Consumption Rather than Production: The Modern Housewife?

Last year I went to an intriguing talk by organizational psychologist Carrie Miles, who spoke about changing gender norms in Mormon society.

One thing that caught my attention was how she traced the way gender roles functioned in pre-industrial society to the way they work now in modern society. According to Miles, in pre-industrial society, women were essential to the survival of the family because they spent the vast majority of their time engaged in production — gardening, sewing clothes, making butter etc. In these pre-industrial societies, if a kid needed socks, there was one way to get them — the mom knitted them. Purchasing such items was not economically feasible for most families, which generally lived in a subsistence mode. They produced the vast majority of what they consumed.

Additionally, women were essential because the survival of these families depended on producing labor (children) who would grow to work the fields, help nurse the elderly, etc. Men, on the other hand, did the heavy work with the plows, etc., work that women generally didn’t do because it would endanger pregnancy.

Miles pointed out that the Mormon Church was born (1830’s)  at the beginning of the industrial revolution, so it makes sense that it, like other churches of the time, would embrace current ideas about sex divisions and gender roles. (I would venture to add that what separates Mormons from other Christian religions on this subject, though, is that Mormons actually extend gender roles into the realm of the eternities.)

Fast forward 130 years. It no longer makes economic sense for many American women to be making their own soap, knitting their own socks, making their own clothes, or for that matter, having enormous families. What used to be essential to the well-being of the family (knitting, sewing, etc.) is now often an expensive hobby. Many middle class women have labor saving devices like washing machines as well as schools to send their kids to, so the housewife is home alone much of the time and her presence is not essential like it used to be. She spends much of her free time consuming or purchasing for the family, rather than producing for the family.

Thus begins the mass exodus of women into the labor market in the 1960’s. Betty Friedan captures the feelings of emptiness and uselessness of middle class American housewives in the 1950’s and 60’s in her book The Feminine Mystique.*

This story that Miles wove was fascinating to me since I spend part of my time as a stay at home mom (today’s euphemism for housewife).  I can absolutely see how stay at home moms might fall into patterns of focusing on consumption — walking around malls and stores is something you can often do somewhat easily with young kids to pass the time. And yet I also see many Mormon women (who are encouraged by Church leaders to stay home with kids if they can) managing to escape excessive patterns of consumption.  They have figured out ways to fill their days with purpose and production. Many are bloggers, photographers, writers, crafters, and community volunteers. Interestingly, many of the movers and shakers in the world of Mormon feminism are stay at home moms, who have the time and flexibility to organize, write, and work for change.  While I myself have some degree of angst about not contributing financially to my household, I do like the idea that there are stay at home moms out there who are figuring out new (and old) ways of creation and production.

*Friedan has been rightly critiqued for not addressing issues of race and class in her book. While many white middle class women experienced emptiness staying at home, many women of color and working class women were working hard to help support their families.

Categories: Mormonism

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10 replies

  1. In rural Greece up to the middle of the twentieth century, women not only did all of the things you mentioned, they also picked and preserved olives, fed and pastured animals near the home, milked, walked behind animal drawn ploughs, weeded, threshed, winnowed, ground grain by hand, baked bread, grew vegetables in kitchen gardens, carded, spun, wove, walked long several miles up and down hills to fields, cooked, preserved foods, made yogurt and cheese, made all the clothing for the family including underwear, spent hours embroidering the dowries that were the main items of value in the home, washed and laid out the dead, tended graves, did most of the work to create rural festivals, tramped grapes to make wine, in fact there was hardly anything they could not and did not do except pasture animals long distances from home, lift heavy stones to build houses or walls, work as blacksmiths, and fight in wars. These were not bored housewives, and though they did live in patriarchy: they had to accept arranged marriages, wait on their husbands and sons, and they could not protest violence in the home. They were stong women and they knew it, and I sensed a strength in them that I never knew in my mother or myself.

    PS Mormon members of my family are certainly involved in the “nomative” excessive consumption patterns of American suburban life.


    • Thank you, Carol, for giving us a non-American perspective on women’s roles in the 20th century. I loved your description of rural Greek women — talk about being essential to the survival of the family! I too suspected that the story Miles wove about the shift from production to consumption was very much focused on the suburban middle class white American experience. And yes, I too know many Mormons who fit into the typical excessive consumption patterns of modern America. Yet I find it interesting that for many of these women, they seem to sense something lacking in an exclusive consumption focus –thus a drive to also create/produce. It makes me wonder if this drive to produce is a widespread human need, if patterns of exclusive consumption often burn themselves out and lead to those feelings of emptiness and thus a desire to do more.


