safe motherhood

Chapter from: The hidden feelings of motherhood:
Coping with mothering stress, depression and burnout.
Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2001.

Hearth and Home: The Fascinating History of Womens Domestic Work in America

Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., IBCLC
Family Research Laboratory, University of New Hampshire

As mothers, we are bombarded with advice and cultural messages about how to clean our houses, raise our children and spend our days. No matter what we do, many of us have a vague sense of guilt about not "doing enough."

If you find yourself feeling guilty without really understanding why, read on. There are historical and cultural forces that you may not be aware of that are shaping your beliefs about who you are and what you should be accomplishing. Ruth Schwartz Cowan, in her history of household technology, describes the influence of these cultural forces in this way.

Many of the rules that tyrannize housewives are unconscious and therefore potent. By exploring their history we can bring these rules into consciousness and thereby dilute their potency….If we can learn to select among the rules only those that make sense for us in the present, we can begin to control household technology instead of letting it control us.

History can be wonderfully informative, giving a perspective that few other things can. And history is often referred to. Conservatives and liberals alike make references to the "traditional family." Usually, this means the family structure of the 1950s. But as you'll see, in order to understand where we are now, we need to go back farther than 50 years. Indeed, the traditional family, as its currently conceptualized, has its origins in the period of time before the Civil War: what historians refer to as the Antebellum Period. It was during the Antebellum Period that womens work at home had its greatest cultural support.

As with anyone who attempts to cover almost 200 years of history in a few pages, I need to acknowledge some limitations of my discussion. First, I have purposely focused on purveyors of popular culture such as advice books, magazines, movies, television shows, and advertising, since these shape cultural beliefs and attitudes. But in doing this, I acknowledge that within any of these eras, there have been mothers who were able to carve out for themselves satisfying lives—even when it seemed that the broader culture was against them. Further, there is a vast difference in the experiences of mothers based not only on when they lived, but their social class and ethnic heritage. Finally, I want to acknowledge that even when a culture did support mothers, there were women who felt confined by their role and were unhappy. Culture alone cannot govern relationships that occur in individual families.

In this chapter, I provide a brief history of womens work both inside and outside the home. I've used three primary historical texts: Domestic Revolutions: A Social history of American Family Life (Mintz & Kellogg 1988), More Work for Mother (Schwartz Cowan 1983), and "Just a Housewife": The Rise And Fall Of Domesticity In America (Matthews 1987). I hope this information will help you recognize the cultural forces that shape your life, and empower you to choose a life-style that is best for you and your family.

Women of the Antebellum Period

From 1830 to 1860, the status of the American housewife was at its peak. Historian Glenna Matthews, outlines several reasons for this. In the years following the Revolutionary War, there was the first glimmer of what we would call "home." No longer was home a dwelling place, where you simply ate and slept. Home became a place of emotional attachment, a haven in a harsh world, a place where children and adults were nurtured. These changes represented a fundamental cultural shift. Prior to the Revolutionary War, fathers were considered responsible for raising children. In custody disputes, with few exceptions, fathers were granted custody. It was many years before mothers were considered better nurturers of children "of tender years." Interestingly, the few parenting books that existed during this time were addressed to fathers.

With the rise in the status of the home, the role of the mother was elevated. In a young country, embarking on "the grand experiment" of democracy, mothers were seen as the moral center of the culture. There was much emphasis on mothers being the trainers of the citizenry. As such, they needed to be educated and thoroughly knowledgeable about the issues and concerns of the day. For the first time, the literacy rate of boys and girls was about equal (Matthews 1987).

"It is the correct thing to remember that the lady who rules the household must have absolute authority in it and rule as absolute queen. No comfort or order can be obtained without this....The lady who holds this position must remember that the every-day happiness of those in the home circle is in her hands; that she has the greatest power of anyone to make the home a place of peace and happiness, or a place to avoid."

Everybody's book of correct conduct, being the etiquette of every-day life, 1893

Domesticity had a high place in the broader culture. The "notable housewife" was a frequent theme in fiction, and she was positively portrayed. The notable housewife was a role that required a great deal of skill. Female craft traditions, such as cooking, baking, and stitchery became jealously guarded family treasures that were passed from mother to daughter.

