The Tradwife’s Catch-22

The nuclear family tradwife influencers endorse has been a major culprit in the very dissatisfaction women seeking refuge in the tradlife attempt to escape.

The Tradwife, or Traditional Wife, is an online female persona that’s been resurrected by influencers of late. (Screenshots from TikTok)

How is it that an independent business executive goes from a full-time position in the C-suite to a full-time position in the kitchen, out of submissive devotion to her husband?

If you’ve recently spent time on TikTok or Instagram, you may have wrestled with this question. I certainly did, after scrolling through carefully curated videos of young women donning frilly dresses with cinched-in waistlines, making bread from scratch, or sweeping their kitchen floors. Some include a gentle voiceover explaining how they quit the workforce to fulfill their role as homemaker, that they believe in “for better or for worse, not divorce,” or why they homeschool their kids, rather than subject them to government indoctrination in public schools.

Some show the women venturing into their backyards, tending to their cottagecore gardens free from pesticides and other corporate contaminants. Institutional distrust notwithstanding, the vibe of the videos are peaceful, cozy, blissful even, emulating a sense of ease and simplicity. The women are graceful, beautiful, stereotypically feminine.

At its core, the trend promotes regressive gender hierarchies, making it an inherently male supremacist movement.

These so-called “tradwives” have proliferated on the internet over the past few years, creating something of a movement, the core tenet of which is straightforward: Men and women were created to be different from each other.

  • The role of the man is one of dominion or sovereign power—to protect, command and provide for his family.
  • The role of the woman is one of dutiful submission—to take care of the children, her husband, herself and the home.

Men are the breadwinners; women are the breadmakers. It’s the natural order.

From this central premise of gender essentialism flows a range of flavors of tradlife ideology, from the ostensibly apolitical to the unabashedly alt-right. But regardless of the variety, at its core, the trend promotes regressive gender hierarchies, making it an inherently male supremacist movement. So why are so many young women drawn to tradwifery?

The Neoliberal Cultural Project

To answer that question, we need to examine the wreckage wrought by neoliberalism, the reigning ideology of the past half-century.

Neoliberalism is often defined narrowly in policy terms—the (inaccurate) idea that deregulation, slashed taxes and privatization are a boon to the economy. But as my colleagues and I recently argued, neoliberalism is equally a cultural project—one promoting hyper-individualism, competition and “freedom of choice.”

These trends have fostered profound dissatisfaction. Today, more and more people feel lonely. Social connectedness has been declining, institutional distrust is rising and our sense of belonging is evaporating. Women in particular feel burnt out and have little free time. Under such bleak circumstances, we long for community and belonging, agency, safety, and clear explanations. We long to feel good.

Enter the #TradLife, an alternative lifestyle and moral order that, at least as it’s sold to us by influencers, can fulfill some of the human desires neglected under neoliberalism.

Compare the stereotypical #GirlBoss of neoliberalism to the depicted image of the tradwife.

The #GirlBoss is always working; she’s often missing out on time with friends and family and might not have time to date; her priority is her career. The tradwife spends her days with her loved ones, raising her children herself and enjoying quality time with her husband when he comes home from work.

The #GirlBoss is financially independent—but what good is that when you have no meaningful control over your day-to-day? When your schedule is at the behest of a boss who views you as dispensable, replaceable, nothing more than a worker? The tradwife isn’t dependent on volatile market forces, but on a devoted husband with whom she feels a sense of safety and stability.

The #GirlBoss has to work tirelessly before advancing up the corporate ladder. The tradwife, as a woman serving in her God-given role, doesn’t have to wait years for promotions—she’s a natural-born homemaker who exercises control over domestic affairs as soon as she says, “I do.” She has a clear sense of her purpose and role as a wife and mother.

The #GirlBoss is miserable, overworked, burnt out. The tradwife is happy, living a slow, peaceful life enjoying the simple things—wholesome meals made with fresh ingredients, ample time with loved ones, the smell of blossoming flowers in her garden.

The nuclear family is itself a hallmark of neoliberalism, designed to cut people off from networks of community support.

Tradwife influencers are right to point out the emptiness, precarity and dissatisfaction of neoliberal life, and the appeal of the alternative they offer is clear. But much of the rosy picture I’ve painted of the tradlife exists only on our iPhones and not in reality.

Domestic labor is neither slow nor peaceful. Overwork and burnout are by no means reserved for formal labor market participation. In most cases, the tradlife won’t actually deliver the relief and tranquility it promises, and women’s retreat into the home will only exacerbate the neoliberal crisis; after all, the nuclear family is itself a hallmark of neoliberalism, designed to cut people off from networks of community support, pushing them instead toward a culture of competitive individualism. Ironically, the nuclear family tradwife influencers so ardently endorse has actually been a major culprit in the very dissatisfaction women seeking refuge in the tradlife attempt to escape.

In the relatively few cases where the tradlife allure is actually realized (typically by wealthy white women who can afford hired help), the patriarchal DNA of the movement still always looms, further preventing it from ever being the antidote to neoliberalism. After all, your husband could leave at any moment, and if you’ve stayed true to the rules of the tradlife, all finances and assets are in his name. Unlike the handful of tradwife influencers who make their own income promoting the tradlife, you’d be left with nothing.

The Tradwife Appeal

These are some of the flaws in the logic of the tradwife appeal; and yet it’s not about logic. It’s about offering women a way of life that—at least as it’s presented on your For You Page—addresses the psychic and emotional needs that have been neglected under #BossBabe neoliberalism.

The tradlife is troubling not only because it ensnares women into a hierarchical relationship in which they’re inherently inferior to their husbands (opening the door to regressive, potentially even abusive, dynamics), but also because most women can’t even afford to be “real” tradwives. For most American families, living off a single income is simply impossible. Aspiring to fit the tradlife mold can therefore increase discontent, as women strive but fail to leave the workforce, stay at home, and raise their families off of their husbands’ incomes alone.

Moreover, the movement is also a threat to our democracy. Right-wing figures weaponize the needs neglected under neoliberalism and use the tradwife trend to recruit individuals into the broader conservative movement, to socialize their vision of how society should function, and as an on-ramp to other far-right movements.

In an era of rising authoritarianism, it’s easy to become frustrated with those who buy into cultural movements like the tradwife trend. But most people enticed by it don’t have millions of followers or a giant platform and the meaning-making power that comes with it. And so while high-up, far-right cultural figures should be held accountable for their role in the patriarchal authoritarian drift, the drift itself is precisely why it’s more important than ever that we approach the subcultures everyday people are attracted to with compassion and curiosity.

Our task at this historical juncture is to take a deep look at what attracts people to them, and then work to address those root motivations. The future of our democracy may well depend on it.

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Shahrzad Shams is program manager for the Roosevelt Institute’s Race and Democracy team, where she works to advance Roosevelt’s focus on racial justice and equity.