"We don't hire housewives."
That is what Mimi Gladstein heard when she first asked about joining the faculty of the University of Texas at El Paso.
But she refused to accept that answer. She refused to be devalued as a human being because she was a housewife. It was a job like any other, she said. Just as much an expression of her worth and her competence as teaching. And, she said, being a housewife honed such invaluable skills as setting priorities and budgeting time.
"All I really needed to know about chairing a department, I learned by being a Jewish mother," Gladstein writes in an upcoming anthology Women and Liberty (Ivan R. Dee, winter 2001).
Now, she is associate dean of liberal arts at the university.
In the '60s, a "Father Knows Best" image of the housewife stereotyped women who stayed at home. Today, politically correct feminism creates a stereotype that denigrates the housewife or, more accurately, portrays her as a paradigm of how men politically oppress women.
This process began in 1963 with the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. In it, the mother of modern feminism wrote of "the problem that has no name," of the mental and physical anguish suffered by housewives denied their humanity and potential by domestic obligations. She described the typical '50s family as a "comfortable concentration camp." The book helped spark a cultural revolution, and cemented into feminism the idea of housewifery as a pathology rather than as a choice any healthy woman could make.
More recent works have thoroughly discredited Friedan's arguments, however.
In his book Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique (1998), Daniel Horowitz debunked the myth that Friedan was ever the typical suburban housewife that she claimed to be. She had been, in fact, a staunch political activist on the Communist left for decades before her first book appeared.
In the Atlantic Monthly, Alan Wolfe in 1999 devastated both Friedan's interpretation of experts such as sexologist Alfred Kinsey and the facts presented by those experts. Without their backing, Friedan's work does nothing more than offer anecdotal evidence of the unhappiness of some housewives as a way of defining the reality of most.
Even her admiring biographer, Judith Hennessee, casts a strangely critical light on Friedan. In her book, Betty Friedan: Her Life (1999), Hennessee speaks of a feminist who was often "rude and nasty", "who ... did not even like women." She writes of a radical who felt a sense of entitlement and had a black maid in white costume serving at her women's liberation meetings.
"The Feminine Mystique" nevertheless galvanized many women to whom it spoke the truth. For them, being a housewife was a negation of their potential as human beings.
But these politically roused women went and created another mystique — namely, that being a housewife meant to every woman what it meant to each of them personally. They denied the possibility that ANY woman could find domesticity to be the best expression of who they were as human beings.
At first, mainstream feminism aimed at the ideal of "equal marriage" — that is, a marriage in which men and women equally shared responsibilities, including housework. But quickly, more radical voices began to call for the abolition of the traditional family. They did so for the very reason that the family is usually defended: because it is the basic building block of society. Given that the radical feminists thought society was inherently unjust, it is not surprising that they wished to kick the foundation out from underneath it.
In the '80s, political correctness began to dominate feminism, and housewives were subjected to further political analysis. Their work was labeled as "surplus labor" — a Marxist term describing the unpaid labor stolen from workers (women) by capitalists (men). Housework became another political injustice against women.
Such analysis is almost always phrased as a defense of the "true" interests of housewives. If housewives dare disagree, if they believe feminism is demeaning their choices, they are labeled as politically naive stay-at-home moms.
Gladstein's analysis of housewifery is like water in a desert. She describes how being a housewife taught her to handle taking over as executive director of her university's Diamond Jubilee celebration.
She writes, "That job allowed me to use my housewifery skills to create and manage events as diverse as football half-times, city-wide street festivals, physics fairs, student retention programs, Vietnam Memorial dedications, city and university planning commissions and a year-long program of national and internally renowned speakers."
She learned the necessary skills while giving parties and being a hostess at her husband's business events.
One hopes that someday feminism will come to understand that being a housewife is a viable and honorable option. For some women, it is fulfillment. For others, it is self-denial. In short, domesticity is the same as any other choice women confront — right for some and wrong for others.
Women who become housewives deserve the same response from feminism as those who don't — they deserve a bit of respect.
McElroy is the editor of www.ifeminists.com. She also edited Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Independent Institute, 1999) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender Feminist Attack on Women (McFarland, 1996). She lives with her husband in Canada.