Sunday, September 26, 2010

Desperately seeking housewives, stay-at-home moms, and homemakers

I was listening to a radio show on Words by Radiolab, and the core idea of the show just hit my feminist bone. The idea was that words precede thinking, or they are mutually beneficial to one another; we don't even know for sure what their relationship is. But it is impossible to think without having words for the things we are to think about. Humans' vocabulary grows during their socialization, and the way their vocabulary grows, their cognitive ability increases, too. So, it occurred to me that we cannot effectively change how our society treats women, until we change the way our everyday language treats women. Well, it's bad enough that English has gendered pronouns. But there is another, more insidious role language plays in degrading women (as well as non-white races, but that's another story). This role is well-documented, at least in the racial stereotyping arena.

Let's talk now only about mothers who do not work "outside of the home."  See the difficulty I am having even to describe what these mothers do? All mothers are working mothers. Schlepping kids to school, extracurricular activities, friends, etc., is work done outside of the home. As the bumper sticker says:
If the woman's place is by the stove, why am I always in my minivan?
I was "at home" with my two babies for four months each, and it was the most intensive work experience of my entire life. Not even law school got close to the demands of motherhood. And I, too, had to be out and about a lot -- mainly because my nurse practitioner implored me to get out of the house as much as I could.

When people ask me what was my mother-in-law's profession before she retired, I just mumble something along the lines of homemaker. That word is more descriptive of what she did than stay-at-home mom, because she truly made home for her husband and seven children. She handled all the finances of her very poor family, cooked three meals daily (some days even more), shopped for everything anybody in her family needed, washed and cleaned, and ran this whole operation with cheer and incredible energy. She had to jump into her beat-up Ford Fiesta at least ten times a day, she was on her feet from dawn to dusk. Homemaker does not even begin to describe the complexity of her responsibilities. 

Well, one may say she was a housewife, but that doesn't solve my problem.  Was she the wife of the house? Not at all.  She was the wife of the love of her life: my father-in-law. But before she married him, she did the same type of work, even though she was a widow. She was widowed young, with three young children (yes, for those of you doing the math, she had ten children total). It is ironic to call a young widow a housewife.

What is the solution? I am thinking of referring to her as the CEO of a small business, because in my eyes, that is what she was. Let me know what you think. I am open to ideas.


Yazzyjazzy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Yazzyjazzy said...

I love your idea. Its sad that we have to come up with B.S. titles just for men to appreciate the work their wives do in the house and for their children. I feel like men never realize the full extent of the sacrifice these women make for their families, and its so easy for them to try to cheapen this important role.

If a title is what you want, I have plenty. Your husband is a CEO? Well you are a Lead Accountability Manager. Your husband brings in the money? Well, thats because he is married to a Senior Activities Director. Your husband is complaining about his day at work? Well that is nothing compared to his superstar wife who is a Dynamic Interactions Executive.

Its far too difficult to come up with an accurate and all-embracing description of what housewives do, but if a bullshit title will help men make sense of their wives' work, lets start the movement!

Rebecca said...

Your post reminds me of the issue of language and how the words have been used to “frame” our values. I think you would enjoy reading George Lakoff’s book: Don’t Think of an Elephant. He is a philosopher at UC Berkeley; this book shot to the bestseller list after the Democrats lost the White House, Congress, and the courts in the 2000 elections.

There are parallels you could draw between how Republicans took control of the debate and agenda by framing the language and how women got trapped into feeling guilty if they worked outside the home. The Republicans invented language such as "tax relief," "partial birth abortion," and "death taxes" to invoke frames and dominate the public debate. When language is invented such as "stay-at-home mom," "housewife," or "homemaker," this language is used to frame and articulate particular values.

Language and framing are all about metaphors. As Lakoff would say: Our job is to frame our own values, vision and roles in the family. So we should “not think of a housewife” (or homemaker or stay-at home mom). This language reinforces the message that being a stay-at-home mom is preferable to one that does not stay at home. Being a homemaker would then be preferable to the alternative, a woman who is anything outside the HOME or even…a homewrecker.

This is what Lakoff calls cognitive unconsciousness: we can’t see, and are unaware of, how calling someone a housewife, homemaker or stay-at-home mom boxes women in. People view the roles of women based on their value system, and the language and “frames” that invoke those values. It is time that we take charge of inventing our own language and “frames“ that don’t devalue women who do not stay at home and refuse to buy-in to the whole “Good Housekeeping” role.