This is not to romanticize the work of mothers during this time. Much of the work in housewifery was grueling and unrelenting. There were limited opportunities for women. Women could not vote, and married women could not own property. Looking at the lives of these women through modern eyes, we would note that their work was largely segregated by sex and limited to the domestic realm. Some individual women wrote in letters and journals that they were overwhelmed with the responsibilities of child care and running a household.

As difficult as it was, however, domestic work of women was infused with transcendent meaning that came from both religious and secular sources. Although aspects of their work were hard and tedious, they were constantly told that they were making a significant contribution to their country. Women of the Antebellum Period were raising citizens for the new republic. "It is the correct thing to remember that a happy and harmonious home rears great and noble men and women; and that the friend who visits is often influenced by its atmosphere to good (from Everybodys book of correct conduct, being the etiquette of Every-day Life 1893).

The importance of this role was extolled from the pulpits. Matthews credits some of this change to the first and second Great Awakenings, and the rise of Protestant evangelicalism. There was a turning from the more rigid Calvinism of the Puritans to an emphasis on Gods grace. This influenced how children were treated within the home. Mothers and fathers were supposed to be living examples to their children of Gods love.

Many of the ideas about the notable housewife may have, in fact, come from the Bible. In the Old Testament book of Proverbs, we see an example of a notable housewife in "the virtuous woman" of Chapter 31. Her primary sphere is domestic, yet she has interest in the wider world. She works hard; is competent; handles money; buys and sells land; manufactures goods for herself, her family, and to sell; provides for her family; and she helps the poor and needy. Her husband has status in the community because of her efforts. Both her husband and children praise her and "call her blessed."

- Who can find a virtuous woman? For her worth is far above rubies.
- The heart of her husband safely trusts her; so he will have no lack of gain.
- She does him good and not evil all the days of her life.
- She seeks wool and flax, and willingly works with her hands.
- She is like the merchant ships, she brings food from afar.
- She also rises while it is yet night, and provides food for her household, and a portion for her maid servants.
- She considers a field and buys it; from her profits she plants a vineyard.
- She girds herself with strength and strengthens her arms.
- She perceives that her merchandise is good, and her lamp does not go out by night.
- She stretches out her hands to the distaff, and her hand holds the spindle.
- She extends her hand to the poor, yes, she reaches out her hands to the needy.
- She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household is clothed with scarlet.
- She make tapestry for herself; her clothing is fine linen and purple.
- Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land.
- She makes linen garments and sell them, and supplies sashes for the merchants.
- Strength and honor are her clothing; she shall rejoice in time to come.
- She opens her mouth with wisdom, and on her tongue is the law of kindness.
- She watches over the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.
- Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her: "Many daughters have done well, but you excel them all."
- Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.
- Give her the fruit of her hands, and let her own works praise her in the gates.

Proverbs 31: 10-31

There was also secular support of the notable housewife by 19th century philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most important intellectuals of his time. Domestic themes were also present in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. For both Hawthorne and Emerson, the model American home was loving, welcoming for visitors, free of social caste, and inhabited by a family that could be emulated. The importance of mothers and domestic themes was also key in the growing movements for the abolition of slavery and for women's sufferage. As Matthews states: "...the domestic sphere was not viewed as an ahistorical enclave where people could meet basic needs…but rather as a dynamic scene of actions that could affect the outcome of history".

As in the virtuous women described in the Bible, women reformers used the moral authority of the home to highlight the plight of the less fortunate. One of the most famous examples is that of Harriet Beecher Stowe. We all know her as the author of the remarkable Uncle Toms Cabin; a book that Abraham Lincoln credited as ultimately bringing about the end of slavery. She is arguably one of the most influential writers in American history. What you may not know is that she, and other members of her family, were best-known for their books about domesticity. Domestic themes of home and motherhood were also prominent in Uncle Toms Cabin.

Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Toms Cabin shortly after the death of her infant son Charley. At the urging of a relative, she wrote a book that addressed the issue of slavery--the first book to do so. She used her experience of mourning for a child to give her empathy for the slave mother who could lose her children by having them sold away from her. Eliza, one of her main characters, is a slave who runs away with her young son to keep him from being sold. In a letter to Eliza Cabot Follen (December 16 1852), she makes the connection between her personal experience and the experience of her character Eliza.

