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Young Housewife, Oil on canvas, by Alexey Tyranov (1801-1859). The Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia

A housewife is a woman whose main occupation is running or managing her family's home—caring for and educating her children, cooking and storing food, buying goods the family needs in day-to-day life, cleaning and maintaining the home, making clothes for the family, etc.—and who is generally not employed outside the home.[1] Merriam Webster describes a housewife as a married woman who is in charge of her household. The British Chambers's Twentieth Century Dictionary (1901) defined a housewife as: "the mistress of a household; a female domestic manager; a pocket sewing kit".[2]

The related term homemaker has almost the same meaning but is not limited to women and does not connote marriage.


  • Sociology and economics 1
    • Traditional societies 1.1
    • Modern society 1.2
  • Songs about the housewife's lot 2
  • Housewives by country 3
    • In China 3.1
    • In India and Pakistan 3.2
    • In Korea 3.3
      • North Korea 3.3.1
    • In the United Kingdom 3.4
    • In the United States 3.5
  • History 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8

Sociology and economics

Good Housekeeping (an American magazine), 1908
Southern Paiutes at Moapa, Nevada, wearing traditional Paiute basket hats; note the Paiute cradleboard and rabbit robe

Some feminists[3][4] and non-feminist economists (particularly proponents of historical materialism) note that the value of housewives' work is ignored in standard formulations of economic output, such as GDP or employment figures. Housewives work many unrecorded hours a week, while depending for money on their husband's or partner's employment.

Traditional societies

A housewife in Yendi, Kumasi, Ghana, pours water into a meal and her children play; 1957

In societies of hunters and gatherers like the traditional society of the Australian aboriginal people, the men hunt animals for meat, and the women gather other foods such as grain, fruit and vegetables. One of the reasons for this division of labor was that it is much easier to look after a baby while gathering fruit than while hunting a fast-moving animal. Even when homes were very simple and there were few possessions, men and women did different jobs.

In rural societies, where the main work is farming, women have also taken care of gardens and animals around the house, generally helping men with heavy work when a job needed to be done quickly, usually because of the season.

Examples of the heavy work that a traditional housewife (homemaker) in a rural society would do are:

  • Picking fruit when it was ripe for market
  • Planting rice in a paddy field
  • Harvesting and stacking grain
  • Cutting hay

In rural studies, the word housewife is occasionally used for a woman who does the majority of the chores within a farm's compound as opposed to field and livestock work.

Modern society

Regarding work, being a housewife may be seen as the opposite of being a career woman. However, a career woman may also be contrasted to someone following the "mommy track", or a shared earning/shared parenting marriage.

Regarding family size, a study of three Mexican cities came to the result that there was no significant difference in the number of children in housewife families compared to those where women worked part or full-time.[5]

It is becoming more commonplace for the husband and wife to be employed in paid work and for both to share in the "housework" and caring for the children. However, in other families, there is still a traditional idea that housework is only a woman's job; so when a couple gets home from work, the wife works in the house while the man takes a rest, or uses the time for recreational pursuits.

Housewives are usually financially dependent on members of the household who are employed; however, people working full-time (particularly under "at-will employment" arrangements) benefit from the unwaged work provided by the housewife; otherwise the performance of such work (child care, cooking, housecleaning, teaching, transporting, etc) in his or her absence would cost money.[6]

Songs about the housewife's lot

The housewife's tasks have often been the subject of songs. These include: "The Housewife's Lament" (from the diary of Sarah Price, Ottawa, Illinois, mid 19th century);[7] "Nine Hours a Day" (1871 English song, anonymous); "A Woman's Work is Never Done"[8] or "A Woman Never Knows When her Day's Work is Done"; "The Labouring Woman"; "How Five and Twenty Shillings were Expended in a Week" (English popular songs); "A Woman's Work" (London music hall song by Sue Pay, 1934).[9]

Housewives by country

In China

In imperial China (excluding periods of the Tang dynasty when women had higher status in society), women were bound to homemaking by the doctrines of Confucianism and cultural norms. Generally, girls did not attend school and, therefore, spent the day doing household chores with their mothers and female relatives (for example, cooking and cleaning). In most cases, the husband was alive and able to work, so the wife was almost always forbidden to take a job and mainly spent her days at home or doing other domestic tasks. As Confucianism spread across East Asia, this social norm was also observed in Korea, Japan and Vietnam. As foot binding became common after the Song Dynasty, many women lost the ability to work outside.

