Last week a Gallup survey found that two out of three mothers today would prefer to stay at home if they could afford to. New research, by Dr Joanna Bourke of Birkbeck College, London, suggests that historically, many women would have made similar choices.
Dr Bourke analysed the attitudes of about 5,000 women from 1860 to 1930 when, for the first time in Britain, it became the norm for women to be housewives. Previously most women had worked in factories, shops and farms.
'Easily two-thirds' found working in the home fulfilling, she said. Most had chosen voluntarily to give up paid employment, with the result that nine out of ten women were housewives in 1911, compared with a quarter in 1851.
Dr Bourke studied women's responses to parliamentary commissions into social welfare, letters written by women to local housing and education authorities, autobiographies, and contemporary studies by charities and sociologists into working- class living conditions.
The research questions the conventional feminist explanation for this change in women's occupations, which is that the move into the home was imposed on women against their will. As wages rose and men could afford it, the traditional argument goes, they forced their wives and daughters to leave their jobs so that, as the sole breadwinners in the family, they could keep them in a state of economic dependence.
Men also wanted, according to the traditional view, to appear to be rich enough to keep a whole family on one wage.
But according to Dr Bourke, most women decided themselves that a better way to take advantage of rising wages was to spend time creating a comfortable home. They also wanted, when they could afford it, to devote time to bringing up children.
The shift away from paid work occurred at a time when employment opportunities were actually growing more attractive for women, Dr Bourke said. The range of new jobs open to them was increasing, and women's wages were rising at a faster rate than men's.