The Two Cultures: The Housewife and the Working Woman
Not only are many of the products and services of the home available and cheap elsewhere, the status of the full-time housewife has been eroded. As the role of housewife has lost its allure, the wives who “just” stay home have developed the defensiveness of the downwardly mobile. Facing the prospect of becoming a housewife after quitting her job, Ann Myerson said, “If you want to know what shunning feels like, go to a cocktail party, and when they ask you what you do, say ‘I’m a housewife.’ ” One illustration in the November 1970 issue of True magazine sums up the housewife’s predicament: a commuter train is filled with businessmen reading morning newspapers and office memos. A bewildered middle-aged housewife in bathrobe and furry slippers, hair in curlers, searches the aisles for her husband, his forgotten briefcase in hand. Her husband is hiding behind his seat, embarrassed that his wife looks so ridiculous, so out of place. In their suits, holding their memo pads, reading their newspapers, the men of the commuter car determine what is ridiculous. They represent the ways of the city; the housewife represents those of the peasant.
Working mothers often feel poised between the cultures of the housewife and the working man. On one hand, many middle – class women feel severely criticized by relatives or neighbors who stay home, and who, feeling increasingly threatened and militant about their own declining position, inspect working mothers with critical eye. NinaTanagawa felt the critical eye of the nonworking mothers of her daughters friends. Jessica Stein felt it from affluent neighbors. Nancy Holt and Adrienne Sherman felt scrutinized by their mothers-in-law. Some of these watchful relatives and neighbors cross over the big divide themselves. When Ann Myersons mother was a housewife, she criticized Ann for her overzealous careerism, but when her mother got a job herself, she questioned Anns decision to quit.
At the same time, many working mothers seemed to feel both superior to housewives they know and envious of them. Having struggled hard to achieve her position as a systems analyst, Carol Alston didn’t want to be confused with “ordinary” women who had not. Whenever she saw a housewife with a child, Carol recalled thinking, Why isn’t she doing something productive? But seeing housewives slowly pushing their carts down the aisle at the Safeway at midday, she also questioned her own hectic life. When she dropped out of her “real” job to consult part time and care for her two children—and crossed the deepening rift—she began to sympathize with housewives.
Women who’ve remained back in the “village” as housewives have been burdened with extra tasks—collecting delivered parcels, letting in repairmen, or keeping afternoon company with the children of neighborhood mothers who work. Their working neighbors seldom have time to stop and chat or, sometimes, to fully return favors.
Their traditional source of honor, like the peasants, has been threatened. In a preindustrial setting, a womans claim to honor was based primarily on her relation to her husband, her children, her home. As the cash economy spread, money has become the dominant symbol of honor and worth. Unpaid work, like that of housewives, came to seem like not “real” work. The housewife became “just a housewife,” her work became “just housework.” In their book For Her Own Good, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English have described how at the turn of the century, the Home Economics Movement struggled against the social decline of the housewife by trying to systematize and upgrade the role into a profession. Women, its leaders claimed, could be dignified “professionals” in their own homes. Ironically, the leaders of the Home Economics Movement thought housework was honorable—not because it was intrinsically valuable—but because it was just as real as paidwotk, a concession revealing how much moral ground had been lost already.