The Great Debate

30 Jul 2007

A couple of comments yesterday got me thinking. Am I a housewife or a homemaker? Does it matter? Probably not but I'm interested in what differences there are in the two titles and why one might seem more popular than the other. Without knowing the origin of the two names I had always thought homemaker to be the more politically correct term. It seems to me it became popular in Australia in the 70s and 80s as women were heading into the workforce in droves and those who chose to stay at home didn't want to feel typecast as 1950s housewives so a new title was born.

It seems from my meagre research that homemaker is actually a longstanding American term for people who work full time in unpaid work at home and housewife is the English term for the same job. Correct me if I'm wrong. When you google housewife you get a lot of stuff about Desperate Housewives, the TV show, and lots of pornographic sites and not much else. When you google homemaker you get a lot of sites trying to sell you things for your home. Not a great choice really.

When I check the dictionary, the Australian Concise Oxford, I find housewife defined as a woman ( usually married) managing a household. Homemaker isn't there but homemaking is the creation of a (pleasant) home. Surely those of you who work full time in your homes would see yourself as fulfilling both these roles and giving them equal importance. I would think that it is impossible to have a pleasant home without good household management. Which do you see as the most important? Management of a household is not just housework it is also people management and financial management and nutritional management and social management, it's a description of being on top of things , knowing who is doing what and when, who needs what,all the stuff that you do to keep your home, including your family , in tip top condition and bubbling happily along. All of those things surely make for the creation of a (pleasant) home.

I think the last form I filled in requesting my occupation gave me the option of home duties. I'm not sure what title that leads to, a home doer perhaps. I've never been big on titles, I always felt it is too easy to pigeon hole people, make assumptions about them rather than taking the time to find out about them. At the moment though if I had to say I think I would choose housewife but perhaps I'm just trying to make people cringe.

I'm really interested to know what you think. During all the women's lib hype of the 70s housewife seemed to become a dirty word but I think generations before that were happy with the title. This is just an assumption on my part and I might be completely wrong. I personally have never felt comfortable with the name homemaker although its a wonderful description of a worthwhile occupation. To me it has always sounded like an apology, a made up name that really means housewife. I come from an Anglo Australian background and a long line of housewives and I'm not trying to offend anyone who has grown up with the term Homemaker. Perhaps its success as a title in Australia is just part of the Americanisation of our language. I know my American readers will set me straight on this.

Anyway thats my two bobs worth for tonight.

Oh, I meant to add this link to a BBC radio programme that discusses the concept of a housewife.

29 Responses to “The Great Debate”

  1. Well, I don't know about the 70's--when I would hear anyone talking about it, homemaking was always held in derision by the feminist groups.

    I think Home-maker describes my role better, and it is the term I always use. The joke goes, I'm not a housewife because "I'm not married to my house." Where I come from, housewife sounds like it more describes a house-keeper, and a home-maker Makes A Home.

  2. Jenny ~ first of all I should say
    hello. I found your blog through a comment you left on Jewels' blog.

    I think this is an interesting topic. I see the issue rooted more in word connotation rather than word definition. (And it's always intriguing to me how that varies from culture to culture!)

    GLH's comment pretty much sums up my background on this topic. As an American, I've always leaned towards homemaker, initially for the reasons she posted. After additional thought, I really think ~ for me ~ it runs more to the connotation of the root words home and house. I always say I'm going home (warm, cozy, embracing). I rarely saying I'm going to the house (cold, sterile, anonymous). For that reason alone, I prefer homemaker. (Actually Homewife would be a nice compromise, but then someone might think Hubby had a wife other than just at home - Yikes!)

    Mrs. B at Cherish the Home and Stacy McDonald at Your Sacred Calling both have interesting posts about this topic which got me to thinking about why I *really* prefer one title over the other. I do like Mrs. B's Keeper of the Home as an alternative. It is certainly Biblical in it's roots. Home-keeper would be more succinct, but it sounds too near Housekeeper which is a hired-out position in America.

