The Universal Basic Income and the Myth of the Housewife

A recent article by Amber A’Lee Frost in Jacobin magazine argues that presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s proposal for a Universal Basic Income (UBI) would be bad because the US had already tried a version of it, and, as an experiment, it was an abject failure. According to Frost, the people who last received a UBI in the United States were the housewives who lived during the decades after World War II, in particular, the affluent white women whose husbands’ breadwinner jobs allowed them to have single-income households. Frost’s argument about the UBI concerns current political issues, but her understanding about housewives of the postwar era draws on a powerful and popular myth about white, middle-class housewives that divorces those women from their own history and obscures their everyday experiences.

To start with, it is important to keep in mind that the UBI is a public policy proposal and not a family relationship. It is a direct government payment that would support needy Americans. The United States almost had one. In 1971, President Richard Nixon proposed the Family Assistance Plan, which he briefly supported because he thought it might reduce the nation’s poverty rate.1 This plan, as with the UBI generally, would have helped the nation’s poorest families, particularly the non-white families who faced higher poverty rates than white families and who could have benefitted from a non-discriminatory program.2

In Frost’s telling, postwar housewives received this form of assistance through their marriages to breadwinning men. Doing this created a private, family-based welfare system with husbands, not the government, as the payers. Certainly, there is a glimmer of truth in her UBI claim, but her depiction of housewives rests more on myth than on history. White affluent women were kept at home with nothing but boredom to keep them company, thanks to their husbands’ wages.

Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

However, the middle-class housewife of the postwar era led a more complicated life than that myth suggests. We can see this complication if we turn to Frost’s chief historical source: Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Undeniably, Friedan’s book still possesses much of the power it had when first published in 1963. Friedan began the book with what she provocatively called “the problem with no name”: a question she imagined every housewife must be asking themselves late at night when they finally had a moment to themselves. After having spent all day making beds, shopping, and eating sandwiches with her kids, she would wonder, “Is this all?”3 It was a question with a stunningly resonant despair at its heart, a despair that many women may have felt but one tied to the love and obligations at the center of their marriages.4

Friedan, like many women after World War II, faced limited professional options and filled the gendered role in the household of an unwaged worker. Written after being fired from her job as a journalist after she became pregnant in 1952, Friedan’s book gave many middle-class white women a language to express their unhappiness at similar situations and an answer to their struggles to find meaning in their lives.5 Their pain was the result of discrimination from a structural inequality that first punished them for wanting careers and then punished them for having wanted one in the first place. Whereas Friedan blamed employers and advice literature for the resultant suffering, Frost blames heterosexual marriage by likening it to a welfare system that trapped women in an unending cycle of dependency.

Friedan’s work, which spoke a truth so powerful that it could reduce its readers to tears, focused on the ceaseless toil needed to maintain their families.6 Postwar housewives were not the “kept” women Frost imagines but, as Friedan herself experienced, laborers in their own homes.7 They were overworked, too, sometimes to exhaustion.8 Their unwaged, emotionally charged work kept their families fed, clothed, clean, and comforted but often at a great cost.9 This was the real trap for many: the ceaseless and unending work of the home despite the modern conveniences that had promised less work for mother.10

Cake-baking provides a simple yet powerful glimpse into the mixture of love and labor at the heart of the affluent housewife’s daily life. Having to feed a family is a laborious task involving many skills, such as budgeting, deal hunting, meal planning, and cooking, so it is no small task to add dessert baking to the daily workload. Nevertheless, frosted, layered cakes were popular postwar treats. Cakes were so popular that they reconfigured “the emotional landscape of domesticity itself.”11 A woman could demonstrate with their frosted decorations a deep love for her family in a uniquely sweet form. By adorning the cake with various extras, whether with a particular frosting, fruit, or some other object, she proved she was so dedicated to her family’s happiness that she would take time from her busy schedule to bake and decorate a cake for them. Cake baking was yet one more laborious task but one with a potentially potent emotional reward.

Looking beyond household labor and toward housewives’ political identity reveals how deeply important their labor identity was to them. To identify politically as a consumer — as many housewives did — was to be an ally of labor. Consumers beginning in the 1890s took it upon themselves to champion workers’ rights, continuing this tradition all the way through the 1970s.12 Their politics reflected this connection. Women consumers used the tools of the labor movement when fighting their own battles. In 1935, housewives worked with labor unions to organize meat boycotts throughout the country to protest the high cost of living. Led by Mary Zuk, they went on strike in an attempt to put pressure up the supply chain to the meat companies that consumers blamed for the high prices.13 In the following decades, housewives launched several subsequent meat boycotts, all with the same goal of making it cheaper to feed their families.

Housewives protest in front of restaurants and butcher shops in Hamtramck, Michigan, 1935. (Courtesy Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University)

Housewives did not receive a UBI but worked to maintain and sustain the families that they loved or, in some cases, struggled to love. This was the complication. As reproductive laborers, their daily life was tangled up in expectations made by themselves and others of what it meant to love and care for their families. While many white middle-class women suffered from having professional or formal employment opportunities stripped from them, theirs was a life still stuffed with meaningful work. Relying on a myth of how they lived only serves to erase this history.

Notes

  1. Brian Steensland, The Failed Welfare Revolution: America’s Struggle Over Guaranteed Income Policy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 97. Return to text.
  2. On white families and federal support, see Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Norton, 2005). Return to text.
  3. Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York: Norton, 1963), 15. Return to text.
  4. Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 54–58. Return to text.
  5. Stephanie Coontz, A Strange Stirring: “The Feminine Mystique” and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (New York: Basic Books, 2011). Return to text.
  6. For an example of crying while reading The Feminine Mystique, see Coontz, A Strange Stirring, 19. Return to text.
  7. Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, 15. Return to text.
  8. Jessica Weiss, To Have and to Hold: Marriage, the Baby Boom, and Social Change (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 66–67. Return to text.
  9. On housework as unwaged work, see Jodi Vandenberg-Daves, Modern Motherhood: An American History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2014), 1–8. Return to text.
  10. Ruth Schwartz Cowan, More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave (New York: Basic Books, 1983). Return to text.
  11. Laura Shapiro, Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America (New York: Viking, 2004), 68. Return to text.
  12. Lawrence Glickman, Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). Return to text.
  13. Emily L.B. Twarog, Politics of the Pantry: Housewives, Food, and Consumer Protest in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 9–10. Return to text.

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