The Ladies Home Journal (1948). Credit: Internet Archive via Copyright: Public domain.

Of Tradwives and Men

Anyone trying to understand contemporary sexual politics (or to find household tips on YouTube or TikTok) has probably stumbled across them: tradwives. Short for “traditional wife,” the tradwife influencer is a married woman who models her life on what she takes to be a “traditional” vision of married life, usually inspired by midcentury housewives, often sharing housekeeping tips and relationship advice via TikTok and YouTube videos.

Critiques of tradwife-ism abound. Some, predictably, assert that tradwives are tools of white supremacy, while others convincingly argue that the tradwife’s vision of “tradition” has less to do with centuries-old ways of life than it has to do with the peculiarities of 1950’s America. My concern in this essay is rather different: the low view tradwifery takes of what it is to be a husband.

While tradwives are right to champion the dignity and importance of home life, too often they present a dangerously truncated and romanticized vision of the relationship between men and women in marriage. Encouraging viewers to appreciate the importance of the domestic sphere (and the labor that goes into cultivating it) is a noble goal, and there’s nothing wrong with a husband earning the lion’s share of a family’s income. However, many tradwives present a vision of family life that reduces a man’s role to nothing more than the breadwinner, essentially cutting him out of actively shaping the great goods of the home.

As thinkers from St. Paul to Mary Wollstonecraft have argued, marriage ought to serve both as a barricade against vice and a school of virtue. Marriage and family life should be a shared project, and housework and homemaking need not be the exclusive province of women.

Although tradwives may seem to be honoring their husbands, in reality, they expect far too little of them. Married men should aspire to a demanding, self-sacrificial vision of service, not the cushy, entitled life as a master tradwifery would seem to offer. By responding to the needs of their wives and children—which, in most cases, includes participating in the work of the home—husbands, too, can grow in the practice of the virtues. 

The Life of a Tradwife

First, a quick caveat: in this essay, when I say “tradwife,” I’m using the term as shorthand for online tradwives—or, more precisely, tradwife influencers. I am not criticizing all wives and mothers who choose to embrace the “tradwife” label; some who feel devalued by contemporary feminism feel both seen and empowered by the term. My purpose is certainly not to criticize them. Instead, I am speaking about those women who make their online image as homemakers the basis for successful careers as social media influencers.

The tradwife influencer is a creature bred by social media. Generally speaking, her appeal is less in what she says than in how she looks while saying it. Indeed, many go farther than simply incarnating the domestic vision of the 1950s; they often dress in styles inspired by the time as well. The tradwife influencer’s life is perfectly manicured to appeal to harried and lonely man or woman who, after happening upon a video of a tradwife happily baking bread or elegantly arranging a bouquet of flowers, is struck by how mundane and meaningless his or her daily life is. Many today live isolated existences, working jobs to earn money for lives they never seem to have time to actually live. Tradwives depict the home as a place of beauty and refuge, which is something everyone craves.

These videos and images tell a simple story: the solution to a woman’s problems is to become a stay-at-home wife, and the solution to a man’s problems is to find a tradwife. (Along the way, of course, they should keep consuming the tradwife influencer’s content and purchasing their sponsored products.)

Some have argued that the primary appeal of the tradwife lifestyle is sexual in nature. As evidence, they point to figures like Estee Williams, one of the poster-girls of the movement. Estee is a former fitness influencer whose sister is Christianné Allen, a right-winger in strategic communications. Estee’s 1950’s aesthetic channels Marilyn Monroe, not June Cleaver. She is quite adept at marketing herself and has become something of a darling to those on the right who are critical of contemporary feminism. She’s been featured in discussions by Ben Shapiro, Brett Cooper, and Lauren Chen and has been interviewed by Michael Knowles.

At first glance, tradwives like Estee might seem to belong in the same category as “stay-at-home-girlfriend” influencers like Kendal Kay, who boasts over 500,000 followers on TikTok and puts sexuality front and center in her “brand.” Yet, tellingly, Kay’s audience doesn’t seem to overlap much with that of tradwives, nor does she articulate a critique of contemporary sexual politics. She just profits from them.

Estee Williams certainly capitalizes on her good looks, but I think there’s something more substantial behind her popularity. The stay-at-home-girlfriend influencer promises nothing more than escapist sexual ecstasy, while the tradwife influencer promises peace from the chaotic contemporary world. Tradwives implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) raise meaningful questions about the relationship between feminism, capitalism, the devaluation of the home, the prioritization of career over family, and many other pressing contemporary issues.

Husbands: Masters or Members?

Because tradwife content generally depicts a way of life rather than explicitly articulating a worldview, it can be difficult to characterize the actual views that are central to the online tradwife movement. Indeed, there is more intellectual diversity in the movement than one might expect. Yet virtually all tradwife influencers present their husbands primarily as breadwinners. Putting aside the reality that many tradwives use their social media to generate substantial “Naptime Income,” there is nothing wrong with this mid-twentieth-century economic arrangement. What concerns me is that husbands are presented as nothing but providers of financial support.