    Given all that ~ I think I've rather muddied the water rather than offer any insight - lol. In truth, I'm not much of a title person. I mostly call myself Incredibly Blessed by the good Lord! ;o)

  3. Ohh the more I think about it the more I could see this could be a hot topic :- ) Like I said I do not like housewife because of the wife part. I am not married to my house and even if I was single I would still be a homemaker.

    The reason I like homemaker, is because that is what I do. I make a home. Maybe that is what I should call myself, maker-of-a-home. I am very romantic and only want to think about the fun creative side to taking care of my house. Not the practical management side. Yes, I do the practical management side. But I sort-of get through it, so I can go off and do the fun stuff. Life rearranging my china cabinets or come up with a new shortbread recipe (Which were really mummy by the way). It is just me and how I get through the work I have to do, because I do not like to work.

    I do think you are correct and housewife is very politically incorrect. Although I do not know if a homemaker is that politely correct too, since stay at hoe, is not politically correct. But it is better. Very fascinating. I can tell I am going to be thinking about this all day. Thank you !!! Clarice

  4. I would say I am a homemaker, but not a housewife, because I actually do work outside of the home, but I also work hard to make my "home" what it is.

    In my mind, homemaker implies thrift and management- knitting ones sweaters and putting up pickles and getting the children where they need to go - whereas housewife was the unemployed woman who ran the house and also played bridge and held cocktail parties. The housewife was the woman who went to college to get her Mrs. degree. I think most of these impressions come from media/books often hear of the 1930's homemaker, and the 50s housewife.

    So, not sure of the origins, or the political correctness of either term, and I am sure it varies in America by region and by which generation you are speaking to.

    But I am a wife, mother, homemaker and HS teacher.

  5. Oh, gosh- I just read everyone's comments and I am more confused than ever! :)
    I never actually thought of myself as having anything to do with my house or home- but that's all changed now. Not having any children and having to be in the workforce for so long, it's just now that I am starting to appreciate my house and actually make it into a home for myself and husband. In fact, I can't wait to wake up in the morning and make my home even more homey! Having said that, I always loved the word "wife" I love it when hubby calls me his wife! And I think any place you can make into a home whether you live in a trailer or a mansion!
    So, I have no idea in other words... I guess both are acceptable in some form or fashion somewhere in the world at some time or another!

  6. I have not given this a lot of careful attention. In the US I think the terms are interchangeable, but housewife seems more old fashioned.

    I worked outside the home until I became a mom. I think I associate the homemaker title more with caring for family in the home than the house we occupy.

    The definitions in my husband's college dictionary (Webster's Dictionary of the English Language, 1989)
    homemaker: someone responsible for the running of a household
    housewife: the wife of a householder, responsible for the domestic running of the house. I don't know that I've ever heard anyone sue the term 'householder'

    My favorite dictionary (New World Dictionary of the American Language, 1978) only varies slightly.
    homemaker: a person who manages s home, esp. a housewife (!!!)
    housewife: a woman, esp. a married woman, whose principal occupation is managing a household and taking care of domestic affairs.

    Hmm, I think this is one of those rare times where I like my husband's dictionary better.

  7. The first time I ever heard of the feminist movement was my freshman year in college. It never appealed to me then, and it certainly doesn't now. All I ever wanted to do was be a an at home wife and mother.

    If I had to choose to be called either a housewife or a homemaker, I would choose homemaker. It might be that I am more comfortable with the word in the same way that an American would call a dress a dress, but (almost) never use the English term, "frock." I would not discount the media which may have subtly discouraged the word, "housewife."

    I probably should use the term homekeeper as women are admonished to be keepers at home in the Bible.

    I am sorry to say that I usually refer to myself as retired. I resigned after too many years working in a career that I never really wanted. It is more socially acceptable, but I usually get comments or questions about how I could possibly fill my time! I cannot express how wonderful it has been these past several years to return to such a fulfilling career being at home! It is the stay-at-home-wife-mother's best kept secret!

