Divorcing the Housewife Myth

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Brittany Touris

College dropout, writing books and keeping it real.

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When we think back to the 1950s an image comes to mind of a woman in a cocktail dress, baking cakes and cleaning up her suburban house. This is the housewife. She was caged by the patriarchy, her working husband, and her demanding kids. She was unable to pursue pleasures of her own, left to dwindle away her sad life always caring for others and never herself – until the feminist movement came along to save the day and liberate her.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, women ventured out into the work force. Today we continue to break glass ceilings – the ultimate triumph of feminism and women’s rights. We climb up the ladder until we’ve achieved all the successes that men have, fill all the seats in congress that men do, and own as much of the world’s wealth that men own.

This beautiful image of the oppressed housewife morphing into a powerful CEO throughout the decades, however, is a myth. The story we’re telling is incomplete. Believing this narrative is the championing of women’s rights is severely flawed. It perpetuates the system that has and continues to oppress women.

After Betty Friedan wrote her book, The Feminine Mystique, the collective perception of the nation opened up. The book focused on the disillusionment that upper class white housewives were facing. Many women who spent their days in the home finally had the words for how unfulfilled they felt in that position.

For many, however, having a job wasn’t a fulfilling experience either. It was a means of survival in a capitalistic system. Friedan’s book changed the way we saw careers. It suggested that getting out of the house and having a career is a means of self-actualization. It equated having a career with being a complete human being. In a way, it was very successfully marketing the idea of being a worker, a cog in the system of capitalism.

On the surface it would seem that feminism is merely trying to win women all the opportunities that men have – an admirable goal. Unfortunately, beneath the idea of shattering glass ceilings lies a darker reality. If we buy into the idea that we can obtain fulfillment through our career, are we allowing ourselves to be defined by that career? Are we playing into a system that has historically oppressed us?

A half a century after Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, published her widely acclaimed book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

The book encourages women to further their careers along by adopting the capitalist strategies that men have been using long before women entered the corporate world. These behaviors serve to hold marginalized people down and lift privileged people to the top.

The book advocates for women asserting themselves in the workplace. It implies that if we speak up more at meetings, ask for more raises, and apply for jobs, even when we think we’re under qualified, we can rise to the level of men. It ignores that sometimes women, especially women of color, are legitimately discriminated against, not just because we perceive ourselves as unworthy but because of systemic oppression in our society. Beyond that it also ignores that we are people outside of our jobs. Some women work simply to make a living. Some women have no desire to climb the ladder of success – or play on the jungle gym, as Sandberg describes.

This idea, which began with Friedan and continues with Sandberg, that a working woman is a happy woman is just as restrictive, and perhaps more dangerous than the idea that a woman’s place is in the home. Instead of addressing the problem that housework and caregiving – feminized work – has been devalued, we’ve tried to separate ourselves from it. This has only further devalued it.

Since the 1950s and even before, another reality outside of the housewife myth has existed. Poor women, disabled women, women of color, and other women, who weren’t privileged enough to have the role of the housewife, labored and suffered under capitalism. The notion that staying home to care for their kids would deny them of a form of self-actualization that working gave them would seem ridiculous.

And when privileged women left their homes to “lean in” and find their fulfilling careers, which women took over their role of being maids, caregivers, cooks, and cleaners? It was the less privileged women who were working simply to survive. And they are being grossly underpaid for it, because of our continuous devaluation of this kind of work.

Through the years, not much has changed. The wage gap for most women of color is significantly greater than it is for white women. Time and time again we hear that 70 cents to the man’s dollar statistic, but we less often hear about the wage gap between races.

It’s time we stop playing into the narrative of breaking glass ceilings for gender equality. We’re failing to see who the glass is falling on. When we focus on women rising to the highest positions that men currently hold, we’re implying that those positions have the most inherent value. It feeds the capitalist system in which we’re defined by how much money we make.

Instead of women’s rights being about assimilating into a patriarchal and capitalistic society that has historically oppressed us, we should be aiming to eradicate it.

Women are unwilling to be defined by our appearance, our sexuality, and the men around us – so why are we willing to be defined by our jobs, by how much money we make? It’s time to divorce the myth that going from oppressed housewife to powerful CEO is what will liberate women. We will only be equal when the least profitable women are seen as just as worthy as the CEOs.