I have been the mother of seven children, the most beautiful and most loved of whom lies buried near my Cincinnati residence. It was at his dying bed and at his grave that I learned what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her. In those depths of sorrow which seemed to me immeasurable, it was my only prayer to God that such anguish might not be suffered in vain. There were circumstances about his death of such peculiar bitterness, of what seemed almost cruel suffering that I felt I could never be consoled for it unless this crushing of my own heart might enable me to work out some great good to others.

I allude to this here because I have often felt that much that is in that book had its root in the awful scenes and bitter sorrow of that summer. It has left now, I trust, no trace on my mind except a deep compassion for the sorrowful, especially for mothers who are separated from their children.

Uncle Toms Cabin, the homes of the characters are also very much in evidence. The home of the Quaker couple who offers refuge to Eliza is cheerful, neat, and warm. It was the embodiment of Beecher Stowes most deeply held beliefs. In contrast, the home of the villainous Simon Legree is filthy, ragged, and slovenly. But merely keeping house well was not enough. Notable housewives needed to be good character as well. An example here is the cousin who comes from New England to take over the household. She handles her duties well but is prejudiced. It is not until she overcomes her prejudice that she is granted notable-housewife status.

The importance of women using their influence for good was something Beecher Stowe believed throughout her life. She also emphasized that women must be knowledgeable citizens, particularly in regard to slavery. In a letter to Charles Sumner written after the publication of Uncle Toms Cabin, she wrote:

The first duty of every American woman is to thoroughly understand the subject for herself and to feel that she is bound to use her influence for the right.

In later years, we would see how the perception of womens role in the broader culture had changed.

The Decline of Domesticity: 1865-1920

The decline of domesticity began in the years after the Civil War, ending in 1865. The notable housewife was no longer a theme in literature. Rather, she was gradually replaced with the overbearing mother, or "housewife bitch" that soon became prominent in literature. Matthews cites numerous examples from the writings of Sinclair Lewis and George Peck, author of the Pecks Bad Boy series. No longer the moral center of the family and the culture; mothers were seen as the problem.

Matthews hypothesizes that these negative images of housewives started to appear because of the perception that the housewife/activist had in fact gained too much power.

Many of these womens groups, such as the powerful Womens Christian Temperance Union, used their activism to make changes to curb men's behaviors such as drinking and gambling. The WCTU was an all-woman political organization. They organized because of alcohols negative influence on women and children, when drunken husbands abused and did not provide for them. The negative portrayals of mothers in literature may have been part of a backlash against the power women had gained. "Politicizing the home and then turning this to female advantage inevitably made enemies for domestic values, enemies who would welcome a diminution in the sanctity of home".

But negative portrayals in literature of housewives were only the beginning. Soon industrialization and the new modern science would forever change the role of the housewife.

Industrialization, Consumerism, and Womens Work: 1920-1960

There are several other cultural forces that eroded the status of the housewife. Perhaps one of the most pervasive was industrialization, which started about 1860. One of its first changes in the household was that it created an even more marked division of labor between the sexes than had existed previously, as men left the home to go to work. And its influence did not stop there.

The Labor-Saving Device

Industrialization also had a large influence on womens work with the invention of "the labor-saving device." These devices--washing machines, sewing machines, and vacuums--were designed to make the onerous tasks of taking care of a home less burdensome. They were also designed to eliminate the need for servants. These efforts were, for the most part, well intentioned. But their effects had long-range effects on the work that women did.

First, labor-saving devices clearly did make some tasks easier, but they simultaneously raised the standards. For example, since cleaning now took less time, the standards of cleanliness rose. Since it was easier to wash clothing with a washing machine, women could now wash clothes more often. As family diets became more varied, cooking became more complex. Larger homes meant more to clean. Finally, work that had traditionally (at least in middle-class homes) been hired out, returned home and became the job of the housewife. These tasks included laundry, rug and drapery cleaning, and floor polishing (Schwartz Cowan 1983).

Also, labor-saving devices eliminated the need for domestic help. Before their advent, most middle-class homes had at least some domestic help. With the machines, women did most of these chores alone. Indeed, Schwartz Cowan describes how the housewife of the 1950s could single-handedly produce what her counterpart in the 1850s needed a staff of three or four to produce: middle-class standards of health and cleanliness for her family. Labor-saving devices eliminated the drudgery but not the labor or time necessary to complete their tasks; even with labor-saving devices, women were still working the same number of hours as women in previous generations. "Thus, there was more work for a mother to do in a modern home because there was no one left to help her with it".