  8. I think I prefer 'Domestic Goddess' ;)LOL
    But really this is something that I have battled with in the past. I have recently started working part time but for the last 12 years I stayed home with my 3 kids(now 28,26&20)and always felt a little degraded when people would ask me what I did. It got to the point where I would just say "anything I want" so I didn't have to answer. I have had a complete change of mindset about this and am proud to be a housewife/homemaker which must surely be the most underrated and important job on the planet.
    I really like the term homemaker as it conjures up (to me) an image of a Martha Stewartish type of life(without the jail time lol). I don't think this term is commonly used in Australia, at least I haven't heard it very often. Much more common is home duties and in the 90's it was 'domestic engineer'. My mum was always a housewife but this term seems to have fallen out of favour. I think you should use whatever term you're comfortable with :)

  9. I, too, will muddy the waters a bit. I call myself a stay at home mom, because that is to me my "real job." I think that when my daughter is in school then I would be more likely to call myself a housewife or a homemaker. Housewife definitely has a dreary connotation in my mind. Homemaker sounds good, but almost sugary sweet.

    My desire as a feminist is to see that everyone (women, men and children) has a choice as to what to do with his/her life, and isn't coerced or subjugated or seen as less of a person for who that person is or what that person does.

  10. Hi GLH,I never even thought about the term housewife as being married to your house, it's quite silly isn't it. I guess most occupations have a name that clearly describes what the job entails. But housewife, if you take away all the connotations that the media have given it over the past 5 decades, is a good strong title:a wife who is based in the house/home and all the areas of responsibilty that go with it.

    Hi Jodi and welcome, thanks for those links. I especially liked the second one. She is a very succinct author and says it all much better than I can. I guess there is a sterility to the word housewife but there is also a fluffiness to word homemaker. I agree homewife would be a bit tricky. If the name housewife didn't forever have "just a" in front of it might be more palatable. Also with so many single parent homes many are not housewives because they are no longer wives. It certainly is complicated.

    Hi Clarice, no you certainly didn't take marriage vows with your house but you and I are a full time keepers at home by virtue of the fact that we are married women and you and your husband decided that you would stay at home to love and care for your family and your home, (and be so good at it that you have plenty of time to be creative as well- good job)

    Hi Willowcaroline, isn't that funny, I don't think of a housewife in those terms at all. To me the terms homemaker and housewife are completely interchangeable.

    Hi Regina, it sure is confusing but really interesting. Women whether they work outside the home or not still do the bulk of housework even though they don't call themselves housewives. While some men do more than others around the house I read that the biggest increase in men's home tasks have been with childcare related tasks. I did read the other day that in Australia there is the most even sharing in households where both are over 60 and retired.
    I do also know some homemakers who feel their only job is childcare and expect the husband who works full time to do at least half the housework. I don't think that is really fair but that's another topic entirely.

    Hi Marie, at least your dictionary had the word homemaker. My dictionary is only 10 years old and the term didn't exist.

    Hi Gigi, yes it was much easier when I worked, I just said I was physiotherapist and it didn't matter that I only worked 12 hours a week. I have a friend who always answers " I'm lucky enough to stay home and care for my family and home" that is usually greeted with "How nice" and then a change in conversation topic. Another acquaintance usually says , quite defensively, "I have the most important job in the world,being a mother." That gets a similar reaction.

    Hi Michelle,Imagine if you wrote that on the census form, Domestic Goddess.You know although Martha Stewart has some great ideas about homemaking I'm not so sure she ever made such a wonderful home.She seems to be more about appearances than genuinely making a home. I may be misjudging her but that is my gut feeling.

