A half century ago, Glen Campbell sang of “the everyday housewife who gave up the good life for me.” On television Laura Petrie, Harriet Nelson, and the bewitching Samantha Stephens made housewifery seem downright glamorous. Advertisers wooed the “little ladies” of the home, enticing them with products designed to make their chores easier.
Housewives were on every street. High schools had Family Living classes to teach future housewives how to cook and sew.
Then came the 1970s, and housewives were suddenly quaint. Mary Tyler Moore’s new TV persona was that of a career woman. Meanwhile Edith Bunker was just Archie’s “dingbat,” and Peg Bundy was depicted as Al’s money-grabbing couch potato. It didn’t take long to go from June Cleaver’s pearls and high heels to Roseanne Barr’s slovenly “domestic goddess.” Suddenly, it was no longer hip to be a housewife. Women who were once admired for holding the home together were now pitied for lacking ambition.
Today, most cultural mentions of housewives are less than reverential. The ABC series “Desperate Housewives” seemed to pull back the curtains on our traditional take. Instead of wacky sitcom antics, we were treated to the secrets, crimes and mysteries of Wisteria Lane. Recently, one of the show’s stars, Felicity Huffman made news for her alleged involvement in the college admissions scandal, which would have made for a juicily desperate plotline.
So-called reality TV took it a step further, introducing us to the “real” housewives of Beverly Hills, New Jersey, Atlanta, and anywhere else they could find women willing to share their drama with the world.
In my own household, my wife has experienced both sides of this divide. As a journalist and public relations professional, she has worked outside the home. But for thirteen years, she took a break, if you want to call it that, to wrangle two young sons while trying to keep our house in one piece. When the boys became more self-sufficient, she returned to work, most likely to get some rest.
During her housewife years, the loss of income presented a financial sacrifice. Our vacations were less frequent and closer to home, and our cars were older and uglier. She feared she was becoming less interesting, because of a lack of daily interaction with adults. Still, neither of us regretted her decision, and her grown-up sons thank her to this day.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1967 the number of housewives, or stay-at-home moms was at 49 percent. By 2017, that number had shrunk to 29 percent. (The number of stay-at-home dads, while comparatively small, has increased during that period.)
When I spoke to past and current housewives, some were offended as soon as I mentioned the word. “First, I’m not married to a house,” one said. Despite the presence of so many housewives in popular culture, many made it clear they prefer to be called “homemakers” or “stay-at-home moms.”
Some call it the “mommy wars,” fueling hard feelings and guilt among those who work outside the home and those who opt out of the workforce.
One longtime housewife told me, “One parent needs to be home with the kids. The world today is not as loving as during my sheltered childhood.” Another mom countered, “That’s right, it is not a perfect world. But I need a job, it’s an economic necessity. I’m not knocking housewives, I just can’t be one.”
Some say moms are making the wrong choice when they stay at home during a child’s early years, only to return to work when their children become teenagers. “That’s when they need us most,” one mom said.
Another is offended by medical forms that label her as non-working. “I just tell them I’m self-employed now,” she said.
Some tried it and didn’t like it. “It was a bad experience for me,” one woman said. “I had no power in my marriage, and no money. I felt like a slave.”
The words of others often sting. One mom said, “Women will see me out during the day and ask what I do for a living. I tell them I’m a housewife, and they tell me I have it made. I absolutely feel I have to defend my decision.”
A former longtime working mom said, “I will never again judge what makes someone else feel whole, or worry about what others think about me. I’m now the happiest, and most exhausted I’ve ever been.”
This housewife gig isn’t for everyone, for sure. But those who do it, and do it well, should be appreciated and not belittled.
David Carroll, a Chattanooga news anchor, is the author of “Volunteer Bama Dawg,” a collection of his best columns. You may contact him at 900 Whitehall Road, Chattanooga, TN 37405 or firstname.lastname@example.org