Housewives’ choice?

This article originally appeared in T&S Issue 42, Summer 2001.

As popular culture returns to worship at the altar of the domestic goddess, Delilah Campbell re-reads Betty Friedan’s 1963 classic, The Feminine Mystique

The Feminine Mystique has one of the most memorable openings in feminist nonfiction:

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night, she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question: ‘is this all?’ (p.13).

The first chapter, of which this is the first paragraph, is called ‘The problem that has no name’. In a work that, to judge by the preface, was begun as early as 1957, and published six years later, Betty Friedan analysed the oppressive emptiness of the life led by educated, affluent suburban housewives. These women might have everything they were told a woman could want — husbands, children, luxurious homes, labour saving gadgets — but they were unhappy and unfulfilled. The problem, essentially, was the stifling of women’s personalities and aspirations by domesticity.

In a few more years, a new social movement — the Women’s Liberation Movement — would announce itself as a solution. The economic dependence, spatial confinement, social isolation and mind-numbing triviality of the housewife’s role became one of the central targets of feminist criticism, along with the unfair division of domestic labour that went along with it. For middle class women particularly, escaping from this role was often an important part of the struggle they engaged in when they took on board the feminist slogan, ‘the personal is political’.

Women never did manage to shrug off their disproportionate responsibility for housework, but ‘doing housework’ is not quite the same as ‘being a housewife’. The problem Betty Friedan saw was not simply that women were saddled with doing domestic work, it was that they were restricted to the domestic sphere and defined exclusively in terms of domesticity, which was presented as equivalent to femininity itself. Undoubtedly, the WLM — and other contemporaneous social forces — did change this. Today, for any woman under the age of about 60 to announce, as the 30-something wife of a colleague once did to me, that she is ‘a housewife’, sounds more like a conscious anti-feminist challenge than the innocent and neutral statement of fact it was for, say, my mother. The apologetic ‘just a housewife’ — equally excruciating to a radical feminist — also seems to have declined into obsolescence. Women who do not work outside the home are more likely, in my own experience, to describe themselves as ‘full-time mothers’ than as ‘housewives’. The presumption that women ‘stay at home’ to pursue domesticity as a calling, and that this calling is central to womanhood in general, has been consigned, at least among the western middle classes, to the dustbin of history.

But while the lid of history’s dustbin may have closed forever on the housewife, a new and suspiciously similar phenomenon has recently emerged from that vast recycling bin known as postmodern culture. Welcome — or not — to the ‘domestic goddess’.

From housewife to goddess: the new domesticity

I take the phrase ‘domestic goddess’ from the title of Nigella Lawson’s much-hyped book How to be a Domestic Goddess. Let me acknowledge at once that this is slightly unfair, because it’s clear this title is (like many postmodern products) intentionally ironic. The book itself is basically just a collection of cake recipes. Nevertheless, the title works as irony because it alludes to a recognisable phenomenon, which also has some much less ironic recent manifestations.

For example, among the surprise publishing successes of the year 2000 in the US were several ‘how-to’ books about housework — about starching linen, cleaning windows, scrubbing floors, and generally rediscovering, as one of them put it explicitly, the things your grandmother knew about how to keep a clean and well-ordered house. Another unexpected seller was a new edition of the bible of Victorian domesticity, [Mrs] Isabella Beeton’s Household Management.

Nostalgia appears to play a significant part in the new idealisation of domesticity. Last year and this, British television brought us documentary series on The 1900 House and then The 1940s House, in each of which a modern family returned to the domestic arrangements of the relevant period — putting washing through a mangle, growing their own vegetables, preparing meals without modern convenience foods or labour-saving equipment. For the women of the families, domesticity was visibly a full time job. And what was notable was the enthusiasm they expressed for at least some aspects of it. The 1940s House’s Mrs Hymer was forthright about the exhaustion it caused, but she also emphasised the satisfaction it provided, and extolled the power of traditional domestic arrangements to bring families together around what really mattered. After the experiment was over, she reported that she continued to shop and cook in the 1940s manner, saving huge amounts on her weekly grocery bills.