Labor-saving devices also had another insidious effect. Since the technology was "new," kitchens and households were now redesigned to accommodate these machines. Therefore, women had to rely on outside experts to help them with the new technology. What had traditionally been their sphere, suddenly became foreign. Indeed, an army of experts now began to take over all aspects of womens domestic work.

Another insidious effect of technologys entry into our households was that many tasks that required skill were eliminated. In fact, time management experts told women to make their household tasks as automatic and "brainless" as possible. The problem no one had foreseen was that housework "continued to fill womens time while it starved their brains" (Matthews 1987 p. 195). The problem was first identified in 1920 by Dr. Abraham Myerson, in a book entitled The Nervous Housewife. He also identified isolation being a particular problem for housewives, as was the de-skilling and de-valuation of her job. In 1930, in Ladies Home Journal, he added one more problem to the list: the devaluation of motherhood (Myerson, cited in Matthews, 1987).

The Army of Experts

Knowledge that was traditionally transmitted woman to woman, was now considered obsolete—a pathetic relic from the past. We now needed to be taught by "experts" how to cook, raise our children, and run our households. Immigrant families were told to shed their old ways in favor of "modern" techniques. Some groups resisted, and continued to practice their old ways. When they did, they were often objects of derision and pity. In this way, the dominant white middle class culture attempted to force their views on women of other cultures.

During this time, home economists, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, became exasperated with the inefficiency of the American housewife. She argued through much of her life, that women must be freed from domestic work so that they could do "more important" things. She proposed community kitchens, where all families in a community could eat together; communal child-rearing; and provision of outside services, such as laundry, for the family. She stated that housework should be done by professionals instead of amateurs at home.

Interestingly, economist Juliet Schor (1992) describes Gilmans proposed solutions in positive terms, arguing that women work hard because they are so inefficient at home! She was trying to make the broader point that most homes and home appliances are not designed with ease of care in mind since we don't value women's time. That may be true. But we should be careful not to adopt the negative attitude about women, or domestic work, that is present in our culture.

As more items were mass-produced, fewer were created at home. Women were no longer responsible for making cloth or clothing. Women no longer had to make their own soap or candles. And clearly, many women (if not most) relished being released from these tasks. Yet something was lost when women's domestic work was de-skilled. Women in the past had concrete evidence of their productivity and contribution to the family. They could point to the physical presence of vegetables grown, jars of preserves put up, clothing that was sewn, cloth that was woven. In the diaries of 18th century midwife Martha Ballard, we see that she kept daily track of her production in the household, and was apparently proud of this (Thatcher Ulrich 1990). Many of the household tasks were also outlets for women's creativity.

Tasks such as cooking, sewing, quilting, lace making, and stitchery dramatically diminished during the 20th century as mass-produced items were considered better than what women could produce themselves. Many of the daily tasks women now performed lacked any kind of permanency. Cleaning, diapering, driving were all tasks that had to be done over and over, and there was often no evidence that they had ever been done at all. In Motherhood Stress, Debbie Lewis describes this lack of permanence of production and speculates that this is why so many at-home mothers enjoy various types of needlework, since they know that the product they create will last for more than five minutes.

Scientific Eating

With tremendous arrogance, women were told that they could no longer rely on the palates of their families to tell them what tasted "good." Instead, women needed to rely on nutritionists to tell them what their families should eat. "Scientifically engineered" food substitutes were now finding their way into American homes. These were widely touted in women's magazines, and those who resisted were described as "ridiculous" when they failed to embrace the modern way.

Interestingly, the native cuisine of immigrant families was not easy to change, and attempts to change the diets of these cultures did not have a great deal of success. These families didn't like the taste of scientifically engineered foods and continued to eat their traditional diets.

Commercially baked bread did not catch on until the 1900s. And other food substitutes did not really catch on until there were food shortages during World War II. Curiously, after the war, these foods were marketed as "better" than the foods they were designed to replace. Canned, packaged, and mass-marketed foods eventually took over the market and became standard. These foods have become so much the norm that foods prepared from fresh ingredients taste strange, especially to kids. Matthews described her dismay at the decline of American cookery with the widespread acceptance of processed foods.

Arguably, the nadir of American cookery came in the fifties. This was the heyday of prepared foods and the cream-of-mushroom-soup cuisine whereby the cook could pour a can of this product over anything that was not dessert and create a culinary treat according to the standards of the day (p. 211).

