Let's Bring Back the Term "Homemaker."
Last year, I was at a dinner party where I was chatting with a stranger. I learned she was a professor at a nearby university. "And what do you do?" she asked politely. I unexpectedly froze—how should I describe how I spend my days? For many years I was a lawyer, but I don't practice law anymore. "I'm home with the kids," I said after a pause, but then wondered whether that was an accurate answer. First, we're not actually home that much, but often rather at libraries, sports, friends' houses, etc. Second, the kids occupy a lot of my attention, but I spend a significant amount of time on other matters. In addition to these terminological concerns, I also had a philosophical one. My kind interlocutor had a way to describe herself that was both concise and socially respectable: she was a professor. Is there a similar term to describe what I do?
Americans who devote themselves to the work of the home have long struggled with what to call themselves. Historically, options included: housewife, goodwife, homemaker, and even domestic engineer. (I recently learned of a gas station attendant who called himself a petroleum transfer engineer; we can probably reject domestic engineer as equally silly.) More recently, stay-at-home mom joined the list. The terminological differences may seem trivial. What's in a name? But each of these terms comes with very different connotations. Stay-at-home mom is predominant today. The image it gives of an ordinary mom in her home focused mainly on her own children is very different than that conveyed by the Puritans' competent goodwife running an agrarian household or the 1950s' technocratic focus on home economics.
Put another way, language matters. Twenty-first century America too often devalues the work of the home and those who do it. To combat this, it is helpful to have terminology that reflects the importance of making a home and caring for family. This terminology has policy implications—the words we use shape how our elected representatives approach relevant political questions. It can also impact whether society recognizes the crucial role that those dedicated to the work of the home play in families, neighborhoods, and communities. Finally, it also affects how those primarily focused on home and family view themselves. To properly understand themselves as having a needed and demanding vocation, it helps to have a term that captures this truth.
The earliest, and perhaps most enduring name for those focused on the home, is that of housewife. Indeed, America as we know her today would not exist without the help of her Revolutionary War-era housewives, who (among countless things) literally spun the wool that clothed the Continental Army. At that time, housewife was a respected profession. Abigail Adams—a Founding Mother just as thoroughly as John Adams is a Founding Father—played a pivotal role in the shaping of America's history, as the wife of one American president and mother of another. Further, she was an important contributor to philosophical debates about the young country's future. "Remember the ladies," she famously wrote to her husband while he was at the 1776 Continental Congress, as she hoped that the new Republic would provide its female citizens with expansive legal rights. Still, she saw housewifery as her vocation, writing to her husband in June 1783 that: "Well-ordered home is my chief delight, and the affectionate, domestic wife, with the relative duties which accompany that character, my highest ambition."
Housewife, of course, is a term that predates the United States. It has its roots in Middle English. The Oxford English Dictionary records its first written appearance in 1225, as husewif.
Many modern feminists now dismiss the term as "patriarchal" and demeaning, but its initial usage conveyed the opposite. Husewif or huswif appeared as feudalism ended and farming families began to independently own small plots of land. Ruth Schwartz Cowan explains in More Work for Mother (1985) that hus refers to the modern term house, and thus husbands were those that were bonded to their house through title to it. The parallel term husewif emerged at the same time feudalism was crumbling, referring to the wife connected to this now independently owned home. Cowan explains that: "[h]ousewives and husbands were among the first occupants of that singular social niche—the middle class." Put another way, housewife during the thirteenth century denoted special social status as the "capitalist organization of society [was] just beginning": that of a middle-class woman who was part of a family that owned its own property and made its own decisions about how best to use it.
Further, during the Late Middle Ages, society recognized that these early housewives and husbands both had equally important roles to play in the marriage and work of their small farms. Per Cowan, "[t]he success of these early independent agricultural families, the yeomanry, depended on the hard labor of both men and women." Or, as Thomas Tusser wrote in "Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie" in 1557: "Take huswife from husbande & what is he than?"
Thus, at the time Abigail Adams wrote about her pride in being a "domestic wife," the term housewife had been used to connote an honored status for more than five hundred years. The respect accorded to housewives would last throughout America's early years. Half a century after Adam's 1818 death, however, urbanization and the rise of factories and wage-work dramatically changed the economic landscape. Among its many changes was a decline in the perceived importance of housewifery, as many household items were no longer produced at home, but rather in factories.