In upmarket women’s magazines, too, the joys of domesticity have been a popular theme of late. One title, Red, recently ran a fairly serious feature which critically analysed the media’s current enthusiasm for all things domestic, but went on to argue that the new domesticity is not just a media creation. Increasing numbers of real women, the writer claimed, are resigning from their high-powered jobs after concluding that they and their families would be happier if they used their time and talents in the home. The women who were interviewed for the piece were, if not radical feminists, then certainly not doormats. They were self-aware, articulate, persuasive about the decisions they had made and their reasons for making them.

We all know that in the world of magazine journalism, two of the writer’s acquaintances can be presented as a social trend: how many women are really giving up paid work for unpaid domestic work — or seriously wishing they could afford to do so — is difficult to say. But even if the answer is ‘virtually none’, it does not seem insignificant to me that there is apparently so much interest in reading about it. The popularity of books on how to keep house like your granny did, of Mrs Beeton and Nigella Lawson and the 1940s House, suggests to me that there may be, to paraphrase Betty Friedan’s words of 40 years ago, ‘a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffer at the beginning of the 21st century’. But what women are apparently yearning for now is not an alternative to domesticity. It is more like a return to it.

Old fashioned virtues?

I use the word ‘return’ advisedly, for even when it is not an explicit recreation of a bygone age, the new domesticity is strikingly old-fashioned. You can see this by comparing it to the sort of domestic regime that was championed by popular writers during the 1970s and 80s. Shirley Conran’s Superwoman, for instance, remembered for its author’s bracing remark that ‘life’s too short to stuff a mushroom’, was all about making domestic activities take less time and effort while still producing an acceptable result. It was realistic about the fact that domesticity was women’s work, but it assumed their more important sources of satisfaction lay elsewhere. Today’s domestic ideal, by contrast, is almost perversely time consuming. Not only are there no short-cuts, you are meant to derive pleasure from what is by most contemporary standards an extraordinary excess of effort — ironing the duvet cover, taking rugs outside and beating them, cleaning windows with vinegar rather than a proprietary spray.

Betty Friedan makes exactly the same point about the 1950s, observing of American suburban housewives after World War II that

They baked their own bread, sewed their own and their children’s clothes, kept their new washing machines and dryers running all day. They changed the sheets twice a week instead of once, took the rug-hooking class at adult education, and pitied their poor frustrated mothers, who had dreamt of having a career (p.16).

Unlike the British women whose domestic lives were recreated in The 1940s House, these American housewives were not obliged by rationing and shortages to do their own sewing and bread making and rug hooking. As with the gurus and goddesses of the present, doing more than they really had to do was a display of commitment to a particular domestic ideal: ‘they gloried in their role as women, and wrote proudly on the census blank: “occupation: housewife”‘.

Contemporary domestic goddesses, or goddess wannabes, would not describe themselves, ‘proudly’ or otherwise, as ‘housewives’: but their project is very much about making domestic work an occupation again, rather than just a collection of tedious low-level chores to be fitted in when you are not otherwise occupied. It seems to me telling, for instance, that TV goddesses like Nigella Lawson and Delia Smith are filmed entirely in what is either their actual home or a studio simulation meant to be taken as their home (Nigella forages for leftovers in the fridge; Delia’s cat is glimpsed in the well-tended garden outside her kitchen window). Not only does this televisual convention confine them, literally, to the home, it also draws attention to the whole domestic package they represent — cooking is in the foreground, but the backdrop is family life, with these women at the centre of it. The younger and trendier of the two, Nigella Lawson, is also the one whose family life is more explicitly presented — we regularly see her children, for instance.

In case anyone thinks I am accusing the women to whom this idyllic vision appeals of being brainless fembot twerps, let me confess that one reason I started thinking about this subject is that I am not untouched myself by the kind of desire for domesticity I am describing. I was gripped by The 1940s House; I have taken to baking cakes when I’m particularly stressed, and have flipped through Nigella Lawson’s book in shops to see if I might want to buy it when it comes out in paperback. Worst of all, I quite often fantasise about giving up the rat race for a spell of fulltime domestic bliss. I imagine myself in a clean and aesthetically pleasing house, cooking wholesome and delicious food, surrounded by other people who I choose to be with and who appreciate my efforts (though I do draw the line at putting a husband into this picture). A few years ago, such a scenario would never have entered my mind, even as a passing fantasy. Why am I apparently so susceptible to it now?

