Recently, my spouse brought to my attention a meme that exists in some circles called “the tradwife.” The word means “traditional wife” and is floating around mainly right-wing and other forums in which men are complaining about feminists and the alleged erosion of “traditional family values” and want a tradwife. Those looking for tradwives are wanting women to give up any desires beyond wanting to be a stay-at-home wife and mother.
Subordinating women into restrictive gender roles is nothing new. There are as many forms of sexism as there are human cultures and subcultures. The new tradwives meme is a particular form of sexism within the white middle-class subculture. The traditional gender role of the tradwife meme is a throwback to the feminine mystique of the 1950s, an illusion based on the traditional designation of a woman as being the ward of her husband with few legal rights.
For example, in the mid-1800s a woman was not allowed to get a university degree; a woman was not allowed to own property in certain circumstances, was not allowed to inherit property from her parents; women were not allowed to divorce an abusive husband, and so on.
It was in this environment that Margaret Fuller, a feminist philosopher, wrote in 1845 a book, “Woman in the 19th Century,” in which she pointed out all of these facts and she said the reason why we are in this situation is that we have inherited a depraved tradition. Fuller pointed out that the United States had inherited the European tradition of hierarchical society and injustice against people who are in the minority and without power.
And she found it in the hypocrisy of marriage and the treatment of women as property. Fuller wasn’t against marriage. She believed that a marriage between a man and a woman as equal partners was good and almost divine. But she did condemn the legal reality of her time that women were considered equal to children, the ward of their husband, not an equal to men.
Fuller and other activists in the mid to late 1800s focused on several primary issues. Women having the right to vote. Women having the right to employment. Women having the right to inherit. Women having the right to financial security and independence. And women having the right to divorce, all of which are interconnected issues.
Throughout the last part of the 1800s and the early 1900s, many brave women in many countries across the world struggled for recognition of their basic human rights. Some key reforms were achieved by these activists. By 1920, women could vote in most countries of the world but they were still denied equal opportunities in many areas of society and were still seen as second-class citizens.
Winning the right to vote was the key achievement of this so called first wave of feminism in the early 1900s. That’s partly because after World War One, when women took over many of the jobs and roles that were traditionally male-oriented during the war as the men were sent off to war to die. Women were seen as more capable and this was again repeated in World War Two to a greater extent when the men were sent off to war again to die and women took over many of the jobs and did just fine in those roles. In fact, women often did better, turned out to be better team members, and more productive than men were. Fancy that! Wollstonecraft and Mill were correct that you just give women an opportunity and they’ll equal or exceed men.
But when World War Two ended, and those men who survived came home, especially in the United States women were expected to just go back to the kitchen, go back to the nursery. This social reality was pointed out by Betty Friedan in her book, “The Feminist Mystique.”
Friedan made many of the same comments that Wollstonecraft had made 170 years earlier, but she updated the critique to the post World War Two period. She also took a more psychological perspective, because psychology had emerged as a discipline between Wollstonecraft’s time and Friedan’s time, on how women were personally faring in a society that is inherently exclusionary of women’s accomplishments and contributions.
Friedan’s major contribution in her book was the idea of the title of her book, “The Feminist Mystique,” that is to blame for a lot of the oppression of women within society. That mistake Friedan says, is the two-fold assumption that a truly feminine woman has no desire to get an advanced education, to have a career, to have any type of political voice, because according to the mystique, women are predisposed to find their personal fulfillment in being a wife and a mother and keeping house tending to her husband and tending to her husband’s children. That’s what a true woman does.
Friedan calls it a “mystique.” Other women would have nastier terms for it: it’s a prejudice, it’s an ideology, but it’s an unquestioned assumption that “men do these things and women do those things.” Gender roles must be maintained and. indeed while it was allowed for women to fill in in traditionally male occupations during the war because it was an emergency, so we bend the rules for an existential emergency, but as soon as the emergency is past, the war has ended and all those women who had perfectly capably filled those traditionally male occupations were then expected to return home and return to being more feminine. “The crisis is over, Rosie Riveter, go back home and raise children and cook me dinner.” So the mystique or the ideology reasserts itself, perhaps stronger than ever.
Friedan, writing in 1963, is writing in the middle of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, which was predominantly a propaganda and posturing war. The American propaganda portrayed the idealized American nuclear family as a bulwark and defense against the Soviets and their evil whatever it is the Soviets do. American media and popular culture throughout the 1950s, 1960s, Friedan said, fortified this feminine mystique.
Friedan interviewed many women and found that women were trapped in this mystique, felt pressured to live up to the feminine ideal, but they were left unhappy, unfulfilled, even neurotic. And all of this was affecting of course anyone who is around women who are so afflicted. It affects their husbands. It affects their children. And thus it affects the broader society.
The feminine mystique is, in Friedan’s mind, central to the problems of American society. Friedan’s answer, which in a way became emblematic of the so-called second wave of feminism, is that women have a right to have it all. Friedan, like Fuller a century before, was not against marriage, not against men, but against the idea of marriage as this kind of sentence. “You are now sentenced, young lady, to a life of wifehood and motherhood, and you are not allowed anything else.”
Friedan said, “Nonsense. A woman can have both. If a woman wants to have a career and children, she should be allowed to have that. If a woman wants to run for office, she should be allowed to run for office. Women should be allowed to do whatever they want to do. So this idea of women having it all is kind of the centerpiece of the second wave of feminism.
Sexist opposition to women’s liberation from repressive gender roles is not new, and the tradwife meme is just another manifestation of sexist male desires. Like all forms of bigotry, the male desire for tradwives is cowardice — an inability of insecure men to accept women as equals. If you emotionally can’t handle a woman having a life of her own, you want a tradwife. If you are secure in yourself, you want all women, especially your spouse, to be powerful and free to do whatever she wants. Adult men want equal partners, not the childish fantasy of tradwives. And that’s really all the publicity that this childish meme of tradwife deserves.