The respect accorded to housewives would last throughout America's early years. Half a century after Adam's 1818 death, however, urbanization and the rise of factories and wage-work dramatically changed the economic landscape.
Simultaneously, American men and women began to think of themselves as inhabiting "separate spheres": men leaving the home to work for pay, and women staying at home to do the unpaid labor of caring for the household. Thus, in the generation after Adams, American families began dividing their lives into the formal economy (that of working outside the home in factories, businesses, et cetera) and the domestic economy (the work of the home). The former would become significantly more socially prestigious than the latter.
As Susan Strasser writes in Never Done: A History of American Housework (1982), the developing American industrial economy meant that "[u]npaid housewives ... seemed less important to the new society than wage-earning industrial producers." In reaction to this "dishonor" of the "woman's profession" caused by industrialization, Catherine Beecher and her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe published The American Woman's Home, or Principles of Domestic Science in 1869. This book—revolutionary at the time—tried to lay out a scientific and philosophical explanation of housekeeping. According to Strasser, "Beecher's mission [was] to assert that women could and should find self-respect within their traditional sphere." In other words, just as the Industrial Revolution was destroying the traditional agricultural homestead that formed the basis of the husewif's power, Beecher stepped into the breach to argue that the "work of the family" was still of vital national importance.
Beecher's work inspired the early twentieth-century home economics movement. It was at this point that the term homemaker became popular. Per Strasser, the home economics movement looked to establish a broad social understanding of the importance of homemakers. It also sought to situate homemaking as a sophisticated skill that can and should be taught by experts, as well as subject to serious intellectual consideration and debate (much like the other industrial sciences). For example, Louise Allen Gregory, the first professor of domestic science at Illinois Industrial University in 1874, explained that she aimed to offer women a "liberal and practical education, which should fit them for their great duties and trusts, making them the equals of their educated husbands and associates, and enabling them to bring the aids of science and culture to the all-important labors and vocations of womanhood." This focus on understanding domestic work as a significant and complex undertaking continued into the 1950s, as the popularity of the term homemaker continued to rise.
Then, in the mid-1960s, shortly after Betty Friedan published her 1963 world-changing book, The Feminine Mystique, the term homemaker began to lose popularity. In other words, just as women joined the workforce in large numbers, homemaker started to fall out of the lexicon. Rejecting the idea that a woman's primary profession was, as Beecher described, "the work of the family" apparently also meant rejecting the appellation of homemaker.
Homemaker then enjoyed a steep, if brief, resurgence in popularity in the 1980s. During this time, the 1980s New Right arose in response to the cultural revolution of the 1970s. Phyllis Schlafly—the famous activist who essentially single-handedly launched a counter-revolution against 1970s-style feminism—frequently referred to herself as a homemaker, while also once telling an interviewer: "I believe that American women [who] are the most fortunate people who ever lived on the face of the earth, can do anything they make up their minds to do."
During the 1990s, however, as the influence of the 1980s New Right faded, and neoliberalism took hold, the use of homemaker plummeted, and stay-at-home mom began its meteoric rise. For example, a search of the New York Times website reveals 21,300 hits for stay-at-home mom, as opposed to 11,200 for homemaker (many of which date from pre-1990).
The reason for the rise of the term stay-at-home mom is mysterious, but whatever its origins, there is much to dislike about it. First, it implies that a woman whose primary vocation is to the home does nothing but "mom." Nurturing children is unquestionably important, but it does not begin to encompass the broad role these women play, including cooking, cleaning, budgeting, and planning important family events. (Anyone who has hosted a family Thanksgiving dinner for twenty five can safely say the day before the relatives descend involves significantly more work than most "real" jobs.) They frequently also play key community roles including caring for the elderly and sick, supporting postpartum mothers, providing critical support to schools and religious institutions, and knitting the community together through social events. Thus, stay-at-home mom implies these women's role is primarily to stay put at home; this undersells what such women do. Rather than directing their attentions exclusively within the physical confines of their homes, many of these women direct it more broadly to a variety of issues that impact their families and communities.
Thus, stay-at-home mom implies these women's role is primarily to stay put at home; this undersells what such women do.
