To Housewife or Not To Housewife: That Is STILL the Question?

BY Cristen Conger / POSTED March 25, 2013
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To housewife, or not to housewife?(© PoodlesRock/Corbis) Is this what a feminist looks like?
(© PoodlesRock/Corbis)

I’m umarried and even farther away from having kids, and already I’m reaching a point of exhaustion over housewifery. Fifty years after the publication of “The Feminine Mystique,” pro/con debates over going full-throttle for career versus devoting more time to hearth and home remain as energetic and controversy-stoking as ever.

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer made headlines by taking a quick maternity leave and subsequently building a nursery in her C-suite. Meanwhile, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has published a how-to-succeed manifesto for women, “Lean In,” which instructs women to loosen their death grips on domestic duties and divvy up responsibilities more evenly with their partners. And at some point in all of these conversations, Princeton public policy professor Anne-Marie Slaughter’s declaration that women  — even those like herself, Sandberg and Mayer with the economic resources that affords them more mom-work balance than the average Jane — can’t “have it all” routinely comes up, which makes me wonder sometimes, generally when my single, childless self is feeling stretched thin and weary, why we’re even discussing female choice to begin with if it’s all such an exhausting dead-end route.

Most recently, this admittedly heteronormative housewife versus career woman back-and-forth has revolved around domestic work. Specifically, how men and women split chores and childcare, whether women are biologically primed to bear more of those burdens and how keeping a tidy home squares with feminism. And from the sampling of sources below, I’ve concluded that when it comes to housewifery, the more things change, the more they say the same.

Lisa Miller’s New York magazine cover story, The Feminist Housewife: Can Women Have It All By Choosing to Stay Home?, presented an idealized image of modern stay-at-home housewives as a respite from the Modern Female Struggle (not to be confused with menstruation):

If feminism is not only about creating an equitable society but also a means to fulfillment for individual women, and if the rewards of working are insufficient and uncertain, while the tug of motherhood is inexorable, then a new calculus can take hold: For some women, the solution to resolving the long-running tensions between work and life is not more parent-friendly offices or savvier career moves but the full embrace of domesticity.

At the Atlantic, Emily Matchar offered an insightful response to Miller’s pro-housewife creed in “The Complex, Often Idealistic Reasons Feminists Become Housewives“:

As long as the return to domesticity continues to be a largely female prerogative, it’s going to be on uneasy footing, gender equality-wise. So let’s can the talk about women’s inherent nurturing capabilities or men’s natural need to bring home the bacon. Hopefully, one day not too far in the future, we’ll be seeing a lot more feminist househusbands.

Meanwhile, Jessica Grose at the New Republic pondered in “Cleaning: The Final Feminist Frontier” she takes it upon herself to clean up so much around the house, compared to her more laid back husband:

If I do one load of laundry, it’s easier for me to do the second rather than wait for my husband to mosey over. (Bradner also says that when men do traditionally female chores, they’re enacting “‘small instances of gender heroism,’ or ‘SIGH’s”—which, barf.)

Offering a welcome male perspective to this gendered debate, Jonathan Chait at Daily Intel “A Really Easy Answer to the Feminist Housework Problem” to the persistent gap in the amount of time that women put into cooking and cleaning (not so much of the care taking) around the house: the average guy has a lower standard than the average gal:

Women in general just have higher standards of cleanliness than men do. People who care a lot about neater homes spend more time cleaning them because that makes them happy. And while I agree in general that domestic life requires more gender equality, the housework problem has a partial solution that’s simpler and more elegant: Do less of it.

My “really easy answer” to all this Who Does the Housework?! conundrum: do as same-sex couples. Without gender norms playing such a troublesome role in gay couples, household tasks tend to not cause as much quibbling. When there are two women or two men in the home, who’s “supposed” to clean the dishes or take out the trash? Whoever does it better and has the time — just as it ought to be.

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