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

The term housewife may sometimes be used in contrast to a career woman.


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,[2][3] 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[edit]

For many thousands of years, men have generally been thought of as the main "breadwinners" in families: it was mainly their job to hunt animals for food, grow food crops or earn money, while the women have cared for children, prepared food for eating, cleaned the house, and made and cared for clothes.

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[citation needed].

Modern society[edit]

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

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.

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.

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. It is becoming more commonplace for the husband and wife to be employed in paid work and both share in the "housework" and caring for the children. 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.

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.[4] 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 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.[5][6]

What a housewife does[edit]

Dishes to be washed
Children's toys
Christmas to be prepared for all the family
Part of the housework of a London housewife, 1941
A housewife in Yendi, Kumasi, Ghana, pours water into a meal and her children play; 1957

While modern homemakers in western nations may participate in a huge variety of activities, the traditional job of a housewife is to take care of her spouse and other members of the household and participate in the care of their home. Some of the traditional things that a housewife does are:

Child care (where applicable)
  • Getting children ready for school, work, or other activities
  • Volunteering for jobs at children's schools (e.g., canteen)
  • Bathing and dressing children
  • Teaching young children hygiene (potty training, brushing teeth, blowing noses)
  • Feeding babies and young children
  • Playing with children
  • Comforting babies, children and partners
  • Driving the children to and from school and other activities
  • Helping with homework
  • Supervising music practice
  • Reading storybooks
  • Stopping fights and helping resolve conflicts
  • Moral and religious guidance
Cleaning, decorating and provision of clothing
  • Keeping the home clean
  • Seasonal cleaning like washing the curtains and beating carpets
  • Keeping the garage clean and organized
  • Cleaning the car or other vehicles and arranging maintenance for them
  • Decorating (arranging the furniture and ornaments, and choosing the colours of things)
  • Washing, ironing and mending clothes (and sometimes making them)
  • Shopping for new clothes and other family needs
  • Tending the garden
  • Coordinating with contractors and service people who repair the home
Eldercare (where applicable)
  • Serving food and helping the elderly person eat if needed
  • Reminding the elderly person which medications to take and when
  • Helping the elderly person dress or do other movement-heavy tasks
  • Driving the elderly person to and from appointments and activities
  • Reading to the elderly person
  • Taking dictation if the elderly person can no longer write
  • Generally, helping the elderly person cope with any disabilities
  • Learning about nutrition
  • Acquiring food for the household (shopping for groceries)
  • Planning and preparing meals
  • Cleaning up after meals
  • Teaching children about cooking and nutrition
Health care and companionship
  • Doing first aid
  • Caring for sick people
  • Scheduling healthcare appointments
  • Caring for pets (feeding, veterinarian visits, etc.)
  • Listening to people's stories of their day
  • Giving advice
  • Entertaining guests and hosting parties and gatherings
  • Remembering birthdays and other important family events
  • Fixing things that go wrong
  • Finding lost things
  • Putting people to bed
  • Kissing people goodnight
Keeping up with finances, daily household items, and expenses
  • Paying household bills in a timely manner
  • Making sure all household issues are resolved regarding insurance, appointments, etc.
  • Planning and shopping for household needs
  • Managing spending
  • Any other administrative duties that need to be done to help run a smooth partnership with the spouse that is working

Songs about the housewife's lot[edit]

The housewife's tasks have often been the subject of songs. These include: "The Housewife's Lament" (from the diary of Sarah Price, Ottowa, 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[edit]

In China[edit]

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[edit]

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[citation needed].

In Korea[edit]

North Korea[edit]

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, China Mainland and Nordic countries like Sweden, and about the same as in the United States).[10])In the early 1990s, after an estimated 600,000-900,000 people perished in a 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[edit]

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[edit]

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

In previous decades, there were a large number of mandatory courses for young women to learn the skills of housework. In high school[where?], courses included sewing, cooking, nutrition, home economics, family and consumer science (also known as F.A.C.S) and food and cooking hygiene. More recently, these courses have been mostly abolished,[when?] and many people of both sexes in high school and college would be more likely to explore resources[vague] on the more academic topics of child development, child psychology and managing children's behaviour[citation needed].

Some modern women are leaving the paid workforce and concentrating full-time on child-rearing; particularly through their 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Macmillan dictionary definitionj
  2. ^ Luxton, Meg; Rosenberg, Harriet (1986), Through the Kitchen Window: The Politics of Home and Family, Garamond Press, ISBN 978-0-920059-30-2 
  3. ^ Luxton, Meg (1980), More Than a Labour of Love: Three Generations of Women's Work in the Home, Women's Press, ISBN 978-0-88961-062-0 
  4. ^ In the kitchen debate in 1959: Nixon said American housewives are happier than the Soviet Union working women
  5. ^ Employment Characteristics of Families Summary". U.S. Department of Labor. Retrieved 2011-10-22.
  6. ^ a Chinese-English translation web (译言网: Will Chinese women rule the world?
  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. ^ Andrei Lankov (a professor in South Korea National University). "Pyongyang’s Women Wear the Pants". (Chinese-English Translate Web. 
  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
  • Allen (Consultant Editor), Robert (2003 (et seq)). The Penguin English Dictionary. 80 Strand, London, WC2R 0RL, London, England: Penguin Books. p. 1642. ISBN 0-14-051533-X.  Check date values in: |date= (help)

Further reading[edit]

  • 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[edit]