In search of the british housewife
Last week she was declared officially extinct by the advertising industry. But, Emma Cook discovers, reports of her demise have been greatly exaggerated
Sunday 05 May 1996
It's all in a day's work for Katharine, 27, who gave up a secretarial job to start her family 17 years ago. Then, she had the choice to return to work or stay at home and she still has. For her it's been the easiest decision of her life. "I need to give my children the best I can", she says. "Even the idea of being broke doesn't tempt me back to work."
She wouldn't pursue a career because there are, she believes, far more important things to consider. "It makes me cross that people think mothers don't need to stay at home and look after their children," she says. "At the end of the day I think it's selfish for the woman to work full-time and have a family. After all, children don't need big houses and lots of money."
What they do need is a mother in the home, stresses Katharine who regards herself as a thoroughly modern housewife. "That word has been so downgraded over the years," she chides, standing in her polished pine kitchen. "I think I prefer the term homemaker." Whatever the terms - take your pick from housewife, full-time mother, home management executive even - from now on the marketing men will be calling her something different - extinct.
At least that's the message from the detergent giant Unilever, which launches its new Persil campaign this summer. It has targeted individual groups of detergent users, including young men who read GQ and Loaded. But that treasured icon of domesticity - the suburban British housewife - has vanished. Her image, along with her purchasing power, has been abandoned for good in a bid to appeal to a more diverse market.
It could be said that Persil is finally catching up with other advertisers. After decades of filling our screens with bland female stereotypes, it wants to reflect the diversity and reality of British home-life. But it may be ignoring some important home truths. According to Social Trends (1996), 79 per cent of women usually do the washing, 48 per cent shop for groceries, and 59 per cent decide what is for dinner.
Lurking behind these statistics is there any evidence that "homemakers" like Katharine are still a dominant feature of British culture? Are they a flourishing institution that Unilever excludes at its peril or an exception to the rule, a figure from a bygone era? Lynette Paul, trustee of the Mothers Union, believes that the housewife is still very much alive and kicking but in an updated form - a million miles from the genial persona in the ads, holding her fresh laundry to the window to search for that elusive bluey-whiteness.
Nowadays, she adapts to changing demographics. Her position depends upon family circumstance, the job market and personal choice. Ms Paul explains: "There's no set pattern across the country anymore. Each region is different. Where there's high unemployment, say in Wales, women are often the main breadwinners. In London, both partners tend to work, but in the provinces many of them still choose to be housewives." The British housewife has also had to cope with a drop in status and respect. In contrast to her high-flying career sisters, her life is perceived to be one of drudgery and under-achievement. As Ms Paul says: "After the feminist movement, women were made to feel guilty if they wanted to stay at home. The implication is that if you are a housewife you don't do anything."
Whereas the Fifties paragon of cleanliness could be proud of her role in the home, the Nineties equivalent maintains a low profile, mainly through embarrassment. As one woman explains: "I wouldn't dare admit to people at dinner parties that I enjoy staying at home and doing housework. They'd just assume I was some brain-dead bimbo." Another tells her friends that she is actively looking for jobs in part- time teaching. "I've got no intention of going back to work, but I feel they'd look down on me if I admitted that," she sighs.
But while some women feel ashamed of their role as the humble homemaker, others are standing up and actively defending it. Ruth Liley, vice-chairman of the group Full Time Mothers, gave up her full-time job as a local journalist eight years ago to raise a family and she's proud of the choice she made. "I do think it's becoming more acceptable," she says. "Just because you've got an education doesn't mean you don't want to be at home looking after the family. I also think a huge proportion of women are the home-centred types." It's just that a lot of them won't admit to it. According to Ruth, that is all changing as women are slowly gaining the confidence to please themselves, and that may mean saying no to a career.
Gina, 44, a housewife living in Portsmouth, couldn't bear to go back to work after she had her two sons - life at home was far too enjoyable. "I absolutely adore it," she enthuses. "Looking back I think going out to work was a cop out. I'm more valued here and I can combine lots of different activities." She devotes her energy to the family, as well as her own interests. "I can do things for myself," she says. "I'm taking Spanish lessons, swimming regularly and working on my allotment. I just love the freedom, and I can be there for the kids."
Jill opted for a similar lifestyle when she left her promising career in law to have children at the age of 29. Ten years later, she has three sons and seems to embody the heartfelt values of the perfect housewife. Her husband is a partner in a law firm and they live in Dulwich, south- east London. "I'm not ashamed of being at home," she says ardently. "You become the focus for family life. I do find it satisfying to create an orderly, attractive home for other people to come back to."
Each evening she sits down with her husband to discuss their day. "I need to hear about the outside world and he wants to know about what the children have been doing. I see myself as a very important link in the chain, we work as a unit and value each other for what we do." Jill describes her life with such serene contentment you can't help thinking of the sickeningly compliant Stepford Wife, engineered to provide for husband and home. Yet Jill's is a conscious choice - nobody forced her into the role. It's certainly a picture of domestic harmony that seems curiously at odds with the Nineties image of the tough career women, determined to have it all.
"There is a modern version of the housewife," says Jill. "But you don't hear about us because so much attention is paid to the needs of working mothers and a national strategy for childcare. That's not what a lot of mothers want. We shouldn't get swept away with the idea that everyone desires jobs."
When Catherine Hakim, an academic at the London School of Economics, said exactly the same thing, she provoked great controversy. She argues that career women only form around a quarter or a third of the working population. Many women, perhaps more, she says, want to devote themselves to marriages, children and the home. Although her research was greeted with scepticism, she did open up a debate about the range of options for women, that as their lives alter so they can change their minds about what they want.
What may also come as a shock to feminists is that, for some successful career women, the image of a well-accomplished housewife is an extremely alluring one. Lucy, 32 and a successful publisher, dreams of a life that centres around, "pottering in the garden, homebaking and domestic creativity." She accepts that the reality is probably a lot less romantic, but still finds the fantasy compelling. "It's probably because I know it's never going to be an option," she says, rather sadly. "I just imagine this relaxed lifestyle where you've actually got time to cook and entertain lots of friends."
Interestingly, the dream shatters when she dwells too hard on the husband's contribution to this idyllic scene. "That's the part I'd find extremely irritating. Having to rely on a partner's wage and then watch him get more successful in his career while mine floundered." Which is why Full Time Mothers may find it impossible to elevate the status of the British homemaker in the Nineties. Until the traditional housewife enjoys financial independence, it's doubtful that society will ever view her position as ultimately desirable. Since she can't command a price in the home, her identity has been devalued and now, thanks to Unilever, finally laid to rest.
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