Women have been running homes since the dawn of recorded history. But while conservatives like to represent motherhood as the most important role for women, it’s less than a hundred years since people started treating motherhood like a full-time occupation. When you look at the history of the housewife, it’s actually a fairly modern idea to insist that one woman do all the cleaning, cooking, and childcare.
A history of work vs home
Can mums juggle the challenges of home and work?
Until relatively recently, resources were simply too scarce for any family to support a member (like a non-working mother) who was able to contribute but chose not to. In hunter-gatherer societies, women collected berries; on farms, women milked cows; in cities, women wove. This was the state of affairs throughout Europe (and later, North America) from ancient Greece until the 1800s.
The first changes came about in the 19th century. Until the Industrial Revolution, in was common in to live with multiple generations. But as people poured into the cities to find work, they left their extended families behind and lived in small nuclear groups. Suddenly mothers had the sole responsibility for running the home, instead of sharing the work with other female relatives. The influx of workers into the cities meant that domestic labour became incredibly cheap, so most families filled the gap with a charwoman or a maid-of-all-work.
This state of affairs – nuclear middle-class families supported by paid staff – continued right up until the start of World War One. As men were called up to fight, there was a boom in paid employment opportunities for working-class women, leading to a shortage of domestic labour as maids found work in factories.
The old system teetered on for a couple more decades, but domestic labour was dying out by the beginning of World War Two. During the war, women of all classes were expected to help with the war effort by taking on military roles or by filling in jobs left vacant by conscripted men. After WW2 ended, governments around the world pressured women to leave the labour force, for fear that men returning from the front would have no jobs to return to. [Tweet “This was the crucial moment in the history of the housewife.”]
With no paid work to keep them busy and no staff to share the domestic labour, women had little choice but to take care of their homes. Without family or staff to help out, a 1950s housewife spent no more time with her children than a modern working mother because it was more or less a full-time job to keep the house clean and the family fed.
[Tweet “Women who had held high-level positions in WW2 found themselves stuck at home ten years later,”] with no real choice in the matter. A working wife was seen as evidence that her husband couldn’t provide for the family, so middle-class women faced huge pressure to keep up appearances and make budgets stretch. Poor women still had to work, of course, but they faced gibes about raising “latchkey kids”.
It didn’t last long. The 1960s and 1970s saw second-wave feminism, the 1980s was the decade of the career woman, and the 1990s were all about the “new man” sharing parental responsibilities.
At this point in history, the fightback has lasted longer than the golden age of the housewife.
"Alice writes online about business, popular science, and women's lifestyle. After a few years working her way around the world, she has settled in the north of England and taken a day job as a maths teacher. Her life's ambition is to earn enough money to start repaying her student debt."
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