My astute wife passed along this article from the Atlantic on how housewives lived in thought in the 1970s. The quotes from Betty Ford are fascinating. What we see is an example of someone who is a moderate feminist, abortion rights advocate, American capitalist, and a homemaker. This sort of progressivist homemaking had its roots in Catherine Beecher and The American Woman’s Home, and it was something that happened in Sweden, briefly, as Alan Carlson recorded. While it strikes us as strange, there is much to be appreciated about it. Several ideas do seem to be in tension though.
Notice these quotes, both from the former First Lady:
“We have to take the ‘just’ out of ‘just a housewife’ and show our pride in having made the home and family our life’s work,” she said. “A woman who is satisfied with her life at home is just as liberated as a woman with a career outside the home.”
The first one sounds virtuous, stressing how a woman working in the home does have a “life’s work” of which to boast. But the second uses the very unhelpful language of women’s liberation, and it suggests that a woman can be equally “liberated” inside or outside the home. The key principle appears only to be the woman’s desire. In that case, the homemaking is something of an accidental consideration. The familial connections and maternal identity are not actually the things which provide freedom or dignity. Rather, what is important is the woman’s will.
More than a little bit of the explanation to why Mrs. Ford’s basic point of view comes so naturally to us can be seen in the husband’s mindset. As the article notes, the President, then a mere Congressman, spent 200 days away from the home. If his “real life” was outside of the home and away from the family, then the message was clear. He set the tone, one way or the other.
And this seems to me the key problem with Americans and the family. They love the family in a way, out of sentiment, romance, and a genuine pleasure. But the family is itself not their deepest earthly love, nor their basic site of orientation. They certainly do not see it as the primary seat of civic dominion. And so it becomes a commodity, good and important to be sure, but still one more option in the great marketplace. And this tells you that they understand themselves, as individuals, as more basic and more determinative of policy and goals.
Of course, we can’t miss a more interesting and positive quote:
The First Lady… believes that some sort of monetary value should be placed on the homemaker’s contribution to the running of her household–perhaps benefits, such as those given by Social Security. “There should absolutely be some financial consideration, besides just her husband,” she says. Half in jest, she adds, “He may take off and marry a young chick. It happens.” If a price should be put on homemaking, Betty would certainly make it higher than that of a recent study which placed a housewife’s average monetary value at $5,750 per year.
Homemakers are worth at least $30,000 annually, says Mrs. Ford… [In today’s dollars, the study valued homemakers at $23,541, while the First Lady valued them at $122,824.]
It seems to me quite clear that it, if households really are the most basic civic units, then they should be given the various civic benefits typically directed towards individuals. This would take some imagination, and some policies have done this in the past (the assumption of a “family wage,” for example, as well as tax credits for families with children), but I cannot imagine a good argument for giving working women Social Security benefits but not homemakers. I can, however, imagine an argument that says Social Security and other benefits are only for those who first “put in” to society, thus proving the point that the home is not, in fact ,valued.
But to make any sense out of this conversation today, one would need to give a coherent explanation of why families are good for America, and that seems to be a conversation that few possess the capability, much less will, to have.