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.
Cross-posted at Hoyden About Town.
UPDATED: This is also a great reply from Amy Gray to “The retro housewife” article.
Carlton’s piece is interesting for the fact the retro wives mentioned who run blogs – some of whom, it could be argued, draw a limited or decent revenue or opportunities via that pursuit and thus aren’t strictly women who don’t work or are already very comfortable financially – and that the contemporary feminists interviewed are by chance without children. Though I am sure it is not a conscious choice, it does subconsciously set up a vaudeville battle between “the” feminists and “the” retro wives – no kids, kids; feminists, non-feminists without allowing for the fact that there can be and is considerable overlay.