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The American Housewife: Their History, Pop Culture, and Value

While not every woman dreams of being a housewife, many women choose to take on the house-related and child-rearing responsibilities. This ever-changing role has been upheld through societal norms and pop culture for centuries. Recent trends show that millennials are drawn to this option. A look into the history, pop culture, and what a housewife should be paid is a reminder that a housewife's role is critical to a household and their occupants, their neighborhoods, and communities. Before touching on the finer points of being a housewife, a clear definition helps reframe the mind.

What is a Housewife

As defined in the Merriam-Webster, housewife is “a woman whose work is inside the home, doing the cleaning, cooking, etc., and who usually does not have any other job.” Sounds simple when put into these few words. Yet, being a fulltime housewife is managing everything related to the household. To fully understand what a housewife is, a sample of a daily schedule provides additional context.

In considering several resources with sample schedules, the most relevant for housewives that have children in school (especially in 2020), a great daily schedule sample was found in Toni Anderson’s article A Day in the Life of The Happy Housewife ~ My Schedule:

· “Wake-up between 6:30-7 (usually closer to 7).

· Read my bible, check emails, and weather.

· Take a super fast shower.

· Start breakfast between 7:30 and 8.

· Breakfast, morning clean-up.

· Start school by 9 am.

· School with kids from 9-12 with interruptions for laundry, meal prep, and naughty children.

· Prepare lunch with help from kids.

· Lunch from 12-1. I make lunch and the kids clean up. I use this time to check email, catch up on a few chores, check school work.

· 1-3:00 School with kids.

· 3 pm – usually we are finished with school at this time. Three or four days of the week we have a project we work on together, cleaning, organizing, or fixing things around the house.

· 3:30 – 4:30 pm Free time for everyone. I use this time to work on the blog, pay bills, return phone calls or emails, work on school admin, or work on craft projects.

· 4:30 pm dinner prep

· 5:30 – 6:30 pm Dinner /dinner clean-up

· 6:30 – 8 pm kids ready for bed, devotions, general clean up of the house · 8 - 10 pm mom and dad time, this varies depending on the day, sometimes we will both be working on the computer, sometimes I bake or sew, sometimes we hang out and chat.

· 10 pm – In bed, I usually read for about 45 minutes to an hour after I am in bed.”

Similarly, a housewife without children would have tasks related to nutrition, cooking, cleanup, shopping, organizing, handling bills, planning, and other tasks. Most times, tasks for the childless housewife include social activities, and special projects for the household. With these concepts in mind, we will next take a look at the history of the housewife.

History of the Housewife

The word housewife's etymology has roots from 1300 AD in Middle English terminology from the word huswif (hussy, in English). This means the idea of a housewife has been around for over seven hundred years. It was merely a matter of fact and expectation of most cultures and societies around the world. As women stayed home to manage the household, men would leave to work for an employer or manage the farmland. During this period, a majority of households included multiple generations, whereby duties and skills were passed along from one generation to the next over time.

From the Late Middle Ages into the Early Modern Period (1500 – 1699 AD), a housewife's duties could include assisting their husbands with fieldwork and farmwork among their regular duties. If status allowed, by means of income, housewives could have time for hobbies and socialize. As cities started to form and became a norm, a shift in societal status slowly emerged.

The Modern Era (1700 – today) has seen the most change, particularly in the last two hundred years. In the early 1800s came urbanization and the rise of the housewife status. It was common for a household's status to be based on the extra-curricular engagements of the housewife. This is related to the number of time-saving devices available at the start of the Industrial Revolution when women started having time to focus on extra activities and hobbies. Of course, to obtain these devices, the man had to have a well-paying job or supreme farmland with regular high-producing harvests. Unfortunately, during this period, slaves were often used to supplement housekeeping needs while housewives pursued societal activities.

After World War II, many women who started working during the war continued to work outside the home. This shift did not mean their household duties went away or changed; they only had less time and often gave up hobbies or social activities. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, women who were full-time housewives were expected to keep things spotless and perfect, every day, consistently. Additionally, society often looked down on women who chose to be a housewife, calling them lazy. Many women today still struggle with unrealistic expectations and leftover stigma.

During the late 1960s through the 1970s, the women's liberation movement brought attention to many women's underlying wishes – the freedom to choose a life as a housewife, a full-time worker, or a mix of both. In the 1980s, the idea that a husband could be a homemaker became part of pop culture with movies like Mr. Mom and TV series like Who's the Boss and Full House. Today, it is still more common than the woman will be the housewife, regardless of her work outside the home. Fortunately, many men understand that if a housewife works that he should pitch in with household duties. While gender inequality still exists for housewives today, the general public is less likely to denigrate them for choosing to be a housewife. As for pop culture, the housewife has long been the subject of TV, as discussed next.

