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'Just a Housewife' : Far From 'Downplaying the Housewife Bit,' Author Glenna Matthews Explores the Injustice of the 'Just' in the History of Homemakers

February 19, 1988|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Before she was 19, Laguna Beach High School graduate Glenna Matthews had already earned the two titles typical young women of the 1950s valued above all others: Mrs. and Mom.

Still, she wasn't quite satisfied. However inexplicable it may have been to her friends and to the academic world, she was determined to add something else to her name: a Ph.D.

Not that she didn't enjoy her role as a housewife. "I loved what I was doing raising my children," she says. "I thought of it as socially valuable work."

And whenever anyone referred to her as "just a housewife," she took offense, for herself and all the other housewives she knew and respected.

Meanwhile, she kept up her studies by correspondence as she followed her Air Force husband from base to base, waiting until her son and daughter started school before she returned to the classroom herself.

In the mid-'70s, when Matthews, then working on a doctorate in American history, complained that her professors and fellow students weren't taking her as seriously as she'd hoped, a friend offered her some advice. "She said, 'For God's sake, downplay the housewife bit. Distance yourself from that identity as much as possible.' Well, that struck me as obnoxious then and it still does. I had had all these valuable experiences. I thought my fellow housewives were so dedicated and admirable. And I was being asked to repudiate all that identity? It really rankled."

It was no coincidence, then, that years later when Glenna Matthews, Ph.D., sat through a dinner party listening to her friends from academia argue over whether women's contribution to American culture had been negative or positive, she decided to speak up with the combined authority of a veteran housewife and a trained historian.

The result, published last fall by Oxford University Press, is "Just a Housewife: The Rise and Fall of Domesticity in America."

The book, a feminist study of the history of housewifery, is something neither side of the women's movement could have anticipated just a few years ago, when feminists and housewives largely turned their backs on one another.

For Matthews, now back in her native Orange County as a visiting history professor at UC Irvine, the project was an attempt to heal not only that rift but her own. "I'd had almost these two distinct lives," she says. "I think in a sense it was not only that I wanted to write for women who'd had similar experiences, but it was a kind of act of resolution of those disparate strands of my own life, a way to bring them together."

Instead of downplaying "the housewife bit," Matthews steeped herself in it. She visited 200-year-old kitchens with hearths so enormous she could stand in them and imagine herself a Colonial wife tending a one-pot supper over an open fire. She got special permission to handle household utensils from bygone days stored in a back room at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, lifting old soup ladles and heavy iron skillets to gain a perspective on the early American housewife that words alone couldn't give her.

She found accounts of women on the Overland Trail who baked pies on hot rocks along the way, "in order to maintain a sense of home. That's my idea of heroism," she says.

She sorted through old recipe books, household hint booklets and advertising, and perused "potboiler" novels of the 1850s. She reread the works of classic American authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sinclair Lewis, all the while noting references to housewives and domesticity.

Matthews herself was somewhat surprised at the lost history she uncovered. She discovered that the designation "housewife" didn't always include the apologetic qualifier, "just a . . . "

On the contrary, Matthews found, during the American revolution, housewives played an active political role, boycotting British goods and rearranging their own households as a result. After the war, the "Republican Mother" was respected as the educator of the young citizens upon whom the future of the fledgling nation would depend.

Even in her cooking, the early American housewife was revolutionary, favoring native ingredients and patriotically baking such dishes as "Independence Cake," for which Matthews discovered a recipe in a cookbook from 1800.

Guided by the writings of political philosophers such as Alexis de Tocqueville, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, American men and women both placed an increasingly higher value on the role of nurturer. Authoritarian parenting was replaced by a more affectionate, flexible approach, and marriage became more compassionate and egalitarian, according to Matthews, even though women had few rights under the law.

By the mid-1800s, what Matthews calls the "Golden Age of Domesticity" was in full flower, with the housewife revered as the central figure and moral arbiter of society. "In 1850 a housewife knew she was essential not only to her family but also to her society," Matthews states in "Just a Housewife."

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