Cream-of-mushroom cuisine appears to be making a comeback as advertisers capitalize on nostalgia for baby-boomers' youth.

We are still reaping the consequences of the marketing campaigns that brought scientifically engineered foods into our homes. Consider the ill-conceived campaign to promote margarine as being healthier than butter. Now we have learned that "trans" fatty acids (that are not only in margarine but in most commercially produced baked goods) are worse for you than butter. I wonder if the chemically laden "fat-free" products that are now flooding the market will have a similar history. We're eating more and more of these foods and finding ourselves, as a country, fatter than ever. Could our current levels of heaviness be related to our addiction to heavily manufactured foods? There is a growing body of research evidence that indicates that this may be so.

Scientific Mothering

A parallel development occurred with regard to child rearing. Love and affection were considered sloppy and "unscientific." Feeding of infants was rigidly scheduled. Rather than feeding babies when they appeared hungry, women were no longer to trust these cues. Instead they were to rely on outside experts to determine when and how often babies should eat. This approach had a disastrous impact on breastfeeding. When feedings are rigidly scheduled, the impact is a decrease in a mother's milk supply. But that was OK according to the experts of the day, since bottle feeding allowed a much more scientific approach. Intake could now be accurately measured. Unfortunately, variations of this approach still exist today.

Psychologists, such as John B. Watson, openly speculated about whether mothers were in fact, the best ones to be raising children given their lack of a scientific education. Parents were to mold children's behavior through a process of positive and negative reinforcements.

It is a serious question in my mind whether children should know their parents. There are undoubtedly much more scientific ways of bringing up children, which will probably mean finer and happier children (Watson cited in Matthews 1987 p. 183).1

1 I often wonder if John Watson knew any actual children.

His comments have an eerily modern ring to them. In a book about overbearing social welfare policies, and their negative effects on families, Dana Mack (1997) states:

Our family policy, it seems, has been based upon a long-standing conviction on the part of educators, psychologists, and social service professionals that parents really should not be too heavily engaged in the child-rearing process, but rather should abandon it to professionals.

Mothers of the industrial age were warned that they must abandon the childrearing techniques of previous generations, whereby mothers kissed and coddled their young children. Parents were advised to let their babies cry. To follow scientific methods, parents were told to adopt a strict regimen for feeding, sleeping, and toileting so that they conditioned a child to be polite, neat and cleanly. Mothers were told that they could start bowel training at age one month by inserting a tapered soap stick into the rectum for three to five minutes (Mintz & Kellogg 1988). Much of this child rearing advice seems ridiculous, if not cruel.

Mothers of the industrial age were warned that they must abandon the childrearing techniques of previous generations, whereby mothers kissed and coddled their young children. Parents were advised to let their babies cry. To follow scientific methods, parents were told to adopt a strict regimen for feeding, sleeping, and toileting so that they conditioned a child to be polite, neat and cleanly. Mothers were told that they could start bowel training at age one month by inserting a tapered soap stick into the rectum for three to five minutes (Mintz & Kellogg 1988). Much of this child rearing advice seems ridiculous, if not cruel.

Other female traditions, such as herbal medicine and midwifery, were also all but lost as conventional (read: "scientific") medicine began to take hold. More traditional forms of healing were relegated to the category of "old wives' tales," and dismissed out of hand. These other forms of healing were quite prominent in the 19th century, only to almost die out in the first 60 or 70 years of the 20th. We are now only beginning to realize what we lost by the ransacking of all these traditions. While alternative medicine has become increasingly popular, there is still strong opposition from segments of the scientific community.


Industrialization brought us another aspect of modern life: consumerism. By the 1920s, large numbers of mass-produced consumer goods were within the financial reach of the average family. In order to create a market for these items, the advertising industry was born. With it came the marketing of obsolescence and "creative waste." The idea was to train women to buy new rather than to use everything to the very end: in a telling phrase, to "waste more rather than less" (Christine Fredrick's 1929 volume Selling to Mrs. Consumer cited in Matthews 1987 p. 170). Consumerism has as its foundation the chronic "need" to purchase new goods without considering whether the item is really needed, or with little consideration of its durability, or how it was produced. Consumerism is also a trend that continues to this day and whose impact is being felt not only in our overflowing homes, but in our overflowing planet.

