Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Institute for Domestic Incarceration Survivors

What's wrong with being a housewife? I can think of plenty of things to do with the "job" itself, but The Women's Institute has been discussing the word instead.

According to an article in The Guardian last month "Progressives argue that the word - meaning a woman who keeps house - is outdated and derogatory. Traditionalists are furious and adamant that even discussing the matter is the result of political correctness". Elsewhere, Jane Shilling in The Times suggests that women should reclaim the word: "It’s been done successfully for “nigger” and “queer”, those terms of vile insult turned into triumphant badges of identity. Why not for housewife? Go on, ladies, say it aloud: I’m a housewife, and I’m proud".

In a separate article from The Times, the connotations and marketabilty of the term are considered: "Barbara Littlewood, a lecturer in sociology at Glasgow University, feels the change is necessary if the organisation is to survive. “The use of the term housewife could well be putting off the younger generation and even those in their 40s,” she said, adding that it had connotations of being forced to stay at home darning socks and could be seen as harking back to the 1950s when men were the sole breadwinners".

So what's wrong with the word and what might its alternatives be? Free Dictionary defines it as "A woman who manages her own household as her main occupation" while a search on Wikipedia redirects you straight away to an alternative term "homemaker" and describes it as "a person whose prime occupation is to care for their family and home. The term homemaker is used in preference to either housewife or househusband because it is inclusive, defines the role in terms of activities, rather than relation to another, and is independent of marital status. The terms stay-at-home mother and stay-at-home father are also used".

Even looking at the standard defintions of the word as derived from "hus" + "wif" isn't the whole story, as the word "wif" has drifted in meaning over time from "woman" to "married woman". And a look at Etymology Online flags up an even more damning drift: the word "hussy", once a shortened version of housewife, now means something much more pejorative: "Gradually broadened to mean "any woman or girl," and by 1650 was being applied to "a woman or girl who shows casual or improper behavior," and a general derogatory sense had overtaken the word by 19c."

It's a blooming minefield of semantic shifts and derogatory connotations. So, what are the alternatives if you're not married to the house? "Homemaker", as suggested by many feminists, just makes me think of sweaty-arsed builders waving England flags from their white vans. Maybe that's just me. Various spoof Political Correctness guides use the term "domestic incarceration survivor" to relate the experience of "keeping house" (uurgh) to a prison sentence. But what of the "progressives" in the W.I. themselves? "Homecraft" seems to be their favoured alternative, but quite how that switches from being an abstract noun to being a term that can be used as a title is unclear, and might lead to all sorts of clunky formulations such as "homecraft practioner", "homecraft engineer" and "homecraft bod". Anyone for "domestic goddess"?

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation
ENA5 - Language Change

2 comments:

Beth Kemp said...

My husband is a "stay at home dad" who hates being referred to as a "househusband" - "I am not married to the house!" is how hapless people who use the term find themselves answered. I think the preferred term also highlights that it is (in our case) the children who are the cause for not being employed outside the home, rather than the home itself.

I think housewives as a concept are outdated, in the sense of the assumption that a woman getting married would obviously be leaving her job. I think people who stay at home now do so more as an active choice than once was the case, hence the need for a positive, clear term.

Dan said...

That's probably a good test - see how men like the male equivalent.

I agree with what you say, but I'm not sure I can think of a suitable alternative term at the moment.