When Betty Friedan was asked to conduct a survey of her former classmates for their 15-year reunion, she didn’t set out to spark a global movement; but the responses to her questions revealed that her female counterparts were largely unhappy with their lives as housewives – and their answers eventually formed the basis of her groundbreaking 1963 work The Feminine Mystique, the catalyst for second-wave feminism.
Now, some half a century later, a small corner of the internet (but what some headlines refer to as a “sweeping trend”) is determined to retreat to the home – and bring other women along with them.
The self-styled #TradWives is a collective of modern housewives-by-choice who are decreeing it women’s role to remain in the home, be submissive to their husbands (who pass them a monthly allowance), and live a chaste life, which – they believe – feminists have robbed them of.
Some extreme Trad Wives even adopt retro lifestyles that hark back to that “better time” when Britain was full of jam sandwiches and tea parties, namely during the Second World War. I’m not sure exactly which part of the Second World War was so idyllic. The children that Trad Wives seek to dedicate their lives to nurturing were evacuated, the Blitz flattened entire cities and the husbands they profess their undying duty to were obliterated during that time.
The delicious irony is that the Second World War was also an era that saw women join the home front, abandon their home duties to step into their husband’s roles and enter the workforce in droves. It was precisely this war that contributed to the drip-drip-drip that led to the deluge of feminism’s second wave when women realised that they were, in fact, capable of being more than just homemakers. In that vein, in order to be a true Trad Wife and serve your husband, shouldn’t you… be out at work?
This is the point at which I clarify – before being attacked online – that it is a woman’s prerogative to stay at home and be a housewife or go out and work in whatever profession they want. But more on that later.
The most baffling part of this whole “movement” is that through referring to “tradition”, these women are implying some sort of innate rather than learned – or prescribed – behaviours. As Simone de Beauvoir famously said, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. There is nothing biologically natural about a woman staying at home cleaning and darning socks. There is nothing innately feminine about chastity, making home-cooked meals ready on the table for 6pm or adopting a subordinate position in a relationship. The idea of the “feminine” is entirely fictitious, tradition being merely a set of ingrained and learned behaviours that were enforced over thousands of years of patriarchy. Is it really a choice when it has been written down as gospel by men for aeons?
Many of the women on Trad Wife groups refer to the strain of working the 9-5 and then coming home, tending to the kids and keeping house. Admittedly, after stressful weeks at work the idea of staying at home and baking cookies while listening to You and Yours does sound like an appealing existence but, if we are to truly follow tradition, should we not also bid adieu to our vote, return to the time when we were sold like chattel and when husbands were legally allowed to rape their wives?
If these complaints are the key drivers behind the movement, it’s curious that conceding defeat to the patriarchal structures that have ensured they get unequal pay, suffer workplace harassment and then come home to clear up all the mess, is their reaction. Throwing the towel in, if indeed that’s what this is, is far removed from choice.
And let’s talk about choice: that icky word that crops up time and again in discussions of feminism. Boiling feminism down to choice is a tired – and long rejected – argument that petulantly undermines what feminism is about. Not everything women do is a feminist decision. Likewise, being a housewife isn’t a rebellion. You can’t be both a traditionalist and a rebel. Numerous factors mean that staying at home isn’t a choice for many women – it is a necessity. To suggest otherwise is patently elitist and gives women little credit.
Some have linked the rise of the Trad Wives cult with that of the male-dominated alt-right, who make no secret of wishing to bring an end to female autonomy. Comparison has been drawn with the Third Reich and the propaganda that women “belonged in the home”. Many Trad Wives have vehemently rejected this suggestion. Looking at the language used by many of them and by one woman with whom the BBC spoke, it’s easy to see how parallels have been drawn.
Alena Kate Pettitt, who runs YouTube channel The Darling Academy, told the broadcaster that when she met her husband, he told her, “I know that you want a man to look after you and to make you feel secure.” She said he kindly “offered himself as that person”. What part of the choice feminism they profess to be living was letting their husband make their choice for them?
Just this month, a one-day conference entitled Make Women Great Again hit the headlines for promising to teach women to “become the ultimate wife” and “get pregnant and have unlimited babies”. “No longer will you have to give in to toxic bullying feminist dogma and go against your ancient, biological nature as a woman,” said the blurb, “the men have arrived to help make women great again.”
Make no mistake, women are capable of being just as misogynistic as men. These extremists masquerading as soft, unthreatening housewives are nothing but wolves wearing Boden.