The differential ways in which our society reacts to the death of a patriarch and a housewife manifest categorically the extent to which patriarchy and the associated hierarchy cut across various facets of our day-to-day life. Incidentally, the orthodox social wisdom views the death of even the elderly male head of a family as a greater loss than that of a housewife. This acquired wisdom remains in perfect harmony with the patriarchal social structure which tends to invisibilize the multiple roles played by a housewife during her lifetime especially inside the household. Death of a housewife at the maximum is supposed to be an immense emotional loss often marginalizing her unpaid productive roles which she plays throughout her life.
The death of my mother, Neeta Rai, on January 13, 2020 who happened to be a housewife by choice led me to ponder over the stay-at-home motherhood and its uncomfortable relationship with the feminist movement. Born on March 02, 1956, in Varanasi, my mother could manage to acquire higher education (she was a postgraduate in Sociology from Banaras Hindu University besides holding B.Ed. degree) in the social environment which was fed with patriarchal notions. This could be possible largely due to the liberal atmosphere of her parents’ home. However, after her marriage she decided to remain as housewife (for reasons she was herself not very clear) and eventually settled as stay-at-home mother rearing two children to the best of her ability. She continued to ‘serve’ the whole family even after the age of 60 which is otherwise an age of retirement for the ‘bread-winning’ patriarch. In fact, in many ways, her responsibilities kept on increasing with her growing age which eventually disappeared only with her death.
Nevertheless, despite such relentless dedication of her for the entire household, the moment she chose to be a stay-at-home mother for whatsoever reason she went into oblivion both for the patriarchal society as well as the liberating forces including the feminist ones. This ‘nothingness’ of housewives for a patriarchal set-up is easily explicable as it feeds upon the oblivious status of housewives and their unpaid household labour. However, what is lamentable is that even the large part of feminist movement remains either silent or indifferent towards such stay-at-home mothers.
The various strands of feminist movement unequivocally treat the unpaid labour of stay-at-home mothers within household as a trap which consolidates patriarchy. The solutions which the feminist theorists offer to avoid this trap is either to move outside the household sphere and engage in so-called ‘productive’ works (as in the case of Marxist feminist theory) or not to enter into traditional marital relationship at all (as in the case of Radical feminist theory). As the experiences confirm, while the former solution subjects women to the ‘double burden’ of managing the household and the workplace both at the same time; the latter solution turns to be ‘too radical’ for a woman brought up in a society which is patriarchal at large. The only feminist strand which comes bit closer to offer some sensible pragmatic solution to tackle this situation is Socialist feminism which argues in favour of professionalization of child-care and household works through community kitchen and crèche. However, it requires extensive remodeling of existing social and familial structure thereby making it a remote possibility. Also, it does not take into account powerful emotional reasons why some women with young children do want to stay at home.
Keeping in mind the large number of stay-at-home mothers in our society and in the light of above discussion there is need to look for other possible alternatives which may serve the aforesaid purpose of liberating women, even though partly. One possible alternative might be the statutory recognition of work performed by housewives within the household. The state might institute a mechanism or legal framework for guaranteed monthly/annual income of the housewives drawing upon the share of the income of their husbands. After all, a regular monthly/annual income would serve the housewives better than they being merely nominee in service benefits of their husbands. This arrangement may redefine the marriage relationship as well in long run. The benefits of such an arrangement outweigh the counter-argument to this which fears that it would freeze women in their traditional roles as housewives. Such an arrangement has the potentiality of restoring the economic dignity of household work. Other provisions may include improved conditions of part-time paid work for housewives; provision of part-time daycare for stay-at-home mothers so as to provide them requisite leisure to hone their creative skills; community based programmes to acknowledge the productive value of works performed by housewives; so on and so forth.
All this is possible only when the dominant strand of feminist movement starts taking into account the issues of voluntary stay-at-home mothers and housewives in a more sensitive manner, instead of merely pitying on them and considering them as ‘passive’ victims of patriarchal social structure. It is high time to consider them as ‘active’ ‘thinking’ women who prioritized certain things over their individual growth. While they cannot be the role model for feminist movement and its stated goals, they are at least the reality of Indian society which needs attention. The feminist movement needs to expand its vision to incorporate the lives and desires of thousands of stay-at-home mothers and housewives. It is required to give voice and recognition to the services of these women who although succumbed consciously or unconsciously to patriarchal social structure but, in turn, resisted it on daily basis to gain petty concessions which is nowhere insignificant. They are the ones who have faced the harsh realities of traditional social structure, however, they are nowhere ‘mindless’ victims of it. They are the living, breathing, thinking, loving, courageous, foolish and daring women who need recognition in any endeavour towards empowerment of women.
Saurav Kumar Rai is presently working as Senior Research Assistant at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teen Murti House, New Delhi. He has done his PhD on aspects of social history of health and medicine from the Department of History, University of Delhi. His research interests simultaneously include gender history, facets of Gandhian movement and archival studies.