The return of the happy housewife

Charlotte Allen, author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus," co-edits the InkWell blog for the Independent Women's Forum.

BETTY FRIEDAN, it seems, died just in time to roll over in her grave.

A new study by two University of Virginia sociologists concludes that stay-at-home wives whose husbands are the primary family breadwinners don’t suffer from “the problem that has no name,” as Friedan famously wrote in 1963. In fact, the majority of full-time homemakers don’t experience any kind of special problem, according to professors W. Bradford Wilcox and Stephen L. Nock, who analyzed data from a huge University of Wisconsin survey of families, conducted during the 1990s.

Here are the figures, published in this month’s issue of the journal Social Forces: 52% of wives who don’t work outside the home reported they were “very happy” with their marriages, compared with 41% of wives in the workforce.

The more traditional a marriage is, the sociologists found, the higher the percentage of happy wives. Among couples who have the husband as the primary breadwinner, who worship together regularly and who believe in marriage as an institution that requires a lifelong commitment, 61% of wives said they were “very happy” with their marriages. Among couples whose marriage does not have all these characteristics, the percentage of happy wives dips to an average of 45.


Lest you think the statistics come out this way because tradition-minded women happen to like tradition-minded wedlock -- or they’re just brainwashed by their churches -- you’re wrong. In an unpublished second paper, Wilcox sifted through the survey data and discovered that even wives who describe themselves as feminists report being happier with traditional marital arrangements in which they stay home with the kids and their husbands provide for them.

“They might think of themselves as progressives and believe in gender equality, but the same pattern holds for them,” Wilcox said.

One more surprise: Even for wives who work full time outside the home, the key to marital happiness isn’t splitting household chores and child care down the middle with their husbands. It’s much simpler: an affectionate and appreciative husband who believes, along with his wife, that marriage is forever. Sociologists call it “emotion work” -- husbands talking to their wives, being understanding and supportive, spending quality time in the form of romantic evenings for two, walking hand-in-hand on the beach and so forth.

“It’s far more important than who does the dishes and folds the laundry,” Wilcox said.

These findings fly in the face of what feminist scholars have been telling us for more than four decades about what is wrong with contemporary marriage and how to fix it. Friedan’s prescription was that wives should pursue careers outside the home. Alix Kates Shulman’s “marriage contract” holds that spouses should agree that, say, the husband change the sheets on alternate weeks. And Judith Warner complains that full-time homemaking amounts to a “gender caste system” in which the “lower-status member” has to do the mopping and scrubbing. In short, feminists in academia and the media say that what married women really need is financial independence from their husbands -- and getting their husbands to do at least half the housework.

The problem is that husbands, although they do help out around the house more than they did half a century ago, have been notoriously unamenable to 50-50 splits in household tasks. Wives -- and working wives -- in the United States still do more than 70% of the housework, according to one study.

Nonetheless, feminist academics urge wives to push their husbands even harder in the chores wars. In an article in the American Prospect, scholar Linda R. Hirshman advised new brides to employ behavior-modification techniques on their husbands: “If women never start playing the household-manager role, the house will be dirty, but the realities of the physical world will trump the pull of gender ideology. Either the other adult in the family will take a hand or the children will grow up with robust immune systems.”


Other feminist scholars pooh-pooh the idea of marriage as a lifelong commitment. Writing in the Washington Post, Stephanie Coontz, a family history professor at Evergreen State University in Washington state, contended that “we cannot afford to construct our social policies, our advice to our own children and even our own emotional expectations around the illusion that all commitments, sexual activities and care-giving will take place in a traditional marriage. That series has been canceled.”

The study by Wilcox and Nock found exactly the opposite: 57% of wives who (for religious reasons or otherwise) strongly believed in until-death-do-us-part marriage said they were very happily wed, compared with 44% among those who believe that couples should divorce when they fall out of love.

Furthermore, increasing numbers of married women, especially those with small children, have been quietly dropping out of the labor force in favor of more traditional arrangements. In 1998, about 59% of married women with children under 12 months and living with their husbands worked outside the home -- an all-time high, according to the Census Bureau. Six years later, the figure was 55%.

Until five years ago, social scientists assumed that the feminist revolution of the 1970s was so thorough and unstoppable that the percentage of mothers in the workforce would continue to rise inexorably until it reached close to 100. The phenomenon of the corporate lawyer who opts to bake cookies with her children and let her husband provide the financial security alarms feminists, but numbers from the Census Bureau suggest that her type is part of a continuing trend. The high-water mark also was 1998 for labor-force participation of mothers with children under 12 months who had both bachelor’s degrees (67%) and graduate or professional degrees (74%). By 2004, the percentages had fallen to 60% and 70%, respectively.

The study by Wilcox and Nock suggests that happy marriages, even among irreligious dual-career couples, don’t depend on utopian social engineering or the restructuring of gender roles. The important thing isn’t how much housework a wife does but whether her husband makes her feel, through gratitude and affection, that her contribution to the household is as important and valuable as his own. That means both sides putting aside selfishness.

Many husbands don’t easily express their feelings, but many wives have to give something too. They can start by realizing that their spouses who slay dragons so the family can live in comfort also make sacrifices that deserve recognition.