Advertising also started to erode women's self-esteem. Mothers were repeatedly told that if their families were not healthy, attractive, and popular, and if they themselves were haggard looking or tired, it was their fault since the means to remedy these problems were easily available. Guilt was--and is--one of the most common appeals used in advertising (Schwartz Cowan 1983).

The Automobile

The final impact of industrialization was the advent and increasing availability of the automobile. As early as 1925, it was in widespread use. The car became the means by which the American housewife did most of her work, and where she spent most of her time (Schwartz Cowan 1983). Mothers spent a large amount of their day chauffeuring other members of the family; a situation that has not improved. But there were problems associated with the car being their primary place of work. First, by the end of the day, women could not point to "something" that they had accomplished. Second, driving also had the effect of isolating women from each other. Rather than having a place where women could gather, they were encased in their individual automobiles.

The Low Status of Housewives

Popular literature of the day also continued in its attack on American housewives. The idea of "home" being a place of emotional attachment was met with derision. Women at home were portrayed as idle or even parasites. At the same time, women were advised to create a haven for their husbands at home. But unlike their counterparts of 100 years earlier, part of creating this haven was being deliberately "dumb" about the goings on in the outside world. Women were discouraged from becoming involved outside their narrow sphere. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Ladies Home Journal repeatedly told women not to be concerned or involved in the world outside their homes. In an article published in September 1938, Bruce and Beatrice Gould issued the following advice.

Be glad you're dumb about all these earth-shaking questions. They don't affect you nearly so much as a lot of other things much nearer home….The great problems of the world are all Greek to you—but the problems of your home and family and community are right down your alley. Be glad you're dumb while your husband is saving the world—be brave and you can save the home" (cited in Matthews 1987 p. 198).

Contrast this with the mother who was responsible for the education of citizens of the new republic 100 years previously.

At every turn, the American housewife was told that she didn't know what she was doing. This attitude was communicated through books, magazine articles, and later movies. While technological advances did free women from some of their most challenging tasks, we didn't stop to ask whether all these changes really constituted progress. What happens to the way women feel about homemaking when they change from producers of the family's products to consumers?2 What happens when women must rely on outside experts for everything from what we should eat to how we treat our children? What happens when we are told to make our routine jobs brainless and we spend the majority of our time in our car? We were to see.

"The Problem that Has No Name": Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique

In 1963, Betty Friedan fired the opening salvo of the women's movement with the publication of her book The Feminine Mystique. In this book, she put into words "the problem that has no name": that women were largely unhappy with the role that our culture prescribed for them. She stated that women needed to be "liberated" from housework in order to fulfill their potential through paid employment. This was a message that resonated with thousands of women, and mothers entered the paid labor force in unprecedented numbers.

What Friedan articulated was the growing discontent of the American housewife. Interestingly, writer and Nobel Prize laureate Pearl S. Buck, made many of the same points about the plight of the American housewife in a book written in 1941. She was astonished to visit the United States from her native China, and observe that the status of the American woman was so low. Isolated, discouraged from using their minds for anything outside the narrow sphere of the home, and cut-off from aspects of homemaking that had taken considerable skill, Buck concluded that American women were "starving at the source." She went on to describe how women had almost no influence on American national life, and that feminine qualities were despised. She also noted, with some alarm, that women were passing this disdain for all things female on to the next generation. She writes: "What is one to think of women who deliberately teach their sons to despise women?"

However, as historian Glenna Matthews describes, the time was not yet right for women to openly discuss their unhappiness with the changing role of housewife. America was soon to enter World War II and was just recovering from the Great Depression. Further, the forces that had devalued the work of the housewife didn't reach their full flower until the 1950s.

Schwartz Cowan makes an interesting point about production in the American household. She argues that women are still producers and what they "produce" is a healthy family. This type of production is never included in the Gross National Product, but is production nonetheless. Therefore, when women realize that driving, for example, is contributing to their production, it helps them feel pride in that activity.

The 1950s: The Golden Era for Families?

