Saturday, 19 April 2008

The Myth of the Non-Working Woman.

Often when perusing the internets, I come across references to the ‘non-working woman’, or ‘housewife’ as she is occasionally referred. She is idealised as a woman of perfect femininity who correctly understands her place in the world (by the sink). She is fulfilled and happy in her role as a wife and mother, which provides her with perfect mental and physical health (unlike the poor working woman), and is able to provide for all the needs and desires of her working husband, who in turn is perfectly mentally and physically healthy and happy in his role as breadwinner. As parents in a nuclear household, their children are raised in the perfect environment, loving but disciplined, and their children will grow to be healthy, responsible members of society. As the perfect mother, who does not work, she is able to devote vast amounts of time to the development and upbringing of children. Unfortunately, the feminist movement destroyed this woman. They forced her out of her home and into the workplace, leading to the disintegration of society, the corruption of children, rising crime rates, greater alcoholism and a turning away from God. Woman everywhere desire to return to an ideal time, where they can once more take pleasure in scrubbing floors and mending stockings within the comfort of their own home, but they are scared to admit that to themselves or to other women, because it is desperately unfashionable.

What is often not mentioned in such discussions is that such a household, such a woman, is a myth. She has never existed. So let’s break this myth down. There are three major components to this ideal: the myth of the nuclear household; the myth of the non-working woman and the myth of the child-devoted mother. Let’s put these myths to bed.

First, the nuclear household. Historically, while the nuclear household, certainly in the West, has been the preferred living arrangement, it has never been dominant. Why? Death; divorce; singleness. For a long time, in western Europe, around a third of the population NEVER married (that is they were single for their whole lives). And guess what? This wasn’t considered freakish- indeed we can blame the Victorians for such an attitude, interestingly a period where women out-numbered men by between a quarter and a third in Britain. This led to a large number of non-nuclear households. Many households were headed by women, either single or widowed. People often live in composite households. Siblings lived together for a lifetime. Non-married relatives lived with married family. High death rates ensured that nuclear households were not nuclear for long, while divorce replaced death in the twentieth century. Only a very few people ever lived in a nuclear household for their entire lives.

Second, the non-working woman. A fairly obvious contradiction to such ideals is that working-class women have always worked and almost always outside the home. Now, I know what you’re thinking- what about subsistence farming- surely in a long ago past, people worked on family farms where they may have lived on the breadline, but they worked as a family? Nope. Myth. Almost all subsistence farming was supplemented by additional occupations. Women were heavily involved in running inns, taking in lodgers, brewing beer, weaving, lace-making, textiles, knitting, baking, laundry, child-care, domestic service, out-working on other farms, in addition to the work they performed in their own homes. In some areas, subsistence farming was supplemented through itinerant work, such as men who went fishing for the season, or women who moved to cities to work as servants during ‘the season’. In certain areas, women were heavily involved in itinerant work, leaving their husbands and children for months at a time. At other times, working class women have worked long hours outside of the home in other people’s homes, in factories, in fields and numerous other occupations.

Well, you might say, obviously such an ideal excluded the working classes, but what about middle class women? They must have been able to meet such as ideal. Nope. Myth. The middle classes or middling sorts, depending on the period, can be split into two groups: women who worked and women who had ‘leisure’. Many lower middle class women had to work like their working class counterparts, although their occupations differed. It was not uncommon for middle class women to own their own businesses, particularly inns and a wide range of shops from grocery to textiles. Depending on the legal position of married women which varied across countries, many of these shops were owned independently from their husbands. Other women worked within the family business as shopkeepers, receptionists, secretaries and middle-management. Many lower middle-class women took in lodgers; some worked as governesses; some took in laundry.

