The tradwife movement is one of the most concerning trends to have emerged in the past few years, with more and more women looking to switch their careers and independence for tending to hearth and home – and every will of their husbands. But why? Stylist investigates.
Jenny Smith* was 23 and working long days as a finance administrator when she read a book that changed her life.
“Most of my friends wanted to have it all – career, partner, family – but I’d always secretly aspired to be a homemaker,” she says. “I loved gingham aprons and Doris Day, while women my age preferred the footballer’s wives look, all big hair and big handbags. I always felt out of step with the modern world.”
The book was The Fascinating Girl, a 60s advice manual that counsels women that the ‘proper’ way to find a husband is to perfect their repertoire of domestic skills and be ‘childlike’ and ultra-feminine.
“The chapter about how to make a man feel loved and valued by building a homely home really spoke to me,” Jenny says. “It validated my life goals.”
Today Jenny, 33, who is based in Doncaster* and a stepmother to two teens, aged 18 and 14, by her husband Dave*, is a proud #tradwife. She is part of a growing online and real-life movement that rejects the worldview of modern feminism and instead proposes that a woman’s route to happiness lies in pursuit of an ‘ideal’ femininity and domestic submission.
Tradwifehood is, remarkably, gaining thousands of followers in countries as diverse as the UK, Brazil, Germany and Japan. The movement has star bloggers such as The Transformed Wife and The Vintage Mrs, who dish out advice on everything from baking cakes according to 50s recipes to ‘using girlishness to get your way’.
Hashtags #tradwife, #tradfem and #vintagehousewife regularly trend on social media as would-be tradwives congregate in Facebook groups with names such as Women of Traditional Values and Make Traditional Housewives Great Again. Many tradwives are also vintage homecraft enthusiasts, rejecting technologies such as TVs and microwaves in favour of cooking from scratch and a modest lifestyle, or as they call it, the #tradlife.
The #tradwife lodestar is Fascinating Womanhood. Written by Helen Andelin, an American Mormon mother of eight, the 1963 book argues that women should aspire to an ideal femininity, manipulate men with their ‘feminine charms’ and see wifely subordination as the foundation of a happy marriage. It quickly became known as ‘the book feminists love to hate’.
In 1969, Andelin followed her femininity advice manual with a book addressed to single women, The Fascinating Girl, the book that led Jenny to traditional wifehood (and in 1972 her husband Aubrey published a book on ideal ‘masculine development’: Man of Steel and Velvet).
In a sign of the renewed interest in ‘trad’ femininity, Fascinating Womanhood, now a teaching business run by Andelin’s daughter Dixie Andelin Forsyth, has relaunched the movement’s 70s ‘femininity classes’ as both real-world and online affairs. Over 100,000 women are signed up to these classes worldwide, including hundreds of women in the UK. Modules include feminine presentation (for example, instructions not to dress in scruffy ‘pizza eating clothes’ or in any way that could be considered lesbian) and how to behave in order to attract and keep a man (in short: puff up his ego, bat your eyelashes and don’t put out too quickly).
“The movement’s rising because women have had enough of feminism in the UK and elsewhere,” Dixie Andelin Forsyth tells Stylist of the surprise resurgence of interest in her mother’s 60s book. “We say to feminists: thanks for the trousers, but we see life a different way.”
The first accredited Fascinating Womanhood teacher in the UK, who calls herself Homekeeping Heart, launched her classes in 2018. The 10-session group classes, available online or in-person in the North of England, cover such topics as ‘ideal womanhood’, ‘femininity’, ‘childlikeness’ and ‘understanding, accepting, admiring and appreciating men’. They cost £129, or £189 including three one-on-one sessions. There has been interest in the courses ‘from across the UK’.
South London based Jade Lola*, 33, also felt at odds with the world until she discovered the #tradwife community. “My parents are Nigerian and quite leftwing,” she says. “But even as a teenager I was attracted to TV programmes like Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons, with their traditional mums and dads and loads of happy kids.”
Jade, who is single and works as an administrator in the City of London, came across the movement through the feeds of rightwing Youtube and Twitter stars in the US, such as Mormon blogger Ayla Stewart, aka Wife With A Purpose. She immediately felt at home.
It was through one of Stewart’s posts that Jade heard about the 1963 Fascinating Womanhood book. She bought a copy online and liked its advice about how women should be demure and make men feel like real men. “I changed my style to be more feminine, dropped my habit of wearing trousers and started to cover up my cleavage,” Jade recalls, adding that she now aspires to find a ‘trad’ man who’ll support her while she stays at home. It’s not an easy feat, she admits, when you’re app dating in the UK. “Men can be scared off when you tell them that you want to be a traditional housewife.” Jade now hopes to use online dating to meet a man in the US, where the #tradlife movement is more established.
