A housewife is a woman whose occupation is running or managing her family's home—caring for her children; buying, cooking, and storing food for the family; buying goods that the family needs in everyday life; housekeeping and maintaining the home; and making clothes for the family—and who is not employed outside the home. A housewife may also be called a stay-at-home mother and a male homemaker may also be called a stay-at-home father or househusband. Webster's Dictionary describes a housewife as a married woman who is in charge of her household. The British Chambers's Twentieth Century Dictionary (1901) defined a housewife as: "the mistress of a household; a female domestic manager; a pocket sewing kit".
Sociology and economics
Some feminists and non-feminist economists (particularly proponents of historical materialism) note that the value of housewives' work is ignored in standard formulations of economic output, such as GDP or employment figures. Housewives work many unpaid hours a week, often depending on income from their husband's or partner's employment for financial support.
In societies of hunters and gatherers like the traditional society of the Australian aboriginal people, the men hunt animals for meat, and the women gather other foods such as grain, fruit and vegetables. One of the reasons for this division of labor was that it is much easier to look after a baby while gathering fruit than while hunting a fast-moving animal. Even when homes were very simple and there were few possessions, men and women did different jobs.
In rural societies, where the main work is farming, women have also taken care of gardens and animals around the house, generally helping men with heavy work when a job needed to be done quickly, usually because of the season.
Examples of the heavy work that a traditional housewife (homemaker) in a rural society would do are:
In rural studies, the word housewife is occasionally used for a woman who does the majority of the chores within a farm's compound as opposed to field and livestock work.
Regarding work, being a housewife may be seen as the opposite of being a career woman. However, a career woman may also be contrasted to someone following the "mommy track", or a shared earning/shared parenting marriage.
Regarding family size, a study of three Mexican cities came to the result that there was no significant difference in the number of children in housewife families compared to those where women worked part or full-time.
It is becoming more commonplace for the husband and wife to be employed in paid work and for both to share in the "housework" and caring for the children. However, in other families, there is still a traditional idea that housework is only a woman's job; so when a couple gets home from work, the wife works in the house while the man takes a rest, or uses the time for recreational pursuits.
Housewives are usually financially dependent on members of the household who are employed; however, people working full-time (particularly under "at-will employment" arrangements) benefit from the unwaged work provided by the housewife; otherwise the performance of such work (child care, cooking, housecleaning, teaching, transporting, etc.) in her absence would cost money. Studies have shown the percentage of women staying home does not increase consistently "as husband's earnings go up." In fact, women with the "lowest earning husbands are more likely to stay home, followed by women with the highest earning husbands."
The method, necessity and extent of education of house wives has been debated since at least the 20th century.
Songs about the housewife's lot
The housewife's tasks have often been the subject of songs. These include: "The Housewife's Lament" (from the diary of Sarah Price, Ottawa, Illinois, mid 19th century); "Nine Hours a Day" (1871 English song, anonymous); "A Woman's Work is Never Done" or "A Woman Never Knows When her Day's Work is Done"; "The Labouring Woman"; "How Five and Twenty Shillings were Expended in a Week" (English popular songs); "A Woman's Work" (London music hall song by Sue Pay, 1934).
In imperial China (excluding periods of the Tang dynasty when women had higher status in society), women were bound to homemaking by the doctrines of Confucianism and cultural norms. Generally, girls did not attend school and, therefore, spent the day doing household chores with their mothers and female relatives (for example, cooking and cleaning). In most cases, the husband was alive and able to work, so the wife was almost always forbidden to take a job and mainly spent her days at home or doing other domestic tasks. As Confucianism spread across East Asia, this social norm was also observed in Korea, Japan and Vietnam. As foot binding became common after the Song Dynasty, many women lost the ability to work outside.
After the founding of the Republic of China in 1911, these norms were gradually loosened and many women were able to enter the workforce. Shortly thereafter, a growing number of females began to be permitted to attend schools. Starting with the rule of the People's Republic of China in 1949, all women were freed from compulsory family roles. During the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, some women even worked in fields that were traditionally reserved for males.