After the founding of the Republic of China in 1911, these norms were gradually loosened and many women were able to enter the workforce. Shortly thereafter, a growing number of females began to be permitted to attend schools. Starting with the rule of the People's Republic of China in 1949, all women were freed from compulsory family roles. During the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, some women even worked in fields that were traditionally reserved for males.

In modern China, housewives are no longer as common, especially in the largest cities and other urban areas. Many modern women work simply because one person's income is insufficient to support the family, a decision made easier by the fact that it is common for Chinese grandparents to watch after their grandchildren until they are old enough to go to school. Nonetheless, the number of Chinese housewives has been steadily rising in recent years as China's economy expands.

In India and Pakistan

In India different approaches to domestic responsibilities are found in the various ethnic groups.

In a Hindu family, the head of the family is the Griha Swami (Lord of the House) and his wife is the Griha Swamini(Lady of the House). The Sanskrit words Grihast and Grihasta perhaps come closest to describing the entire gamut of activities and roles undertaken by the householder or housewife. Grih is the Sanskrit root for house or home; Grihasta and Grihast are derivatives of this root, as is Grihastya. The couple lives in the state called Grihastashram or family system and together they nurture the family and help its members (both young and old) through the travails of life. The woman who increments the family tree (bears children) and protects those children is described as the Grihalakshmi (the wealth of the house) and Grihashoba (the glory of the house). The elders of the family are known as Grihshreshta. The husband or wife may engage in countless other activities which may be social, religious, political or economic in nature for the ultimate welfare of the family and society. However, their unified status as joint householders is the nucleus from within which they operate in society. The 'status' of a woman as a housewife anchors them in society and provides meaning to their activities within the social, religious, political and economic framework of their world. However, as India undergoes modernisation, many women are in employment, particularly in the larger cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bengalore where most women will work.

In Muslim families, use of the term housewife (or its equivalent) is uncommon, even though housewives are very common and stay-at-home husbands are extremely rare. Muslim society sets different expectations for the husband and wife, but respects their individuality. Families are generally viewed as sets and not units.

In Korea

North Korea

Until around 1990, the North Korean state required every able-bodied male to be employed by some state enterprise. However, some 30% of married women of working age were allowed to stay at home as full-time housewives (less than in some countries in the same region like South Korea, Japan and Taiwan; more than in the former Soviet Union, Mainland China and Nordic countries like Sweden, and about the same as in the United States[10]). In the early 1990s, after an estimated 900,000-3,500,000 people perished in the North Korean famine which was largely a product of the North Korean government's unwillingness to reform the economy, the old system began to fall apart. In some cases women began by selling homemade food or household items they could do without. Today at least three-quarters of North Korean market vendors are women. A joke making the rounds in Pyongyang goes: 'What do a husband and a pet dog have in common?' Answer: 'Neither works nor earns money, but both are cute, stay at home and can scare away burglars.'[11]

In the United Kingdom

Part of the housework of a London housewife, 1941

Two British magazines for housewives have been published: The Housewife (London: Offices of "The Million", 1886-[1900]) and Housewife (London: Hultons, 1939–68).[12]

"On a Tired Housewife" is an anonymous poem about the housewife's lot: "Here lies a poor woman who was always tired, / She lived in a house where help wasn't hired: / Her last words on earth were: «Dear friends, I am going / To where there's no cooking, or washing, or sewing, / For everything there is exact to my wishes, / For where they don't eat there's no washing of dishes. / I'll be where loud anthems will always be ringing, / But having no voice I'll be quit of the singing. / Don't mourn for me now, don't mourn for me never, / I am going to do nothing for ever and ever.»"[13]

