Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Kerber, Linda K.
First Committee Member
Second Committee Member
Third Committee Member
Estin, Ann L.
My dissertation demonstrates how housewives manipulated and redefined the image and identity of the housewife in the U.S. during the second half of the twentieth century. From the eras of June Cleaver to Gloria Steinem and Phyllis Schlafly, women invoked motherhood and domesticity for both progressive and traditionalist ends. They did so amid shifting expectations of homemakers. In the decades following World War II, the legalization of contraceptives and abortion transformed understandings of the connections among womanhood, marriage, and maternity; legislation offered limited opportunities for women to acquire education and participate in new sectors of the workforce; and the decline of the family wage and the introduction of no-fault divorce increasingly curbed men's and women's ability to keep mother at home. Whereas in 1962 more than fifty-five percent of women aged twenty-five to fifty-four were engaged in full-time homemaking, by 1985 housewives made up just over twenty-six percent of the same population. Amid this change, the word housewife served as a lingua franca in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s that helped people to organize under the banner of domesticity. The arbiters defining the American housewife included not only members of the conservative Silent Majority, but also members of the feminist National Organization for Women (NOW); not only white television stars like Donna Reed who spearheaded protest against the Vietnam War by the group Another Mother for Peace, but also African American and Catholic and Jewish women working together to promote cross-racial understanding; not only women who earned wages outside of the home, but also non-wage-earning househusbands.
I investigate how women's groups in the 1960s and early 1970s turned the dismissals that frequently accompanied the phrase "just a housewife" into an asset. Some groups deployed the housewife as the antithesis of the expert: Housewives' opinions about racism could be trusted as an authentic voice of the people because they did not rely on statistics calculated to fit into theories or models. Others relied on biologically determinist arguments: Motherhood made housewives into specialized experts on specific topics such as peace. Domesticity generally made these women less politically threatening and so better able to enact their agendas. While these housewife activists certainly grew and benefitted from their participation in these groups, the main purpose of their work was never to aid housewives exclusively.
Beginning in the mid-1970s, women finally capitalized on the authority of the housewife image to improve the lives of homemakers. The efforts of housewife groups in the 1970s and early 1980s who opposed and supported the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution underscores the flexible definition of "housewife." While they initially organized to lend the authority of the housewife name to a particular cause, these groups ultimately became political organizations that represented and mobilized housewives as a constituency. Despite many differences, traditionalists and feminists could find common ground in recognizing the problems homemakers faced. Both were troubled by the realities of second shifts in which women juggled wage-earning and family obligations. They were concerned by the feminization of poverty, especially among older women. Whereas many traditionalists advocated a performed femininity meant to produce starkly gendered male protector-breadwinner and female dependent-homemaker roles, feminists looked to legislative and social equality solutions to provide both men and women the opportunity to succeed at home and at work. Yet some traditionalists united with feminists to critique the vulnerabilities of displaced homemakers - women who had engaged in years of unwaged homemaking only to be displaced from their vocations by widowhood or divorce. These women drew on previous experience in maternalist, racial equality, and anti-poverty movements. They sought solutions that included transferring the skills of homemaking into well-paid jobs in traditionally-male fields. They accomplished this by simultaneously praising the work of homemaking even as they criticized homemaking as a vocation that put women in a vulnerable economic position. The formation of a movement by and for homemakers crystallized, however, at the same time as the erosion of housewife as a crucial identity for women.
Finally, I analyze the extent to which gender is caught up in the potentials and limitations of the housewife role by tracing the ways that Americans have envisioned the housewife as male. So long as the male homemaker was cast as exotic, role models and new precedents could be transformed into freak shows and warnings. Men who made the unusual choice to take on the role of family homemaker were further marginalized. Despite a sometimes overt emphasis on men's domesticity as a means of achieving social equality, the real efforts and the imagined experiences of the male housewife often ran counter to feminist goals. Varying from farcical to feminist, the successes and failures of these visions of male homemaking demonstrate the extent to which domesticity, economic dependency, and gender have been entangled in the American imagination.
My dissertation underscores how women (and some men) adopted flexible definitions of homemaking to create complicated and sometimes fleeting alliances through which housewives organized. My research complicates the dichotomous stereotypes of the feminist and the antifeminist by exploring how both progressive and traditionalist women organized as housewives. Although my project considers media and pop culture, I rely primarily on archival research and published primary sources to examine the way that women claiming to be homemakers and mothers actively manipulated cultural understandings of those roles. The definitions they employed demonstrate how perceptions of homemaking are laden with multiple and complex meanings about sex, gender, class, race, citizenship, labor, religion, and identity.
conservatism, displaced homemakers, equality, feminism, homemakers, housewives
vii, 266 pages
Includes bibliographical references (pages 249-266).
Copyright © 2013 Anna Leigh Bostwick Flaming
Flaming, Anna Leigh Bostwick. ""The most important person in the world": the many meanings of the modern American housewife." PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) thesis, University of Iowa, 2013.