Desperate to be a Housewife?

We campaigned, protested, went on hunger strike, chained ourselves to railings and, when all that didn’t work, burned our bras in the name of women’s rights. I say we, but my bra is very much intact, as I wasn’t around for any of that and can’t claim any of the credit. Still now, after all of their hard work, I’m reluctant to plead the feminist case. Ironically, that may actually be thanks to Germaine and co; I’ve been brought up with the notion that I can have it all – the meaningful career and perfect family package – and somewhat unfairly, have thought feminists nowadays to be, well, a bunch of moaners. Enter the post-feminists, who don’t exactly share my anti-feminist view, but with whose ideas I feel much more comfortable. According to the post-feminist, feminism is no longer relevant; we must acknowledge that we are all very different and so focus our campaign on equality in general. Though biology isn’t on our side sometimes, we should still be able to go after what we want. But what if one of my contemporaries decided what she really wants is to be a full-time homemaker – how supportive would I be then? I hate to say it but I think I would probably conclude that she was selling herself short. Have I been permeated more deeply by the feminist rhetoric than I had suspected, or is it that with greater female access to the workplace than ever before, the role of homemaker in today’s society carries with it a certain 1950s cliché and ‘desperate housewife’ stigma?

The idea of choosing a life of domesticity is one that doesn’t seem to fit with the current student mentality. With mere months until the end of another academic year, there is barely a conversation that goes by without mention of the dreaded ‘C’ word, and by ‘C’ word, of course I mean career. As reported in last month’s Impact, there are traces of mild hysteria amongst those awaiting graduation as woeful statistics and apocryphal tales about a ‘hiring freeze’ flood through the student grapevine. The fear is that three or more years of hard (ish) work at university will amount to nothing if there’s not a lucrative graduate position to be occupied at the end of it, especially when you have amassed some hefty student debt in the process. On the surface, therefore, passing over the wealth of employment opportunity that university provides in favour of running a home seems to be a waste of time and money, not to mention talent. Furthermore, the benefits of higher education qualifications do not only come in individually wrapped packages; with greater access to places at university than ever before, university is arguably a breeding ground for equality. Given that in 2000 women were responsible for 53% of all degree applications, it seems that women not only want increased participation in public life, but they are now better-placed than ever to achieve it. Evidently, the instrumental role women at university command in the realisation of workplace equality is undeniable and with an opportunity to change the current situation, perhaps the choice to pursue a life of domesticity sits so uncomfortably with our career-oriented outlook because it represents a wasted chance to make a difference.

By definition feminism, or more specifically the women’s liberation movement, revolves around the idea that women should have the freedom to choose how to spend their lives rather than being pigeon-holed by society into traditional roles. That is not to say, however, that traditional roles should be viewed as secondary to entry into male-dominated professions. In fact, the role of homemaker has recently undergone something of a renaissance in popular culture. Take, for instance, the WAG phenomenon. Now, the Colleen Rooneys and Alex Currans aren’t exactly your standard feminist icons, but the media obsession with the WAG has arguably given a new legitimacy to the role of wife, girlfriend or mother. The very fact that the term WAG has entered the common vernacular is testimony to this, being that it reads like any other job title. And what exactly is that job? Well, providing a vital support system for a partner who is under considerable professional pressure for one thing. Though the WAG brigade has not come through the media circus unscathed and regrettably in most cases for good reason, the recognition given to them by the media has given greater validity to the role of wife and mother. Though a minor victory, for thousands of women, including my own mother, who do not enjoy the same luxuries of the WAG lifestyle and at their own expense allowed their partners to flourish professionally whilst providing for them a family life, a little bit of recognition for their behind the scenes work is most welcome.

Though being a WAG is definitely a female occupation, ‘househusband’ has also become a new addition to our modern vocabulary and with approximately 200,000 of them in the U.K, it can no longer be assumed that the at-home support system afforded by partners and family will be embodied by a female. This development brings with it a new appreciation for the workload undertaken by the homemaker; as one househusband wrote, “It is difficult, being a househusband; certainly more difficult than I had imagined…You live and sleep on the shop floor.” It is for this reason that playwright Zoe Lewis decided in a recent article in The Times that the role of wife and mother (and househusband for that matter) should be “given the same parity with the careerist role amongst the feminists”.

The only difference our sample househusband identifies between himself and his female counterpoint is that introducing oneself as a househusband denotes a certain 21st century man cachet, as if it was a choice rather than a foregone conclusion. Undoubtedly though it’s not his mates slapping him on the back down the pub for his sacrifice, but rather the housewives who champion his decision, giving his role more credibility than their own. Could it be that it is other women who are most critical of the female sex? If so, what are the consequences – is the good ship sisterhood about to be holed by the feminist iceberg?

Consider the curious case of former Justice Minister of France, Rachida Dati. Sarkozy’s protégé, she was the government pin-up for equality, not only because she’s a woman, and not a bad looking one at that, but because she was one of 12 children brought up by poor, uneducated immigrant parents. Dati’s appointment to office was coldly received by fellow politicians, who thought her seriously underqualified for a ministerial position. Her doubters were vindicated after she made some major gaffes, for which she came under considerable fire from both fellow politicians and the French media. However, undoubtedly the most intense Dati-bashing came when Madame le Ministre unashamedly strolled in to work a mere 5 days after the birth of her first child, Zohra. It was too much for some – women’s magazine Grazia held an online forum, inviting its readers to post their opinions on Dati’s decision to return to work. The response was overwhelmingly negative with criticism centring around her setting unrealistic standards for other woman, her neglect of her newborn baby as well as her own health and preoccupation with losing post-pregnancy weight.

In the absence of any supportive comments for Dati, it has to be concluded that it is more often than not women who serve as each other’s harshest critics – certainly I am guilty of that. But if feminism and women’s liberation aims to abandon stereotypes, then perhaps we should quit the bitching and put on a united front. After all, if we can’t take each other seriously, how are we going to convince everyone else to? I still want a career and a family and thanks to those who have gone before me, while there still remain obstacles, it is definitely possible. So ladies, while the battle for gender equality continues to be fought, let’s not make womankind one of those obstacles, and instead support our troops on both the professional and domestic fronts.

Clare Hutchison

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