The Housewife Meets Pop Culture

After decades of wondering what other housewives do during the day mixed with the growing television industry, housewives started to enter the entertainment world. For example, I Love Lucy with Lucille Ball ran on CBS from 1951 to 1957. This goofy, sometimes misunderstood, the red-headed housewife was friends with her neighbor Ethel, whom she would end up in all kinds of hilarious predicaments. There would soon be many housewife-led television shows; however, I Love Lucy remains a classic and is still viewed today. Interestingly, at the time, many women were working outside the home after the war and the realization of doing both fulltime is not possible. During this time, perfection remained the ideal goal for housewives who did not work outside the home.

After a couple of decades came shows like Fresh Prince of Bel-Air with Aunt Viv, The Sopranos with Carmelo Soprano, and The Simpsons with Marge Simpson where being a housewife (sometimes with full-time jobs) was more than quips about cooking or everyday tasks. Shows started to dig into families' lives and the complexity of spouse's and children's lives. From infidelity, mid-life crises, and drug use to other real-life situations families continue to face. In 2004 one of the most popular shows of the time was Desperate Housewives. Running for eight seasons, Desperate Housewives, the façade of picture-perfect neighborhoods, was revealed following the imperfect, sometimes chaotic, lives of four well-to-do housewives. These themes have continued to be mixed into television, and sometimes are the show's crux, such as with CBS's Mom, where the main character is a recovering alcoholic.

Then came another side of housewives with the wild popularity of reality TV. In 2004 it started with Wife Swap. This reality TV series took one wife from their family for a week with another family in the U.S., where they would sleep on the couch or extra bedroom. Each wife would then be tasked with completing the real housewife's regular schedule and routine. There were nine years of varying Wife Swap results, from eye-opening collaborative success to combative and unbelievably raucous moments. For the audience, the reality of the haves and have-nots in America became a little more obvious and showed the effect perfection (or imperfection) of the work completed by a housewife can affect children and a marriage. In 2006 came a new realm of reality TV in the series American Housewives.

Starting in Beverly Hills, the first season of American Housewives followed American socialites' real lives every week. From seeing their opulent lifestyles and the luxuries enjoyed by socialites came the reality that everyday issues exist in their lives just like every other housewife. Over the years, American Housewives has dug into housewives' lives in Dallas, Orange County, and Salt Lake City. The one thing that remaining on people’s minds is how much should a housewife earn for their hard work? The next section digs into this topic.

Compensation as a Housewife

The reality of being a housewife today is busy and tiring yet fulfilling; however, there is no long-lasting compensation or retirement plan. One could argue that a partner and children's success are payments, but what would a housewife make if providing these services as a professional? First, one must ask how to calculate such a thing.

As described above, a housewife has various tasks, duties, and responsibilities, including the chief financial officer, planner, private chef, shopper, cleaner and laundry service, facilities manager, childcare, teacher, nurse, chauffeur, coach, and comforter. Depending on the children's age, the time and efforts required should be taken into consideration. Rarely will a housewife have downtime, sick days, or vacation, so each service would be looking at 365 days of pay prorated for the amount necessary to complete the task.

Based on the concept described and including "... newer roles – like network administrator, social media communications, and recreational therapist." according to, "The median annual salary for stay-at-home moms in 2019 is $178,201 – rising $15,620 (a 9.6% increase) from the 2018 mother's worth calculation." A housewife's value far exceeds the median income, which, according to, was $68,703 in the U.S. in 2019. All in all, the value of a housewife is roughly three times of an average person - or, thinking of it a bit differently, a housewife is worth the income of three people earning an average median income. Consider that for a few minutes.

Final Thoughts

Taking on the profession of a housewife is far beyond baking and folding laundry. For most families, the housewife keeps everything in the house, functioning smoothly and moving forward. While some are naturally good at being housewives and proudly carrying the title, others feel forced by societal norms to feel shame if things are not perfect. The key to being a successful housewife is not perfection, but persistence and growth through difficulties, while proudly holding a housewife's title.

As the pop culture around the world provides varying understandings of the housewife, American's versions started with Lucille Ball and Donna Reed, among others, to popular 1980s with Vivian Banks and Marge Simpson, to modern shows like Desperate Housewives and in the 2000s dug further into the dirt with programs like Wife Swap and Housewives of Orange County (or Dallas, Salt Lake City, and more). These staples in entertainment provide levity and reprieve for housewives to realize perfection is not obtainable. Life is messy, funny, and sometimes not what is expected, but it all works out in the long run.

While a value can be put on a housewife's work at $178,201, a housewife's value is priceless. After all, can a price be put on the thoughtfulness, love, and care added to every task?


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