New #TradWife movement undercuts feminist gains

Feminists say that everything they have fought for is being thrown away while #TradWives assert their choice to stay at home and submit to husbands like it is 1959

An Iraqi lady stands in her kitchen as other family members sit in the living room watching television, as she prepares the New Year's Eve diner at their home in an apartment block in the al-Sadun district of Baghdad, 31 December 2005. The last six months of 2004 proved the deadliest period for US forces in Iraq despite the formal end of the US-led occupation in June, with a total of 503 soldiers killed, figures showed today. AFP PHOTO/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)
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Reminiscent of the 1940s and 1950s, there is a social movement growing that proposes a woman put her husband first and be a traditional wife – or what is called a “tradwife”. The logic goes that inhabiting this role would be her route to happiness. In the words of one British tradwife whose views have turned into viral headlines, it is about “submitting to and spoiling her husband like it is 1959”.

This tradwife movement has received its fair share of media coverage and been called everything from a cult to anti-feminist, from white supremacist to racist. While these reactions might seem extreme, depending on your stand on the matter, there is no denying some of the dark politics behind the origins of the tradwife movement in the US.

No wonder feminists are riled, if women want to return to a period in history without realising that all the talk of rights and choice is the gift of feminism that was granted to women after a long and hard struggle

Take for example the movement of the alternative right, or the alt right – a digital far-right space commonly occupied by only men. Despite its deep-rooted misogyny, this white male nationalist space based out of the US needs women to support its ethos. It needs wives. It needs votes to keep them in power. The reasoning in both these alt-right and tradwife movements is that society’s problems would disappear if women simply married and stayed home.

There is also a war being waged between tradwives and feminists. The latter say that everything they have fought for is being thrown away. Tradwives in turn assert their choice to stay at home and do not want to be judged. But in turn, they might not extend this courtesy to other women, who they suggest are failing their children and husbands by going to work.

No wonder feminists are riled. It is mindboggling to hear about women wanting to return to a period in history without realising that all the talk of rights and choice is the gift of feminism that was granted to women after a long and hard struggle that is still very much ongoing. It is ill considered then of tradwives today to criticise the feminist movement that equipped women with a voice, agency and the option to work or not, and that so many tradwives are now free to exercise.

It is also self-centred – and ironic that tradwives accuse working women of being so. To think that regressing to old roles will solve society’s problems is to take too narrow a view of the matter and indicative of looking no further than the four walls of a home.

Financially, many women have to work to support their families, especially if they are women of colour who suffer a double pay gap. Many women are single parents and not by choice. Tradwives need to acknowledge their privilege and recognise that not all women have the luxury to not work even if they so wish. For many women, going out to earn a living and support a family is not an option.

At best, tradwifehood is a yearning for the past, for clearly defined roles in an age deemed better than the present, which is a narrative espoused by US President Donald Trump and evident in his 2016 election campaign slogan Make America Great Again. This was before feminism lifted the lid on the fact that women were literally losing their minds staying at home.

The American writer Betty Friedan's 1963 book The Feminine Mystique  painted a grim picture of the unspoken anguish of women forced to suppress themselves and their ambitions at the cost of their mental health. "Each suburban wife struggles with it alone. She was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question: 'Is this all?'"

Despite all this, the attraction of tradwifehood speaks to a wider fatigue and disillusionment among women. And I get it. Feminism has not delivered the promised utopia. The workplace still places barriers for women, including the gender pay gap. And when they go home, they undertake the “second shift”, still doing the majority of housework and childcare.

Women can find it overwhelming. I feel this too, as do many of my peers, who have expressed a longing to give it all up and be stay-at-home mothers. The prospect is tempting, especially as women’s psyches can carry a baggage of the social norms they have seen growing up – of roles their mothers played, as did women of earlier generations.

At the workplace, given that there is so much focus on empowerment, commercial metrics and individuality, many women – and men – long for equal importance given to the home, thus enabling a balance between home and work fronts.

We need to honour the value of someone who stays at home to manage the house for this plays a crucial role not just in each household but in society.

Above all, as Friedan had alluded to, mental health problems are now at an all-time high in societies. We have more wealth, food and security than ever before yet we struggle to find fulfilment. No wonder this has triggered a movement where a clearly defined role – in service of others – is seen as the path to contentment. Instead, women should be honest: if they are seeking fulfilment, there is no shame in saying so. But it is misguided to think that submission to another human being is the solution to such discontentment.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World