JUST A HOUSEWIFE"": The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in the United States by Glenna Matthews

JUST A HOUSEWIFE"": The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in the United States

Email this review


For many years a suburban housewife and, more recently, an academic (Oklahoma State), Matthews attempts to explain the reasons for the decline of the status of the American housewife from what was publicly (and sentimentally) perceived as a virtual household goddess in the mid-19th century to a considerably lower state today. Using contemporary published sources, Matthews documents how mid-19th-century ""domestic novels"" glorified the housewife, while sages such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Ward Beecher waxed eloquent on the importance of the domestic sphere. It emerges that the housewife's role was conceived not only as the administrator of a household, but also as a moral example for, and teacher of, the coming generation. The 19th-century housewife furthermore brought numerous skills to her job--kitchen gardening, food preservation, bread-baking, clothes-making, and so on. Matthews attributes the industrial revolution--with its prepared goods and the advertising of same--to the weakening of the home as a central institution. She also pillories the home economics movement (which, she says, scorned ""menial tasks"" and promoted commercially prepared goods) as an ""unwitting"" force for the further erosion of the homemaker's prestige. (While lamenting the loss of housewifery crafts, Matthews virtually ignores a basic cause of the weakening of the home as an institution: namely that the husbands--the farmers, craftsmen, even the professionals for whom home or homestead was the economic center--were increasingly drawn into factories, offices, etc. This left home-based women with little demonstrable economic function.) As Matthews points out, the modern women's movement has emphasized competition for male power, and only recently has recognized the central importance of the home as an institution. Many good ingredients, but generally half-baked.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1987
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press