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This writer examines the 'tradwife' movement and how it fits in with feminism

Growing up in the 1980s, Alena Kate Pettit always felt like an outsider.

“It was all kind of like, 'Let’s fight the boys, and go out and be independent, break glass ceilings.' But I just felt like I was born to be a mother and a wife,” said Pettit.

Pettit said that while she was being interviewed for a BBC documentary about the "tradwife" movement. Tradwife is a controversial term, but broadly speaking, it refers to a community of influencers on platforms like YouTube and TikTok who advocate for women to play a subservient role in their heterosexual marriages.

Pettit was one of the first such women to find fame online, and she was recently profiled in the New Yorker by writer Sophie Elmhirst. Like others who’ve covered the phenomenon, Elmhirst’s piece examined the alt-right political influence that often seems to accompany the tradwife community. But the piece also proposed some intriguing new theories about the movement's popularity.

Elmhirst spoke about it with The Show.

Full conversation

SAM DINGMAN: One of the things that you sort of posit in the piece that I found particularly fascinating is, I just want to read, actually, your quote, you say: "Young women continued to follow their deftly curated social media fantasy, lured perhaps by the hustle of the anti-hustle, the opt out from job dissatisfaction, the economic insecurity or tempted by the promise of a single coherent identity gathered around a distant simpler time."

SOPHIE ELMHIRST: Yeah. Yeah. There's a few different things going on in there. You know, maybe it's, it's like, it was overly like condensed, but I think it's partly speculative, but I do feel like there's something around in the air at the moment of people kind of being like, you know, what? We worked incredibly hard. We're told we have to work incredibly hard for a very long time, and especially for a younger generation, you know, we don't seem to have a hope of either getting on the housing ladder or making anything like the money or having the job security that our parents did. And so what, what is this actually all about?

DINGMAN: Yes. Well, just to follow you on that. I mean, the thing that made me think about when I was reading your piece was, if you are a young woman in this, I mean, a young person generally, but a young woman in this case who has maybe grown up with a lot of empowered feminist narratives about, you can go out and you can have a job and you can have a family, and you don't have to subscribe to this quote unquote traditional version of what it means to be a woman. It, it's one thing to be fed that as a narrative, and then another thing to go out into the actual workplace where there are no jobs, possibly, and where a lot of the opportunities that you have, you know, it might seem to you like you've been promised actually aren't available. And so this alternative version of adult femininity might be appealing as a way of, of saying, like, oh, maybe, maybe the responsibility isn't on me to fulfill these dreams that there doesn't seem to be any practical infrastructure for.

ELMHIRST: Right. I think that's I, yeah, absolutely. And if, and you know, I mean, certainly in the case in the UK, I don't, you know, I imagine it's similar in the U.S., there's also just these systemic political issues around, for example, child care, where like it's quite common for a woman to be thinking about going back to work and quickly doing, you know, doing sort of back of the envelope maths and realizing that she's going to be earning less than she'll be having to pay in what is a fairly broken, incredibly expensive child-care system.

And so, you know, you also sort of quite often I think, can be sort of forced into that, that compromise in that situation, even if it's not a kind of just a philosophical aspiration. It's like, well, hang on the app that the infrastructure isn't there to support me to, for it to even make logical sense for me to work. Let alone it being offering me a kind of secure or long-term career. So it becomes problematic once you get into some of the associations, I think, and some of the ways it's being manipulated, but I think in its essence, those desires come from a very you know, often come from a very real place.

DINGMAN: One of the reasons that I was really interested to read your piece, aside from it just being interesting on its own merits, was it exists in conversation with another dynamic that is happening in media right now, of the discourse around divorce, and a lot of novels and television shows and books where female writers are very sort of proudly standing in the idea that divorce is nothing to be ashamed of, and owning the idea that they may have wanted marriage at one time, but now they're very happy to be rejecting it. And I'm, I'm wondering if you make anything of the tradwife boom and the divorce boom kind of happening at the same time?

ELMHIRST: Yeah, that's super interesting. I mean, one of the things I kept thinking about what I was writing it, and I don't actually think I used the word in the piece, but was sort of self-determination basically. And the, the idea that you know, the individual right to self-determination and the sort of historical idea of, of sort of a woman's right to self-determination, which wasn't something that was really on offer for, you know, until relatively in the grand scheme of things, relatively recently. And so I suppose, you know, if, what we're talking about, when we're talking about feminism is choices often and, you know, the ability to have choices, the political ability, the social ability to have choices. Then what we're talking about with all these things is, is, is choice. Like it's, it's a, it's a legitimate and positive choice to not be married, just as it's a, I guess the flip side of that almost directly is the, the, the choice to be a tradwife. And, I think in that sense, you know, the decision, the choice to devote yourself to your marriage and to serve your husband. You know, these are what we're talking about. Power dynamics, right? And I guess you could argue that they're just the two sides of the same coin that, that kind of obedience and subservience and sort of lifelong devotion is, is an equally legitimate choice as the decision to like to walk away.

DINGMAN: Yeah. And I mean, the very idea that a woman might have an inner monologue about her relationship to marriage is inherently alarming, it seems like, to a lot of people. That it wouldn't just be assumed as the natural end point of a woman's ambition. Do you think that the tradwife movement, I suppose, based on your observation of it is any sort of inflection point in that or a continuation of something that's been going on for a long time?

ELMHIRST: I think where they stand in it is, is a kind of, it's almost like cherry picking, isn't it? It's like taking the best parts of it and then trying to kind of elevate it to somewhere that it has never been because, you know, if we see, you know, in that way that if you see history purely as progress, you know, the progress has been that women don't have to do that anymore. And I guess what their position is like, well, hang on. What if this is not just a sort of a moral choice but a sort of sensible choice and a kind of aspirational choice. You know, I think they, they play on, on all the things that seem to kind of matter to us most, or matter especially to us on those platforms which thrive on, on aspiration or thwarted aspiration.

DINGMAN: Yeah. Oh, that's fascinating. That's fascinating. Yeah. The idea that it's like choice taken in some ways to its logical extreme.

ELMHIRST: Absolutely. I mean, that's absolutely. Elena would always say I, it's not that it just wasn't incompatible with feminism. This was almost in a way feminism in action. You know, she was in a position which was its own privilege which she acknowledged, but in a position to, to choose this lifestyle and she chose it. So, you know, what was more feminist than that?

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record.

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Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Dingman was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.