The 1950s have often been described as the "golden era" of the American family. It is true that the majority of women during this time did stay home with their children. But as we have seen from the above discussion, the culture itself did not have positive things to say about women at home. These stereotypes were reinforced by yet another technological invention: television. Interestingly, two icons of this era—Donna Reed and Lucille Ball—were not the traditional wives that they portrayed on television. Both were not only actresses but television producers in an era when women had very limited roles. The lives they lived were, in fact, very different than their on-screen personas.3

In the meantime, the destruction of mother-to-mother transmission of skills, and the constant message of advertisers had another insidious effect: the loss of skills became real. This increased our reliance on foods and services provided by other people even further. Putting us even more firmly in the role of consumer rather than producer, and if we are to believe advertisers, fairly dumb consumers at that. To me, the most troubling aspect of this decline in skills is the financial bondage that it places families in. Purchased alternatives are almost always more expensive than what you can do at home. But since we feel we don't have any choice, we continue to purchase expensive goods and services—sometimes teetering at the brink of poverty to do so.

Traditionalists often blame Betty Friedan and other feminists for devaluing homemaking and creating women's unhappiness. This is neither fair nor accurate. There were many other forces that led to the unhappiness of many American housewives. She simply named the problem. However, Matthews, a feminist historian, points out that the early women's movement did make the mistake of adopting our culture's contempt for all-things domestic.

Two generations later, women are questioning whether simply shedding all vestiges of the housewife role was really the solution. Many women are working full time, and still doing the bulk of child and home care. Many are asking whether we have traded the bondage of one cultural tradition for another. Can caring for children and tending a home be rewarding activities? Were we too quick to abandon every aspect of domesticity? Have we, in fact, thrown the baby out with the bath water?

The Rise of Modern Domesticity

Interest is domesticity is once again on the rise. Books on the joys of mothering and making a warm, beautiful home are hitting the bestseller list. Some examples include Sarah Ban Breathnach's Simple Abundance, Victoria Moran's Shelter for the Spirit, and

3 A recent television show on the cable channel Arts & Entertainment (A&E) recently gave two rather poignant examples of the unreality of television families. First, the young man who played Donna Reed's son on television described how his real-life mother had felt that she couldn't live-up to her son's "other" mom on TV. Second, TV's "Bud" on Father Knows Best described his life as the real son of a violent alcoholic. His on-screen persona was in sharp contrast to the chaos he experienced at home.

Alexandra Stoddard's many titles including Creating a Beautiful Home. But the rise of domesticity is perhaps best personified in a single woman.

Martha Stewart: The Return of the Notable Housewife

Business Week magazine dubbed Martha Stewart "America's lifestyle queen." No matter what you think of her, you must admit that she is highly competent. She is almost single-handedly restoring skill to homemaking. Whether or not you ever try any of her suggestions, her can-do attitude is contagious.

And her skill is paying off--big-time. As Business Week notes, "even those who scoff at Stewart's perfect-housewife image admit that she's a stunningly savvy entrepreneur" (Brady 2000). Her various business enterprises including Martha Stewart Living magazine, a television show, a Web site that racked up record Christmas sales last year, and products for garden and home. She is one of the wealthiest women in America. Clearly, someone is clearly buying her products. Diane Fisher describes why she thinks the new domesticity is catching on.

Perhaps many of us, raised in a generation geared up to juggle all the balls—the cellular phone, briefcase, handweights, and diaper bag—perhaps we're finally getting ready to opt our of an inhuman scenario: this idea of doing it all…As unreal and perfect as Martha Stewart can be, she reminds us of the joy in arranging flowers, gardening, lovingly setting a table. We are almost ready to admit that we miss the domestic arts!

What I've also found telling, however, is the viciousness of the attacks against her. Some seem good-natured. For example, we can really "believe" that she would add a wing onto her dining room in preparation for luncheon guests. Other jokes, however, are cruel, even including snide remarks about her ethnic heritage. One spoof called her the "dominatrix of domesticity." Given what we know about history, we should be somewhat troubled by the appearance, once again, of the "housewife bitch."

Does this mean that we all have to be like Martha Stewart? Of course not! I think people joke about her because she sets the bar so high. I like the fact that she puts a positive face on domesticity, shows women how to live with style and beauty, and encourages women to learn new skills. But very few mortals could even come close to doing all that she does. My hope is that as we become more confident in our own choices, we can use her as the resource she is, but not feel inferior because we are not just like her.