Further, the term is exclusionary. It excludes the men who choose to focus on the home. We could adopt the unwieldy stay-at-home mom and stay-at-home dad, or stay-at-home parents, but these are awkward terms. Importantly, all variations of this terminology exclude the women and men who care for the home but are not parents, or whose children are grown. We have no popular term for those who remain focused on the home after their children become adults or who do not have children. This implies that such women and men do not exist, or that their work is not valuable. It also provides little space for those who consider their primary vocation to be to the home, but still earn some wages as family life allows. It's strange to think about a stay-at-home mom who picks up some freelance work—again, the term implies all she does is "stay home."
Stay-at-home mom, therefore, should be rejected. What should replace it? In answering this question, let's turn again to the origin of this special role of women caring for their homes – and specifically to their involvement in throwing off the oppression of feudalism. The feudalism to be rejected in 2023 America is not the archaic High Middle Ages system of serfdom, but its modern equivalent in working class families that are stuck in low-paid shift-work jobs with no time or money to feed their children anything better than McDonalds and Pop-tarts. These are the families that dose their sick kids with Tylenol and send them to daycare because they have no work sick days left to use. These are the families that watch helplessly as broken community ties have destroyed the shields of family, religion, and neighborhoods that would formerly have served as bulwarks against the menaces of fentanyl, loneliness, alcoholism, the darkest recesses of the Internet, and other causes of the modern "deaths of despair."
In short, these are the families that most need someone with the time to "make the home": to provide a safe and nurturing place for children to grow, to establish the rhythms and routines key to family life, and to knit communities together. In other words, they need a homemaker. The wealthy try to fill these gaps by throwing money at the problem. They search out qualified and caring nannies, hire cleaning ladies, use healthy meal service deliveries, and other paid solutions for their lack of wife or husband specifically devoted to the work of the home. But families that don't have the money to hire someone to do this important work sometimes suffer. To be sure, this is not universal. There are families that can make things work, perhaps by relying on grandparents, or who find flexible and stable jobs. But many struggle. A benefit of using the term homemaker is that it illustrates what can go wrong when a family lacks one—there is no one to make the home work.
Stay-at-home mom is a term coined by a society that doesn't truly value domestic work other than parenting (and doesn't value parenting enough). Homemakers do much more than "stay home," and much more than mother. They make a home, and we should all recognize there is little more important than that. Or, as C.S. Lewis famously told a homemaker, "your job is the one for which all others exist," as "[t]o be happy at home is the end of all human endeavour."
We could, I suppose, coin a new term that encapsulates the many roles played by the twenty-first century American women—and sometimes men—who consider their primary vocation to be home and family, a term that reflects their tremendous service to their communities and the nation as a whole. But such a term would likely end up being as pretentious and confusing as domestic engineer. Besides which, it's unnecessary: home is the fundamental unit, the cell and building block of all society, so homemaker already captures this truth.
In any case, I know how I will introduce myself the next time I am asked at a dinner party. For a decade, I introduced myself as an attorney; a fact in which I took significant pride, considering the hard work that went into obtaining my law degree and practicing law. The next time I'm asked what I do at a dinner party, I'll be equally proud to introduce myself as a homemaker. It accurately describes what I do. It also offers a deep and rich connection to the past generations of women who have devoted much loving and careful attention to shaping their homes and communities—and doing so on their own terms. We could, of course, go on searching for the perfect term forever. But I am a homemaker myself, and we're (usually) practical people. Homemaker is good enough, and then some. Let's use it again.
Mrs. Ivana Greco. "The Job for Which All Others Exist." Hearth & Field (2023).
Reprinted with permission from Hearth & Field.
Ivana Greco is a homemaker with a law degree. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and their three children. She is the kind of homemaker who does not make sourdough bread, preferring to wrestle with a well-laid-out financial spreadsheet instead. Her negotiation skills, learned through lawyering, are now aimed at achieving tenuous truces between her eight- and six-year-old boys, who are very prone to sword fighting (and all other kinds of fighting). The baby has not yet learned to argue. Doubtless, she will get there in short order, especially considering her mother. You can find her at The Home Front and @IvanaDGreco.Copyright © 2023 Hearth & Field
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