In the United States

1950s Tetrapak advertisement depicting a housewife as a selector and consumer of products
A Minnesota housewife in the kitchen of her mobile home

In the US, it has been estimated that 31 percent of working mothers leave the workplace (for an average of 2.2 years), most often precipitated by the birth of the second child.[14] This gives time to concentrate full-time on child-rearing; particularly through the child(ren)'s early years (before entering kindergarten). There is considerable variability within the stay-at-home mother population with regard to their intent to return to the paid workforce. Some plan to work from their homes, some will do part-time work, some intend to return to part or full-time work when their children have reached school age, some may increase their skill sets by returning to higher education, and others may find it economically feasible to refrain from entering (or re-entering) the paid workforce.

Similarly, there is considerable variation in the stay-at-home mother's attitude towards domestic work not related to caring for children. Some may embrace a traditional role of housewife, cooking and cleaning in addition to caring for children. Others see their primary role as that of child-care providers, supporting their children's physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development while sharing or outsourcing other aspects of home care.


Although men have generally been thought of as the primary "breadwinners" for families in recent history, the division of labor between men and women in traditional societies required both genders to take an active role in obtaining resources outside the domestic sphere. Prior to discovering agriculture and animal husbandry, predictable food sources were a scarce commodity. To achieve optimal nutrition during this time, it was imperative that both men and women focus their energies on hunting and gathering as many different edible foods as possible to sustain themselves on a daily basis. Lacking the technologies necessary to store and preserve food, it was critical for men and women to seek out and obtain fresh food sources almost continuously. These nomadic tribes used gender differences to their advantage, allowing men and women to use their complementary adaptations and survival strategies to find the most diverse and nutritionally complete foods available. For example, in the context of daily foraging, childcare itself was not a hindrance to women's productivity; rather, performing this task with her children both increased the overall efficiency of the activity (more people participating equals a greater yield of edible roots, berries, nuts and plants), and functioned as an important hands-on lesson in survival skills for each child. By sharing the burden of daily sustenance - and developing specialized gender niches - humans not only ensured their continued survival, but also paved the way for later technologies to evolve and grow through experience.

In the 19th century, more and more women in industrialising countries stopped being homemakers and began to do jobs that men usually did. At this time many big factories were set up, first in England then in other European countries and the United States. Many thousands of young women went to work in factories.

Child Praying at Mother's Knee; drawing by Pierre-Édouard Frère
En kvinna arbetar i köket, en annan kvinna antecknar och klockar tiden (Rålambsvägen 8 och 10 i Stockholm)
A woman cooks supervised by a teacher in a domestic economy institute in Stockholm, Sweden, 1950

Other women, like Florence Nightingale, decided to go against the social norm, and pursue non-factory professions even if they were wealthy enough that they did not need to work. In most families where there was a husband and wife, the social norm dictated that it was the job of the husband to earn money and the job of the woman to be the "housewife" (homemaker). Women were often very proud to be a good homemaker and have their house and children respectably taken care of.

In the early 20th century, both world wars (World War I, 1914–18, and World War II, 1939-45) were fought by men from many countries. While the men were at war, their wives went to work to keep the countries running. Women, who were also homemakers, worked in factories, businesses and farms. At the end of both wars, many men had died, and others had returned injured. Some men were able to return to their previous positions, but some women stayed in the workforce as well.

The governments of Communist countries in the early and middle 20th century such as the Soviet Union and China encouraged married women to keep working after giving birth. There were very few housewives in Communist countries until the Free Market Economic reform in the 1990s which led to a resurgence in the number of housewives. Conversely, in the Western World of the 1950s, many women quit their jobs after giving birth to be a housewife. Only 11% of married women in the USA kept working after giving birth.[15]

By the 1960s in western countries, it was becoming more accepted for a woman to work and be a "career girl" until she got married, when she should stop work and be a "housewife". Many western women in the 1970s believed that this was not treating men and women equally and that women should do whatever job they were able to do, whether they were married or not.At this time, women were becoming more educated. As a result of this increased education, some women were able to earn more than their husbands. In very rare cases, the husband would remain at home to raise their young children while the wife worked.

