The invention of the housewife

All I am is just a housewife

Nothing special, nothing great

What I do is kinda boring

If you’d rather, it can wait

All I am is someone’s mother

All I am is someone’s wife

All of which seems unimportant

All it is is just my life

Do the laundry, wash the dishes

Take the dog out, clean the house

Shop for groceries, look for specials

God it sounds so, Mickey Mouse

Drop the kids off, pick the shirts up

Try to lose weight, try again

Keep the troops fed, pick their things up

Lose your patience, count to ten

Lyrics from “Just a housewife”, from the musical “Working” (1977)

As part of my patriarchy project, I’m once again trying to think about chronological changes in domesticity, inspired by some of the things I’ve been reading and seeing recently. One is Alex Sanmark’s inaugural professorial lecture about Viking men and women. She points out that “Victorian” ideas of the housewife get in our way of understanding Viking women’s roles in subsistence farming, production of textiles for the market and political involvement via hospitality giving.

Another is the following claim by Heide Wunder in He is the Sun and She is the Moon (p 68):

Household chores did not fill the lives of wives between the Middle Ages and the modern era, and neither did their roles as mothers. Rather, it was only in connection with the socioeconomic and cultural changes since the fifteenth century that the social positions of “mother” and “housewife” were turned into “mother as profession,” “housewife as profession,” and into the normative idea of “housewife and mother”

This idea, and the same chronology, focused on the fifteenth and sixteenth century, is also central to Martha Howell, (2008), The Gender of Europe’s Commercial Economy, 1200–1700. Gender & History, 20: 519-538.

Commerce came to be accepted as a socially useful, even honourable, way of life with the help of a gender binary that positioned the sober housewife as partner to the honest and ambitious man of the market (p. 519)

If commerce and commercial people were to be redeemed, commerce had to be freed of the charges that it inevitably bred greed, invited deceit and unleashed wanton desire. Europeans accomplished this feat, I propose, with the help of a narrative about gender that assigned consumption to a female space, on the one hand, and production – or money making – to a male space, on the other. By wisely managing consumption in the service of male-headed households, women defanged consumption. By governing commerce judiciously in the interests of the social whole, men justified their quest for profit. (p. 521)

the more prosperous wives, widows and daughters of established artisans and merchants, the women who would come to define proper bourgeois womanhood, were in gradual retreat from business, quietly and increasingly tentatively submerging any work for the market or any assets they brought to the marriage under the umbrella of their husband’s business (p. 526)

On the other hand, Mary Harrington, self-proclaimed “reactionary feminist” claims in a recent article that the change came later:

The political economist Karl Polanyi characterizes the emergence of industrial modernity and its market society as a process of “dis­embedding.” Polanyi argues that in this process, economic activities are gradually (and sometimes violently) uprooted from networks of reciprocity and local contexts, and treated instead as “rational,” decontextualized transactions. As industry shifted from the “outwork” system (in which parts of a production process were carried out in individual homes) toward a factory system, “work” was increasingly something that happened not within households but away from home. In turn, more goods became available to purchase, reducing the domestic workload.

The result was a profound shift in sex roles, away from the agrarian model of a working adult couple engaged in gendered but similarly active forms of work. In Britain, the transition from agrarian to mercantile and industrial society was well under way by the mid-eighteenth century. The practical, multiskilled women of the agrarian world were, by then, already giving way to a new kind of wife, whose principal role was social and consumerist and for whom it was beneath her dignity to work. Already in 1726, Daniel Defoe wrote in The Complete English Tradesman that middle-class women in­creasingly acted “as if they were ashamed of being tradesmen’s wives.

And as usual, lurking in the long durée background of my mind is the ancient Roman world and its ideals of domesticity. Is it possible to fit these different developments of “domesticity” into a coherent chronology and if not, which do we chose? I won’t, in this post, look at the ideology of Roman domesticity, but instead think more generally about how the nuclear family, the most common form in Western Europe, related to the market and how that affected married women in particular.

It’s clear that the Roman Empire had a market economy and that a fair amount of production for the market was by (nuclear) family production units, i.e. ones focused around a household of a married couple and their children, with relatively few other dependents. There were also families practicing subsistence farming mainly outside the market system and some production for the market that wasn’t (small) household-based (for example, factories and large rural estate production using slave labour).

