Once upon a time, things were relatively simple. Men were the wage-earners, women the caretakers of home and children (or managers of a larger household, in affluent families). The roles were not quite so rigid, of course, and many times a woman would help her father or husband in the family business or in the fields, particularly during the busiest seasons. But generally, he managed the matters without, she focused on those within.
The majority were content. Domestic life gave them busy, innocent occupation, with enough time to refresh themselves, pursue hobbies and crafts, and nurture community life. Some, however, were displeased. They had no inclination to marry and have children, or perhaps they could not. Or they had ambitions which did not tie in with the popuar image of a woman back then. Or perhaps they would have been satisfied with the traditional feminine pursuites for the unmarried, like teaching or nursing, but their family thought it is a disgrace to send a daughter out as a governess. Maybe they noticed injustice in the existing order (because, let's face it, no order is perfect).
This dissatisfied minority, restless, active, generally well-educated and unburdened by petty concerns such as earning their bread, became vocal.
Fast forward to our times...
The ideal "balanced life" of the 21-st century: both man and woman are wage-earners. Both have careers. Both share household responsibilities with scrupulous equality. Anything but the bare basics of housekeeping (and sometimes even that) is thrown out of the window. Cooking is abolished in many homes. Children are in daycare or extended school programs many hours in the day, and when they come home, the tired children and overburdened parents are supposed to share a mythical "quality time".
The minority which was never inclined to family life got their fair deal. They are pursuing the glorious careers they could hardly dream of a hundred years ago. They are equal to men, and if anyone says otherwise they will file a lawsuit against him.
For the majority of people, of course, the situation is different. The majority of women do not have careers. They have jobs. Plain, simple, less than thrilling jobs. A large part of them is a derivative of what a woman would traditionally do in her own home: daycare workers, teachers of various ages, house-care providers. Many are saleswomen or hold administrative jobs - i.e., work that has a lot to do with communication and cooperation, two things women are very good at. It's as if women, despite everything, send the following message out to the world: "if we are told we must do something outside our homes to be considered worthy members of the society, we will choose the more flexible and less stressful option!" - this has little to do with the "glass ceiling" and lack of opportunities, and everything with natural inclinations and priorities.
Of course, even a part-time job is stressful. Perhaps the woman isn't away from home for as many hours in a day as her husband is, but she is away quite a lot nevertheless. And in most households, it isn't like both spouses share the lot by taking two part-time jobs and dividing the household chores and childcare equally! More often than not, the woman's job is seen as being of secondary importance... because, no offence, it is. If her husband is holding a relatively good and stable position, and she earns significantly less than he does, the family can survive without her income. Also, if she comes home at 3 and her husband at 7, naturally all the household chores fall on her - and naturally, she can't juggle it all as well as she is "supposed" to. When the husband comes home, he finds a drained, exhausted wife and many times, a less-than-perfectly-tended household.
Feminism has been, in a nutshell, a flip of a coin. Long ago, most people were happy and some were dissatisfied. I'm sorry for those who could not find their place, but surely we, as a society, did not gain from things becoming what they are now, when a minority is happy and proud with its achievments and the majority is struggling with ideals that are impossible to maintain.
I believe that most women would gladly go back to being housewives if:
1. They could manage on one income. The prevalent notion is that even two average paychecks are barely enough to survive, so how could you do it with only one?! It's true that prices have become, relatively to salaries, much higher. But so have our expectations become higher. It is perfectly possible to manage on one income if a family is willing to undergo the necessary adjustments such as a simpler life and more frugal ways. Of course, there would be no keeping up with the Cohens. But a creative and satisfying life is very much within reach of every family who takes the leap.
Note: the sad prevalence of single mothers is the myth-buster of "you need two paychecks to survive". Somehow no one doubts their ability to raise children on one income. Of course you'll argue that many single mothers receive child support and government aid. Many don't, though. My mother did not, nor did she hold some very lucrative high-paying job. If you are a housewife, you will get a lot of "oh, but how are you managing financially?"; if you are a single mother, no one will blink an eye. This is despite the fact that a housewife generally has more time on her hands than a single mother does, and therefore more ability to contribute to her family's finances in other ways (shopping and cooking frugally, thrift store bargains, creative small business ventures).
2. It became a socially acceptable choice again. It is very important to women to be approved, validated, accepted. Did I mention communication and cooperation? Men can exist as lone wolves, women can't, not without being miserable. We thrive on approval and it's normal (just have to be careful who we choose to receive it from). This is the reason why girls do so much better than boys in mainstream co-ed schools. The system encourages cooperation, hard work (which often turns to drudgery) and docility more than anything else. It glorifies the average and is extremely harsh on misfits.
A little anecdote from my school days. Once, a student took pants off in a classroom and flashed a tushy in the face of the teacher. Sounds extreme, I know. But can you guess the gender of the student? That's right, a boy, of course. But I digress.
Currently we live in a community where most women are homemakers. Not the perfect homemakers, but the old simple busy moms and housewives with a bunch of children and a messed-up, lived-in home. The choice is acceptable and therefore comes with social validation in our small community. In the time I have lived here, three more women (out of 13 families) have quit their jobs to stay home.
3. Women could find an alternative source for the satisfaction normally derived from working. Few women get a thrill from the substance of their paid work. But the workplace has become the community they so desperately crave; many have no social interaction outside the family other than with their co-workers. This is especially true in cities, where many do not know their neighbours.
Other will never dress up or put on some make-up at home. They follow an unspoken House Code that dictates they must wear frayed sweat-pants and a stained T-shirt from junior high. This alone is enough to depress a woman, because we see so much importance in being aesthetically pleased.
On the other hand, if a group of women dressed up neatly and gathered with their children for some mid-morning activity (like doing some handiwork together while catching up with each other), they would get all the refreshment and none of the stress a job outside the home can bring.
Naturally I don't wear my best clothes while scrubbing floors or working in the chicken coop. But neither do I wear stuff that's only fit to go in the trash bin. I have good, simple, sturdy and nice-looking work clothes, and nicer things to put on Shabbat and social gatherings.
I realize I have made a lot of generalizations in this post, and so I'm prepared for some "but I'm not like that at all!"s and "you have failed to mention so and so"s. I still believe, however, that what I wrote is true for many women.