  11. Jenny,
    When asked, I say I'm a homemaker. But what title would I like best? Domestic Goddess!


  12. Hi Craftydabbler, When children are at home you obviously are a stay at home mum who probably also cares for the house. "Stay at home mum" can be a bit condescending too I found but I guess that is the problem with titles. I agree that everyone should be encouraged to be the person they are without having to be slotted into a category. But people will do it to you anyway.
    Housewife/homemaker/stay at home mum are all very emotive titles , they all have their share of stereotypes as well. To a certain extent that happens with any title such as waitress, doctor etc but because it is unpaid work, a vocation really, the work that these titles describe is often not held in high esteem. That doesn't matter if you are enjoying your work but it may put others off joining the ranks . Jodi says she calls herself incredibly blessed and doesn't worry about a title, sound like a good idea to me.

  13. Hi Jody, another Domestic Goddess throws her hat into the ring.

  14. Well I haven't researched either term and can only speak for myself. When I grew up all women who didn't work outside the home were referred to as 'housewife' as far as I know. I don't recall hearing the term 'homemaker' used as a substitute term until after women's lib was here. Then I think that housewife was considered old-fashioned or perhaps a put-down for a person. On the other hand homemaker was to denote that a woman chose to stay home and was happy to do so. I remember hearing people say "I am not married to a house" and they thought housewife was a negative term. In reality, whatever one chooses to call it, the amount of work and the kind of duties are the same and it requires dedication and skill and selflessness and love. Working outside the home for pay may have liberated some women but I feel much more liberated now that I remain home than when I held down my second job outside the home, because I still had my first job - homemaker/housewife - at the same time.
    Very interesting subject for discussion this is.

  15. I'm not sure which of these terms I prefer. I always used to call myself a domestic engineer, but I'm proud to be at home, raising a family and caring for my husband, so I shouldn't appear embarrassed by creating some silly title for what I do. I think housewife is the more commonly accepted term in the circles that I move in, so that is what I'll be. And proud to say so to boot! But there will be NO "just a" in front.

  16. I usually put "mother", but you've got me thinking now!

  17. A few thoughts as someone who works outside the home (and within it). It seems to me that housewife is defining a woman in relation to her marital status; homemaker seems a little more focussed on what she does rather than is she is married. Whereas mother seems to include both a relational element and a nod to the activities associate with the role.

    According to the definitions Jenny posted I'd describe myself as a homemaker if I was forced to choose one or the other; my partner stays home and his job is to manage the day to day issues. I contribute to making the house a pleasant place but only in an ad hoc way. But really,I think of myself as a mother.

    As a feminist and as someone who works outside the home I'm always taken aback when mothers/housewives/homemakers say they feel their choices aren't respected because I often feel people judging me for not being at home with the girls! I think we're all aiming to find a way of living that works for us and our families and there's lots of ways of doing that and names for how we do it. Maybe the images called forth by those names have less to do with dictionary definitions and more to do with out own cultural and family backgrounds.

  18. Hi Connie and welcome, I feel much more liberated too since I stopped working in that I really am my own boss and can direct my own day. I guess though this role that I have chosen might feel oppressive if I didn't have a choice.

    Hi Lenny, good on you. I think housewife is the more common Tasmanian term but I don't move in wide social circles so I could be wrong.

    Hi Susan, I tend to think mother is only part of the job but of course the wide definition of a mother's job would most likely include all the other stuff as well.

    Hi Kris, When I worked and my husband was at home with our eldest son he took over the housewifely duties and I think I saw myself as a mum, a wife and a physio. When we both worked part time and shared the home responsibilities I thought of myself as all of the above plus a housewife on the days I didn't work outside the home. When I was home full time with little ones I primarily thought of myself as a mother and also a housewife. Now I'm home full time with all the children at school I'm starting to think of myself as a housewife but not with a narrow definition but as someone who loves and cares for her family and home full time. And I must say that I feel blessed that at the time when I feel so strongly that this is where I want to be I have been able to be here.

