CULTURE

The domesticated feminist

By Claire Martens

Throughout my life, I have been privy to meeting a number of educated, clever and empowered women. There was never a common dream and aspiration for any of them. It was rumoured that some women went to university in order to find an educated husband. I also came across many career-driven women too; who were top of their respective classes, who were outspoken and ambitious. It also did not surprise me when some educated women told me that all they really wanted from life was to marry and have children.

I remember telling my friend, a liberal man, that I too was happy with the idea of having children, settling down in a small town and living a very low-key life. I have no dreams of parliament, CEO-ship or any of those other high-powered positions. He was horrified. His reply was something along the lines of, “But, you’re a masters-level educated woman who has the ability to do anything you want”. Perhaps that is true, but I also value a good family life above other kinds of success.

Can you be a feminist and a housewife, or is that an oxymoron?

I remember hearing in law class that South African family legislation now recognises the value of domestic work. In other words, being a housewife is a legally recognised form of employment, one that has a monetary value. In some instances, depending on the pre-nuptial agreement, upon divorce, the courts will calculate the contribution you made to the household and you will be fairly “compensated”. The financial empowerment of this kind of forward-thinking legislation is invaluable to the upliftment of women, and also says a lot about being a housewife.

I have always believed that there is no feminist stereotype out there. Feminism is synonymous with empowerment or freedom; does that not then also refer to the freedom of choice? It follows that you then have to ask yourself, if a woman is well-educated but chooses to have children and settle down with a man, stop working and become a housewife; does that mean she is following a patriarchal norm? Can you no longer consider her contributing to the feminist ideal? I think not.

I think that every marriage, every relationship and every person is different; and if something is your choice, then that alone shows a sense of human freedom. I don’t think that being a housewife is a job that should be belittled; firstly because it is difficult and tiring work, and secondly because it has both financial and social value. But it should not be reduced to work that is only done by women; men too can be househusbands.

In many ways I would go so far as to celebrate the role of the housewife. Much of the time it gives you enough time to support outside institutions; such as your church or a local charity. It also allows you ample opportunities to spend quality time with your children, leading to well-rounded and socially successful little humans. However, for your own development as a person, the choice should be yours; you should feel fulfilled and happy in that position and you should receive rewards for your work.

I am really glad of our progressive legal norms: to me it shows a slow decaying of South Africa’s patriarchal state, allowing women more freedom of self-determination. Now, all we need is for society to recognise the value of the choices one makes.

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7 thoughts on “The domesticated feminist”

  1. Of course you can be a feminist and a housewife! The way I think of it is that feminism is about standing up for your rights as a woman. That precludes freedom of choice.
    Personally, I would love to be a housewife. In fact it’s in my plans! Of course, I’ll be doing tons of other stuff as well. And maybe a baby’s in the mix. 😉
    Does that mean that I’m fitting into patriotic society’s plans for women? No, it means I’m following my instincts as a woman, as a bearer of children.

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  2. i fully agree,it’s all about the choices we have as people and what the implications are for who we become as people.but to run the risk of being misunderstood,i can never help but wonder if this feminist/housewife angst isn’t largely a middle class concern for women who can afford the financial costs of being a housewife?

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  3. This is a very fashionable point of view at the moment and it looks fine in theory, but in reality it’s just not that simple. For example, how ‘free’ is the choice? As you touch on briefly, domestic work is still generally seen as women’s work (and only women’s work) and women are still generally expected to take responsibility for that sphere. Just because we ‘shouldn’t’ see it as just women’s work, doesn’t mean the majority of society don’t still see it that way. So when it comes to deciding who stays at home, how much do those views influence the decision? Why do women feel so much pressure to be the ever-present parent (and guilt if they’re not) while most men feel pressure to work and provide? Why isn’t it the other way around, or more evenly balanced? Why do more women sacrifice the advantages of having a job (financial independence, achievements, goals, ambitions and projects outside the home and all the implications that has for your self-worth) than men? How many women are pressured into staying at home because inflexible workplace arrangements make it impossible to negotiate both sides of life? I’m all for increasing the recognition of the value of and skill involved in child rearing but we need to be careful not to ignore the pressures involved in a lot of ‘choices’ AND (even though this is controversial) be careful not to make a life of dependence, sacrifice and, quite often, drudgery, look like a glamorous, exciting career choice .