In modern China, housewives are no longer as common, especially in the largest cities and other urban areas. Many modern women work simply because one person's income is insufficient to support the family, a decision made easier by the fact that it is common for Chinese grandparents to watch after their grandchildren until they are old enough to go to school. Nonetheless, the number of Chinese housewives has been steadily rising in recent years as China's economy expands.
In a traditional Hindu family, the head of the family is the Griha Swami (Lord of the House) and his wife is the Griha Swamini (Lady of the House). The Sanskrit words Grihast and Grihasta perhaps come closest to describing the entire gamut of activities and roles undertaken by the homemaker. Grih is the Sanskrit root for house or home; Grihasta and Grihast are derivatives of this root, as is Grihastya. The couple lives in the state called Grihastashram or family system and together they nurture the family and help its members (both young and old) through the travails of life. The woman who increments the family tree (bears children) and protects those children is described as the Grihalakshmi (the wealth of the house) and Grihashoba (the glory of the house). The elders of the family are known as Grihshreshta. The husband or wife may engage in countless other activities which may be social, religious, political or economic in nature for the ultimate welfare of the family and society. However, their unified status as joint householders is the nucleus from within which they operate in society. The traditional status of a woman as a homemaker anchors them in society and provides meaning to their activities within the social, religious, political and economic framework of their world. However, as India undergoes modernisation, many women are in employment, particularly in the larger cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore where most women will work. The role of the male homemaker is not traditional in India, but it is socially accepted in urban areas. According to one sociologist's study in 2006, twelve percent of unmarried Indian men would consider being a homemaker according to a survey conducted by Business Today. One sociologist, Sushma Tulzhapurkar, called this a shift in Indian society, saying that a decade ago, "it was an unheard concept and not to mention socially unacceptable for men to give up their jobs and remain at home." However, only 22.7 percent of Indian women are part of the labor force, compared to 51.6 percent of men; thus, women are more likely to be caregivers because most do not work outside the home.
Until around 1990, the North Korean state required every able-bodied male to be employed by some state enterprise. However, some 30% of married women of working age were allowed to stay at home as full-time housewives (less than in some countries in the same region like South Korea, Japan and Taiwan; more than in the former Soviet Union, Mainland China and Nordic countries like Sweden, and about the same as in the United States). In the early 1990s, after an estimated 900,000-3,500,000 people perished in the North Korean famine, the old system began to fall apart. In some cases women began by selling homemade food or household items they could do without. Today at least three-quarters of North Korean market vendors are women. A joke making the rounds in Pyongyang goes: 'What do a husband and a pet dog have in common?' Answer: 'Neither works nor earns money, but both are cute, stay at home and can scare away burglars.'
In the United Kingdom
Two British magazines for housewives have been published: The Housewife (London: Offices of "The Million", 1886) and Housewife (London: Hultons, 1939–68).
"On a Tired Housewife" is an anonymous poem about the housewife's lot: "Here lies a poor woman who was always tired, / She lived in a house where help wasn't hired: / Her last words on earth were: «Dear friends, I am going / To where there's no cooking, or washing, or sewing, / For everything there is exact to my wishes, / For where they don't eat there's no washing of dishes. / I'll be where loud anthems will always be ringing, / But having no voice I'll be quit of the singing. / Don't mourn for me now, don't mourn for me never, / I am going to do nothing for ever and ever.»"
In the United States
A 2005 study estimated that 31 percent of working mothers leave the workplace (for an average of 2.2 years), most often precipitated by the birth of the second child. This gives time to concentrate full-time on child-rearing; particularly through the child(ren)'s early years (before entering kindergarten). There is considerable variability within the stay-at-home mother population with regard to their intent to return to the paid workforce. Some plan to work from their homes, some will do part-time work, some intend to return to part or full-time work when their children have reached school age, some may increase their skill sets by returning to higher education, and others may find it economically feasible to refrain from entering (or re-entering) the paid workforce. Research has linked feelings of "maternal guilt and separation anxiety" to returning to the workforce.
Similarly, there is considerable variation in the stay-at-home mother's attitude towards domestic work not related to caring for children. Some may embrace a traditional role of housewife, cooking and cleaning in addition to caring for children. Others see their primary role as that of child-care providers, supporting their children's physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development while sharing or outsourcing other aspects of home care.
