Kate Middleton and the great ‘housewife’ myth

The First Post, May 10, 2011
By Stephanie Coontz

The flurry of publicity around Kate Middleton's decision to try being "an ordinary RAF wife" has been used by social conservatives to bolster their contention that this is the ultimate ambition of most women.

In January, Catherine Hakim of the London School of Economics issued a report claiming that most young women aspire to marry men who are better educated and earn more than themselves.

Hakim has long labeled the idea that women are interested in pursuing careers or becoming financially independent as a "feminist myth". And in a poll of 922 women conducted for the Sunday Times a week after Hakim's report, 69 per cent said they would prefer to stay home to look after their children.

Does the favourable reaction to Kate's housewifely goals confirm that "girls just wanna be housewives"?

Separating women's preferences from the constraints they face is a tricky business. In the Sunday Times poll, only 19 per cent of women said they actually preferred a mate who was better-educated. Most wanted an intellectual equal.

The fact that a higher proportion of contemporary British women today than in 1949 are marrying men who are more educated than they are, notes University of Surrey sociology professor Lynn Prince Cooke, may simply be because until recently the UK has lagged behind countries such as the US in the proportion of women attending university, at the same time as the wages of less-educated men have fallen sharply relative to their more educated peers.

Alternatively, suggests Oxford University Research Reader Oriel Sullivan, who has studied the changing domestic division of labour between men and women, this marriage pattern may simply reflect women's growing preference for men who have egalitarian attitudes and are willing to share childcare and housework, something that is more likely to be true of educated men.

Sociologist Cooke also points out that women's reported "preferences" vary from country to country in close association with how many social policies are in place that allow women to combine employment with child-raising and a manageable family life.

So it is no surprise that in the United Kingdom, where only part-time public pre-school is available, many women say they would stay home with their young children if money were no object.

But this isn't necessarily their first preference. In the United States, for instance, studies of career women who "opted out" of the workforce to raise their children have consistently found that quitting their jobs was not their first choice.

They left work only when their employers refused to provide enough flexibility to accommodate the demands of child-raising and their husbands refused to adjust their own work schedules in ways that would facilitate shared breadwinning and childrearing.

A 1998 study of actual and preferred employment patterns among couples with children under age six found that Britain and Spain had higher preferences for male breadwiwnner families than any other western European nations. Yet even in the UK, the strongest preference was for the wife to work part-time.

This was the preferred arrangement for 42 per cent of UK couples with young children, although only 32 per cent of such couples actually organised their employment that way. In almost 25 per cent of couples, both partners worked full-time, a figure only slightly higher than the more than 21 per cent of couples who said this arrangement was their first choice.

The least preferred arrangement was for the man to work full-time and the wife to not be employed at all. Only 13.3 per cent of families with children under six preferred this arrangement, although 32.8 per cent settled for it. In other words, a very large layer of male breadwinner-female homemaker households would have preferred the wife to work, at least part-time.

This accords with US figures. As of the year 2000, 40 per cent of full-time homemakers indicated they would prefer to be employed.

The stresses of the current global recession may have boosted the number of women who would like to chuck their increasingly onerous and underpaid jobs, and who fantasise about finding their own prince - or at least a wealthy husband with equivalent job security.

But the fact remains that the majority of men and women in the UK, as well as in the United States, reject the idea that the ideal family is one where the man earns all the money and the woman confines herself to looking after home and family.

Many young women envy Kate Middleton, who will never need to work for a living, won't ever need to economise on food, housing or travel, and has no cause to worry about whether her children will have a shot at a decent future.

But be careful what you wish for, especially if your mate is not the future King of England, whose family business will provide a surfeit of glamorous social occasions and vacation possibilities to cheer you up when you feel cooped up at home or the kids are driving you nuts.

I recently studied the generation of American women who married "good providers" in the 1950s and early 1960s and expected to find complete fulfillment in a life centered around their husband and children. By the 1960s, these women were experiencing much higher rates of depression and self-doubt than their counterparts who had taken jobs.

It was these homemakers who turned Betty Friedan's feminist manifesto, The Feminine Mystique, into a blockbuster bestseller. And it was their daughters, who had seen their mothers' loneliness and unhappiness first-hand, who resolved to make sure that, whether they married or not, they would never be so dependent upon a man.

42 per cent of UK couples with young children, although only 32 per cent of such couples actually organised their employment that way. In almost 25 per cent of couples, both partners worked full-time, a figure only slightly higher than the more than 21 per cent of couples who said this arrangement was their first choice.

The least preferred arrangement was for the man to work full-time and the wife to not be employed at all. Only 13.3 per cent of families with children under six preferred this arrangement, although 32.8 per cent settled for it.
In other words, a very large layer of male breadwinner-female homemaker households would have preferred the wife to work, at least part-time.

This accords with US figures. As of the year 2000, 40 per cent of full-time homemakers indicated they would prefer to be employed.

The stresses of the current global recession may have boosted the number of women who would like to chuck their increasingly onerous and underpaid jobs, and who fantasise about finding their own prince - or at least a wealthy husband with equivalent job security.

But the fact remains that the majority of men and women in the UK, as well as in the United States, reject the idea that the ideal family is one where the man earns all the money and the woman confines herself to looking after home and family.

Many young women envy Kate Middleton, who will never need to work for a living, won't ever need to economise on food, housing or travel, and has no cause to worry about whether her children will have a shot at a decent future.

But be careful what you wish for, especially if your mate is not the future King of England, whose family business will provide a surfeit of glamorous social occasions and vacation possibilities to cheer you up when you feel cooped up at home or the kids are driving you nuts.

I recently studied the generation of American women who married "good providers" in the 1950s and early 1960s and expected to find complete fulfillment in a life centered around their husband and children. By the 1960s, these women were experiencing much higher rates of depression and self-doubt than their counterparts who had taken jobs.

It was these homemakers who turned Betty Friedan's feminist manifesto, The Feminine Mystique, into a blockbuster bestseller. And it was their daughters, who had seen their mothers' loneliness and unhappiness first-hand, who resolved to make sure that, whether they married or not, they would never be so dependent upon a man.

Stephanie Coontz teaches history at the Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington, and co-chairs the Council on Contemporary Families. Her most recent book is 'A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s'.

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