As Estee Williams explains, her aim as a tradwife is to make sure her husband “does not have to lift a finger when he’s at home.” The husband, so the logic goes, works hard all day and deserves to come home to a beautiful space that is prepared for his enjoyment. The tradwife does not just do the bulk of domestic tasks like cooking, cleaning, and errands; she performs all of them.

As yet, Estee and her husband have no children. Nor do many of the most strident tradwife influencers. They have not experienced the profound transformations that pregnancy brings about, nor have they spent their days caring for colicky babies, tantrum-throwing toddlers, or troublemaking adolescents. (Not for nothing are the more thoughtful tradwife influencers often the mothers of several children.) Particularly once children enter the picture, marriage calls men and women to make sacrifices for each other, and not necessarily the sacrifices they expect at the outset. 

Speaking as a husband and father, no matter how attractive the idea of simply putting up my feet after finishing work for the day is, my son and pregnant wife have needs, and I must ensure that they are met. During the first trimester of both her pregnancies, my wife has gone through periods when she has been unable to be in the same room as cooking meat without vomiting. Twice so far in our marriage, this has meant that, even though she is a full-time mom and I work a regular eight-hour day, I have made dinner almost every night for a couple of months straight. This is not some kind of extraordinary and praiseworthy act on my part: any husband able to would seek to do the same.

When Estee says a husband shouldn’t have to “lift a finger” when at home, she is effectively saying that the only form of service he can ever provide the family is financial. His only work is located outside the home, outside the locus of family life. He is not an integrated member of the family; he is an exterior force that financially supports it and is served by it. The father does not meaningfully take part in the life of the family. He is master of the house, but he is not a participant in the life of the home.

Marriage as a Call to Virtue

Many Christian or LDS tradwives invoke St. Paul, who writes in the Letter to the Ephesians that wives are to “submit” or “be subordinate” to their husbands, and the husband is the “head” of his wife. They fail to note that, when St. Paul calls wives to submit to their husbands, he has just finished telling married couples that they should “be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ” (emphasis mine). After his injunction to wives, he then provides two different illustrations for husbands so that they understand how they are meant to treat their wives. First, he says,

Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.

This passage is, of course, referencing Jesus’ death on the cross. St. Paul is saying to the early Christians that husbands should be ready to lay down their lives for their wives. Throughout the Christian tradition, this has been interpreted to mean not just the relatively rare case of literally dying for one’s wife, but daily dying to self for the good of one’s wife. The Christian husband is called to put his wife’s needs and desires before his own. This point is made even clearer with St. Paul’s second illustration. He says,

husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.  For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. … each one of you should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband.

In St. Paul’s vision, the husband is not some arbitrary master who lords authority over his wife and children, justified in making tyrannical decrees for his own pleasure because he provides for their subsistence. Instead, he is a partof his family, a member. As St. Paul reflects elsewhere, “There are many parts, yet one body. … But God has so constructed the body … so … that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.” In short, in St. Paul’s account, husbands are expected to sacrifice at least as much as wives are, if not more

St. Paul is far from the only writer to have seen loving sacrifice as an essential part of marriage. Throughout history, many philosophers and theologians have understood marriage as a school of virtue built on subordinating one’s own desires for the good of one’s spouse and one’s family. In coming together, the husband and wife dedicate themselves to each other’s good and the good of the whole. Together, they form a family, a union with distinct common goods that each member both contributes to and benefits from. As Erika Bachiochi has recently highlighted, the early feminist tradition has resources for a view of marriage that is much loftier than that of tradwives. Looking to Mary Wollstonecraft, she argues that this proto-feminist theorist articulates a vision of marriage that calls both men and women to become fully flourishing virtuous human beings who support one another through their shared life. For many tradwife influencers, conversely, the husband is essentially disconnected from this life, free from meaningful bonds with the home.

“Not Trad Enough”

Tradwives articulate some important insights about family life in the contemporary world. They are correct in claiming that monogamy is underemphasized today and that this does great damage to many men and women. Their focus on the home as a way of healing our isolating culture and their willingness to criticize the modern world’s unhealthy approach to work is a breath of fresh air.

Yet, ultimately, their plan is not radical enough. It asks us to return to the 1950s, when women spent their days tending to the home and men were only there during nights and weekends. Instead, we ought to foster a culture and an economy that encourages both women and men to be meaningfully present in the home.

For my son’s entire life, I have been able to work remotely. Depending on my workload on a given day, it is not unusual for my wife to ask me to take fifteen minutes to get our son down for his nap. I have previously written about how this kind of contribution to my family has called me to virtue, but that is not the only benefit of my physical presence. Even something as small as regularly eating lunch with my wife and son has made me feel deeply connected to the life of our home.

Though I have a full-time job, I feel like something of “tradhusband.” Our family is traditional, not in the sense of the narrow historical view of the 1950s, but of centuries past in which the home was a center of economic life. When describing her decision to become a stay-at-home mother, one tradwife put it this way: “I was resentful every time I had to leave the house and leave [my son] in someone else’s care, even if it was family. … So by the time we had our second child, I knew that I wanted to be at home with them full time.” Wishing to nurture bonds with one’s spouse and children is a profoundly human response, not just a feminine one.