Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Stigma of Being a Housewife

Katrin Bennhold has written a very interesting article for the New York Times in which she details how, when the Swedish journalist Peter Letmark tried to track down a housewife for his article on 21st century parenting, he was completely unable to. The reason? There are virtually no housewives left in Sweden and the few there are “don’t dare go public with it”. (Please click here to read the entire article.)

Ms Bennhold reports that “across the developed world, women who stay at home are seen as old fashioned and an economic burden to society” and if the family can afford to live on the husband’s income alone, they are seen as “lazy”.

I did not find this surprising as many of the comments you read in the press or hear in conversation often echo these sentiments, however off base they may be. It is a very worrying trend and it seems to be picking up steam, particularly in Europe where housewives are often discriminated against economically, in terms of taxation and even when it comes to nursery or daycare places for their children. Some women even report being “sneered at” for their choice to be a housewife and/or stay at home mom.

What is the world coming to? As Ms Bennhold writes, “When it is no longer socially acceptable to be a housewife...has feminism overshot its objective?” 

Yes, back in the 1950’s when a woman had very little choice but to become a housewife, and was looked down on if she did not, we needed to fight for the right to choose what we wanted to do with our lives. For far too long, women had been expected to conform to social norms that were completely outdated and indeed unacceptable. But feminism was supposed to be about freedom for women, not enslavement to another social norm.

Freedom means being able to choose what you do with your own life without fear of being stigmatised or ostracised, provided your choices do not fall outside the law. So why are the women who do choose to be housewives and stay at home moms being looked down on by the very women who fought to give women choices in the first place? It boggles the mind. 

In my article The Great Debate, written just after I began this website back in 2002, I wrote, “It is bad enough that women are attacked by society for their choices, but the fact that we women attack our fellow women is inexcusable. There is no conclusive proof that children of working women are less happy, healthy or successful than those raised by a stay at home mom.  Equally, there is no reason a stay at home mom should be made to feel inadequate for giving up her career. We do not all have to be the same or do the same things.”

Ms Bennhold’s conclusions seem to be much the same, and she goes so far as to quote Hélène Périvier, an economist at the Institut d’Études Politiques in Paris who said that “if ever there was a time to include unpaid housework and care work in gross domestic product figures, it is now” and furthermore states that we should “finally and formally recognise the contribution that housewives make to the economy.”

But most importantly it is about choice. The brave women who fought for women’s rights and worked to change the world cannot have intended things to work out like this, with society slowly evolving to ostracise and ridicule those women who believe that the choice to create a home and raise their children full time is right for them. It is high time for society to remember that discrimination of any kind is wrong at its very root, and to discriminate against a woman for wanting to be a full time housewife and/or stay at home mom is as bad as any other kind of discrimination based on race, creed, colour or socio-economic group. 

Every women should have the fundamental right to choose whatever they want to do with their lives, to achieve their dreams and become the very best people they can be. No one has the right to tell them how they should do that, what form their lives should take, or limit their choices to the corporate world. If that happens, it makes things just as bad as they were back in the 1950’s when women didn’t really have a choice at all - and surely after we have come this far, no one can want things to go back to the way they were then.

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