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“Housewife chic” creates a new stir

By Cindy La Ferle
Everything old is new again; everything square is cool again. Station wagons and Danish modern furniture are back. Ditto: bowling shoes, plaid shorts, pearl chokers, and shirtwaist dresses.
And housewives. Not-so-desperate housewives. After decades of being mythologized or demonized, homemakers are reclaiming the cachet they lost in the wake of the ‘70s feminist movement.
Housewives are hot.
Fanning a trend that would mystify the late Betty Friedan, publishers are churning out decorating guides and homecare manuals faster than June Cleaver could wax her kitchen floor.  Women’s book groups all over the country are reading Darla Shine’s “Happy Housewives” and Lorna Landvik’s “Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons”
And on the Web, Retro Housewife ( dishes out household hints and pep talks for a new generation of women who are proud to call themselves homemakers.  Even Retro Housewife editor Jennifer Hempfling says she’s a bit surprised at the enthusiastic response to her site.
“When I started this three years ago, I thought it would rub a lot of people the wrong way,” Hempfling explains. “I was bracing myself for mostly negative comments, but ninety-nine percent of the mail I get is very positive.”
Still, not everyone is earning rave reviews for stirring up what some feminists call a backlash.
Caitlin Flanagan, for instance, is getting lots of flak for her new book, “To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife”  (Little, Brown and Co.; $22.95).
An affluent mother of twins, Flanagan has been criticized for contradicting herself on some key domestic issues. She believes women should stay home to raise their kids, yet she employed a full-time nanny and household help when her boys were younger. She waxes poetic on the virtues of the American homemaker, yet admits she doesn’t vacuum her own living room.
Flanagan’s magazine career began at the Atlantic Monthly in 2001with a series of controversial essays on family life. She’s now a staff writer at The New Yorker – a job that hardly qualifies as housework, even if most of it can be done at home on a computer.
Regardless, Flanagan calls herself a “housewife” and isn’t afraid to defend other women who’ve traded office careers for domestic engineering. As she explained in a recent Time magazine piece, her book “pays tribute to the ‘50s housewife instead of ridiculing her.” 
Like her or not, Flanagan is a brilliant stylist and she’s done her research. In elegantly crafted prose she articulates what many modern women are reluctant to admit:  We’re still nesters at heart. 
“Over and over I found myself writing about a paradox that became more obvious with each assignment I took: as women have achieved ever more power in the world – power of a kind my mother and her friends from nursing school could never have imagined – they have become increasingly attracted to the privileges and niceties of traditional womanhood,” Flanagan explains.
Flanagan explores every aspect of housewifery, from over-the-top wedding receptions to the anti-clutter movement. She points a finger at early feminists for dismantling family values, and hints that not all housewives of the ‘50s and ‘60s were as bored or miserable as Betty Friedan wanted us to believe. Several pages are devoted to Erma Bombeck, too, including a few anecdotes about Bombeck’s life outside her popular column.
In the “Drudges and Celebrities” essay, Flanagan examines our ongoing fascination with Martha Stewart, who built “an empire on the notion that ironing and polishing silver and sweeping a kitchen floor might offer an almost sacred communion with what is most essentially and attractively feminine.”  (While Flanagan clearly admires Stewart, she admits that most of her projects are too labor-intensive for most of us.) 
She also discusses the painful isolation of new motherhood: “I remember the first year and a half of my children’s lives as being marked by a combination of elation and the low-level depression that dogs shut-ins the world over.”  In one of the book’s funnier moments, Flanagan describes how her social life improved after she enrolled her twin toddlers in Tumble Camp.
“To Hell with All That” has been hotly debated, and in view of all the hype, I started reading it with a few reservations. But I was hooked by the end of the preface and couldn’t put it down. As a work-at-home mom who traded her own magazine career for motherhood 15 years ago, I found myself wishing that this book had been written earlier -- when I needed validation for my lifestyle. (I came of age in the ‘70s, after all, when choosing to be a housewife wasn’t quite so cool.)   
Whether you love or loathe your inner housewife – or Caitlin Flanagan – “To Hell with All That” will get you thinking about our culture’s bizarre ambivalence toward home, family, and motherhood. 
This essay originally appeared in The Daily Tribune of Royal Oak, Michigan. Cindy La Ferle is an award-winning, nationally published essayist and newspaper columnist based in Royal Oak. Her columns on home and family issues appear biweekly in The Daily Tribune and other print and online publications. Her new essay collection, Writing Home, is available nationally in bookstores and on Visit for more information, or e-mail


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Book Cover of Happy Housewives eating bon bons by Darla Shine

Book Cover Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons by Lorna Landvik

      Purple Flower


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