That was the question that sent me back to Betty Friedan. Forty odd years ago she wrote about ‘the problem that has no name’. She and other feminists gave it a name, indeed several of them, but according to contemporary popular culture it is no longer a problem. Is the first decade of the 21st century turning into a sort of re-run of the 1950s? And are feminist insights from the mid-20th century worth applying to the conditions of the 21st?

The feminine mystique revisited

Today Betty Friedan is not exactly celebrated as a radical feminist hero. When the WLM arrived, she became associated with the most mainstream and liberal of US feminist organisations, NOW (the National Organization of Women), and she is also unfondly remembered for her hostility to lesbians in the movement (the ‘lavender menace’). But while The Feminine Mystique is a liberal text — ‘liberal’ in the manner of the 19th century woman suffragists whose story is told sympathetically in one chapter — you could not call it wishy-washy. It contains, for instance, an entire chapter denouncing Freud and his latter-day followers for their ridiculous patriarchal doctrine of ‘penis envy’, and two more dripping contempt for functionalist social scientists and those who applied their teachings in programmes of domestic education for girls. All of this would become the common sense of the WLM, and the fact that she was expressing it so trenchantly in the early 60s makes Betty Friedan sound a lot more radical than many later (and ‘hipper’) feminist theorists with their revisionist views on psychoanalysis, motherhood and sex.

Another ‘radical’ feature of The Feminine Mystique is its sustained critique of the media, which anticipates a good deal of later feminist scholarship and theory. Betty Friedan herself had given up postgraduate work in psychology to become a suburban housewife and mother, and had later taken up writing for women’s magazines. It was the extreme dissonance between the picture of domestic paradise writers like her were obliged to paint and what she heard women telling her when she interviewed them that inspired her to begin work on the book.

In a chapter called ‘the Happy Housewife Heroine’, she shows systematically how between about 1949 and 1956, women’s magazines became progressively more and more domesticated. Whereas the Ladies Home Journal and its ilk during the 1930s and 40s had featured stories about ‘new women’ with careers, pilots’ licenses and egalitarian relationships, as well as nonfictional reports on international politics and scientific discoveries, by the mid-1950s their pages were full of nothing but stories about housewives (or aspiring housewives intent on finding a husband) and endless articles on domestic pursuits. Women whose contributions to magazine journalism had been valued because of their distinguished reputations in other fields were now forced to reinvent themselves as ‘ordinary’ wives and mothers:

…women writers began to write about themselves as if they were ‘just housewives’, revelling in a comic world of children’s pranks and eccentric washing machines and parents’ nights at the PTA.. ‘After making the bed of a twelve-year old boy week after week, climbing Mount Everest would seem a laughable anti-climax’, writes Shirley Jackson (McCall’s, April 1956)… They are good craftsmen [sic], the best of these Housewife Writers. And some of their work is funny. But there is something about Housewife Writers that isn’t funny — like Uncle Tom, or Amos and Andy. ‘Laugh’, the Housewife Writers tell the real housewife, ‘if you are feeling desperate, empty, bored, trapped in the bedmaking, chauffeuring and dishwashing details. Isn’t it funny? We’re all in the same trap.’ Do real housewives then dissipate in laughter their dreams and their sense of desperation? Do they think their frustrated abilities and their limited lives are a joke? Shirley Jackson makes the beds, loves and laughs at her son — and writes another book. Jean Kerr’s plays are produced on Broadway. The joke is not on them (p.50-1).

This struck me as uncomfortably close to some present-day realities. In the past few years, glossy women’s magazines, including for instance Cosmopolitan and She, have abandoned their previous image as reading matter for intelligent ‘career women’ and cultivated an altogether fluffier image — articles about work and politics have been replaced by celebrity trivia and sex tips. When this sea-change took place, industry commentators related it unequivocally to market forces: this was what the target audience wanted. Even the watered-down, ‘having it all’ feminism of the 1980s/early 1990s woman’s magazine was a turn-off for women now in their twenties.

An even more striking change has taken place in journalism not intended exclusively for a female audience. Newspapers are now awash in ‘lifestyle’ features, many of which bear an eerily strong resemblance to the work of the 1950s Housewife Writers described by Betty Friedan. Columnists once again get paid to chronicle the ups and downs of life at home — the breakdown of domestic appliances, the amusing dramas of getting three children ready for a family outing, the horror that is a teenage boy’s bedroom.