  19. Is this all about re-claiming the words and making something positive out of them?

    Many people have pointed out that the term "housewife" is a little iffy because no woman is married to a house! Yet, this is a very traditional English word which describes what was once a very important job. Managing the house well meant the difference between wealth and penury. It was just as important of the husband's (think husbandry here) management of their land. Basically, food that you didn't grow yourself was incredibly expensive, there was no way to preserve food for hard, cold British winter other than well, preserving! This took skill, time, organisation. A housewife's job was incredibly important...but it was a job that was essentially devalued by an increasing commodification of society.

    We must think that well before the industrial and agricultural revolutions the home was an economic unit, the "separate spheres" were blurred. It wasn't until the early Victorian period where men left their homes every day to go to work, leaving the women behind to take care of the house. This coincided with improvements in food technology and readily available consumer goods...and the eventual devaluing of the "housewife's" job.

    I've always understood that "homemaker" was an American term, and I only apply it to myself whilst blogging. It's not yet part of the vernacular in the UK. Saying that, it is the term I currently prefer, not because it is any more or less PC than "housewife" but because it just fits what I do. I feel that homemaker best describes what a modern woman does in the home. As whereas, the 17th and 18th century housewife's role was crucial to the *economic* functioning of the household, a homemaker's job is absolutely crucial to the *emotional/physical/spiritual* functioning of the household. This does not lessen the status of the homemaker, as what is needed, in this day and age, is someone ready to take care of these things willingly and as full-time as possible!

    Bottom line is, whatever we call ourselves, we do an important job and should be willing to say out loud as much to our detractors!

    Here's a question for you though. Are simple livers more like the 17th/18th century housewife than 21st century homemaker?

  20. I personally quite like the word housewife. To me it implies all those actions that make a home a pleasant place to be and look to the welfare of those living there. I also think that it implies a life partnership (or marriage), maximising the resources available to the family. As I've gone back to work and all the cards have been thrown in the air, it's interesting to me just how important the role is. And how much learning G has to do to pick up some of those cards.

  21. Social History and Etymology 101... ;-)

    Until the late 60's most married women when asked would answer "housewife". When asked about employment for any type of informational form (ex.: checking into a hospital) the answer generally typed in was "housewife". Homemaker was used but, not often a a title. "As homemakers", would be more likely a term used in ladies magazines. Women might be introduced to an audience (at a meeting, or in an article), as "wife and homemaker".

    At that time women were proud to be wives- becoming a wife (and usually, starting a family) was looked forward to. Remember hope chests? :-) But it was men, too, who looked forward to getting married. Men might settle a little later (late twenties to thirty), because (1) they have always had more freedom to pursue their interests, and (2) they wanted to have a career and some savings to start their family. But any man who continued on as a bachelor was viewed with some suspicion; marriage and family was normal in most every community.

    Most generally, women from monied and educated families settled in their mid twenties. In most colleges, there was a rule against going steady with one man. Women who were "pinned" (wore their boyfriend's fraternity pin as a sign of a relationship) did so secretly, or risked being expelled from their sorority. If a girl married while still in college, she very often left school. A settled home and family was the rule for most of society, no matter what the "class".


  22. Hi Natalie, I guess I am trying to reclaim a good honest word and give it the respect it deserves. Thanks for the history, that was really interesting. As for your question, perhaps those who are choosing to be more self reliant need to be more like the 17th/18th century housewife. Thrift and good home management certainly go a long way to building greater self reliance. Organising the growing and storage of food can make a great difference also.I think we have the chance to be reasonable echoes of our hardworking ancestors.

    Hi Janet and welcome, I'm glad you like housewife because after all this discussion I think that is where my allegiance lies.It's amazing how much more aware you become of all the things you did around the home when you see someone else taking over.And it's true , all those little things that make up the dailiness of home life really are important to the smooth running of the home and contentment of the family regardless of who does them.

