A SOCIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE ON HOUSEWIVES AND HOUSEWIFERY


Housewifery is a state of womanhood which is often rendered invisible. A series of factors comes together and causes this situation. Among some of the most important factors are the underestimation of housewives’ contribution to the economy, definition of motherhood and household chores as women’s primary duties by the patriarchal culture and religions’ sanctifying motherhood and housewifery roles by making women the keepers of tradition and religion. Nevertheless, there are spheres where housewifery becomes visible through the consideration of housewives as a consumer group. Advertisement slogans such as “credit possibility for housewives”, “individual pension scheme for housewives” and “special price for housewives” might be familiar to all of us.

In this article, I discuss housewifery as a sociological category; how this category has been discussed and conceptualized historically; the relationship between housewifery and household chores; the factors which render housewives invisible and the types of relationships housewifery embodies with examples from the Turkish context. While doing this, I try to examine housewifery through a relational analysis.

When we say housewife, we mean a woman who does not work in a paid job in the labor market. This woman is also a married (or once married) woman because a woman is described as a housewife via her marriage relationship to a man. A housewife has usually kids. The fact that a woman who is not married and who does not work at a paid job outside home is called as a “housegirl” in the Turkish context seems to be supporting this argument. We can define housewifery as indicating the life and status of a woman who lives in the place called “home” and cares for household chores, her husband, kids and other members of the extended family who need care (if there is any). Housewifery as a sociological category has been analyzed from the point of women’s wife, mother and domestic laborer roles. In the literature, housewifery has been mostly discussed together with household chores and domestic labor and housewives have generally been examined in the context of psychological problems such as depression (Shehan, Burg & Rexroat 1986; Weissman vd. 1973).

For example, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1903), one of the pioneers of the first wave feminist movement in the USA, analyzed women’s relationship with household chores. According to Gilman, a woman who is responsible for the household chores and works for the reproduction of the family, performing the motherhood role in the house, is not reproductive since she does not contribute financially to the household economy. On the contrary, she is an economically dependent individual. According to her, only if household chores and care work are reorganized in terms of the market, then the labor of housewives can be named as productive labor. Again Gilman assumes “a hypothetical house-husband” and states that if domestic work and care work were performed by this house-husband, this work would be taken more seriously. She argues that since it is women who engage in domestic work, domestic labor is not seen as productive labor.

As Özkaplan (2009) also stated household chores and care work which are performed usually by women in the household contain emotional motivations. We do housework for the ones we love most of the time; and the ones we look after are- again most of the time- people whom we love and value. In this sense, we not only use physical but also emotional labor. Of course, care for the elderly, the sick and the children and housework can get done by day laborers or other paid employees. This work generally performed by women from lower class strata leads to an emotional and exploitative relationship between employer and employee women (Kalaycıoğlu & Rittersberger-Tılıç 2001). At this point, I have to underline the fact that social class is a significant factor which determines relations between women. I think that the imagined kinship relation between the “generous elder sister” and the “loyal lady” which Kalaycıoğlu ve Rittersberger-Tılıç (2001) picture, usually appears when class differences between the two women are huge and when the employer woman is a wage laborer outside home. I also think that when the employer woman, who is not that much different from the day laborer woman in terms of class, does not work in a paid job, she claims her house and the housework; and she would not hire a day laborer if she is not obliged to do so. I would like to exemplify this situation via my observations of my mother who hires a day laborer because of her physical problems. My mother, for example, never completely leaves housework to the day laborer woman whom my mother calls when there would be a thorough cleaning in the house. My mother either cleans the house with her or helps her. She leads the day laborer and achieves that the cleaning is done the way she wants it to be done. This can be interpreted both as a way a woman dominates another woman and as a way the employer woman reminds the ones near her and herself that she is the “woman” in charge of that house.

I would like to mention a point Özkaplan (2009) highlighted: the women who do not perform housework and care work might think of themselves as not “good mothers/wives/housewives” and feel guilty. Perhaps this feeling has also an effect on why housewives like my mother do housework together with the day laborer. In fact, the aspiration to be a “good woman” which functions together with the feeling of guilt is one of the mechanisms underlying the invisibility and exploitation of housewives. I will discuss other mechanisms in the following lines. However, before that I will emphasize the invisibility of housewifery, housework and women’s domestic labor.

Housework and care work- which are performed by unpaid labor of housewives who are considered as consumers but not as productive individuals in many societies-are services which cannot be afforded by the wage of lower and middle class employees if they were to be bought from the market. Hence, the load of repetitive, boring and physically heavy work which we call housework drew the interest of Marxist feminists. The increase in the number of women participating in the labor market especially in Europe after World War II led to a change in the condition of housewives but it did not lead to an equal division of labor in the domain of housework. We talk about women who work both outside home and at home as housewives. Similarly, when we look at Turkey, we see definitions of “working housewife” and “not working housewife”. What is more, motherhood and wifedom continue to be the primary roles for women although women work in a paid job (Beaumont 2016). Upon the fact that women are exploited both by the capitalist system as they work in a paid employment and by the patriarchal system as they continue to perform domestic work, the notion of “double burden” was developed (e.g. Hartmann 1979). The situation is the same for women who live in Turkey. Women who work in paid employment still perform all the domestic work as a result of the unequal division of labor at home. On the other hand, 1950s Europe also brought some opportunities for the working housewives. One of these opportunities is the increasing significance of housewives in the political sphere. For example, Beaumont (2016) in her study demonstrates that some housewife associations in the UK stated opinions on various issues such as house design, consumer standards or clothes design.

Domestic labor perpetuates the invisibility of housewives as it is performed in the house, as it is seen as the sacred duty of women and as it is unpaid labor (cf. Oakley 1974; Glazer-Malbin 1976). When compared with the status of a woman who works outside home, a housewife’s status is seen as lower. Moreover, the status of a housewife is determined via the status- especially the occupational status- of her husband (Burzotta Nilson 1978).

The question of why a considerable number of women continue to be housewives despite many negative issues about housewifery might be asked. There can be answers to this question such as not being able to find a position in the labor market, forced or early marriage, and an oppressive family. These answers stem from structural reasons. There can also be individual reasons such as a woman’s undertaking of housewife role as a result of her own choice. For example, a mother who wants to raise her child may reject participating in the labor market and choose to become a housewife. Moreover, piety can be a reason for some women’s choice to be a housewife. For example, Sherkat (2000) in her study of fundamentalist Christian women found out that these women chose to be housewives at the beginning of their marriages and after their children were grown up, they entered the labor market.

Whatever the reasons are, an analysis of housewifery as limiting women is a one-dimensional analysis because in some cases and for some women, being a housewife can be liberating. Home and housework might be the only fields on which some women have control. Another crucial point is that housewives are not to be seen as subordinated and passive subjects who do not have a say on matters within the family. As Kandiyoti (1988) states women are active individuals who engage in “patriarchal bargains” in order to open space for themselves. For example, women may choose being a housewife within such a bargain. Nevertheless, it is to be highlighted that these bargains perpetuate the existing gender inequalities within societies.

In addition to all of these, we have to think about another point, that is changing family dynamics. Although it is a new phenomenon in Turkey, we see families formed by single mothers, single fathers or same-sex couples. Who under which circumstances undertakes the role of the housewife in this new form of families? (Oerton 1998) If we define housewifery through a woman’s marriage to a man, how are we supposed to understand housewifery in this type of families? These kinds of questions will change and deepen our understanding of housewifery and housewives.

Figen Uzar Özdemir