But if there are echoes of the 1950s and early 60s in contemporary popular culture, there are also some important things that differentiate our time from the time Betty Friedan wrote about. (Perhaps the most important is the breaking of the link between domesticity and femininity — readers familiar with the new lifestyle journalism will know, for instance, that a lot of it is produced by men rather than women, a point I’ll return to below.) What we have now is not a resurgence of the 1950s ‘feminine mystique’, but a mystique of domesticity itself. I think this is a response to conditions which affect both women and men; but that does not imply it is of no concern to feminists. Later I’ll come back to the gender dimension of the new domesticity. First, though, I want to explore how it differs from the phenomenon analysed in The Feminine Mystique.

At home by choice: equal opportunity domesticity

An obvious difference between the 1950s and now is that contemporary women who embrace domesticity do so by choice rather than compulsion. Though Betty Friedan does emphasise the voluntarism of post-war women’s surrender to the domestic ideal, she also gives plenty of evidence that educated middle class women in the 50s did not have the alternative options available to their counterparts today. On the other hand they did face relentless pressure towards domesticity from all kinds of ‘experts’, from the media and from their peers. Today, by contrast, it is the decision not to take up a profession, or to leave it permanently when she marries or has children, that educated women have to justify. The expectation, however unrealistic, is that an educated middle class woman can and should ‘have it all’, meaning a fulfilling family life and an equally fulfilling career (which also implies a measure of economic independence, even if women still tend to earn less than the men they set up households with). The equation of femininity and full-time domesticity that Betty Friedan identifies as so oppressive and destructive no longer has the force it did forty years ago, if indeed it can be said to exist at all.

This leads to the second difference between then and now: the new domesticity is not, or at least is never presented as, an exclusively female preserve. The idea that domesticity is a choice tends to go along with the idea that it is an equal opportunity activity, which simply happens to be chosen by more women than men. One argument against this is economic: since men usually earn more, if one member of a couple is going to give up paid work it will often make financial sense for it to be the woman. This ‘choice’ is obviously conditioned by a persistent structural inequality between the sexes.

On the other hand, as I have already mentioned, it is notable that some prominent media representatives of the new domesticity are gods rather than goddesses. Nigella (Lawson) is paralleled by Nigel (Slater), who is also filmed in cooking in his own home, and like Nigella (but unlike most men who prepare food on TV) is a food writer and domestic cook rather than a professional restaurant chef. Among the many irritating newspaper columns now devoted to chronicling the mundane details of domestic life, one of the most prominent, in The Observer, is written by a man, Phil Hogan. BBC Radio 4’s popular Home Truths programme, a cosy compilation on the theme of home and family, is presented by another man, John Peel.

Hogan and Peel (though not Slater, who is gay) have created personas as enthusiastic and committed family men, husbands and fathers whose home life essentially is their life. I say these are personas, because obviously these domestic gods (like the Housewife Writers of the 1950s) have a professional and indeed very public life, for which their domestic life happens to provide the material. The domesticity they present to others as a calling is for them a business, from which they earn their living. But clearly it has become possible, now, for this rather contradictory position (public champion of private domesticity) to be inhabited quite convincingly by men as well as women. Indeed, I suspect that men may have come to be favoured over women as chroniclers of domestic life — ubiquitous as they now are, their insights no longer have much novelty value, but they do represent a symbolic break with the old equation of domesticity and triviality (‘if a man writes about it, it must be important’).

The existence of the ‘domestic god’ who does not just pontificate on domesticity (as male experts have done for two centuries) but is also seen to embrace it fully and enthusiastically, suggests to me, not that domesticity itself has become genderless, but that the contemporary desire for domesticity has some purchase on people of both sexes. It can’t be explained, that is, as a simple desire to return to traditional, 1950s-style gender roles or as a reaction against feminism. (After all, men doing domesticity is very much in the spirit of a certain sort of feminism.)

My own explanation of the new domesticity actually has little to do with gender. I think it is an expression of the same impulse that prompts some people to embrace new age spiritual beliefs or become avid consumers of self-improvement literature. It is part of a search for meaning in contemporary life. And this brings me to the other two respects in which I think our own world is significantly different from the world of The Feminine Mystique: there is a different relationship between home and work, and a more complex, love-hate relationship with consumerism.