    Hi Marie, thanks for the introduction to the social history of the 1960s.My how things have changed. I think that is one of the most challenging aspects of living in our time, we have to make our own rules, follow our own consciences rather than follow the conventions of society at large. It can be scary and freeing at the same time.

  23. Hi Jenny:

    Don't take me too seriously- I'm not a sociologist. :-)

    I've been thinking about the word housewife since reading your post and I realized I haven't heard that term used as a title for many years. I think, here in the USA, anyway, it's just about resigned to history. Stay-at-home mom is used. Of course, that only relates to women who have children living at home.

    More women making the choice to stay at home may change that, but as it stands, I think it's almost archaic.


  24. Hi Jenny, I have been thinking about this post today and decided I would come down on the side of housewife though reading through the comments I see I am in the minority. Perhaps its because I am english, housewife is the word I am most familiar with. I tend to associate the term home-maker with the appearance of the home rather than the management of it but that may well be a different interpretation than in America where I think the word is used more.
    I have a 1930s book "The Complete Illustrated Household Encyclopedia". In its introduction it says that the book is for the housewife and her husband and that "The book takes as its watchwords: Happy, healthful homelife; efficient household management and craftsmanlike development and upkeep". The book maybe 70 years old but I think those words still describe the aims of a housewife today.

  25. I generally use the term "homemaker" because that's what I spend my days doing...making a home for my family.

    "Housewife" does have a bit of a negative connotation. I suppose it has to do with the 70s and all that feminist stuff (not a big fan of it all, personally).

    But also, to me, "housewife" has an air of being a kept woman. The term doesn't imply activity like homemaker does. I guess in the back of my mind "housewife" sounds lazier than "homemaker".

    Although, if that's the case, I'd have to admit that I aspire to homemaker status but am probably more of a housewife LOL!

  26. I read this yesterday and have just come back to it after thinking about it overnight.

    I think you're spot on with the terms being either american or english. I think housewife is more commonly used in australia. I think I've only encountered homemaker in a women's mag or online.

    I've been trying to remember if I've ever described myself as a housewife and I don't think I have. When I was working I called myself a 'writer' so that even when I was working as a journalist or a technical writer, I was still a writer.

    I think my preferred term is a Rhonda or a Jenny, or a Jodi, or Natalie. I hate pigeon holing people; want to know them rather than that they do.

    I wonder if they used the word "housewives" in the title of that ghastly program for it's negative American connotations. I'm guessing they might have.

  27. Hi Willow, that is a wonderful description of our job. Thanks for that. I really think the US connotation of a homemaker is basically the same as our Anglo connotation of housewife. Housewife to me is a good honest word and with the description you have supplied it suits me fine.

    Hi Dannielle, I would never have thought to generalise laziness to housewives but I'm certain that is because I'm Australian and you are American and we have been subjected to different media bias. Anyone who does work for no pay is not held in high esteem here unless they are a mother of young children but I've never been aware of houswives being thought of as lazy. I imagine they are seen as suspect though as they are not out there earning money, perhaps they are seen as lazy. I don't know.

    Hi Rhonda. it's interesting that when you worked for money you were happy to give yourself a title but now you prefer just your name. Is it that we have liberated ourselves from needing a title that describes our daily purpose or it's too unpalatable to call ourselves housewives/homemakers/domestic goddesses/whatever. After all everyone else has a title: schoolchild, student,lawyer, politician, farmer, seamstress etc.Our society seems to demand a title but we a nameless and probably faceless too. Just a thought.

  28. Jenny, I think it's more that I don't want to be defined by my job now, and shouldn't have fallen for it before either. When I gave up working for pay, I felt liberated and choosing to be a rhonda instead of a work title now is part of that.

    It's definately something to think about.

  29. WOW!! This has been a great debate. I have loved reading everyone's comments and thoughts on this and think I have learnt alot.


Thanks so much for taking the time to chat. I don't always have time to reply but I do read every message you leave.