Science
Charlotte Knowles Photo by Reyer Boxem

The appeal of being a tradwife

Not crazy, just scared

Charlotte Knowles Photo by Reyer Boxem
Why do women vote for a misogynist like Trump, or call themselves tradwives and cling to a life of subservience to their husband? That’s what philosopher Charlotte Knowles is trying to understand. ‘We can often do things seemingly voluntarily that are not in our best interest.’
21 February om 13:06 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 28 February 2024
om 12:12 uur.
February 21 at 13:06 PM.
Last modified on February 28, 2024
at 12:12 PM.
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Door Christien Boomsma

21 February om 13:06 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 28 February 2024
om 12:12 uur.
Avatar photo

By Christien Boomsma

February 21 at 13:06 PM.
Last modified on February 28, 2024
at 12:12 PM.

Her blond hair is done immaculately. Her white blouse is cut low and her make-up applied perfectly. She bakes muffins, cleans the sink, bakes some more cookies and then prepares a nice pasta dish. Oh, and she makes herself pretty, because her husband might come home soon. ‘While the world continues to condemn traditional wives, I’ll continue to live my truth’, says Estee Williams on TikTok. 

Estee is a tradwife, someone who wants nothing more than to be like a traditional 1950s housewife. The kind that stays at home to raise the kids and cook and clean, while the man of the house goes out to work.

The tradwife phenomenon has been gaining popularity on social media in the last couple of years. First in America, but it’s spreading in the Netherlands too, with the tv-series Meiden van Traditie.

But why is that? What makes smart and accomplished women glorify a situation in which they were often not even allowed to work? In which sex was a duty to perform, even when they didn’t feel like it? Weren’t women heading in the direction of equal rights and opportunity?

Defending men

That is what UG philosopher Charlotte Knowles was wondering as well. The men she understood. ‘If you’ve been in a position of power and privilege, then equality can often look like you’re losing something. It can look like oppression to you, even when women are only trying to equalise the playing field.’

The explanation that women are duped by the patriarchy takes away their agency

But women, too, will defend the men who grab their bums and make inappropriate comments. They vote for Donald Trump or become TikTok influencers like Estee Williams. ‘I looked at the literature, and there weren’t particularly satisfying answers to these questions’, Knowles says. And so she made it the focus of her research, for which she received the Early Career Award of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) last week.

One possible explanation is that women are duped by the patriarchy into believing that the traditional way is the best way for them. ‘But that means that women are just completely brainwashed. It takes away their agency.’

Another is that these women’s situations are so limited that there is just no other way to react. ‘That might be true if you’re in a dangerous situation. But there are plenty of instances where you could do something different.’

Doubling down

She remembers how in 2017, when the #MeToo movement was spreading fast, she was listening to British journalist Petronella Wyatt on the news. She was talking about her work in the British Parliament in the 1990s, where it was completely normal that politicians would grab her bum. ‘She said that she didn’t know what all these women were complaining about. That it was, in fact, flattering. I remember spitting out my porridge and wondering what the hell she was talking about.’

Wyatt was not brainwashed and if there was ever a moment in history to speak out and say, yes, I was harassed in the workplace and no, this is not okay, it was that moment. Right there. ‘But she was doubling down, and said it was all fine!’

Knowles is a philosopher who specialises in phenomenology, which is about understanding phenomena as they present themselves to us, without the noise of assumptions. That, combined with reading the works of thinkers like Simone de Beauvoir, Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, led her to a different theory.

There are lots of cases where people actually seem to want to minimise their freedom

Heidegger, for example, talks about people ‘fleeing from their own freedom’. ‘In an everyday sense of the word, we might assume that freedom is a good thing, so we want to maximise it’, Knowles explains. ‘But there are lots of cases where people actually seem to want to minimise their freedom or limit it.’

De Beauvoir, too, talks about women who seem to have embraced their subordinate role as the Other. ‘So rather than being a subject and a free independent being, you’re the mirror image: an object.’

Directions

Therein might lie the explanation for the behaviour showcased by women like Estee Williams or Petronella Wyatt. And it might also explain the behaviour of men like Andrew Tate, Donald Trump, or – from a Dutch perspective – Johan Derksen and Marc Overmars.

Knowles relates their behaviour to the social roles that are prescribed to people in today’s society. These may not serve you very well, but they do provide directions about how you should live your life or behave in certain circumstances, she says. And so, if you identify as a housewife, and a housewife bakes cakes, you bake cakes. ‘There you go. Your day is sorted. You know how you’re supposed to behave.’ 

The same goes for men embracing their social roles, even though, being in a position of power, these are less damaging to themselves. The point is: ‘People often behave as if they have to accept them completely and unquestioningly’, Knowles says. ‘Like an automaton.’ But they don’t; they can choose differently.

That is harder for some than it is for others. You may have been born poor, or suffered abuse. You may be part of a wealthy family and never have to worry where your next paycheque is coming from. ‘But it is about taking advantage of your situation. There are people in the same circumstances who did things differently.’

Safe choice

That does not mean that the poor are responsible for their own poverty, or women for their own oppression. ‘It’s more about the way you respond to what is happening around you. Your attitude’, Knowles says. ‘And that might have a kind of knock-on effect for other things.’

Some people shrink from responsibility and grab onto something that looks familiar

Photo by Reyer Boxem

But people often don’t recognise that. ‘That way you don’t have to face up to the fact that you have some responsibility in the way your life turns out.’ They go for the safe choice, fleeing from their own freedom and responsibility.

That is exactly what is happening now, Knowles thinks. People – women – are responding to a situation unfolding around them, where more and more possibilities open up. However, that brings with it more of this unsettling responsibility. And some people shrink from that. ‘They grab onto something that looks familiar’, Knowles says.

They won’t acknowledge that, of course. ‘When you tell them they’re reproducing a norm or they’re kind of oppressed by their situation, most people would deny that and rather call it a radical reappropriation of these ideas.’ Estee Williams continues to ‘live her truth’.

Tempting

Still, Knowles rejects the idea that being a tradwife is a choice that’s absolutely fine and doesn’t have any negative implications, as long as the person willingly does it. ‘Because I think that we can often do things seemingly voluntarily that are not in our best interest’, she says. 

You can listen to their testimony, she says, but still dig deeper and look more critically. ‘In the 70s, Andrea Dworkin said women are anxious about how they should live in the world. And then the right very considerately tells them the rules of the game.’

In a world that is in flux, a narrative like that is very tempting, Knowles says. ‘But we need to be more comfortable with the ambiguity, kind of dwelling in it, rather than just trying to always find a quick and easy fix. Because in the long run, a generic narrative is not going to suffice.’

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