This is in answer to one of the three highly cherished comments on this blog (see here). There were two things that made me think. Why was the comment on the situation in the USA while I was writing about Japan where gender equality is much younger and therefore much more vulnerable than in the USA? And what reasons other than religious ones can there be for staying at home?
Let me look back awhile to our gatherer-hunter ancestors. No-one stayed at home there. Home had to be where the food grew. Women provided most of it. And they produced the children. So the men got a little bored, perhaps, and asked themselves, if there were more exiting things to do. Killing big game was exiting, so perhaps killing people could be even more exiting? They invented war.
So on to early agricultural societies. Everyone stayed at home there - in times of peace, that is. I'm rushing things here, but on we go to early civilisation. Cities, artisans and texts. And what do we find in those texts among other things? Reasons, firmly grounded in religion, why women ought to stay at home. Be it the irate god of early jews, working overtime to establish his status as a one and only god. Be it the olympic kindergarten of the greeks or even god's/christ's representative on earth, st. paul, firmly crushing what little freedom women might have glimpsed in earlier parts of the new testament under foot.
As yet however, most of the time men stay at home too. Production is still quite firmly rooted at home or in the fields adjacent to it. Women produce textiles and food. They may have neither rights nor property, but they are working hard and they can see that their work is essential. Men leave the women at home for trade, politics and war. Ah, and war had meanwhile been developed into a fine art. Whole cultures were built around the noble virtues of the warrior. The men may have been traders and politicians, but only as warriors did they feel really glorious.
Basically nothing changes till the industrial revolution. Now there is a growing middle class aspiring to the lifestyle of the nobility. These men are no longer soldiers, but they still fight. They fight in the law courts and parlaments, they fight over markets and companies - and they hate to surrender. They cannot sustain their elevated lifestyle without working, but they can place their womenfolk in the home to show that they are top of the heap. The women do absolutely nothing, but being charming and pretty. Servants do all the rest. Let the wives and daughters embroider ornaments, let them sing a little, but most of all, let them be idle in a busy sort of way.
It is an amazing concept. The world has never seen anything like it. And it only holds true for a tiny minority. Most people are still far too poor to copy this bizarre arrangement. If work can no longer be had at home, women go to work in the mines, in the factories. They only get paid half as much as the men, but what can they do?
After one or two generations the male miners and factory hands are none too pleased about that either. Working women spoil their wages. How to oust women from the workplaces? They know they will get nowhere, if they simply say: We want that work and we want men's, not women's wages for it. So they construct this little argument, knowing that they will strike a chord in their middle class bosses: The women are too frail to work so hard, let us protect them. And where better to do so than at home? Of course the tycoons and political leaders fell for that.
However, even in our global society, this strange and bizarre concept still only holds true for a tiny minority, mostly in the developed world. Most women are still engaged in gruelling hard work on the land, unless, of course they sew our clothes in inhumane sweatshops etc.
The upper middle class wives and daughters were soon bored stiff with their ornamental status and started fighting for equality and got it - on paper that is. Now women can enjoy economic independence and even, to a certain degree, the kind of respect men receive for their status within society.
The backlash is, of course, just round the corner. It says 'Oh, those awful egotistic women who go out into the world and neglect their home and their children. Society will go to pieces, if it does not stop.' Isn't it amazing, that is never the men who neglect their home or their children?
It is no secret that the care for home, children, elderly and sick can be professionalised, but it is also a well known fact that these professions are badly paid and all too often the quality of the work reflects that to a certain degree.
Could this be a reason for staying at home in the modern world? My children are not cared for well enough by paid nurses, teachers, childminders, so I better do it myself. Without pay and even if it means there is no chance of professional carers ever being paid an adequate wage while there are such as me who do it for 'nothing'.
Then again it might be the remnants of the war-like atmosphere out there in the markets, the parlaments that keep women at home. They may fear contamination. They may have glimpsed the strange unwritten rules that guide male behaviour (I'm talking gender, not biology here) and may have thought that they are as ridiculous as they are awful. So better stay out of it, even if that means scraping together what little self-esteem can be got in this screwy society from hazy, idealistic notions, not from cash or status.
I'm almost surprised myself that there seem to be non-religious reasons for staying at home after all. They are paradox-ridden and not exactly attractive, but religious they are not.
So much for the impersonal, historical part of my answer to your comment, Lynn. But what about the personal? The only full-time stay-at-home woman I know was/is my own mother. She stayed at home till I was 17. Then I went to boarding school for a year. Although my younger brothers and my father remained, none of them talked with her as much as I did. I never checked this with her, but she must have been bored stiff all of a sudden. So when I came home after a year she was a full-time personal assistant after a brief part-time stint in the typing-pool. Now let me make this clear: Nothing and no-one could have prevented my mother from being the wonderful person she is (and I'm sure it's the same with you), but working had changed my mother. She was happy. Now, at 71, she still works 4 days a week. She does not have to (financially), so I suppose she is making up for those lost 17 years.
(Among others Simone de Beauvoir The Second Sex, Bonnie S. Anderson/Judith P. Zinsser A History of Their Own and most of all Virginia Woolf Three Guineas are behind this.)