Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Isolation of the Modern Housewife and Mother Part II

Read Part I here.

I've been reading a book for a couple weeks now which I find utterly fascinating.  It's called Never Done: A History of American Housework, written by Susan Strasser.  The book goes through the history of women's work in the US.  The predominant trend is that jobs which were once done through much manual labor and products which were made at home from scratch have been one-by-one taken up by industry, and turned into consumer products, which must be purchased.  With the obvious benefits this has brought in some ways (hey, no one ever complained about doing less work!), it has also meant an increased isolation and loss of a sense of purpose for many women who stay home.  Women used to be personally responsible for so many of the necessities of life.  Just washing the clothes (at a time when people wore many fewer than today) took an entire day of heavy labor.  Ironing took another whole day.  Food was often grown at home, or at least prepared and cooked from scratch three times a day - over an open fire which took constant tending.  Water had to be carted in and out of the house 8-10 times per day (more if it was laundry or bath day).  Fiber was spun and woven into cloth, which was then cut and sewn into clothing that women often designed themselves.  There were no idle hands.  When women got together, it was for sewing circles or quilting bees.  And so much more.  It's really made me think twice before complaining about all the work I have to do around the house.

I've been pondering so many of the facts and trends I've been reading about, and talked Tom's ear off incessantly with my "revelations."  I am tempted to quote about half the book, but I'm going to restrain myself.  I'll leave you with just this one for now.

" women joined the organized labor market during the decades before the Depression, the differences between motherhood and paid labor developed into problems.  Mothering produced nothing tangible, whereas even sales workers - obviously not "productive" in the old sense - brought home paychecks.  Full-time paid workers came home to recover from their jobs and to provide themselves with the essentials of survival, welcoming the products that freed them from the arduous labor of producing those essentials.  As adulthood came to be identified with the economic independence that paid work offered and that gave people the means to buy things, mothers came to be excluded from the activities of other adults.  They met each other in groups organized around their children's activities, not around their own adult work, as the sewing circle had been.  Social life organized around spending money at movies and restaurants offered no place for small children, thereby excluding and isolating mothers even further." (pg. 239)

If you have an interest in history, non-fiction, or understanding what it means to be a housewife, I would heartily recommend the book.


  1. As for the bolded part... I'd say, it depends on how you look at it. Social life of single adults or young married couples may be organized around spending money at movies and restaurants, but social life of mothers (and fathers!) just... isn't. Why is that necessarily bad? What is so wrong with meeting each other at children's activities, or having playgroups? Isn't your "adult work" raising your children? I can see where maybe the problem lies in not being able to socialize without the kids around... If so, I can understand that, but that is not what the section you quoted seems to say. It seems more focused on a lack of money, in which case, why would not having the money for restaurants exclude the mother but not the father (ie, why isn't that section referring to both parents?)? ...I guess my point is, being parents (and a SAHM) leads you to meet and/or socialize with other like-minded parents, and women with fairly similar financial and time constraints, and you're more likely to have close friends with similar values and plans for life. On the other hand, having a full-time job and no kids leads one to socialize with other women with full time jobs and no kids... and in my experience, that means women with VERY different values than me (ie, contracepting, career-focused, don't cook or create anything from scratch, etc.). The women who I'd probably have more in common with are all at play group. And when I meet someone who I think might become a "close" friend, as soon as she becomes a mom we have a LOT less in common and things change...

    Yes, maybe I'm a unique case; I'm not trying to complain or argue here, and I definitely understood your "part 1" post and see how being a housewife and SAHM could be very isolating. It is true that I have much less of a need for "official" social interaction since I am around people all day at work, and in that sense I am much less isolated. However, I don't see the problem with being "excluded" from the restaurant and a movie socialization, if it means you have friends who don't go out to restaurants and movies together, but who do enjoy spending time with each other doing other things, even if that means it revolves around the kids...

    1. I see how this quote wouldn't have read quite the same, without the context of some of the other things the author was saying throughout the book. But I think you actually hit the nail on the head with some of what you said, without realizing. It used to be that all women shared more in common than they do know. There was "women's work." All women - single, married without kids, married with kids, widowed, kids grown up and moved out, etc. - did the same sorts of things, shared similar experiences, led similar schedules, etc. Very few left the home to earn wages. Women of all ages would get together to chat and work on some task together, or maybe just have a conversation while gathered around the well or the water pump several times a day. They all shared a similar life.
      But today, because most of what was historically women's work has been replaced or eased by newer technologies and products, women are able to differ much more in "what they do", and thus in who they relate to best. So now, as a housewife with kids, it becomes hard for me to hang out with other women who aren't also housewives with kids...just because our lives or schedules are sometimes so different.
      This isn't to say that important things like shared faith and outlook on the world don't matter to friendships, because they absolutely do! But I feel like if every woman on my block was a stay-at-home mom, I'd have a much wider circle of acquaintances than I do - just because you'd run into each other more - even if we were never going to become great pals.

    2. Yes, it does make more sense when you say it like that--that all women have less to relate to each other about in general. I guess (referring to the last paragraph of your reply) as someone who does have a wide circle of acquaintances, but not much by way of close friends, it just doesn't seem to be a problem to me the way the author put it.(I'm also an introvert so I couldn't care less about having a huge circle of acquaintances ;) )

    3. (and I mean close friends that are less than 200 miles away, of course :) )

  2. It sounds like a really interesting book, but that quote is kind of depressing!

  3. Wow! That book sounds very interesting. I'm definitely going to look it up next time I'm at the library.

  4. Christine, I just forwarded this post to my roommate, who is currently writing her Master's Thesis on the art of homemaking and Catholic oikonomia--I think she'll find this a helpful source!

  5. christine, I read you blog but seldom post a response. I have to say, that this is exactly the truth! This was true when I was raising my kids and is even more true today. (although there are trends that show women staying home more or at least desiring to do so.) The big homeschool community that we had in MI was a big help! I knew that there were others like me and we did get together for various occasions. BUT not for the same things in the past. And I was one if the few who gardened, canned food, sewed clothes and baked from scratch or even just plain cooked from scratch! I have talked to a lot of women who have a kind of fascination/longing when they talk about the amish. I believe it is because in those communities, a woman's work is still shared and appreciated by all in it. Quilting bee's, work frolics are all still done. Lots of women still do their laundry on the same day as all the other amish gals. We are a bit isolated in our homes.