Simple Life in France recently wrote on a subject that seems to be worrying a number of women in my circle. It’s a concern that speaks with profound irony to women d’un certain âge. “What would my husband think,” she wonders, if she decided never to go back to work but instead to devote herself to being…ah, let’s say it: “just a housewife?” And into “what he would think,” let’s read the more invidious “what would everyone else think?”
A dear friend of mine here is wrestling with the same questions. She’s contemplating making her escape from the day job sometime in the near future. She agonizes about the prospect of searching for another job, full- or part-time, when in reality she very likely would be happy and successful taking care of her husband and their beautiful home and expansive semirural property. Though she recognizes she needs a break from the work world—possibly a permanent one—she also feels that she should be contributing to the finances of the marital community. Her husband earns a good living that will support them well; their child is out of the home and married; and so the question of whether she should be working is not a matter of necessity but of conscience.
It’s the conundrum of the post-feminist middle-class woman. We’ve gone, over the course of a single lifetime, from a social milieu in which few women were even allowed to work to one where women not only can do just about any job they please but are expected to work, whether they want to or not. By “work,” of course, we continue to mean work two jobs: the day job plus the other full-time occupation of caring for a man, his children, and their dwelling.
The subtext for both Simple’s and my friend’s conflict—and it’s an important one—is “how will I be valued?”
We live in a culture where a person’s value is measured in dollars. The more you earn, the better you must be as a human being, right? And so what does it mean when a woman earns no dollars? A woman who has focused her whole life’s energies on being “just a housewife” receives exactly zero credit toward Social Security. More humiliating, her Social Security benefits, if any, will be tied to her husband’s, and only if she has earned less than half of what he is entitled to…assuming she stays married to the guy long enough. What does that mean?
Unwittingly (perhaps), we’ve not freed women, but instead we have further institutionalized the little-womaning of the American housewife. As feminists, we’ve done it by insisting that women must fulfill some imagined “full potential,” which we have situated in the commercial workplace. As a culture, we’ve done it by raising the cost of living so high that a single paycheck will no longer support a family in a middle-class lifestyle. And we see it in the not-so-subtle message implicit in that Social Security rule.
We as women need to rethink the value of what we are and what we do, and we need to disconnect that value from the dollar. Let’s consider what’s entailed in working as “just a housewife.”
For starters, a woman who lives and works at home takes on the following base responsibilities:
• She raises and educates children (let’s face it: most of a kid’s education happens in the home).
• She shepherds the children through public school and works to extract the most value with the least harm from the institutional system.
• She cleans and cares for a house or apartment.
• She may care for a yard and garden, often including small farm animals and large pets.
• She designs meals and cooks them.
• She shops for food, clothing, furnishings, household goods, and all other necessities and luxuries.
• She budgets and handles money.
• She cleans, a job that (as you’ll know if you’ve ever hired cleaning help) is a great deal more complex than we give it credit for.
• She decorates and maintains a comfortable sanctuary from the outside world.
• She does minor repair work around the house and property.
• She sees to the maintenance of the cars.
• She does sex work.
• She volunteers at schools, churches, and community nonprofits.
• She cares for elderly parents, whether her own or her husband’s.
• In her husband’s old age, she may spend her own elder years caring for a sick old man.
In the course of learning to do these jobs over a lifetime, she attains skills in child development, bookkeeping, money management, hygiene, chemistry, nutrition, first aid, child care, elder care, gardening, interior decor, crafts, cuisine, entertainment, the arts of sexuality. If she volunteers outside the home, she builds knowledge and skills in subjects such as early childhood education, social work, event management, newsletter editing and publishing, office operations, and who knows what else.
That’s if she’s an ordinary, garden-variety just-a-housewife.
Let’s suppose she either is a particularly energetic, college-trained woman or she happens to marry a professional or business owner and so is expected to perform as what we might, in old-fashioned terms, call a society matron. In that case, she gets up to these sorts of things:
• She represents her family unit and raises its profile through civic volunteerism and leadership.
• She participates in elite service groups such as Junior League. In doing so, she takes on middle-management to executive-level responsibilities in one or more civic organizations.
• She serves on the board of directors of one or more civic or nonprofit organizations, such as a museum, a social service agency, or a citizens’ group.
• She hires and supervises household and landscaping staff to manage the house in her absence.
• She entertains clients and colleagues in the home and at venues such as clubs and professional meetings.
• She entertains and socializes with her husband’s partners’ wives, and in doing so collects intelligence on behind-the-scenes matters that may prove valuable for her husband’s career or investment strategies.
• She builds and markets her husband’s profile in the community.
As a society matron—or, in more contemporary language, the partner of a professional—our just-a-housewife develops and engages all of the basic skills we’ve seen above plus management of household and landscaping staff, management of volunteers, event management, catering, public relations, marketing, fund-raising, office work, social work, fiduciary management, and a wide variety of other skills and knowledge specific to individual nonprofit organizations. If she has a college degree in business or some other technical field, she may apply that training to her unpaid civic work exactly as she would do in the workplace.
In either event—whether she focuses her energy and activities on her home, husband, and children or whether she also engages in civic voluntarism—the just-a-housewife manifests a wide variety of skills that, in any other context, would command a decent salary. Make that several decent salaries.
But because she doesn’t command a salary, we think of her as “just a housewife.” And she wonders if her husband (friends, in-laws, former roommate, college classmates) will value her.
My point here is that a woman is worth more than money. What she does can’t be measured in dollars, and so her worth can’t be measured in the currency of the marketplace.
When we feminists of the 1960s and 70s agitated to allow women into the marketplace, we did so because we wanted our daughters and grand-daughters to have a choice. We wanted women to be able to choose to enter the world of work, in any capacity, and not to be limited to the home or to menial, ill-paying jobs.
Choice works both ways. To be able to choose to do something means to be able to choose not to do something.
“Women’s work” and skills have great value—really, whether they’re engaged by a woman or by a man. A man, too, should have the choice to do or not to do, to work outside the home or not to work outside the home. The work we do, the knowledge and wisdom we possess should be valued for what they are, not for what they’re paid.
Of what real value are the bankers and financiers who so fabulously enriched themselves at the expense of the entire developed world’s economy? Of what value is the highly paid tobacco executive, captain of an industry devoted to sickening and killing its customers? These men and women are highly paid in the workplace, but we see their value as human beings: negative equity, we might say.
Value yourself for what you are and what you do, not for what you’re paid. Value yourself, and others around you will value you.
And, my friends, let us take up the torch again: demand choice, not bondage—neither to the home nor to the marketplace.
As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days;
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
James Oppenheimer, “Bread and Roses“