Alexandra Carlton has an article in The Age this weekend, “The retro housewife” that proves it is just as possible to build a faux phenomenon in Australia around smart women dropping off the career ladder to become domestic over-achievers as it is to build that case in the United States, though this piece is more nuanced than others of its ilk. Pretty much all my thoughts on this faux trend are here in the article I wrote back in March for Daily Life so I won’t be repetitive, and for the record Carlton, herself, argues by the end of her piece that the trend is overblown; but I will pick up on two points from her article. My first comment is that I truly hope Anne Summers, who I have always found to be very measured, isn’t quite as scathing about my generation of mothers as Carlton forecasts her to be in her forthcoming book.
Feminist and author Anne Summers is exasperated by the domestic revival. “If women want to quilt and craft and sort out their linen cupboards on a weekly basis that is their business. But don’t claim it is a superior way to live,” she says. In her book The Misogyny Factor, to be released next month, Summers writes scathingly of a new generation of middle-class “yummy mummies”: “How could it have come to this – and so quickly? Not even a generation after the women’s movement fought for the right for married women to keep their jobs, to have equal access to promotion, and to be paid the same as men, scores of women are walking away and saying, ‘We’d rather be Mummies.'” Writer and feminist commentator Clementine Ford agrees, and adds that while cupcake baking in and of itself is a blameless pursuit, giving up everything to devote oneself to unpaid domestic work is “self-sabotage”.
And my second point also relates to the sentiment above, which becomes a concluding point made by Emily Matchar in the article:
But, she says, for the new domesticity to become more of a revolution than a regression, it needs to better build a base of equality – the day when it’s just as common to see a man cooking a meal from scratch or stirring a vat of jam while his wife brings in the primary income.
We will know we’re living in a world of equality not when just as many men as women are staying home making jam and looking after babies but when women can talk about their life making jam and looking after babies without everyone freaking the fuck out.
When women can make observations about the sense of purpose and fulfillment they experience from being at home with their children, and when they can say that their desire to be with their babies feels different to that their male partner experiences, and when they can describe their children as needing to be with them – when they can do all that and we, as feminists, do not reach for the panic button? Then we will know we have finally found equality. It won’t be that men and women will necessarily be living the same lives with the same roles, though it may look like that, it will be equality because women’s passions, ambitions, choices and failures will be, like men’s, free of constant scrutiny and criticism.
Until then, as feminists, we are too often pandering to a neoliberal viewpoint that ultimately devalues care work and sees women acquiring legitimacy only through marketplace transactions. By all means fight for women’s place in the workforce, it’s vital activism and I’m a working-outside-the-home mother myself, but don’t for a minute think you’re really challenging the patriarchy until you’re questioning the way in which capitalism relies upon a framework of unpaid care. It is equally a mistake to see the desire to be at home with children as either essential or universal in women, but as feminists, it matters less whether you think it good or bad for women to feel this way, it is instead crucial for the movement that you accept that some women do feel this way and that it is an authentic and strongly held feeling for them. Some women might be flinching from complexities in their life by relying upon conservative gender roles to express their preferences but for many this drive is real. Maternal desire is real. Accepting that this is the case is not some call for women to be free to ‘choose their choice’ – it is, rather, a time for reflecting upon the internalised misogyny that allows you to assume, without questioning, that self-actualisation cannot simultaneously include mothering.
And to quote myself from my Daily Life article because this whole topic of ‘retro housewives’ is being treated as individualism rather than a discussion of structural barriers:
We seem to have a vested interest in the decisions of these women who choose to stay home, why is that? Plenty of mothers don’t have a choice about it – they are either sufficiently dependent on their income so as to be forced to work or they earn too little to cover childcare and are forced to stay home. And yet it is this relatively small cohort of educated, professional women with their wealthy husbands who we are preoccupied with – we have decided they can sink or save feminism. It suggests, about this debate, that we put a lot of stock in the notion of trickle-down feminism. That women with the most advantages, if they can climb to the top jobs, will have the power and use it accordingly to change things for women with the least advantages. While there must be some truth to this, it none the less seems indulgent to focus so much of our attention on the most successful women and how to further their paths to achievement.
I suspect there’s something less well-meaning going on here, too. The overlap between feminism and neoliberal economics is surprisingly broad. We have long been split on the issue of mothers – whether we should concentrate on freeing women from the home so they can enter the workplace where their time will be valued, or whether we should ensure the work performed by women at home is valued instead. The answer is both, obviously. Few mothers stay at home their whole lives. Most dip in and out of paid work in various forms as their careers speed up and slow down for different life events, including the rearing of children. In fact, few of us committed to full-time careers will find ourselves working uninterrupted from graduation to retirement – there will be unexpected illnesses, career changes, retrenchments and retraining, moving countries, caring for elderly parents, and the sudden need to find ourselves. We would do well to be less divisive in this discussion and to be less extreme about it. The data suggests there isn’t really a flood of mothers shedding the gains of feminism and detouring back to tradition. The trajectories of our career paths need not be measured against the traditional path of men’s, and if there is any significant shift happening it is probably that young men’s career paths are starting to look more like women’s as more of them take an active role in parenting.