Getting a life: the problem of work

Throughout The Feminine Mystique, it is noticeable that Betty Friedan repeatedly opposes the domestic confinement of the hapless suburban housewife to the freedom of the woman allowed to pursue a profession. The career her mother longed for is presented as the most obvious antidote to the housewife’s malaise and lack of fulfilment. The mainstream liberal feminism with which Betty Friedan became associated has always maintained something similar to this position: the keystone of women’s equality is access to the world of work, especially to the middle class professions, and the key feminist issues are therefore things like sex discrimination in employment, sexual harassment in the workplace, equal pay, and the ‘glass ceiling’.

Indisputably, if regrettably, these issues remain relevant; but the celebration of waged work as inherently liberating for women, and inherently less oppressive than domesticity, seems increasingly out of touch with the experience of many middle class ‘career women’. In the accounts of those who have ‘downshifted’ to part time jobs or full time motherhood, there is, on the contrary, a consistent focus on the all-consuming, but at the same time unsatisfying nature of much contemporary work. And when paid work is experienced as oppressive rather than fulfilling, the domestic sphere, popularly conceived as ‘the opposite’ of work, starts to look less like a cage and more like the refuge whose idealisation Betty Friedan and other feminists of her era deplored.

Perhaps the greatest problem with work in the 21st century is the demands it makes on workers’ time. It has been calculated that workers today spend more hours working than any group of people in recorded human history except factory hands in the early, unregulated phase of the industrial revolution. The ‘speed up’ of work, which is a consequence of the processes known in shorthand as globalisation, affects women particularly adversely, precisely because they continue to be responsible for most of the domestic labour that is needed to maintain their households, and for the care of their children. Women with jobs have to come home and work a ‘second shift’. This is exhausting enough when your ‘first shift’ working hours are reasonable; as the hours spent on the first shift increase, exhaustion becomes desperation. Add to this the fact that many professional women are in working environments which are particularly stressful for various reasons — women are, for instance, over-represented in public sector occupations like nursing, education and social work where they must constantly try to compensate for a chronic lack of resources — and it becomes easy to see the attraction of jacking in the day-job.

For most women, however, giving up paid work altogether is a fantasy. For working class women the ‘choice’ to work for wages or not was always restricted by economic realities; now the same thing is true for middle class women, for the lifestyle of the average middle class family can rarely be maintained on a single income. There used to be a socialist/feminist slogan about marriage: ‘the union of a slave and a wage-slave’. But we are (almost) all wage-slaves now, and the conditions under which we labour for wages are getting ever more demanding — involving longer hours, more responsibility and less long-term security at all levels of the occupational hierarchy. This is what gives resonance to contemporary buzzphrases like ‘the work-life balance’, or its colloquial relation ‘get a life’. ‘A life’ here means ‘a life outside work’. Primarily, it means family and domesticity. The message is a new variation on the old theme that one is forced to choose — home or work, family or career. But since women who choose ‘career’ do not thereby escape from domesticity, they may well be tempted by the idea of escaping into it.

In most cases, as I have said already, the ‘escape’ does not take the form of actually giving up paid work. Instead women selectively redefine their relationship to domesticity, so that instead of being merely a ‘second shift’ at work, it becomes a quasi-leisure activity, a creative hobby from which they get pleasure. Of course, not all domestic labour is treated in this way: few people relax by scrubbing toilets. But the deliberate nostalgic revival of old and laborious domestic crafts seems to me to be bound up, however paradoxically, with an equally deliberate attempt to distance domestic activities from the regimentation, tight deadlines and general stress of the modern workplace. It is the contrast that makes this form of domesticity pleasurable — and of course, the knowledge that it is neither unavoidable (the microwave is there if you want it) nor in fact your full-time occupation. Because it is not her whole life (whereas it was her grandmother’s, and still is many less privileged women’s), the domestic goddess can treat some aspects of domesticity as play rather than work, and use them to achieve a better ‘work/life balance’.

Saving our souls

Apart from being a response to the excessive stress and alienation of paid work, the new domesticity may also be an expression of a peculiar love-hate relation with the advanced consumer capitalism which defines so much of life in contemporary affluent societies.