Wealth may have appeared to free the upper-middle class women from such burdens as their lower class sisters, but their position brought with it a new range of responsibilities. Such women often ran households with thirty employees; upper class families could have even larger staff. Women were responsible for employing staff, ensuring they were paid, replacing staff as they moved to new employment (a very common occurrence with servants moving regularly). They had to ensure that they were always occupied and that the functions of the household were being performed. They had to manage large budgets ensuring that such large households were fed, clothed, cleaned and generally ran smoothly. Furthermore, with ‘leisure’ came the role of the hostess. The function of hostess was not a simple case of throwing parties (if such a thing was simple). A good hostess had to ensure that the right people were invited and the wrong people excluded. They had to seat people to best advantage. They had to ensure that over the course of a season that one’s friends, colleagues and contacts, were all invited to the appropriate number and right type of parties. They had to ensure that they attended other people’s parties in turn. Now before you accuse these women of a life of frivolity, remember that for most of time (and probably still today) politics and business were conducted as such events. These soirees were not about entertainment; they were about ensuring the family’s name and prestige. They were a massive responsibility and they offered hostesses great authority through the power of the 'invitation’. They were the gatekeepers to their husbands and families.

There was no such thing as a non-working woman. Let’s face it! The discussion above doesn’t even include housework or cooking. And I’ll let you in on a secret: paying someone else to cook your meals or clean your house is not new or middle class. Working-class women frequently paid people to clean their homes, and especially do their laundry, when they worked outside the home. Before the advent of convenience foods, working class women often bought ready-made pies, bread and prepared meals from other women in their community. Even wet-nursing was not exclusive to the upper classes. French working-class mothers who went to Paris for seasonal work left their babies with wet-nurses. This leads me nicely on to myth number three.

Three: The child-devoted mother. Do you seriously think that the women described above had time to devote every minute to their children? Even middle class women employed nannies and saw their children at prescribed times each day. There was no expectation that women devote their lives to their children. In Scotland in the seventeenth century, the school day began at 6am and lasted for 8 to 12 hours a day. School was attended six days a week. There were no official school holidays, although children were often removed from school when needed to work. Children attended school from the age of five until they were old enough to work (around aged 8 for the working class). Babies were watched by professional child-minders who often watched several children in the neighbourhood or older siblings (aged around 9). Even if we jump forward to the twentieth century middle class, non-working woman, the realities of running a household, especially before the advent of the vacuum cleaner, the washing machine, cleaning chemicals and convenience food, required a significant amount of time and effort. Children were expected to play independently and entertain themselves. Furthermore, despite the fact that children were raised by servants and wider kin as well as their parents, the vast majority of the population managed to grow up to be productive and no less warped that anybody else.

Now, I am not saying that the way people behaved in the past was in anyway ideal, or that we should not envision a new future for the family, but don’t feed me a picture of some ideal time where the nuclear family was in transcendence and all was well with the world. It didn’t exist. It is a myth. So stop harping on about it.


Anonymous said...

love this post. I have this documentary about tibet that I show to my class and there's a family in it that comprises at least the husband and wife and their young child plus his parents and what appears to be a very aged grandfather. That's everyone we see, anyway. Okay, so the kid, right? the mother is out working with the animals and the child is inside with grandmother, who is cooking and keeping house for the family and she's so busy, the child (maybe two years old) is expected to play on her own. To keep her from getting into anything dangerous, the child is tied with a rope by the waist. She can move throughout maybe half of the room but not as far as the fire.

my students are scandalized by this. Not only is no one paying much attention to the kid, OMG she's tied up with a rope like a dog. meanwhile, I'm thinking this seems like a pretty good idea. and actually, my grandmother did that with my uncle--hooked him up to a long clothesline. She was a "housewife" but that means she did all cooking cleaning shopping etc (including washing and drying diapers) but it also means she ran all the finances for both my grandfather's business and for their home. She was the household manager. Eventually, she ran a retail store connected with his business as well. If you ask her, she'll say she never worked.

alright, well. random stories that came to mind while I was reading. great post and so so true.

Feminist Avatar said...

Thanks. I have been meaning to write this for ages.

Anonymous said...

Great analysis, great post.

When I was younger (20's), I didn't know what to think of "feminist". Just that the word had a negative connotation somehow. As I have grown older (now 38), I realize it's horrible having met so many women who limit themselves mentally or professionally because of perceived expectation of society. Quite frankly, the whole bit is bad for men too.