While growing up in the 1960s, I heard women in our neighborhood complain about being called housewives. “I am not married to a house!” they would say. Of course the term typically meant that they were wives who spent their time caring for a house and those in it. But still, it offended these women who, by the way, didn’t even consider themselves feminists or egalitarians. Being called housewives simply assigned them a label they thought was inaccurate and, frankly, a bit demeaning.
As I made my way through high school and college in the 1970s and early 80s, I saw women who spent their time caring for their houses and those in it (notice, I didn’t say housewives) bristle when someone asked if they worked. “Of course I work” they’d cry “what else would you call what I do with children, a husband, and a house that won’t stay clean?” The implication that unless they received money for it, it wasn’t work, offended.
When my daughter was young, a friend asked her if she was going to be a homemaker when she grew up. I told her that I certainly hoped she would be, and I hoped she would have a spouse who was a homemaker as well. After all, making a home shouldn’t be the responsibility of only one family member, even if that one person is not employed. I also told her that she could be a homemaker while pursuing a career; one doesn’t exclude the other. So, yes, I admit it: The term homemaker, when indicating it is women’s work and done to the exclusion of other pursuits, offends me.
And finally, throughout my years as a mother who was employed outside the home, I would grit my teeth when someone would refer to other women as full-time mothers. My working outside the home didn’t make me a part-time mother. Being a parent – mother or father – is a full-time role regardless of one’s employment status.
So what about the term stay-at-home-mom? Well, nothing, except it’s inaccurate. Women I know who refer to themselves as such are often not staying at home. Between chauffeuring children to school, ballgames, doctor’s appointments, and music lessons, while shopping for groceries, serving at church, and occasionally visiting a friend, they are not at home as much as you’d think.
Well, now. Isn’t this frustrating? Why are all these women, myself included, whining about terminology? Why does it matter? Aren’t we being overly sensitive about a title?
I don’t think so. In fact, those who study language emphasize that our thinking is often shaped by the terms we apply to concepts. Calling a woman a girl makes it easier to think of her as immature, more dependent on others, and less worthy of our full respect. Likewise, referring to a mother as full-time or to one who is employed as a working mom molds our thoughts about women, our roles, and the value ascribed to the things that take up our time.
So, what is the answer? What term can we use that describes with respect what women do without applying an inaccurate label that offends?
To begin, if you are female with an opinion on this, let us hear it.
If you are male, I encourage you to ask your mothers, sisters, daughters, nieces, your female friends and colleagues what term they prefer. Then share it with us.
Together, we might come up with something that will shape a healthier conceptualization of who women are and what women do.