One of the things that struck me, re-reading The Feminine Mystique, was the emergence of ‘the problem that has no name’ at a very particular historical juncture: essentially the beginning of the great western post-war consumer boom. This is relevant to what could be seen as a major shortcoming of the book, its focus on white middle class suburban US women. In fact, though, part of Betty Friedan’s point is that ‘the problem’ affected these privileged women most severely. They were the beneficiaries of the new affluence and the new labour-saving products which reduced the drudgery of housework. But that in itself contributed to the problem, since it meant that the full-time occupation to which their gender consigned them no longer occupied the time they had to spend on it, nor demanded any real skill.

From the interviews Betty Friedan quotes, it is evident that many women’s malaise — continual sleepiness, inability to concentrate, depression — had its origins in a kind of pathological boredom engendered by the sheer lack of stimulation that characterised their endlessly repeated daily routine. Old-style domestic work, which was both physically demanding and in some respects dependent on knowing one’s craft, was composed of repetitive and often menial tasks, but it did not leave the housewife with so many empty hours or so much surplus physical and mental energy.

What was supposed to fill the time freed up by the end of domestic drudgery? According to a fairly standard sociological-historical account, which Betty Friedan also draws on, the real job of the post-war housewife was to consume — to buy things, especially non-essential or luxury items. The post-war period marked a new and decisive stage in the long-term process whereby the household shifted from being the key site of production in the pre-industrial era, to being a site almost exclusively of consumption, while productive labour moved elsewhere. This historical account provided the basis for a socialist or marxist (and socialist or marxist feminist) critique of the modern housewife’s role. The housewife was performing a vital service to capitalism: as well as reproducing her husband’s labour power (by feeding, clothing and nurturing him so he was physically and mentally ready to work), she was redistributing his earnings back into the capitalist’s coffers by buying things she did not really need, but was induced to want by consumerist culture, as represented for instance in women’s magazines.

The classic marxist view of domestic consumerism has been criticised on many grounds — as patronisingly sexist (it portrays women as dupes of capitalism), as puritanical (it does not acknowledge the pleasure of consumption) and as insufficiently attentive to the gendered power relations inside households, rather than between them and other social locations. However, it seems pointless to digress into this argument, because in 2001, the special stigma that marxists used to attach to the housewife as a person whose life and identity revolved around consumption has long since disappeared. Just as we are almost all wage-workers now, so we are also all defined, to a greater or lesser extent, by our habits and practices of consumption. We are what we buy. For members of modern societies, of all classes and generations, and of both genders, buying goods and services is both a dominant leisure activity and a major means by which we express ourselves. With so many products available and so much effort put into promoting rival brands, our choices of food, clothing, home décor, books, films, even toothpaste and toilet paper, become deliberate and calculated statements about who we think we are. Few of us are so poor that we have no choices at all. And even fewer of us have the time or the skills to produce our own food, clothing and entertainment rather than buying it for money.

On one hand, then, consumerism is a way of life for all of us; it is no longer marked as ‘feminine’ or prototypically associated with housewives. On the other hand, though, the extent to which we are caught up in it has generated a backlash. The radical end of this is the anti-corporate, ‘No Logo’ movement, which has a political analysis, if not a very coherent programme. The more mainstream expression of it is what is sometimes called ‘lifestyle politics’, a diffuse anxiety that today’s consumer culture is mindless, soulless and manipulative, which prompts various reactions against the perceived excesses of consumerism. Ironically, those reactions in most cases involve alternative consumption practices rather than alternatives to consumption — ethical investment, buying organic food from small producers, choosing ‘green’ household appliances, boycotting companies whose trading practices you disapprove of. This form of politics accepts the general premise that consuming is a meaningful rather than merely utilitarian act, and uses consumption to express alternative meanings, such as ‘I care about ending the arms trade/saving the planet/improving life for workers in the third world’.

It seems to me that the new domesticity is very much part of this trend. Among the meanings it expresses are ‘I do not think it is more important to make money for my employer than to make life pleasant for my family’; ‘in the past people had less money but a better sense of values’ (recall Mrs Hymer’s remark on how the 1940s House experience reaffirmed for her ‘what really mattered’); and ‘tasks such as shopping, cleaning and cooking are more meaningful and satisfying when they take time and effort and skill’ (hence the apparently perverse nostalgia for black-leading and starching and making your own bread). But once again, the new domesticity is not so much a retreat from consumerism as a different form of it. The fact that more of your own unpaid labour goes into domestic goddess-style baking does not make it necessarily less expensive than simply buying a cake in a shop. ‘Good’ fresh ingredients and cooking equipment cost money; the glossy ‘how-to’ books don’t come cheap either. But this kind of domesticity is not embraced to save either time or money. It has more to do with saving our souls, by replacing a meaningless consumption ritual like ordering a pizza with the more meaningful and creative process of making one from scratch.

