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NOW and the Displaced Homemaker

In the 1970s, NOW began to ask hard questions about the women who were no longer "homemakers", displaced from the only role they were thought to need.

What’s the economic value of housework? For a generation of middle-class women who raised families on their husbands’ income after World War II, the question wasn’t much asked. Many felt it didn’t need to be asked. Until it did. In the 1970s, a new social problem was brought to the nation’s attention: the “displaced homemaker.” This was an older woman who, widowed, separated, or divorced, lost her breadwinning husband and became stuck in a limbo of little or no income, no benefits, no experience in the labor force, and a job market with no interest in her.

“The displaced homemakers campaign represented a pivotal moment in the history of the modern women’s movement in which feminists sought to shine a spotlight on the economic value of housework and the concerns of middle-aged housewives.”

Scholar Lisa Levenstein explores how the National Organization for Women’s (NOW) Task Force on Older Women, chaired by Tish Sommers, drew “attention to to the ways ageism combined with sexism to limit women’s opportunities.” Sommers, an erstwhile leftist of the Popular Front era, came up with the term “displaced homemaker” after her own divorce and discovery of feminism. She and other advocates “convinced thousands of older women to demand recognition of their unpaid labor in the home and to lobby for programs to meet their needs.”

The “family-wage ideal” of a male breadwinner and female homemaker “never accurately reflected life for many U.S. women,” but it was strong in white, middle-class households in the mid-twentieth century. By 1970s, however, major changes were well underway: each year of that decade saw an average of a million mothers joining the workforce. By the end of the decade, half of all white, Black, and Latina women held jobs, and “fewer than a one-quarter of all U.S. households had a breadwinning father and full-time mother.” The rules seemed to have changed, and a generation in their fifties and sixties was stranded.