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Is the housewife all washed up?

Image makers are banishing that once sacred icon of suburban life, the housewife, from their advertisements. But while mothers may be emancipated by going out to work, they still do most domestic chores, says Peter Popham
For years the housewife has been on the wane. The figure whose gleaming, caring, energetic, ever-cheerful countenance once dominated advertisements for soap powder, breakfast cereals, soups, Oxo cubes and many other domestic necessaries has steadily been fading from view. The word "housewife" itself has become something of an embarrassment, like negro or mongoloid or cripple, a reminder of grimmer, less enlightened times.

Now the detergent giant Unilever has administered the coup de grace: in its new campaign for Persil, to be launched this summer, all references to housewives are to be scrapped. Instead the campaigns in the press will target individual groups of detergent users: "Dinks", for example, or single young men, the latter to be reached through campaigns in magazines such as Loaded and GQ.

It is not the first time that the soap companies have tried wooing some of the other people besides women who find themselves using washing machines. In the mid-Eighties, a celebrated campaign for Persil featured a skinhead desperate to get his kit cleaned up but abandoned in his hour of need by Mum, who ends up doing it himself. But in a script like this, the woman's infuriating absence spoke eloquently of her key importance in the domestic scheme of things. In the new ads, by contrast, her absence may be a pain, but it is an accepted fact. The household deity has been dethroned, but somehow life goes on.

Unilever's abolition of the housewife may be a key moment in the evolution of the modern female persona. Dominic Mills, editorial director of Campaign, points out that "the soap powder companies are the last bastion of projecting the housewife as an icon, as a desirable state to achieve, as the key person in the household who made decisions about soap. Many other products moved away from that a long time ago. Bisto were the first to acknowledge divorce in an ad. Rover has had a man taking his crying baby out for a drive, to get it back to sleep again." The soap companies, however - Procter and Gamble being even more cautious than Unilever - have stolidly stuck by old images.

It has taken a long time for the bastion to fall. When perfect housewives pranced across our screens throughout the Sixties and Seventies, the feminists had already spelt out the harsh truth about housework. "Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition," wrote Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, published in 1949. "The clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day. The housewife wears herself out marking time: she makes nothing, simply perpetuates the present ... woman is not called upon to build a better world: her domain is fixed and she has only to keep up the never-ending struggle against ... dust, stains, mud, and dirt."

Not only was the work itself uncreative, but the status of the housewife was intrinsically abasing. "Her occupation makes her dependent upon husband and children," De Beauvoir went on. "She is justified through them; but in their lives she is only an inessential intermediary ... she is subordinate, secondary, parasitic."

It was a ferocious analysis of the status that had kept women enthralled for centuries, and it has reverberated in the works of other feminists ever since. What is perhaps surprising is that it has taken half a century for the medicine to work.

If one looks at the history of the women's struggle in this century, however, much is explained. For powerful social and economic reasons, the imperative of housework was hard for women to resist. As Deirdre Beddoe explains in her book about women between the wars, Back to Home and Duty, the great emancipation, political and economic, precipitated by the First World War brought women into the workforce in unprecedented numbers. But after it, as male unemployment and replacement of the slaughtered male population became urgent priorities, they were vigorously shunted back into the home.

Middle-class women were bounced back behind the sink, the phrase "a woman's place is in the home" ringing in their ears. Meanwhile, unemployed working-class women were in effect forced into domestic service because refusing such work meant loss of unemployment benefit. Such were the powerful forces at work to restore the status quo ante, and after the next war it was the same story: the myth of the idyllic nuclear family was dazzlingly embodied in classic American sitcoms by the likes of Mary Tyler Moore and Lucille Ball.

Unilever's decision marks a belated recognition of a fundamental societal shift. The company is struggling to jump on a bus that is already moving fast: pick up a copy of a magazine like Woman's Own or Good Housekeeping and what is striking is the complete absence from their pages of representations of housewives. Liz Hurley smiles mysteriously for Estee Lauder, a Bardot clone preens for Russell and Bromley; but the cakes and stain-removers and ovens and bathrooms must sell themselves, without human intervention: of the paragon whose job it is to perform all this good housekeeping there is no longer a sign.

Unilever's decision, like that of other advertisers before, acknowledges the vastly increased variety of our familial set-ups today. But at the same time it could be said that Unilever is merely succumbing to the prevailing hypocrisy. According to Social Trends (1996), the primary household tasks are still overwhelmingly performed by women. Washing and ironing are usually performed by the man in 1 per cent of households; for deciding what to cook for dinner and doing the shopping, the figures are 3 and 4 per cent respectively. Women always or usually do the washing in 79 per cent of cases and decide the menu 59 per cent of the time. Shopping is always, usually or at least half the time the woman's duty in 93 per cent of households.

But because such tasks are, following the De Beauvoir line, no longer enough for a woman to find fulfilment, both the housewife and her job description have been banished from view.

Yet housework is making something of a comeback. In the British Journal of Sociology and elsewhere, Catherine Hakim, an academic at the London School of Economics, has recently claimed that the change in women's attitudes to employment has been greatly exaggerated. "The post-war expansion of female labour consisted primarily of the substitution of part-time jobs for full-time jobs, suggesting declining work commitment rather than a rise ... attitudes have changed, but nowhere near as much as we believed," she wrote in the Times Higher. "Women's work orientations still differ from men's and their sex-role attitudes continue to have a major impact on employment decisions." A lot of them, in short, experience longer or shorter periods as housewives, as a matter of choice.

Hakim's research has provoked predictable controversy and much sceptical comment. Nevertheless, it reminds us that housework, however uncreative by Simone de Beauvoir's standards, can be more important and interesting than many other jobs. And as the old leftist cry "Wages for housework" insisted, it is also work, like other work. In France, with its appalling unemployment, the Gaullists have started taking the "wages for housework" concept seriously. It couldn't happen here; but if it did, a lot of women would probably give the idea of returning home some serious thought.