People love to throw around the phrase “traditional family” when defending what they think is a long-standing practice of a single income family, but this household pattern is not as historically sound as is widely believed. There’s nobility in sacrificing one’s career to be a homemaker, but history tells us that there’s nothing necessarily “traditional” about this.
(Before you get excited or angry you should know that I’m not pushing anyone’s political agenda. Just the facts.)
After the first world war the U.S. economy was booming. One person could make enough money to feed an entire family, which sounds pretty great. Sadly, those days are long gone and many of today’s families need both spouses, and maybe the kids, to get a job if they’re going to pay the bills. (My wife and I have four jobs between the two of us, and we’re not exactly shopping at fancy stores.)
This nostalgia we have for the 1950s has sometimes led us to think that these were better, simpler days, and if we returned to doing things that way then we would all be happier. I love nostalgia as much as anyone. (I study medieval history. For fun.) However, we can’t depend on our love for the past to guide us through life. The truth is that the “Leave it to Beaver” family model isn’t how things were always done.
I just read the life story of Margery Kempe, a medieval document that is probably the first English autobiography. Even though it’s mostly about her spiritual life and her world travels, it also tells us a lot about the way women lived in the fifteenth century. While she was married, Margery invested her money in a brewery and a mill and ran those two businesses on her own. She managed her finances separately from her husband’s and even bailed him out when he was in debt. Did I mention that they had fourteen children during all of this?
It’s true that Western culture has been a Patriarchal one, but the idea of keeping women from working is not how it has worked. Until recent times, the idea of “going to work” would not have made sense. Work was part of your life if you wanted to eat, and it didn’t involve going to an office. Women and men worked together to make ends meet throughout each day. That is traditional.
This might explain some things about the ideal woman who is described in the Bible. She manages finances, dispenses wisdom and instruction, and decides which land the family will invest in without the need to consult a husband. She is a decision maker as well as a caregiver.
The idea of “traditional” gender roles in marriage is a romantic ideal for many people, but it’s not an accurate depiction of our culture’s history. The past is filled with women who led armies and wrote important books with full support from the men in their lives. Plenty of families have benefited from having a stay at home spouse, but we should never assume that everyone is required to live that way. Following tradition means spouses working together to provide for a family, not blindly following nostalgia.
(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)