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  4. I agree somewhat with Atha… I think that paradigm has its genesis in the resistance AGAINST western Victorian norms of domesticity and femininity…

    In the working class/ unemployment household, the battle is very intense between men and women because when neither can find suitable or stable employment, then that whole ‘oh should i be a housewife’ thing just isnt there … and the battles are around ‘kanti vele who is the head of this house!’

    However, even in the working class household, housework is the duty of the woman/ the girls. So there is a gendered notion of the house and the domestic space that cuts across class.

    Therefore a woman can go and work the whole day in town as a maid/ vendor/ cleaner, and still come home and cook for her unemployed husband, and do his washing, and have his baby and clean it, and feed it, etc etc… so the notion of housework is still tied to the woman…

    if it is not done by the woman, it is done by the young women in the house…. they clean, take care of the baby while mom is gone etc,

    and this intensifies household despotism of male power as the brothers/sons/ cousins/ uncles/ any male figure who believe that they can boss the girls around and order them to make food for them, do their washing etc and it is expected.

    However, I think Black women are still constantly speaking in response to normative notions feminism and ‘the household’ even though material realities and also, cultural-philosophical notions of personhood, of the ‘I’, and the ‘I’ as a woman are still different from those of the middle-class and of white women.

    The dominant western norm remains fixed at the centre.

    Western feminism rails against chivalry for example; for a very specific ideological reason.

    But growing up in rural areas, I experienced women being constructed as strong, as capable of hard labour, as having to work work work. The woman’s body is not conceived as frail or genteel.

    In the context of an African rural setting, ‘chivalry’ (which doesnt actually exist in the same sense as the victorian sense) does not construct the woman as weak but is usually a form of extreme politeness or respect, and sometimes depending, infact, often, it can even be flirtation.

    As in “Ewu, ntombi, angikusize lapho, hawu, ungaze usebenze kangaka mntaka ma, letha ngikuphumuze. Ngizothi uMa bani lokhuthele kangaka kodwa…?”

    Which perhaps explains why I don’t find ‘chivalry’ offensive (although I know what it means in another context).

    Today,’chivarly’ is fresh air given the culture of arrogance that has become a strong feature of ‘modernised’ black masculinity, an arrogance reserved for women they consider ‘their own’.

    But there remain epistemological problems with being a Black Makoti with White Feminism.

    There are dimensions of marriage/ gender/ etc within some african practices that cannot be explained/ resisted/ analysed with integrity unless you fully understand the context of their practice and origins… thus one cannot always transpose certain assumptions about wifehood in one context with wifehood in another…

    But then there’s also my peasant grandmother who years ago said to me: Don’t get married, marriage is slavery to a man.

    She and ‘white/ western feminism’ are clearly completely in congruence!

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  5. @K

    I couldn’t agree more. Very well put!
    When I got married I wasn’t really thinking too much rationally, more epic romance.
    We thought ‘well we’ll just have to show that marriage can be done differently.’
    But no, instead, it’s more like we are trying to resist marriage from making us behave differentlys because we cannot actually change it.
    It is an extremely powerful, and resilient social institution.
    Gendered expectation that flow from it, although ever-changing and different depending on context, have tended to remain very resilient and persistent, IN SPITE of women supposedly having ‘choices’.
    There are times when I am forced to choose between one doek or the other.
    Or one pretty skirt over the other.
    Whe really, I’d rather go in pants and not cover my hair.
    Below the surface, our freedom to choose is never ever that straightforward.

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  6. I thought I’d follow my curt tweet of last week (I suppose all tweets are curt!) with a more considered response. I’ve been referring to this article in conversations with various people – most of them mothers and housewives and feminists (yes, all in one) – and have been intrigued by their responses … which, based as they are on personal experience, are perhaps more valuable than my “theorised” response.

    They, like me, concur with Claire on most points. I suppose my irritation stems from the fact that we still have to ask the question “Can you be both a feminist and a housewife?” at all. It speaks to misperceptions about both feminism – which has various manifestations – and the role of the full-time housewife/mother. And I’m sorry to say that comments such as Purdita’s at the top of this stream are evidence of, and simply reinforce, a demeaning attitude towards women who choose to (or, as K and Nomalanga have noted, sometimes without the luxury of choice) stay at home. “I’ll be a housewife and a mom, but of course I’ll do tons of other stuff as well!” –> the tone of this post this implies that neither of those roles is particularly demanding; that you can do other, more “challenging”, more “significant” things along with the easy side jobs of running a household and being a mother. Ridiculous!

    Despite K and Nomalanga’s nuanced, complex responses, I despair when I think that people such as Purdita are probably going around telling people that they are feminists …

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