Housewifery

My mother-in-law sat a paper in Housewifery. It was for her Diploma in Home Science which she did as part of her teaching qualification, back in the 50s. She got an “E”. We asked her if she had sat the exam, and she said, “I may have been in the room when an exam was taking place.”

Superb. She is a highly intelligent and able woman – the “E” says far more about the course than it says about her.

There is hope for her yet. Feministing has blogged a new course in homemaking, offered by the Southwestern Baptist Theological College.

Coursework will include seven hours of nutrition and meal preparation, seven hours of textile design and “clothing construction,” three hours of general homemaking, three hours on “the value of a child,” and three hours on the “biblical model for the home and family.” Seminary officials say the main focus of the courses is on hospitality in the home – teaching women interior design as well as how to sew and cook.


I can buy the notion that college students need to be taught how to cook, clean and sew. Changing lifestyles mean that plenty of kids leave home without having learned these basic skills. But getting college credits for it? That seems absurd.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, shortly after my mother-in-law was getting her glorious grade in Housewifery, Betty Friedan was researching and writing The Feminine Mystique. In a couple of fascinating chapters, “The Sex-Directed Educators” and “The Sexual Sell”, Friedan describes how young women were discouraged from pursuing academic excellence and jobs, and instead encouraged to see keeping house as a difficult and challenging job in itself, requiring all their intellectual abilities. It was a science, something on which you could be graded, for which you needed the right tools, something you could fill your life with. Friedan reports marketing research that worked on exactly these premises.

Help her to ‘justify her menial task by building up her role as the protector of her family – the killer of millions of microbes and germs’, this report advised. ‘Emphasise her kingpin role in the family… help her to be an expert rather than a menial worker… make housework a matter of knowledge and skill, rather than a matter of brawn and dull, unremitting effort.’ An effective way of doing this is to bring out a new product. For, it seems, there’s a growing wave of housewives ‘who look forward to new products which not only decrease their daily work load, but actually engage their emotional and intellectual interest in the world of scientific development outside the home’.

Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, Penguin, 1963, pp. 189 – 190. Emphasis and ellipses original.

Housework, it seems, can make your life satisfying. Except it damn well didn’t, and doesn’t. It led to the “problem with no name”, that sense of profound dissatisfaction, of loneliness, of incompleteness, of yearning for more.

Here’s what Friedan said back in the 1960s.

If I am right, the problem that has no name stirring the minds of so many American women today is not a matter of loss of feminity or too much eduction, or the demands of domesticity. It is far more important than anyone recognizes. It is the key to these other new and old problems which have been torturing women and their husbands and children, and puzzling their doctors and educators for years. … We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.’

ibid., p. 29

A large part of the problem that has no name that Friedan wrote about was that women were told that they ought to be housewives. They ought to aspire to husband, house and children, not an independent existence of their own. So it wasn’t even a matter of choice. And not only were they pushed towards this family-and-home existence, they were told they ought to be satisfied by it.

And that’s exactly what this college course does. By giving young women academic credit for the course, and by restricting entry to the course to women, the college is reverting to the world of the 50s, where a woman’s job was in the home.

Let’s be clear. If a woman wants to be a full-time homemaker, and she is happy to do that, and it suits her and her family, then, you go for it, girl! That’s your choice. And in fact, it’s a choice I’m making for myself and my family, for at least the next year or two.

But college credit for learning how to cook, clean and sew? Betty Friedan must be spinning in her grave.

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