Consumption Rather Than Production: The Modern Housewife
Last week I went to an intriguing talk by organizational psychologist Carrie Miles, who spoke about changing gender norms in LDS society.
One thing that caught my attention was how she traced the way gender roles functioned in pre-industrial society to the way they work now in modern society. According to Miles, in pre-industrial society, women were essential to the survival of the family because they spent the vast majority of their time engaged in production — gardening, sewing clothes, making butter etc. In these pre-industrial societies, if your kid needed socks, there was one way to get them — the mom knit them. Purchasing such items was not economically feasible for most families, which generally lived in a subsistence mode. They produced the vast majority of what they consumed.
Additionally, women were essential because the survival of these families depended on producing labor (children) who would grow to work the fields, help nurse the elderly. Men, on the other hand did the heavy work with the plows, etc., work that women generally didn’t do because it would endanger pregnancy.
Miles pointed out that the LDS Church was born just at the beginning of the industrial revolution, so it makes sense that it, like other churches of the time, would embrace current ideas about sex divisions and gender roles. I would venture to add that what separates Mormons from other Christian religions on this subject, though, is that Mormons actually deify gender roles.
Fast forward 130 years. It no longer makes economic sense for women to be making their own soap, knitting their own socks, making their own clothes, or for that matter, having enormous families. What used to be essential to the well-being of the family (knitting, sewing, etc.) is now an expensive hobby. Women have labor saving devices like washing machines as well as schools to send their kids to, so the housewife is home alone much of the time and her presence is not essential like it used to be. She spends much of her free time consuming or purchasing for the family, rather than producing for the family.
Thus begins the mass exodus of women into the labor market in the 1960’s. Betty Friedan captures the feelings of emptiness and uselessness of housewives in the 1950’s and 60’s in her book The Feminine Mystique.
All this was fascinating to me, and I couldn’t help but wonder how Mormon women who stay at home today escape those feminine mystique feelings of emptiness. I’m sure several don’t escape them entirely, but many seem to find ways to fill their days with purpose, and moreover with production. Is this why so many Mormon women are engaged in handicrafts, blogging, photography, etc.? Because they feel this intense need to not just consume, but also produce? Do you feel a need to produce and what form does that production take?