After the feminist movement (accompanied by the civil rights movement), about 50% of married women in 1978 USA continued to work after giving birth, while in 1997, the number was 61%. The number of housewives increased in the 2000s. With the 2008 financial crisis, a decrease in average income made two incomes more attractive, and the percentage of married US women who kept working after they giving birth increased to 69% by 2009.[16][17] As of 2014, according to the Pew Research Center, more than one in four mothers are stay at home in the United States.[18]

In the late 20th century, it became harder for a family to live on a single wage. Subsequently, many women were required to return to work following the birth of their children; however, they often continued the "homemaker" role within the family.

See also


  1. ^ Macmillan dictionary definitionj
  2. ^ Davidson, Thomas, ed. Chambers's Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language. London: W. & R. Chambers; p. 443
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ Page 128
  6. ^
  7. ^ Recorded on: The Female Frolic, Argo ZDA 82 & Seeger, P. Penelope isn't Waiting any More Blackthorne BR 1050
  8. ^ Recorded on Staverton Bridge SADISC SDL 266
  9. ^ Kathy Henderson et al., comp. (1979) My Song is My Own: 100 women's songs. London: Pluto; pp. 126-28, 142-43
  10. ^ a Chinese-English translation web (译言网):Will Chinese women rule the world?
  11. ^
  12. ^ Held by various libraries in the UK; Copac
  13. ^ The Penguin Book of Comic and Curious Verse, ed. J. M. Cohen. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1952; p. 31
  14. ^ Hewlett, S. A., Luce, C. B., Shiller, P. & Southwell,S (2005, March). The hidden brain drain: Off-ramps and on-ramps in women’s careers. Center for WorkLife. Policy/Harvard Business Review Research. Report, Product no. 9491. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation.
  15. ^ In the kitchen debate in 1959: Nixon said American housewives are happier than the Soviet Union working women
  16. ^ Employment Characteristics of Families Summary". U.S. Department of Labor. Retrieved 2011-10-22.
  17. ^ a Chinese-English translation web (译言网: Will Chinese women rule the world?
  18. ^

Further reading

  • Swain, Sally (1988) Great Housewives of Art. London: Grafton (reissued by Harper Collins, London, 1995) (pastiches of famous artists showing housewives' tasks, e.g. Mrs Kandinsky Puts Away the Kids' Toys)
United States
  • Campbell, D'Ann (1984). Women at War with America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era, on World War II
  • Ogden, Annegret S. (1987) The Great American Housewife: From Helpmate to Wage Earner, 1776-1986
  • Palmer, Phyllis (1990). Housewives and Domestic Servants in the United States, 1920-1945.
  • Ramey, Valerie A. (2009), “Time Spent in Home Production in the Twentieth-Century United States: New Estimates from Old Data,” Journal of Economic History, 69 (March 2009), 1–47.
  • Tillotson, Kristin (2004) Retro Housewife: a salute to the urban superwoman. Portland, Ore.: Collectors Press ISBN 1-888054-92-1
  • Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher (1982). Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750
  • Draznin, Yaffa Claire (2001). Victorian London's Middle-Class Housewife: What She Did All Day 227pp
  • Hardy, Sheila (2012) A 1950s Housewife: Marriage and Homemaking in the 1950s. Stroud: the History Press ISBN 978-0-7524-69-89-8
  • McMillan, James F. (1981) Housewife or Harlot: The Place of Women in French Society, 1870-1940 229pp
  • Myrdal, Alva & Klein, Viola (1956) Women’s Two Roles: Home and Work. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
  • Robertson, Una A. (1997) Illustrated History of the Housewife, 1650-1950 218pp (on Britain)
  • Sim, Alison (1996). Tudor Housewife, (on 1480 to 1609 in England)

External links

  • Home Economics Archive: Tradition, Research, History (HEARTH), An e-book collection of over 1,000 classic books on home economics spanning 1850 to 1950, created by Cornell University's Mann Library.
  • Homemaking at DMOZ
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