Our society, obsessed with the concept of the ‘independent woman’, is placing pressure on young women to rise to the standards of this ideal. To become this woman, strong and intelligent girls must attack sexism and voice equality, speak freely and engage in politics. This is the same woman who works hard and plays hard, who carries her heels as she jogs to work and picks up a skinny latte on the way. She must have sky-high ambitions, and the strength to leap over any obstacle in her way. To fulfil the ideal, she must be, essentially, superwoman without the tights.
And yet, in the quest for women to become ‘independent’, an older ideal of womanhood has been weakened: that of the woman as housewife. The broad consensus today is that there is no longer a place for this traditional figure, due to its increasing association with a lack of ambition and a passive acceptance of inequality. Some see housewifery as the easy way out – as working in the present rather than working for the future. Women have indeed fought for equal rights with men: one argument is that women should be making the most of every opportunity, going to university and moving up a career ladder one rung at a time. Others no longer see housewifery as a desirable role. There are bigger fish to fry by becoming perhaps a lawyer or a doctor – by being the bread winner instead the bread baker.
But despite these opinions, and the apparent irrelevancy of the ‘desperate housewife’, it is still my dream job. And it must be called a job and should be valued as such. At Cambridge, with women’s only colleges and societies dedicated to feminism, some students who also share this dream may find it easier to hide their views rather than risk ridicule and critique.
Where I come from – the fields and farms of Derbyshire – the average person is much more accepting of a woman’s choice to become a farmer’s wife. But still, there is a sense that there is a certain ‘type’ of girl who is destined for this role. She may leave school early to go to an agricultural college or have a boyfriend who owns his own farm: in this situation, it is assumed that she will stay on as his housewife. Meanwhile, going off to university is seen as an escape from the country’s ‘confines’ – a chance to make one’s fortune independently. It’s as if young women can only come in two types, with one going through higher education, off to save the world, and the other staying at home, with a perceived lack of academic ability or potential.
This dichotomy is wrong. Many of the brightest, most academically gifted people I know have not been to university, but have chosen the path of the housewife. In fact, to be a good housewife is to be intelligent – the two are not separate from one another. Instead of dismissing this way of life as inherently unequal in comparison to a life in the workforce, it is vital that we recognize its immense value.
There is more than meets the eye to this job. Although no doubt making a perfect Victoria Sponge might be more challenging to a Cambridge student than writing an essay on the Origin of Species, this is not all that is required of a housewife. This is a job that requires strength, independence, and intelligence to be done well, and women who choose to follow this path must juggle numerous challenges at once, not only multi-tasking to the extreme but learning to develop a tremendous working memory. In the world of work, people are often boxed into certain roles that do not stretch their cognitive capacities: I believe that housewives in contrast have the opportunity for, on average, more creativity and initiative. Becoming a housewife involves keeping busy – perhaps not working to a specific timetable, but performing an often exhausting variety of skills throughout the day. In terms of leading a fulfilled life, not wasting a single moment, and exercising a diverse range of abilities, the path of the housewife surely is competitive with going into the workforce.
We must learn to respect women who choose this way of life. They are, by my measure, independent and free speaking women – they fulfil the ideal, but in a different way. And yet this choice still carries with it immense baggage, and is subject to prejudice. Today, a woman who chooses this path is seen as failing to reach her full potential: a good life is synonymous with success in the workplace, and with making strides in areas where women have not had the opportunity to do so in the past. These are important paths, but they are not the only ones: a good life can also mean self-contentment, whether that is achieved in the workforce or in the home.