When BBC Stories aired in January 2020 the short documentary “‘Submitting to my husband like it’s 1959’: Why I became a TradWife” reactions were passionate. On the one hand, those who focused on the home-cooked meals observed a confident and well-organized woman in a serene, pastoral household who simply chose to devote herself to family life. On the other side were those who recognized this phenomenon in the larger ideological context of white nationalism and the Radical Right.
Alene Kate Pettitt—the British TradWife featured in the documentary who runs The Darling Academy, an online resource for women who aspire to be traditional housewives (#TradWife, #Tradlife)—expressed her utter, seemingly genuine shock when being told that TradWives may have something to do with white supremacy. What are the main threads of these debates? And what connections exist between domestic choices and white supremacist ideologies?
Pettitt’s media blitz on the documentary and several morning shows came with a tired mantra: “It’s my choice!”—a factual statement that stands in for the ideological baggage it tries to camouflage. But whereas she kept recycling the feminist valorization of “choice” she rejected feminism as a movement that caused the over-sexualization of women and inflicted upon them an impossible myth: the idea that it is feasible to combine family, career, kids and the ability to make the perfect pot pie.
Many of the commentaries written about her fell in the trap of discussing Tradwives as an anti-feminist or possibly an ultra-feminist phenomenon as Pettitt herself does not shy away from providing her own definition of feminism: “My view on feminism is that it’s about choices. To say you can go into the working world and compete with men and you’re not allowed to stay at home–to me is taking a choice away.”
Choice is of course a major legacy of the second feminist wave which focused on validating women’s autonomy in opting for roles against normative, patriarchal expectations. But even back in the 1960s it was obvious that choice was a divisive concept when questions of pornography and sex work forced many women to reconcile with the idea that people do not always make the choices you expect them to make.
Appealing to the importance of maintaining “tradition” is one of the ways in which nationalist rhetoric claims an essentialized and largely a-historical version of culture
The current wave of neoliberal, postfeminist culture prioritizes choice over equity and continues to define mainstream feminism as hostile to femininity. As Ferguson argued, choice feminism supplanted feminist politics with an aversion towards judgement for fear that women may sound too radical and exclusionary, thus risk alienating everyone around them. TradWives enter these debates exactly at this point, aiming to validate normative femininity as “a resource to be deployed by individual women within this field of greater opportunities”—a field of opportunities that was essentially made possible by the feminist waves of the 20th century.
Wifely submission as feminist backlash
In trading feminism for femininity Pettitt is far less provocative compared to her USA counterparts. Helen Andelin, the author of Fascinating Womanhood: How the Ideal Woman Awakens a Man’s Deepest Love and Tenderness, is a legend amongst the ever expanding literature on wifely submission that is mostly based on biblical justification. As Snyder-Hall points out, the book, now in its 6th edition, was written in 1963 as an anti-feminist response to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.
Andelin’s daughter, Dixie Andelin Forsyth, relaunched the 70s “femininity classes” as a booming online business dedicated to teaching women how to cultivate ideal womanhood, manage their nagging and attract men by inspiring their masculinity. Dixie told Stylist: “We say to feminists: thanks for the trousers, but we see life a different way.”
There is a valid point to be made here from Susan Faludi’s 1991 book Backlash which foresaw a relapse in the feminist achievements of the 60s and 70s. On the other hand, Rottenberg and Orgad highlight not the backlash but the current reality behind TradWives. They argue that we should hear their voices as a critique of neoliberalism, where the feminist overpromise of work-life balance has miserably failed in the age of late capitalism, austerity and limited investment in social services.
However, maintaining the debate on TradWives at the level of feminist factions misses the point. In order to appreciate how all these arguments are deliberate deflections, we need to attend carefully to the expressions that go unnoticed. First, the trademarking of “tradition” introduces the language of nationalism. Traditions are frozen moments in history arbitrarily chosen from the cultural repertoire as “the” authentic expression of the national collective. Oftentimes these traditions are invented, as Hobsbawm argued. Appealing to the importance of maintaining “tradition” is one of the ways in which nationalist rhetoric claims an essentialized and largely a-historical version of culture.
This is exactly what Pettitt did when she was shown lovingly ironing her husband’s shirt in a house filled with British flag imagery in posters and garlands: “It’s harnessing the best about what made Britain great during that time where you could leave your front door open and know that you were safe, and you knew your neighbors in the street.”
Sexism functions as the gateway drug to white supremacy: men bonding over misogyny and rallying for the white race
This romanticized view of a mythical past is the radical right’s coded language on demographic panics which references a time when the country did not have so many immigrants or foreigners or people of color. Pettitt becomes more specific when she concludes: “We can have that again, things are changing so fast. We don’t even know the identity of our own country anymore.” The use of “1959” is also oddly specific but nevertheless measured as it nested in the post-war period that was still unharmed by the revolutionary 60s and 70s.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of the TradWives hashtag is the other half of the term: wives. Women defined by their relationship to men, from the perspective of men. Specifically, men of the alt-right. The TradWives trend articulates not only women’s rows over their choices but also how the manosphere brings together those who feel blindsided by the feminist movement and want to teach women how to take care of their man and give birth to more (white) babies. And this is how sexism functions as the gateway drug to white supremacy: men bonding over misogyny and rallying for the white race.
Understanding men’s investment in the TradWives debate is, therefore, an important aspect in appreciating the link with supremacist ideologies: both male supremacy and white supremacy. Perusing the #TradWife world takes only a few minutes to get to #TradLife and WhiteDate.Net. Annie Kelly, a researcher on the anti-feminist culture of the far right has pointed out that TradWives solved a huge problem for the alt-right which realized early on that it needed to consider the lack of women in the movement.
For Marcus Follin, a Swedish alt-right nationalist who calls himself ‘The Golden One’, this was “The Woman Question,” which refers to the fact that women find it difficult to join the alt-right because of its blatant misogyny. Follin had urged men to tone it down so that wholesome women would want to become traditional housewives in order to save the nation by helping the (white race) become great again. TradWives give women a purpose and attach a friendly face to white nationalism.
TradWives solved a huge problem for the alt-right which realized early on that it needed to consider the lack of women in the movement
The idea that all women used to be housewives who are now unfairly torn between family, work and their love for cooking has already been discredited by black feminists who pointed out the blind spots of (white) feminism with its focus on women’s access to the workplace.
Even before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality, there was Sojourner Truth’s Ain’t I a Woman? and women pointing out the obvious: that many of them always worked outside the house because they were farmers, or poor, or single mothers, or insolvent or all of the above. Thus, the TradWives debate is not new for feminism but it is a new and effective recruiting tool for the growing intersection between toxic masculinity and white supremacy.