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A Housewife by Any Other Name


Article # : 13948 

Section : BOOK WORLD
Issue Date : 2 / 1988  4,724 Words
Author : Lucy Mazareski

       "JUST A HOUSEWIFE"
       The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America
       Glenn Matthews
       New York, Oxford University Press, 1987
       281 pp., $19.95
       
        PERFECTION SALAD
       Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century
       Laura Shapiro
       New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987
       280 pp., $16.95
       
        What's in a name? That which we call a rose
       By any other name would smell as sweet.
       
        --William Shakespeare
       Romeo and Juliet
       
        Nowadays, of course, many people would disagree with that wisdom. Advertising and public relations magnates expend vast sums in the belief that there's lots in a name. But the glib and glitzy twentieth century has yet to apprehend that the negative of the above is also true: a sour apple by any other name is still sour.
       
        In the last decade, the word housewife, which has taken on increasingly negative connotations, has been largely dropped from usage and the higher-sounding homemaker adopted in its stead. Now that the new label has aged and begun to accrue the same sort of negative patina, the media abound and with talk of possible release into circulation of another new name, that of "domestic engineer."
       
        No amount of novel labeling, however, will paper over the problem: In the late 1980s, a woman who works full time caring for her family and home rather than in the paid labor force is still "just a housewife." Advertising reinforces the negative stereotype with its caricatures of the housewife whose intelligence is challenged by little more than the ways and means to cleaner toilets, slicker floors, and the conquest of the invincible ring around the collar.
       
        The point of Glenna Matthews' book, "Just a Housewife": The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America, is that in the first half of the last century, the domestic sphere--while it was assuredly the "woman's sphere"--was highly esteemed and central to the culture, and housewives enjoyed near-reverential status as moral arbiters, social reformers, a political force, and a civilizing, stabilizing influence. To be sure, Matthews is a committed feminist. But she is one of that nascent breed of feminists who have begun to bridge the chasm between radical ideologues who categorically reject all domesticity and homemaking as a vocation and the body of homemakers alienated by that platform. Her much-needed study points out the need to reevaluate the important social and moral functions of the home that have been undermined and undervalued for generations, using the nineteenth century domestic golden age as a measure of the heritage lost. But with a new appreciation of those functions, and of the equal right of women to participate in and contribute to public life, the home is no longer woman's sphere alone, but one in which both women and men enjoy comforts and accept responsibilities. Matthews' work
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