Later on in the Roman empire and in the post-Roman world, however, we know that the economy was much less market-based, so presumably most households returned to subsistence agriculture. However, there’s evidence for early medieval craft production and trade even in relatively rural sites, like Oegstgeest in the Netherlands. Alexandre Beaudet’s study of Merovingian crafts overwhelmingly finds references to craftsmen rather than women, but it’s likely that whole families/households were involved in such market production, even if not full-time.

But there’s also a new complicating factor, especially from the ninth century, of estate-based market production. In some cases you probably still had individual families as a whole working on a product (such as salt), which the estate then marketed. But other non-family forms of production were also possible, in particular groups of women in the gynaeceum producing textiles or male and female monasteries selling surpluses. Heide Wunder argues that there was a shift in the eleventh and twelfth centuries away from estate-based market production towards (small) family-based production, which seems likely, given the rise of towns.

And then in the late Middle Ages (i.e. post-Black Death) came the rise of wage labour and of capitalist enterprises, as the pattern of the master/apprentice/journeyman became no longer adequate for crafts and trades. Although as Martha Howell points out, traditional craft production, or modified forms of it, such as small commodity production, co-existed with capitalist modes of production for quite a long time. Wunder also mentions the early modern rise of a salaried professional elite of men who were now (in Protestant regions) allowed marriage: public service, jurists, pastors, physicians, university professors.

It’s in these intermediate socio-economic statuses that domesticity as an ideology and the housewife as a profession develop. As Harrington says, she’s talking about “bourgeois white women in the Anglosphere” (because they’ve had the most impact on Anglophone feminism). Sanmark’s Viking women, in contrast, in the eighth to eleventh century, although they’re not entirely before the market and some may even have been full-time textile workers, are before the (prosperous) middle class: instead, this is a world mainly of subsistence farmers and nobles/chieftains.

And even in the late Middle Ages and beyond, not every wife was “just a housewife”. In rural areas into the early modern period, there’s the subsistence farming household where “domestic work” means running a farm along with your husband. And in both the country and towns you have a lot of families where a married woman has to run a household and also produce for the market or do wage labour, because her husband’s income isn’t enough for them to live on (for example, women who go out to clean, do laundry or bake bread).

But there’s also a social space which, at least in the Middle Ages, is mostly above domesticity, the realm of the married noble elite (and queens and empresses). These women’s husbands do not “work” either, in the sense of earning money by their labour; instead, they exercise power in various ways. The role of their wives is to support their husband’s power, whether by political intrigue behind the scenes or by acting as such men’s deputies or representatives, formal or informal activities that overshadow the domestic work they may also supervise or even carry out themselves. You can see that role and ideal from the late ninth-century development of the “countess” through to a woman like Anthony Trollope’s Lady Glencora Palliser. (On the other hand, when all the sons of a noblemen inherit a title and some land, as in Germany, in a few generations you’re down to the kind of petty nobility where noble wives do have to do their own housekeeping).

When I wondered in an earlier post why bourgeois women were prepared to give up production for the market (and their husbands were prepared to take the financial hit this involved), I didn’t fully take into account this cultural tradition of noblewomen already being largely outside the market, and thus the possibility of withdrawal from the market as a way of signifying status. But I’m now starting to wonder if the reason bourgeois women left market production isn’t over-determined. Male wage labour became a more flexible alternative to a wife working in the family business, while female wage labour was also a cheaper alternative for businesses controlling crafts like spinning, which were largely women’s work. At the same time, there was a new moral emphasis on the housewife, which Wunder links to the Reformation, but Howell shows developed earlier: she mentions the poem What the Goodwife Taught Her Daughter, which is from the early fourteenth century.

What’s harder to know is whether wives’ and mothers’ domestic duties were increasing or not in the later Middle Ages and early modern period. I suspect the answer may be that it depends on her husband’s expectations. Both Howell and Wunder point out that a lot of provisions for the household could be purchased “ready-made” in towns, so that wives didn’t necessarily have to bake bread, make cheese or make clothes themselves; on the other hand, the “thrifty housewife” might be expected to do such tasks rather than pay for others to do so.

