Are Housewives Obsolete?

In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan argued that new technologies should liberate women from their traditional role as caregivers. She lauded “the scientific advance[s] that might have freed women from the drudgery of cooking, cleaning, and washing” (342)–and lamented the fact that, instead of using washing machines to save time, housewives just decided to wash clothes more often. Friedan, being a socialist, believed that technology and the means of production dictate social organization–so now that we’ve reached a certain level of technological development, society must progress past obsolete social roles.

Friedan’s argument has become so ingrained in the conventional wisdom that even anti-feminists repeat it without acknowledging its origin. For instance, the blogger Pro-Male/Anti-Feminist Tech writes that, in the past, “there weren’t washing machines, stoves, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, etc. so there was more work to be done in maintaining a household.” Now that we do have such conveniences, there’s no need to even debate whether women should stay home–it’s clear that they don’t need to. Thus feminism and the “men’s rights movement” converge.

But, as the reader may have surmised, I am no fan of the conventional wisdom.

First of all, it is foolish to embrace all technology uncritically. When deciding which kinds of labor-saving devices to adopt in the home, we should consider their effects on the family, the community, and society at large. For instance, it is now technologically possible to outsource childbirth itself, in the form of surrogate mothers, so that Mom doesn’t even have to take a six-week maternity leave anymore. Outsourcing childbirth is efficient–after all, it creates a literal division of labor–but I think most husbands would reject such a proposal, because of its possible effects on mother-child bonding as well as the natural uneasiness that families feel when introducing strangers into such an intimate area. So the question isn’t, “Are there technologies that can replace some of the functions of a traditional wife and mother?”, but rather, “If such technologies exist, should we be using them? Are they moral? Are they compatible with the fundamentals of the good life?”

I think certain labor-saving devices, such as the washing machine and dishwasher, are largely innocuous (I say “largely” because there may in fact be environmental effects that could someday force us to limit their use). However, TV dinners and microwaves are another technological innovation that get cited as a way to replace the housewife. But even feminists have finally acknowledged that convenience food is really bad for you (probably because Michael Pollan made cooking cool again). So, can we agree that TV dinners and take-out food are not a civilized way to feed one’s family? That it’s healthiest for the family when Mom doesn’t get home from her commute at 6 pm, since it’s difficult to prepare much of a home-cooked meal when you don’t even get home until dinnertime?

So, while technology can facilitate housewifery, over-reliance on technology–or adopting the wrong kinds of technology–can dehumanize and weaken the entire family.

Secondly–and more importantly–the art of household management may have gotten easier with washing machines and online bill-pay, but child-rearing has actually gotten more labor-intensive in recent years. In bygone eras, extended families were more close-knit and could therefore help out with child-rearing more. Furthermore, institutions like the Church could provide much of a child’s moral education. Sadly, this is no longer the case. Children are probably more likely to learn heresy than sound doctrine in a catechism class, while public schools indoctrinate children into feminism. Countering the secular and materialistic dogma of our times is practically a full-time job, one that often requires homeschooling or vigilant involvement in your children’s school.

Of course, having a stay-at-home mother may not work for every family. Circumstances may require her to work outside the home, and it’s ultimately the husband’s decision to make. But I hope that families truly choose what is best for their situation, without being swayed by the conventional wisdom that mocks mothers as nothing more than glorified Roombas.


Great Marriage Advice from a Celibate Saint

When asked in an interview about his advice to married women, St. Josemaria Escriva gave a blunt but truthful reply:

If a marriage is to preserve its initial charm and beauty, both husband and wife should try to renew their love day after day, and that is done through sacrifice, with smiles and also with ingenuity. Is it surprising that a husband who arrives home tired from work begins to lose patience when his wife keeps on and on about everything she thinks has gone wrong during the day? Disagreeable things can wait for a better moment when the husband is less tired and more disposed to listen to them.

Another important thing is personal appearance. And I would say that any priest who says the contrary is a bad adviser. As years go by a woman who lives in the world has to take more care not only of her interior life, but also of her looks. Her interior life itself requires her to be careful about her personal appearance; naturally this should always be in keeping with her age and circumstances. I often say jokingly that older facades need more restoration. It is the advice of a priest. An old Spanish saying goes: ‘A well-groomed woman keeps her husband away from other doors.’

That is why I am not afraid to say that women are responsible for eighty per cent of the infidelities of their husbands because they do not know how to win them each day and take loving and considerate care of them. A married woman’s attention should be centered on her husband and children, as a married man’s attention should be centered on his wife and children. Much time and effort is required to succeed in this, and anything which militates against it is bad and should not be tolerated.

There is no excuse for not fulfilling this lovable duty. Work outside the home is not an excuse. Not even one’s life of piety can be an excuse, because if it is incompatible with one’s daily obligations, it is not good, nor pleasing to God. A married woman’s first concern has to be her home. There is a Spanish saying which goes: ‘If through going to church to pray a woman burns the stew, she may be half an angel, but she’s half a devil too.’ I’d say she was a fully-fledged devil.

I read it to my husband and he said, “That sounds about right.” He was surprised when I told him that it spawned an epic thread on Catholic Answers, mostly from people denouncing Escriva as a sexist pig. The main argument against him seemed to be, “But people are going to age no matter what, so men shouldn’t care about their wives’ looks!” However, I think it is a mistake to define appearance as an area totally outside our control. We can make certain choices that do influence our looks–such as the choice to exercise, to eat moderately, to wear clean and flattering clothes, to take care of our skin’s health, to avoid cutting hair too short or getting tattoos. Appearance is therefore a reflection of one’s inner character, which is why Escriva links the interior and exterior life. Of course, some aspects of our appearance do escape our control, and for that reason, I’m sure no sane husband would blame his wife for getting wrinkles at age 70, or for her natural bone structure.

Some people also criticize Escriva’s expectations that women, even working women, should be the “angels of the house”: sweet, uncomplaining, always centered on home life. Again, I see nothing wrong this expectation. He doesn’t tell women to efface all their needs–he merely tells them to recognize that there is a time and place for everything. Yes, you may wish to confide your troubles in your husband, but do it at the right time, once he’s had time to relax, and you’ll find a more sympathetic ear. Yes, you need to pray, but do it at a time when you don’t have pressing household duties. Yes, you may need to get a job to help support the family, but don’t bring your career mentality into the home. (And to the women who would screech, “But men don’t have to do any of those things,” I reply: Trust me, men have their own burdens to bear).

In the same interview, the saint was also asked whether forbidding fornication is “reactionary.” He responded, “Reactionary? Who are the reactionaries? The real reactionaries are the people who go back to the jungle, recognizing no impulse other than instinct.” What a perfect skewering of the leftist impulse to adopt apes and cavemen as our models. I’ll take St. Josemaria Escriva’s Biblically-based marriage advice over theirs any day. St. Josemaria, pray for us!