Is this all?

The suburban housewife Betty Friedan conjures up in the first paragraph of The Feminine Mystique has a vague, unspoken question: ‘is this all?’ I think many women today, and quite a few men, are asking a very similar question; but the experience prompting us to ask it is not an experience of being confined to, and defined by, a domestic role within the home. Rather it is the experience of living in a culture where paid work absorbs more and more of our time, while our leisure is largely taken up by consuming all kinds of mass-produced commodities.

For many people, the relentlessness of both activities — working and consuming — has prompted a feeling of dissatisfaction which one might, indeed, compare to Betty Friedan’s ‘problem that has no name’. Is this endless round of working and spending all there is to life? For some, the new domesticity (whether engaged in actively or just vicariously, by reading its literature and watching the TV gods and goddesses) appears to mark out a sort of alternative space for the expression of individuality and the affirmation of non-market values.

Where, you might ask, is the harm in that? If domestic goddesses no longer have to be financially dependent on or subservient to their husbands, if domesticity is not a calling but just a hobby, then why not just let people (women, and a few men) indulge their taste for ironing sheets and baking sponges, in the same way others might cultivate an interest in tennis or the tuba?

On reflection, though, it is difficult to see domesticity as a hobby like any other, particularly for women. As I pointed out before, most women are obliged to practise domesticity in some form or other; aspiring to the status of a domestic goddess is making a virtue out of a necessity. Until housework really is shared equally between women and men, until women do not have to work a ‘second shift’, it will be hard to see domestic goddess-hood as an uncoerced choice.

Another problem with the new domesticity is the idealisation of family life that goes with it. Domestic goddesses are propagandists for the idea of the family as the only real haven in a heartless world. You no longer have to be either female or straight to buy into this (though it helps), but you do have to gloss over some of the less pleasant aspects of family life (the abuse of women and children that goes on behind closed doors). You also have to be willing to abandon three decades of feminist effort to create meaningful relationships outside the family, and community beyond the home.

A feminist approach to the ‘work-life balance’ would not just be about having enough time to spend with your family, but would also take account of women’s need and desire for friendship, for educational and cultural activities, for involvement in community groups and — not least — for political activism. These things too provide a space for the affirmation of non-market values; they benefit both the people who engage in them and society at large.

Finally, there is (still) the problem of domesticity itself — what it actually consists of. For 150 years, people (usually people who didn’t have to do it themselves) have tried to invest the job of running a home with meaning, status and glamour. They have made it into a science, eulogised it as an art, represented it as a career and now they are selling it as a fulfilling leisure pursuit. The patronising futility of these attempts to dignify domestic work is aptly illustrated in one of Betty Friedan’s examples:

One of the ways that the housewife raises her own prestige as a cleaner of her home is through the use of specialized products for specialized tasks. …when she uses one product for washing clothes, a second for dishes, a third for walls, a fourth for floors, a fifth for venetian blinds, etc., rather than an all-purpose cleaner, she feels less like an unskilled labourer, more like an engineer, an expert (p.183).

Several decades on, the only possible response to this is incredulous laughter. Several decades from now, no doubt, readers will react with similar incredulity to the pronouncements of today’s domestic goddesses on the importance of using fresh coriander and starching your linen. The unchanging reality of domestic labour is that it is boring, thankless, and as a full-time occupation, soul-destroying. No attempt to disguise that reality has ever succeeded for long.

The Feminine Mystique belongs to the tradition of American liberal feminism, a tradition that had a simple but compelling political message: women are human beings, with the same aspirations to autonomy and fulfilment as all other human beings (i.e., men). With the emergence of a radical movement, the WLM, this message came to seem rather staidly conservative (cf ‘women who want to be equal to men lack ambition’), but in our own ‘post-feminist’ time, the basic point will bear repetition. The housewife, the ‘career woman’, the domestic goddess — these are all dehumanising, one-dimensional stereotypes. Now as in the past, what women need are social arrangements that allow them to live like human beings.


Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (Pelican, 1973)