There are a couple of other factors that might have increased the amount of domestic work. An increase in consumption goods (like fabrics, furniture, ornaments), which we can see from the fifteenth century onwards, would have meant more work in caring for them and keeping them clean and tidy. And it’s possible that bourgeois women were expected to spend more time and effort in educating their young children in the early modern period: reading and writing were particularly important to Protestant religious instruction.

From the later Middle Ages onwards then, we can see a cult of domesticity that contrasted a “hard-working” (and thus bourgeois rather than noble) husband and a wife doing something that has been redefined as not “work”. But how do we fit into that timescale Mary Harrington’s industrialisation as producing domesticity? I don’t think we can do, and I want to explain why.

First of all, I want to distinguish between the initial development of an ideology and its re-emphasis. There certainly was a renewed nineteenth-century focus on what Harrington calls the “cult of true womanhood”, in the Victorian figure, for example of the Angel in the House. Once a social institution exists, its moral worth often goes through cycles of renewed emphasis: the married couple as responsible for the moral and social ordering of their household and its dependents, for example, crops up in Roman and early Christian thought, Carolingian and Lutheran reformers, and still recurs in Victorian times.

Harrington’s article is written for an American audience, and I’m willing to accept that there may not have been much of an American bourgeoisie before the nineteenth century, as a relatively underdeveloped colony/ex-colony. But she also talks about England, which had a middle class much earlier. She may have been misled by relying on Karl Polanyi, whose chronology for the development of markets now looks inaccurate.

But I think that there are also ideological reasons for Harrington to link domesticity to industrialization. She tends to equate “the market” and industrialization, while not mentioning the existence of capitalism in the early modern world. It’s probably politically more plausible to use historical precedents to argue for a new post-industrial gender order rather than a post-capitalist one. But it also makes it easier to ignore the marketing of female bodies in the preindustrial world.

Harrington complains (justifiably) about the modern world’s “reframing exploitative practices such as sex work and commercial surrogacy, which overwhelmingly affect women, as legitimate sources of employment.” The legitimation and institutionalization of prostitution, however, is already visible in late medieval cities: there’s a new book out by Jamie Page on this. And one of the things I learnt from a talk by Rebecca Winer at the International Medieval Congress 2021 was just how commodified wet-nursing contracts were in late medieval Spain. In particular, wet nurses were not allowed to breastfeed their own child during their contract, which strikes me as exploitative in a similar way to commercial surrogacy.

The example of wetnurses also leads to a second problem with Harrington’s article: that it ignores the fact that the “cult of true womanhood” for bourgeois white housewives itself historically rested on the paid or unpaid labour of other lower status women. Harrington talks about elite women who are currently “buying services to replace the domain of care and relationality now largely sacrificed to the market”. But the “domesticated” middle-class women of the fifteenth to early twentieth century routinely had maids, cleaners, nannies or even slaves to do some housewifely duties for them. As Wunder puts it (p. 84):

The development of a warm emotional life for spouses and their children was based, in part, one the fact that middle-class women and mothers were relieved of some of their domestic tasks by the work of female domestics and charwomen.

We need to remember, that it’s only relatively late in the twentieth century that the ideology developed that middle class women shouldn’t outsource their domestic labour even if they  could afford to.

If you put Sanmark, Howell and Wunder together, you can get a coherent account of the rise of the housewife, but also an awareness that such women were never really “shielded from the market” in the way that Harrington wants modern women, children and the family to be. Instead, there was always a mix in household economies between production for the market, production for auto-consumption and consumption of bought-in goods and services. This mix varied according to socio-economic level, but also the skills and circumstances of individual family members. As a result, there could and can never be an “ideal” answer, however much Harrington might want one.

One thought on “The invention of the housewife

  1. […] It’s more than ten years since I first considered on this blog whether there was still a patriarchal system in the modern West. But I don’t think my views have changed that much: I still see two separate systems without much overlap. One is a “traditional” patriarchal system, focused around  the nuclear family and with separate production and domestic spheres, which has existed for some classes in Western Europe from the late Middle Ages onwards. […]


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