Writing by Katie O'Connor. Artwork by Cilla Sullivan.
One day while scrolling through TikTok I came across a pretty unsettling video. It was a skit of a ‘modern-day’ woman (purple hair and all) explaining to a 1950s housewife of all the great things feminism has done for women. I kept watching, curious as to what progress would be included. Women in elected positions of power? In higher education? In space? Well according to the video, the life of a modern-day woman boils down to this: wake up, eat ‘pre-made greasy crap out of a bag’ on your way to work, get to work, drink coffee in your cubicle all day while staring at a computer, go home while eating more greasy crap, do all the cleaning and cooking, have sex with lots of random men, and mess up your hormones with a pill that helps you avoid pregnancy. Optional: own a cat.
It’s easy for us to immediately put up our defences to a video like this. I definitely questioned what content I possibly could have shown interest in for the algorithm to have recommended it to me. I felt quite offended, but more so I felt confused; the video had 340,000 likes. At first I was quick to throw the blame on women-hating incels, and while I don’t doubt that they made up some of the likes, the comments told a different story. The traditional values that seemed so outlandish and oppressive to me were deemed as ‘empowering’ and ‘liberating’ by women in the comment section. I couldn’t fathom how these women were forgetting all of the struggles that their grandmothers and great grandmothers went through. I thought we as a society had recognized the much darker truths hidden behind the bright colours of 1950s Americana. That outside of the magazines, and behind closed doors, housewives were subject to abuse, financial dependency, and drug addiction. It hasn’t become illegal to wear a cute apron or bake a cherry pie, so what is so dire about our current society that women are eager to return to a bad episode of Mad Men?
If we break down the TikTok I first talked about, we can see where some of the disdain for the life of a modern-day woman comes from. Is it true that many people don’t have access to healthy home-cooked meals? Yes. Despite producing enough food to feed 1.5x the global population, millions still starve. Even affluent countries such as the United States are reporting unprecedented levels of food insecurity due to food deserts and an increased cost of living, leading many to rely on cheap and highly-processed foods to survive. Although this doesn’t automatically seem to link to a feminist issue, we can see that food insecurity is a result of an unequal distribution of resources. Societally women are put under the most pressure to take responsibility for their family’s health. It’s easy to blame feminism for ‘forcing’ women to go to work, thereby not giving them the time to go shopping and cook. However, feminism hasn’t robbed us of these healthy home-cooked meals, capitalism has.
It’s also true that a growing number of people have become dissatisfied with their work. Recently more and more research has been conducted on ‘bullshit jobs’, that is: jobs that exist solely to keep people busy working within our economy. Just as the patriarchy forced all women to only find meaning in taking care of their families, capitalism now forces us into jobs in which we can find no meaning at all. These jobs drain us of time and energy that could be better spent pursuing projects we are passionate about, or being with our families and communities. Women disillusioned by the current work culture they feel forced to participate in may find appeal in the traditionalist gender roles presented by the trad-wife movement. In a traditionalist heterosexual relationship, the woman and man each serve a clear purpose. This may become an even more attractive model when we take into account religion. If a woman truly believes that by serving her husband and family, she is serving an almighty power, a ‘greater good’, why would she take a boring desk job instead?
Finally, this problem is only exacerbated when we consider the phenomenon known as the ‘second shift’. Many women work a full day, come home, and find that they’re still bearing the brunt of the domestic responsibilities. Their husbands, who they’re now considered ‘equal’ to, can be found watching T.V. and waiting to be served. In this way, the trad-wife movement acknowledges something that neoliberal feminism fails to. That is: working just for the sake of working isn’t liberating in itself. Most people don’t consider doubling your labour to be ‘empowering’. If this was the case, we would consider women who couldn’t afford to be housewives in the 1950s to be leading very liberating lives, but we don’t. Underpaid, overworked, and exploited by both the patriarchy and capitalism, these women were even more constrained than their middle-class housewife counterparts.
To crave security is ultimately a natural human instinct. The issue is only a minority of us can have this under capitalism. The revolt against neoliberal feminism is a revolt against the falsities modern-day capitalism promises us. It’s impossible for all of us to be able to push our way to the top ‘like men’ in order to obtain security. Tradwives revolt against this by buying into the idea that under a patriarchy, they can trade their agency and independence for this guarantee. However, just as neoliberal feminism fails to give women true agency as it promises, traditionalism fails to give women true security. The second a husband, father, or son becomes unreliable, this promise of security is not lived up to. The hard truth is that we cannot buy or trade for either independence or security. They rely upon one another and can only truly be found in liberation; both from the patriarchy and from capitalism.