. An article from "The Spectator" in Great Britain that does an excellent job of explaining the thought process of women at the time can be found here

It was not until second-wave feminism's Betty Friedan, in her book, 'The Feminine Mystique' that the word 'housewife' really suffered a truly fatal blow. Friedan, a self-proclaimed communist, called the housewife, a 'prisoner in a comfortable concentration camp.' Her derision blazed like wildfire, and the book attracted a mass audience. It was the turbulent 1960s, and I could write post after post on why some women were drawn to this book...but I'll save them for another time.

I used to think, while poring over the writings of feminists, that the housewife was viewed as their enemy because they simply thought she was not as enlightened as they, and far too stubborn in her out-dated beliefs. But I've come to realize that there is a much darker under-current, an under-current of snobbery, insecurity...and even more than a little jealousy coming from the 'i am woman, hear me roar' camp.

For how can you deride an occupation as beneath you if you yourself don't know how to do it? Feminists love to portray the trad woman as stupid, particularly picking on the 1950s housewife. But here are some of the things that women of that era did...often and easily. 

'The Bride's First Dinner Party', 1952 by Ray Prohaska.
1.) They could host dinner parties for roomfuls of guests. No, these weren't catered and they weren't potlucks. These were dinners, with formal china, and food in courses made from scratch. The 1950s housewife, so often portrayed as 'feather-headed' would know how to dress up, how to use proper etiquette, and also how to make pleasant, informed conversation.She would even be expected to know how to tactfully create seating arrangements at the table, where different personalities would be the most comfortable.

2.) They could cook lavish holiday meals--from scratch. The Butterball website and its crisis line rings off the hook at Thanksgiving with frantic cooks who do not know how to roast a turkey. The 1950s housewife could do this in her sleep.


3.) They could garden, can, and process food, often going through what seemed like mountains of produce. Many women of the time were experts at jelly-making, and could line shelves with their own homemade spaghetti sauce, as well as even jars of home-canned meats. This job requires enormous physical stamina, standing in an over-heated kitchen while endlessly peeling, chopping, and sterilizing. Canning is an exact, practical science, an occupation that requires fanatic attention to cleanliness, following steps to the letter, and having a meticulous eye for detail, from knowing when things are at their needed boiling point to determining if a jar has sealed correctly. It is a science where if it is done incorrectly, food poisoning could result. The fact that so many housewives were known for their canning abilities underlines just how capable and intelligent they indeed were.

4.)  Sewing. An average sixteen year old student in the HomeEc classes of the 1950s could construct a tailored blouse or jacket.  Their skills extended from everyday mending and darning to even being able to slip-cover their sofas.  They were familiar with knitting, crocheting, and embroidery. 

Now, please don't get me wrong here. I am not for one minute saying that a woman has to master all these skills to proudly say she is a housewife. What I am saying is that being a housewife has always been an occupation to test the heart and the mind.  I truly believe there is no job out there that does not require skills. No matter what the level, a housewife still has a learning curve, like anyone working in an office, like anyone working in a classroom. The fact that working as a homemaker has become viewed as somehow mindless and menial is a grave insult that has been handed out to us by our radical feminist sisters. And that is a truly sad thing--for all of us.

Being a housewife is an ancient occupation that has been the foundation of countries and cultures across time; it is vital because people will always need care, comfort, and order. In fact, you could even say that housewifery is an important part of bringing out the best in us as humans, and when you think of it that way, what bigger job can there be?

As Proverbs 31 in Scripture states, "She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks." You are not 'just' a housewife; you are a woman of conviction, strength and intelligence...nurturing both the elderly and the young.

We need to call ourselves housewives again, with honor and with gladness.



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