Of course, one can’t be sure, given the tendency of hawkers and partisans of all sorts to claim unsubstantiable things, but it certainly seems possible:
A quick search on Google Trends shows that the term “tradwife” gained popularity in 2018 but peaked in 2020 as the pandemic accelerated women’s return to the home. Instead of being confined to religious or ultra-wealthy women, the tradwife movement entered mainstream discussions. It offered women the chance to reclaim the ingredients of happiness — faith, family, community, and meaningful work — back from the career-focused model they grew up with.
Popular online accounts (explored here and here) tend to show women who don the clothes and lifestyle that they perceive women in a previous era embodied: shirtwaist dresses, aprons, a rejection of formal work outside the home, and a heavy emphasis on homemaking and care for children.
Instead of finding the home stuffy, boring, or trivial, many women found greater purpose and satisfaction than they previously imagined. Initially, the pandemic gave women the ultimate “permission slip” to explore the domestic realm (stay inside to stay alive). Later, popular and aesthetically pleasing tradwife accounts gave women the encouragement they needed to combat the outspoken expectations that all women, even mothers, ought to rejoin the 9-to-5 workforce.
I like the idea that this is trending, even though it may not envelop a significant fraction of American women. As any regular Gentle Reader will already know, my emphasis is on freedom: the right of each individual to choose for himself. More than the embrace of the traditional wife/mother/homemaker role, it warms me that women are discovering that they’re free to choose their own courses through life. It should be that way for everyone, male or female. But certain choices involve irrevocable consequences. Therefore, it pays Miss Smith to choose carefully and with full prior knowledge of those consequences.
Miss Smith can choose a life in the working world…but if she takes it seriously, she’s likely to forgo some of the satisfactions of the “tradwife” alternative, such as motherhood and extensive community involvement. Careers are like that; they absorb the greater part of one’s time and energy, leaving only scraps for non-career pursuits. But if Miss Smith opts for the “tradwife” course, she’s likely to forgo the satisfactions that come from commercial achievement. Motherhood is quite as demanding of one’s time and energy as careerism.
Yes, there are some “middle ways,” and the young Miss Smith should acquaint herself with those as well. But the bottom line remains that every choice forecloses certain possibilities. Some who marry and have children young will regret it, just as will some who throw themselves into the working world. There are no guarantees.
I can’t help remembering a scrofulous proclamation from 2005:
Half the wealthiest, most-privileged, best-educated females in the country stay home with their babies rather than work in the market economy. When in September The New York Times featured an article exploring a piece of this story, “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood,” the blogosphere went ballistic, countering with anecdotes and sarcasm. Slate’s Jack Shafer accused the Times of “weasel-words” and of publishing the same story — essentially, “The Opt-Out Revolution” — every few years, and, recently, every few weeks. (A month after the flap, the Times’ only female columnist, Maureen Dowd, invoked the elite-college article in her contribution to the Times’ running soap, “What’s a Modern Girl to Do?” about how women must forgo feminism even to get laid.) The colleges article provoked such fury that the Times had to post an explanation of the then–student journalist’s methodology on its Web site.
There’s only one problem: There is important truth in the dropout story. Even though it appeared in The New York Times. …
The census numbers for all working mothers leveled off around 1990 and have fallen modestly since 1998. In interviews, women with enough money to quit work say they are “choosing” to opt out. Their words conceal a crucial reality: the belief that women are responsible for child-rearing and homemaking was largely untouched by decades of workplace feminism. Add to this the good evidence that the upper-class workplace has become more demanding and then mix in the successful conservative cultural campaign to reinforce traditional gender roles and you’ve got a perfect recipe for feminism’s stall….
What better sample, I thought, than the brilliantly educated and accomplished brides of the “Sunday Styles,” circa 1996? At marriage, they included a vice president of client communication, a gastroenterologist, a lawyer, an editor, and a marketing executive. In 2003 and 2004, I tracked them down and called them. I interviewed about 80 percent of the 41 women who announced their weddings over three Sundays in 1996. Around 40 years old, college graduates with careers: Who was more likely than they to be reaping feminism’s promise of opportunity? Imagine my shock when I found almost all the brides from the first Sunday at home with their children. Statistical anomaly? Nope. Same result for the next Sunday. And the one after that.
Ninety percent of the brides I found had had babies. Of the 30 with babies, five were still working full time. Twenty-five, or 85 percent, were not working full time. Of those not working full time, 10 were working part time but often a long way from their prior career paths. And half the married women with children were not working at all.
And there is more. In 2000, Harvard Business School professor Myra Hart surveyed the women of the classes of 1981, 1986, and 1991 and found that only 38 percent of female Harvard MBAs were working full time. A 2004 survey by the Center for Work-Life Policy of 2,443 women with a graduate degree or very prestigious bachelor’s degree revealed that 43 percent of those women with children had taken a time out, primarily for family reasons. Richard Posner, federal appeals-court judge and occasional University of Chicago adjunct professor, reports that “the [Times] article confirms — what everyone associated with such institutions [elite law schools] has long known: that a vastly higher percentage of female than of male students will drop out of the workforce to take care of their children.”