Women's Ways of Knowing

There has also been a resurgence of interest in "women's ways of knowing." One of the most influential books in this movement is Toward a New Psychology of Women by Jean Baker Miller. The premise of this book, and ones that followed, was that women approach life differently than men. Women's growth and psychological development occurs in relationships with others, including our families and friends. Men tend to be independent; women are more likely to seek relationships. Rather than despising our femaleness, we should embrace it. "Relational" theory resonates with thousands of women.

This willingness to embrace women's history and culture has also led to a resurgence of interest in women's craft traditions, such as quilting, stitchery, and cooking. Indeed, quilts made by traditional groups, such as the Amish, are now recognized as works of art and sell for hundreds of dollars. Older quilts are often worth even more, and are becoming part of museum folk-art collections. Interestingly, Wellesley College's Stone Center (former academic home to Jean Baker Miller), uses quilt motifs on many of their conference brochures.

Environmental Concerns

Change may be coming from another source that has little to do with domesticity per se, but could have a large impact on families. With an increasing concern about the environment, many have been calling for a change in the way we consume goods. According to Vicki Robins of the New Road Map Foundation, overconsumption is bad for us in a number of ways. It leads to a declining quality of life. We work longer hours in jobs we may hate so we can buy more stuff. Overconsumption leads to debt, economic weakness, and the lowest savings rate in the world. Finally, overconsumption leads to problems for the environment including the accumulation of toxic waste and garbage, water and air pollution, and the depletion of renewable resources (Robins 1994).

Waste is another direct result of the consumerism. The business practice of "planned obsolescence" generates an enormous amount of waste as manufacturers change colors or styles frequently to get you to continue to buy. This applies to everything from clothing, to plastic containers, to household appliances (think avocado-green refrigerators).

Noting that massive consumerism is having a negative impact on the environment, two recent summits in Japan on "sustainable consumption," i.e., consumption that does not have a negative environmental impact, have convened (Myers 2000). If implemented, policies that resulted from these meetings will have a dramatic impact on our spending habits. These policies could include eliminating subsidies for fossil fuels, foods, and other products allowing the true (much higher) price of these items to surface. The new higher prices would curb consumerism and encourage families to abandon the buy-and-dump mentality that is still prevalent in the U.S. If this seems somewhat "leftist" to you, you should know that the staunchly conservative Theodore Roosevelt warned Americans almost 100 years ago that unbridled consumerism would cripple America (Wills 1937).

The Reappearance of the Mother/Activist

As with her counterparts in the 1850s, mothers are once-again using the moral authority of their role to call for social changes. There are numerous examples of mother/activists. I have selected two that specifically refer to women's involvement as mothers. The first is Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. This organization was founded in 1980 by a group of mothers after a 13-year old girl was killed by a drunk driver. At the time this organization was formed, sentences for drunk drivers were lenient. This organization has managed to change public opinion about the seriousness of drunk driving.

A second example of mother/activism is "The Million Mom March" held in Washington DC on Mother's Day, 2000. In this case, mothers organized around the issue of gun control. To quote from their web site (, their purpose "is to prevent gun death and injury and to support victims of gun trauma. We want common sense gun laws. We want to keep our children and our families safe in a nation that is flooded with unregistered, unlicensed and unregulated guns." Many of the mothers who participated had husbands or children who were killed with guns.

Like Harriet Beecher Stowe before them, mothers in both of these organizations turn their personal pain into social action. They do so specifically referring to their role as mothers.

Discourse on Work Options for Mothers

Which brings us full circle. You will recall that we started this discussion by acknowledging that women often feel a vague sense of guilt. As you can see, there have been a variety of cultural forces shaping how we live and the choices we make. And not all of these have been benign, with our best interests at heart.

As mothers, you must feel free to evaluate your options and make choices based on what's best for your family. A similar point was recently made by former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. I found her comment to be interesting since she's been the icon for the "working mother" since the 1992 election. However, in a recent interview, she acknowledged that women should be free to choose whether they stay home with children or seek employment outside the home (Stan 2000).

I think we should do everything possible to give families real choices about whether or when one or both parents should work during a child's young years, because there isn't any doubt in my mind that the most important job any of us have is caring for children.

I hope that by discussing our past, you will feel free to examine the "shoulds" in your life. Many of the tasks we do, and standards we have adopted, were not freely chosen, but "given" to us by the advertising industry and an army of experts. To realize the goal of bringing our workload down to a more manageable level, we must begin to make conscious choices about our work at home and in the marketplace—the topic of the next two chapters.