It has already been rejected many times in the past but the use of the term 'plain housewife' has continued to this present day, not just in ordinary conversations, but in news reports. A quick Internet search reveals that in the past year alone, the term was used in local media at least 18 times. “From being a plain housewife, [she] is now earning enough for her family to live a comfortable life,” says one report about a Cebu businesswoman. Even the Philippine Information Agency describes one beneficiary as a “plain housewife”.
What is so “plain” about housewives?
In the Philippines, women and men have always shared the tasks of raising a family. That our languages don’t distinguish between males or females (asawa can mean husband or wife) is just one of the evidences of the more egalitarian society we have enjoyed long before the colonial encounter. In many societies, the mag-asawa shared in various responsibilities of the oft-inseparable domains of earning a living and tending the household.
This mode, however, changed in modern times. Men - for whom the jobs were initially available - had to leave their homes throughout the day; consequently, the women had to stay. Eventually, there were more opportunities for women, but the higher-paying jobs were still the province of men, due to educational and social barriers.
As a result of these circumstances, the working woman was seen as “sophisticated” - highly-educated and well-heeled - while the housewife was seen as “plain”.
What is wrong about his narrative? First, women who stay at home are also working, perhaps even more so than their husbands. One website, Salary.com, computed that all the tasks of a stay-at-home mom in the US amounted to a $113,568 salary in 2014. Surely, in the Philippines, full-time housewives can also claim a competitive pay were we to put an economic valuation to the work they do.
Moreover, many housewives run sari-sari stores, participate in multi-level marketing, do handicrafts, and engage in many other sources of income. It is only our prejudice for formal employment that colors our view of other forms of hanapbuhay (livelihood), but they are no less important.
Second, being a housewife has never meant being unsophisticated. In fact, staying at home is a choice that many highly-educated women make. Rather than see women who stay at home as subordinated, or confined, we must see that oftentimes these choices are made by couples together. Financially, emotionally, and socially, it takes courage to be a housewife.
Finally, in our society today, many women are actually the breadwinners of the family. Women and men take turns in caring for their children, and in many cases it is the “house husbands” who stay at home. Will they, then, become “plain house-husbands”? These inversions of an imagined “norm” expose the double standards that should invalidate not just our use of “plain housewife”, but our prejudices for women who stay at home.
Cory Aquino is probably one of the most famous examples of a “plain housewife”. During the bitter campaign that ended in the fall of the dictatorship, Ferdinand Marcos and his supporters dismissed Cory as “just a woman” and a “plain housewife”. But Cory Aquino took up the label and it doing so, resonated with millions of women and men around the world. By identifying herself as a "plain housewife", Cory demonstrated that one way to challenge the use of a term is by being its living contradiction.
Terms like “plain housewife” remind us that language can reinforce ideologies of power. More than grammar (as the so-called 'grammar police' are wont to do), it is the seepage of oppression and inequality that we must be most wary about in our choice of words. Not to go to the extremes of “political correctness”, but simply to be mindful of the meanings of the words that we say. Surely, social attitudes that are reflected in these words weigh heavily in women’s decisions to stay or not to stay at home. But studies in health and education are unequivocal in seeing the advantages of close parental support.
Of course, many families do not have the luxury of someone staying at home, and I am not advocating for every mother to be a housewife. What I am against is the notion of a “plain housewife” because it shapes our way of thinking about women, and the way women think about themselves. Whatever choices women and men make - as couples or single parents - we should create an environment that supports these choices and family configurations.
I say this as the son of a mother who has devoted a big part of her life to her children. She was many things to us: storyteller, teacher, cook, driver, guidance counsellor, and many more…long before she became our mentor and friend. As a doctor who has witnessed mothers give birth and care for their babies and toddlers, I can also suggest that perhaps the greatest labors our mothers did for us predate our own memories. Surely, their lives are anything but plain. When we reflect on the many tasks of motherhood, we ought to realise that one of the greatest gifts that anyone can have in this world is a mother’s love.
Indeed, there are no plain housewives, just as there are no plain individuals: women and men alike. As we celebrate Mother’s Day, we must celebrate the women of our lives in all their uniqueness. Whether they decide to stay at home, or pursue careers that keep them from home, surely theirs is a labor of love, which deserve our utmost affection and appreciation.