  2. Love this! I have been trying to shift my own patterns of consumption these past several years, particularly because I know that our family’s habits will be internalized by my own young children.


  3. Caroline,
    I think I always get a bit uneasy when you mention your angst about not contributing financially to your household since I feel your role and way of being at this time of your life is so fruitful and important. I do relate to the loneliness and at times sense of isolation, but this is not a new phenomena among stay-at-home mothers. Our foremothers from the 18th and 19th centuries have written compelling letters that speak of this lament.

    It is a challenge to raise children with a sense of simplicity and reverence for the community and environment given all the outside influences. Technology, while moving us forward in important ways, has also made a generation of children addicted to video gaming, texting and inability to see beyond their lap top screens. And while I move myself more and more towards living a life of less consumption with greater emphasis on organic food, less western medicine and more meditation, I can see that while I did the best I could with lessing the impact of having to have more, I can also see I could have done much, much more.

    It is so exciting to see young mothers moving away from a status quo of consumption to living with less.


    • Cynthie, thanks for your comment. I love that you can find space within feminism for women choosing to not be financial contributors to their families and instead focus on other ways to help others and self flourish. I sense that you are right to find room within feminism for this, but as you know, it’s not an easy space to inhabit.

      Cynthie and Grace, yes, I too worry about consumerism and the impact it has on my kids. It’s hard to know how to help them escape it. If they watch any amount of non-pbs tv, they are bombarded with ads for toys which are teaching them to want more, more, more. I like the philosophy of some of my friends, which is to direct money for kids towards meaningful experiences rather than stuff. I’m hoping to do better with that in the future. At the very least, I hope my kids will notice how I spend most of my time. Rather than shopping and thinking about what to spend money on next, I hope they see me reading and writing and engaged in a world of ideas.


      • My parents had a simple and, I think, brilliant answer to things like TV: they limited our exposure to it. Every week my sister and I were each allowed one hour of TV to watch, which we could watch together if we wished. Then, on Saturday morning (when the cartoons were on — dating myself here, I know!), we could each select two hours of cartoons to watch.

        Our grand total of TV watched per entire week was therefore maxed out at six hours. The only exception would be if we wanted to watch something our parents were watching as well. My parents thus had the ability to make sure we were watching things that were good for us, and they frequently watched TV with us. Consequently we were exposed to things like operas and ballets and PBS specials that we might not have chosen on our own.

        Also, there was no TV to get in the way of dinner together, and we’d frequently discuss, around the dinner table, what we’d seen on TV as well. I suspect this could work just as well with computers or game players, for example. Frankly, I know of no better way to ensure your children receive a good grounding in thinking critically about the false promises of advertisers and the emptiness of consumerism. :)


  4. Hi Caroline. It was fun to see you blogging about my work. This is published in my book, The Redemption of Love, btw.

    Women make an enormous economic contribution in the less developed world, but because childbearing makes them ‘domestically-specialized’, they get pushed out of the cash economy and become dependent on men.

    As someone told me my first trip to Uganda, ‘Women grow the coffee, women harvest the coffee, the men take the coffee to market and keep the money.’ (What is annoying to realize is that the husband may then spend the cash on girlfriends — his wife then goes to a witchdoctor to put a charm on him so he won’t waste her resources — then she is criticized for going to witchdoctors).

    What women do in the household, especially when you are caring for children, is enormously valuable. Just because it is not assigned a cash value does not make it less valuable.


    • Hi Carrie,
      Thanks for your comment! And thanks for that great presentation last year. As you can see, it gave me a lot to think about. I do hope I didn’t misrepresent your ideas too much in this post. When someone else briefly summarizes your work, there are bound to be nuances and details that go missing.

      Your example of the Uganda dynamic reminds me of what Mike has told me about economic studies on windfalls in developing countries. If I remember correctly, if the windfall is given to the man, he is more likely to spend it on himself — alcohol,etc. If the windfall is given to the woman, it’s more likely to be spent on the household or kids. But if it’s given to both and they both work cooperatively to figure out what to do with it, there is an optimum result. (Though that is based on memory, so I may not have gotten that exactly right…)


  5. Hi Caroline! I absolutely love this! I have been so guilty of consumption throughout my life – buying into this Western culture I was raised to believe is the “good life.” As a new mom, I am trying desperately to change my ways and teach my daughter a new way of life that focuses on sustainability and contributing to society rather than this consumption culture that is so damaging.



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