Although men have generally been thought of as the primary breadwinners for families in recent history, the division of labor between men and women in traditional societies required both genders to take an active role in obtaining resources outside the domestic sphere. Prior to discovering agriculture and animal husbandry, predictable food sources were a scarce commodity. To achieve optimal nutrition during this time, it was imperative that both men and women focus their energies on hunting and gathering as many different edible foods as possible to sustain themselves on a daily basis. Lacking the technologies necessary to store and preserve food, it was critical for men and women to seek out and obtain fresh food sources almost continuously. These nomadic tribes used gender differences to their advantage, allowing men and women to use their complementary adaptations and survival strategies to find the most diverse and nutritionally complete foods available. For example, in the context of daily foraging, childcare itself was not a hindrance to women's productivity; rather, performing this task with her children both increased the overall efficiency of the activity (more people participating equals a greater yield of edible roots, berries, nuts and plants), and functioned as an important hands-on lesson in survival skills for each child. By sharing the burden of daily sustenance – and developing specialized gender niches – humans not only ensured their continued survival, but also paved the way for later technologies to evolve and grow through experience.
In the 19th century, more and more women in industrialising countries stopped being homemakers and began to undertake paid work in various industries. At this time many big factories were set up, first in England then in other European countries and the United States. Many thousands of young women went to work in factories; most factories employed women in roles different from those occupied by men. There were also women who worked at home for low wages while caring for their children at the same time.
Other women, like Florence Nightingale, decided to go against the social norm, and pursue non-factory professions even if they were wealthy enough that they did not need to work. Some professions open to women were also restricted to unmarried women. e.g. teaching. In most families where there was a husband and wife, the social norm dictated that it was the job of the husband to earn money and the job of the woman to be the "housewife" (homemaker). Women were often very proud to be a good homemaker and have their house and children respectably taken care of.
In the early 20th century, both world wars (World War I, 1914–18, and World War II, 1939-45) were fought by men from many countries. While the men were at war, many of their womenfolk went to work to keep the countries running. Women, who were also homemakers, worked in factories, businesses and farms. At the end of both wars, many men had died, and others had returned injured. Some men were able to return to their previous positions, but some women stayed in the workforce as well.
The governments of Communist countries in the early and middle 20th century such as the Soviet Union and China encouraged married women to keep working after giving birth. There were very few housewives in Communist countries until free market economic reform in the 1990s, which led to a resurgence in the number of housewives. Conversely, in the Western World of the 1950s, many women quit their jobs to be housewives after giving birth. Only 11% of married women in the US kept working after giving birth.
In the 1960s in western countries, it was becoming more accepted for a woman to work until she got married, when it was widely held that she should stop work and be a housewife. Many women believed that this was not treating men and women equally and that women should do whatever jobs they were able to do, whether they were married or not. The Feminine Mystique, a 1963 book by Betty Friedan which is widely credited with sparking the beginning of second-wave feminism in the United States, discussed among other things the lives of housewives from around the United States who were unhappy despite living in material comfort and being married with children. At this time, many women were becoming more educated. As a result of this increased education, some women were able to earn more than their husbands. In very rare cases, the husband would remain at home to raise their young children while the wife worked. In 1964 a US stamp was issued honoring homemakers for the 50th anniversary of the Smith-Lever Act.
About 50% of married US women in 1978 continued to work after giving birth, while in 1997, the number was 61%. The number of housewives increased in the 2000s. With the 2008 financial crisis, a decrease in average income made two incomes more attractive, and the percentage of married US women who kept working after they giving birth increased to 69% by 2009. As of 2014, according to the Pew Research Center, more than one in four mothers are stay at home in the United States.
In the late 20th century, in many countries it became harder for a family to live on a single wage. Subsequently, many women were required to return to work following the birth of their children. However, the number of male homemakers began gradually increasing in the late 20th century, especially in developed Western nations. In 2010, the number of male homemakers had reached its highest point of 2.2 million. Though the role is subject to many stereotypes, and men may have difficulties accessing parenting benefits, communities, and services targeted at mothers, it became more socially acceptable by the 2000s. The male homemaker was more regularly portrayed in the media by the 2000s, especially in the United States. However, in some regions of the world the male homemaker remains culturally unacceptable.