African stay-at-home mothers: industrious and independent women

I have found the “Tradwife” trend rather fascinating to watch. Though I don’t ply the murky streets of Tiktok, where most of the movement’s canonical material is posted, enough content has seeped out onto my YouTube and X feeds to give me a working understanding of the subculture.

To the uninitiated, “Tradwifery” is an emerging movement among some couples to upend conventional wisdom around marriage and family life in the West, especially in the United States, by re-establishing traditional gender roles. The moniker itself is a concatenation of “traditional” and “wife.”

Tradwifery’s leading lights are women who have opted out of formal employment, and are talking up the virtues of staying at home, bearing and rearing children, and submitting to the will of their husbands. Before marriage, tradwifery means virginity and pure courtship. Upon marriage, it implies a fairly stringent separation between the homemaker and protector-provider roles.

The movement is driven both by a nostalgia for a purportedly simpler past as well as a gathering sincerity among women about the unfulfilling and unidimensional nature of most formal employment, especially when contrasted with the meaningfulness of a well-ordered family life. There is something admirable here, especially the self-abasement that is a necessary precondition for this kind of life.

Naturally, as with any movement that dares to so much as acknowledge hitherto obvious differences between the sexes, the tradwife trend has found no shortage of opposition. Most mainstream coverage of the movement, none of which approves, hearkens to its connections with “the alt-right,” “toxic masculinity,” “the patriarchy," along with a thousand other such modern-day mortal sins.

As a result, the conversation around the movement, like much of modern American public discourse, has become woefully devoid of nuance. It has devolved into a two-sided quarrel, like a high school debate, complete with snarky but ultimately useless takes: tradwives are small-minded ignoramuses; the workplace is an unfulfilling rat race; feminism is a scam; women have rights. Yada yada yada.

From my perspective as an African who has grown up, and still lives, on this old continent, I can’t help but wonder how different this conversation would be if those participating in it broadened their horizons a just little bit; if they were to, say, take into consideration the experiences of their African counterparts.

African housewives

For, as it happens, Africa has the lowest rate of conventional labour participation for women in the world. For this reason, most married African women are technically housewives. What is, for a few well-off Western women, an aspiration connected to the past, remains the present reality for the vast majority of African women.

Yet most of these women wouldn’t qualify as housewives in the narrow sense in which the tradwife movement and its opponents define the term. For they not only work in the home, but often have a million other concerns going. They till farms, run shops, manage surprisingly prodigious financial collectives with their fellow women, and carry on many other such pursuits.

Almost all the women in the neighbourhoods in which I grew up belonged to this category. Their husbands were generally in formal employment, while they generally took care of their homes. Even now, whenever I have to fill out one of those pesky government forms that ask me to state the occupation of my own mother, the most truthful answer remains “housewife.”

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But my mother, like her counterparts, has been, and still is, so much more than that. While she ran our house with the dexterity of a queen bee, miraculously balancing tight finances with the need to spare us from obvious deprivation, I’ve seen her try her hand, with differing rates of success, at all kinds of non-domestic trades all my life. A list of these would be an article in its own right.

It's very atypical for an African housewife to spend the whole day in her own home, doing laundry and making meals, waiting to welcome her husband with a hug and a kiss when he returns from work (for what it’s worth, Africans aren’t generally given to such overt displays of affection). In fact, a lifestyle of this sort would be derided and stigmatised even by the most traditional African woman.

In contrast to the “tradwife” ideal, household chores in most African homes are usually the preserve of children (who tend to be more numerous in African families). This means the mother of a family gets to have a lot more time to dedicate to activities outside the home even if, as is the norm, she isn’t exactly engaged in formal employment.

Feminine genius

The strict separation of the provider and homemaker roles is also foreign to the African context, despite the common conception of what the traditional way of life here looks like. The separation tends rather to be driven by capabilities. Women do what they can, and men do likewise. African women provide and protect just as much, and often more, than the men.

The result is that their role as the primary caretakers of the home doesn’t take African housewives away from society and work. Rather, it enables and enhances it. Somewhat paradoxically, it gives them the freedom to pursue a myriad of other income-generating interests, as well as carry out an active social life, without having to factor in the pressures of formal employment.

This is not to say that Africa is a paradise for women. It isn’t. But in this aspect of the lives of our women, we do have some things right. This is why the narratives around the tradwife trend, along with the opposition to it, would fall flat on their faces if an attempt was made to apply them to the African context.

In short, the tradwife trend is possible only in the West because Western society has overemphasised the engagement of women in the formal labour force, flattening out their femininity in the process and alienating them from their natural caregiving tendencies. It turned women into men, spawning an epidemic of a million unsatisfied women who associate their worth too closely with employment.

The tradwife movement is – more than anything else – a righteous backlash against this, but it risks also going too far in the other direction, taking away women’s ability to contribute much else to society beyond childbearing and homemaking. This is surely a great contribution, but it’s hardly the fullest extent of what the feminine genius can bring to the table.


Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and a dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.

Image: Pexels  


 

Showing 4 reactions

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  • Juan Llor Baños
    commented 2023-12-04 05:09:55 +1100
    Awesome. Very good article and of great psychological depth.
  • Juan Llor Baños
    followed this page 2023-12-04 05:09:44 +1100
  • Juan Llor Baños
    commented 2023-12-04 05:06:44 +1100
    Impresionante. Muy buen artículo y de gran profundidad psicológica.
  • Mathew Otieno
    published this page in The Latest 2023-11-30 17:30:22 +1100