Women's Work

The Insidious Trap of the “Tradwife Movement”

Women are being told to know their role as caregivers—a virtue that positions women as America’s convenient, and most undervalued social safety net.

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Harvey Weinstein’s 2020 rape conviction has been overturned. In April, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments concerning Idaho laws that limit abortion only to cases of impending maternal mortality. The law is unclear: How close to death must she be before receiving this healthcare? Kansas City Chiefs football-kicking expert Harrison Butker took the occasion of a college commencement to inform female graduates that their professional aspirations were rooted in “diabolical lies” and that their greatest vocation would be as wife and mother.

As I doomscroll social media these days, I see tradwives puttering contentedly around cartoonishly clean kitchens, folding biscuit dough. Their aprons and lipsticked pouts promise contentment if women just submit to their husbands as they do so happily.

We may be experiencing history’s usual pendulum swing after a feminist movement threatens to right gendered power imbalances, but the defensive pushback against female autonomy seems baldly ugly this time. It can be difficult to know how to respond to the veritable attack on modern womanhood. While women are being told to know their role, our actual role is so vital it’s nearly invisible: We are burdened with nothing short of holding together America’s social fabric.

And we’re exhausted.

Perhaps this ground-under feeling is by design—from the prevalence of sexual violence, to attacks on women’s reproductive health care, to economic positioning that often places women in lower-paying or unpaid roles.

As Jessica Calarco, sociologist at the University of Wisconsin and author of the forthcoming Holding It Together: How Women Became America’s Safety Net notes, women’s “underpaid but essential labor keeps our society—and our economy—from falling apart.” Given lack of affordable child or elder care, universal healthcare, paid family leave or a bevy of other programs that sustain life in other countries, that work most often falls to women. No wonder there is such a push to control women’s bodies and keep us home, providing that care.

Beyond all the Handmaid’s Tale memes, in our lived dystopia—complete with lawmakers conflating birth control methods with abortion and banning abortion around the country—women face increasingly difficult odds managing when and how many children they produce. We know the statistics about women’s care burdens: Unless able to rely on a spouse’s salary, women must shell over huge chunks of their paychecks to cover childcare so they can work, and also tend in higher numbers to ailing or elderly relatives, while doing a greater share of housework in opposite-sex marriages. Women take the majority of low-paying care-giving jobs. Many opt to work as freelancers because of the flexibility it affords to fit their caregiving schedules, leaving many with gig pay and no benefits. They scrape by and are told this is natural. Women just prefer caring for others.

Here’s what isn’t as obvious: All this is part of a gender mythology that works to keep women in their proper place—fulfilling functions other countries reserve for government care-providing programs.


In state reproductive-rights referenda, women have organized and insisted that their rights be preserved. But it takes a heroic stamina to protest the legal onslaught against women’s bodies, while providing the majority of care in our everyday lives and resisting the building cultural narrative that women’s most righteous duty is service in the home.

In 2017, during those halcyon pre-pandemic times, when I had the energy to wax idealistic, I met with a friend’s mother for breakfast to ask how she and her friends organized consciousness-raising groups decades earlier. I also wanted to know why the second-wave feminist movement, which began in the 1960s, fizzled out by the 1980s.

My friend’s mother looked me in the eye and said, “We were exhausted. We moved to the suburbs and had babies.” I couldn’t imagine such fatigue then, a willingness to pack in such a long fight and just hope the next generation would dismantle injustices.

If nothing else, COVID-19 lockdowns exposed just how much we could drain women of their energy and resources. The duty to juggle work and childcare disproportionately fell to women—those “lucky” enough to be able to work from home. Lower-pay caregivers, predominantly women of color, faced the brunt of illness (often without medical coverage) as they labored on the frontlines of an ever-spreading disease —at nursing homes and daycares. Women were so overwhelmed, The New York Times opened a Primal Scream phone line

As temporary pandemic policies vanished, women have continued patching the holes in our safety net. But there’s only so much an individual can do. For example, volunteer programs across the country have seen a drop in people’s willingness or ability to contribute spare time to community projects, with women (who usually volunteer in the greatest numbers) dropping away at greater rates than men as compared to volunteerism in 2019.

Forget leaning in, we’re just managing. And the push to retreat is growing stronger just as a spring-loaded cultural trap prepares its great maw.

Tradwife influencers are a sentinel, and we laugh at them to our peril. These increasingly popular figures give polish to patriarchy, often in its Christian form, frequently with underlying elements of white supremacy. They are emblematic of America’s retrograde swing. Algorithms pump their content, which is especially alluring to a breed of men drawn to the idea of wifely submission and right-wing extremist politics. And maybe some other men, too.

As Calarco notes, a 2022 Ipsos poll found that almost half of American men surveyed believe “traditional masculinity” is under threat. Many blame feminism, saying it has done more harm than good. One in five Gen Z and Millennial men now believe violence against women is often provoked by the victim.

These ideas don’t come from nowhere.

Pastors and some Christian presses (what used to serve as a moral compass) tout women’s submission and Christian nationalism (a broader form of dominion unlikely to pursue feminist aims). Southern Baptists are set to vote this summer to finalize a ban on women as pastors or church elders. Meanwhile some Southern Baptist leaders have called their denomination’s sex abuse crisis (for which it is under U.S. Department of Justice investigation) a distraction and financial drain—rather than a stain on the faith. Joel Webbon, an Austin, Texas, pastor at Covenant Bible Church, has been making a name for himself explaining how in a Christian nationalist country, women would not be allowed to vote (their husbands’ votes would represent the family’s interests). Webbon further advises that men should not allow their wives to read any books their husbands have not yet read and approved. As he said in a sermon, he has told his wife, “You’re not going to outpace me.”

Meanwhile, American women are bent to serve our country as its social safety net—and carry that burden at a time our bodies and reproduction are increasingly policed. If elected, Donald Trump has expressed a willingness to allow red states to monitor pregnancies so as to be able to identify abortions.

Calarco’s work makes the case that an economy that relies upon women’s labor is thorough, crushing, and ultimately beneficial to business interests who underpay workers, line our public officials’ PACs, and pay low taxes that would otherwise help fund our needed social safety net. She reveals how a culture that disparages and limits women can keep going—by making women’s service obligatory to a functioning country.

Of course, gendered inequality comes in gradations. Those who are less oppressed—the upper income, the white, the educated—do well enough in our current system to pay others to help with care, making it unappealing to lose those advantages.

For the rest, economic precarity busies women—and mothers in particular—with the minutiae of survival. That doesn’t look like an Instagram-ready 1950s cosplay and rolling pin, to be sure.

Policy sings back to us with culture’s values, and right now, a great deal of cultural energy is pouring into placing women in subjugated roles that take us back, not by decades, but over a century. Webbon’s words ring ominously: “You’re not going to outpace me.”

As Calarco points out “the combination of forced childbearing and a lack of social safety net makes people easier to exploit.” It makes it easier to hold them back, stripping away their rights.

This is how women have been made to fade over and over. Exhausted, bodies treated as others’ property, depleted of supports that ought to help any member of society. And for the few who are content to uphold the system with a sense of pageantry, the benefit of a new dress to wear while serving up dinner.

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