How many anecdotes to become data? The 2000 census showed a decline in the percentage of mothers of infants working full time, part time, or seeking employment. Starting at 31 percent in 1976, the percentage had gone up almost every year to 1992, hit a high of 58.7 percent in 1998, and then began to drop — to 55.2 percent in 2000, to 54.6 percent in 2002, to 53.7 percent in 2003. Statistics just released showed further decline to 52.9 percent in 2004. Even the percentage of working mothers with children who were not infants declined between 2000 and 2003, from 62.8 percent to 59.8 percent.
The author, Linda Hirshman, wants women in the marketplace rather than “languishing” at home with their children. Here’s her prescription:
Women who want to have sex and children with men as well as good work in interesting jobs where they may occasionally wield real social power need guidance, and they need it early. Step one is simply to begin talking about flourishing. In so doing, feminism will be returning to its early, judgmental roots. This may anger some, but it should sound the alarm before the next generation winds up in the same situation. Next, feminists will have to start offering young women not choices and not utopian dreams but solutions they can enact on their own. Prying women out of their traditional roles is not going to be easy. It will require rules — rules like those in the widely derided book The Rules, which was never about dating but about behavior modification.
There are three rules: Prepare yourself to qualify for good work, treat work seriously, and don’t put yourself in a position of unequal resources when you marry.
It’s all about priorities, don’t y’know:
The privileged brides of the Times — and their husbands — seem happy. Why do we care what they do? After all, most people aren’t rich and white and heterosexual, and they couldn’t quit working if they wanted to.
We care because what they do is bad for them, is certainly bad for society, and is widely imitated, even by people who never get their weddings in the Times. This last is called the “regime effect,” and it means that even if women don’t quit their jobs for their families, they think they should and feel guilty about not doing it. That regime effect created the mystique around The Feminine Mystique, too.
As for society, elites supply the labor for the decision-making classes — the senators, the newspaper editors, the research scientists, the entrepreneurs, the policy-makers, and the policy wonks. If the ruling class is overwhelmingly male, the rulers will make mistakes that benefit males, whether from ignorance or from indifference. Media surveys reveal that if only one member of a television show’s creative staff is female, the percentage of women on-screen goes up from 36 percent to 42 percent. A world of 84-percent male lawyers and 84-percent female assistants is a different place than one with women in positions of social authority. Think of a big American city with an 86-percent white police force. If role models don’t matter, why care about Sandra Day O’Connor? Even if the falloff from peak numbers is small, the leveling off of women in power is a loss of hope for more change. Will there never again be more than one woman on the Supreme Court?
Worse, the behavior tarnishes every female with the knowledge that she is almost never going to be a ruler. Princeton President Shirley Tilghman described the elite colleges’ self-image perfectly when she told her freshmen last year that they would be the nation’s leaders, and she clearly did not have trophy wives in mind. Why should society spend resources educating women with only a 50-percent return rate on their stated goals? The American Conservative Union carried a column in 2004 recommending that employers stay away from such women or risk going out of business. Good psychological data show that the more women are treated with respect, the more ambition they have. And vice versa. The opt-out revolution is really a downward spiral.
Finally, these choices are bad for women individually. A good life for humans includes the classical standard of using one’s capacities for speech and reason in a prudent way, the liberal requirement of having enough autonomy to direct one’s own life, and the utilitarian test of doing more good than harm in the world. Measured against these time-tested standards, the expensively educated upper-class moms will be leading lesser lives.
There’s no point in psychologizing Linda Hirshman, nor in enumerating the several places where she’s proclaimed her personal opinions as indisputable facts. She has staked out a position – her notion about what the priorities of young American women “should” be – and she wants it enforced. It’s dictatorial, but that’s been the tenor of “feminism” for several decades. What’s the value of freedom? Letting women choose their own courses through life is undermining feminism, and that’s what matters. Simone de Beauvoir said it, Hirshman believes it, and that settles it.
Now, this is not “news” in any objective sense. My point in citing it — not for the first time — is that it’s not how feminism began. Originally, feminism was about choice: expanding the choices available to women, and thereby increasing their freedom. And any increase in individual freedom, to this septuagenarian freedom weenie, is a good thing.
But “movements” can be dangerous. They who “lead” movements can be disappointed in their results. That will often cause them to become peremptory, as Hirshman is in the above. Not to be followed wounds their self-esteem. Those who deem themselves “leaders” must have followers, for the sake of their mental health.
So we have the “tradwives” at one pole, and the “rulers” at the other. Neither position will be exactly right for every woman. Individual choice will matter. Some women will choose wrongly by the only standard that matters: their own happiness. Yet denying them freedom of choice would reduce women’s happiness even more.
See also this article from Stephanie Edelman on the burgeoning of what feminist harridans scorn as “retro-sexism.”