The question, of course, is why? Why, a full 40 years since Second Wave feminists called out the myth that domestic subordination was the only means to women’s fulfillment, are so many British women attracted to these narratives?
In her 1989 book Backlash, feminist author Susan Faludi documents the antifeminist ‘feminity movements’ that have followed each wave of feminism, from the suffragettes to the Second Wave. “The backlash remarkets old myths about women as new facts and ignores all appeals to reason,” Faludi concludes.
Social psychologist Dr Sandra Wheatley, meanwhile, believes today’s tradwife trend speaks to our socially turbulent times. “We only remember the good bits of the past, such as the warm kitchens and cuddles from grandma,” she explains. “It’s an easy step from this to think that a retreat to grandma’s apron is the cure for all our problems.”
For Leeds-based tradwife Christine Warren*, 28, the attraction of the tradwifehood is precisely this cosy imagined past. “I love cooking for my husband and young daughter, and tending hearth and home. And my husband loves being taken care of. It just feels that that traditional gender roles are the right way to live.”
Christine got into the movement through the 40s vintage scene, picking up tea dresses and skirt suits at vintage stores and finding communities of fellow enthusiasts in online groups such as The Authentic 1940s Fashion Forum. “I realised I liked the morals of the era too,” Christine explains. “The idea that you should marry before having children, have one marriage and make that marriage work.”
Christine is not alone in finding that an obsession with vintage fashion was a stepping stone to socially conservative attitudes towards gender roles. Tradwife Facebook groups bristle with posts about women who’ve given up work to ‘spoil’ their husbands ‘like 50s housewives’ (“Oooh I would give up work to spoil my hub IN A HEARTBEAT,” reads a typical response on the forum Being A Vintage Housewife).
Some 40s housewife enthusiasts take the lifestyle a step further and live the #HomeFront life, cooking from World War II rationing recipes and even retrofitting their homes to the 40s and 50s, ripping out central heating and installing outside loos. Fascinating Womanhood’s femininity classes capitalise on this retro mystique, detailing three ‘ideal’ fashion looks: dramatic (exemplified by Elizabeth Taylor); classic (Jackie O; Audrey Hepburn); and romantic (the ruffles and bows of an early 80s Princess Diana).
Central to #tradwifehood’s message is the notion that feminism, with its questioning of the ‘traditional’ sexed roles, has gone too far. “Tell men not to be men and women not to be women and you get family breakdown,” says Jade of this way of thinking. Tradwives are often wary of talking about their beliefs on social media for fear of being trolled by what they perceive as an enemy feminist majority (it’s for this reason that we agreed to conceal interviewees’ surnames for this story). “People who want to live a traditional lifestyle get a load of abuse,” Christine explains. “People just don’t get us, I guess”.
Like many #tradwives, Jade lives a double identity, keeping her real beliefs about men, women and marriage for sympathetic tradwife friends and forums. For several years she posted to a YouTube channel, but took it down after receiving ‘a lot of flack’ about her attitudes to men, women and marriage. “I don’t really have an issue with feminists, although I do have a problem with anyone who doesn’t respect my choices,” Jade explains. “They say feminism is about choice, but I don’t always see that.”
Jenny, who says that friends and family see her as “quaint and grandmotherly”, feels that the traditional womanhood movement is broadly misunderstood. “People take a passage from Fascinating Womanhood out of context, or they think we want women to be powerless and downtrodden,” she says. “For me the movement is about feminine self-improvement.”
Whether you think its brand of pre-feminist nostalgia is a harmless social media trend, up there with Rickrolling and grumpy cats, or a sinister shortcut to Gilead, the #tradwife #tradlife is here to stay. Fascinating Womanhood plans ‘a big push’ into Europe, East Asia and Russia in the coming year and Dixie Andelin’s follow-up book to the 1963 original, Fascinating Womanhood for the Timeless Woman, which adds chapters on step parenthood and working women, recently made it onto Amazon’s worldwide digital bestseller list.
Every week sees the arrival of a new tradwife forum online, full of posts about ‘finding joy’ in household chores. The rise of ultra-feminine social media ‘cleanflunecers’ such as Mrs Hinch and The Organised Mum can also be seen as part of the same trad backlash.
“When I tell modern women that my ambition is to be a trad wife they say; ‘why would you do that when women have fought for years to get out of the kitchen’?” Jade muses. “I simply think the old ways were better: when men provided and protected and women took care of their men. I just ask not to be judged.”
The Home Stretch, Or Why It’s Time To Come Clean About Who Does The Dishes by Sally Howard will be published by Atlantic Books on March 5, 2020
*All names and identifying information have been changed