- Homemaking skills are still needed. And despite technological advances, they are still skills—only skills that are no longer taught. Tweet This
- Home cooking, it turns out, cannot be replaced by advanced technology. Tweet This
- It is time to radically rethink how we treat homemaking skills. Tweet This
The IRS still retains “homemaker” among its examples of possible “occupations” for tax filers. American society, however, no longer regards homemaking as a profession, skilled or otherwise. Indeed, the term “homemaker” is at risk of vanishing entirely. The term entered our national vocabulary in the nineteenth century; today, analysis of the term's use in popular discourse indicates it is headed for extinction, along with home economics classes.
The decline of homemaking—both as a term and a recognized skill—is the result of a popular understanding that homemaking skills are no longer needed, given the technological advances of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Many have celebrated its demise, often as a victory for women. One commentator recently claimed that feminism and homemaking are fundamentally incompatible: “There is no version of American housewifery that has ever—or will ever—make women happier, healthier, or more fulfilled,” she wrote.
This rejection of (or outright distain for) homemaking is a radical change. Previously, it was common sense that homemaking skills were critical to the well-being of the family and community. Indeed, this fact played an important role in the advancement of women’s rights in the United States. Many first-wave feminists recognized the skilled nature of homemaking and fought for suffrage and property rights on the basis that homemakers were foundational to the common good. In 1869, the abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe and her sister Catherine Beecher jointly published a homemaking treatise called The American Woman’s Home. Applying contemporaneous scientific advances to domestic skills, the Beecher sisters laid out a comprehensive manual for homemakers to protect family members’ health and raise children. They also provided advice for nursing the sick at home, caring for the elderly, and participating in community social safety net programs (including for the poor and disabled). Beecher Stowe later premised her argument for women’s suffrage in part on their key community role, noting “the state can no more afford to dispense with the votes of women in its affairs than the family.”
A hundred years later, however, second-wave feminists claimed that scientific and economic advances rendered homemaking skills unneeded. In the era of industrial food processing, laundry machines, and vacuum cleaners, mothers and wives were free to join the workforce. Betty Friedan is not usually considered a “techno-optimist,” but in The Feminine Mystique she writes:
[M]ore and more of the jobs that used to be performed in the home have been taken away: canning, baking bread, weaving cloth and making clothes, educating the young, nursing the sick, taking care of the aged. It is possible for women to reverse history—or kid themselves that they can reverse it—by baking their own bread, but the law does not permit them to teach their own children at home, and few housewives would match their so-called generalist’s skill with the professional expertise of doctor and hospital to nurse a child through tonsillitis or pneumonia at home.
Technology and career specialization, Friedan concluded, had replaced homemaking as a skilled occupation. More recently, self-described feminist Jessica Valenti depicted homemaking as a sort of unnecessary (and archaic) luxury good, available only to “women who had husbands with enough money that they could stay at home.”
Much of the rest of society appears to agree. The only possible reason to have a homemaker, it now seems, is to take care of children. Thus, the decline of the term “homemaker” correlated with the ascension of a new phrase: “stay-at-home mom.” Simultaneously, working mothers have concentrated their non-work hours on caring for children (rather than homemaking). As Erika Bachiochi describes in her superb American Compass essay, families have switched their focus at home from production of goods to “preoccupation with children’s development itself.” This absorption with childrearing, Bachiochi suggests, is not beneficial for either children or their parents.
Importantly, it also reflects a mistaken understanding of whether technology and economic development actually replaced homemakers and the need for their skills. For example, it was thought that advances in food manufacturing would render home cooking unnecessary—but today, more than 20% of America’s children are obese. The New York Times reports: “In the United States about 70% of meals are consumed outside the home, and about 20% are eaten in the car.” While the rise in obesity is multi-causal, researchers have consistently found “eating home cooked meals more frequently [i]s associated with better dietary quality and lower adiposity.” Home cooking, it turns out, cannot be replaced by advanced technology.
Similarly (as Friedan noted), it was expected that homemakers were no longer needed to “care for the aged.” However, in 2020, the AARP found that 17% of Americans provided unpaid care to a family member or friend over the age of 50, at an “average duration” of 4.5 years. These Americans often do so at tremendous personal cost, including their own financial and mental (or physical) health. Even in the field of education—where arguably the greatest social resources have been poured into replacing homemakers—gaps remain. For example, numerous laws protect the right of children with significant disabilities to receive an appropriate public education. However, parents of special needs children almost always report:
one or more parent devoting significant time to child care. Reasons for doing this included concerns about children’s health or safety in group settings, scheduling constraints, program costs, and frustration with care options.
Thus, homemaking skills are still needed. And despite technological advances, they are still skills—skills that are no longer taught. Jessica Grose, author of the book Screaming on the Inside: The Unsustainability of American Motherhood, noted “[w]hen she had her first child at 30, she’d never held a baby, much less been responsible for one’s care[.]” This is typical. Per one study, even among parents who had taken prenatal classes, “there was either little or no information about parenting skills” and the “[m]ajority of the new parents felt unprepared for the new tasks and responsibilities that lied ahead.”
These knowledge gaps are not limited to parenting. A recent survey of college students indicated the vast majority wished they had more life skills. One in five could not cook or use a washing machine. Teachers now try to instruct students in “Social-Emotional Learning,” but there is no one to teach kids the basics of cooking, cleaning, caring for children, budgeting, and caring for the sick or elderly.
It is time to radically rethink how we treat homemaking skills. Families should prioritize teaching their sons and daughters basic homemaking tasks. More importantly, we are overdue for a cultural rethink about how we treat homemaking and homemakers. Twentieth-century optimists assumed that technological and economic development rendered obsolete the familial need for a competent and skilled person to dedicate attention to the home and family. Today, we should recognize reality: Homemaking has not become unnecessary so much as undone. As J. Taylor Calderone pointed out in her excellent IFS essay:
[O]ur society’s ability to function relies on the care of our most vulnerable and stepping out of the workforce to fulfill caregiving responsibilities is as much a contribution to our collective humanity as an uninterrupted climb up the career ladder.
This does not mean we need to replicate the nineteenth-century model of a wife never working outside the home (or receiving higher education), and the husband being the primary breadwinner. Taking seriously the need for a homemaker may mean two part-time jobs, or one parent moving in and out of the workforce based on family needs—or even a recognition that if both parents plan to work full-time, perhaps the grandparents should move in. But we are long past due for a national conversation. Homemaking remains a needed, skilled occupation. The problem is that too few people are doing it.
Ivana D. Greco is the Wollstonecraft Fellow at the Abigail Adams Institute. She is currently drafting a book investigating the myriad ways stay-at-home parents are integral to American society, business, and government.