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Tradwives: What are they, where did they come from and how are they shaping our homes?

Welcome to the first in a new series we’re calling Sightlines, where we ask writers and thinkers to share their perspectives on the complexities of modern living. What trends are shaping our interior choices? What histories are hidden out of sight? What happens to society when our homes become design commodities? These are questions for the culturally curious. By offering different perspectives, we hope new sightlines will emerge. First up, columnist Eva Wiseman peers into the privileged world of the ‘tradwife’ and asks how a lifestyle choice lived out on social media has fuelled a happy-homemaker aesthetic we simply can’t get enough of. We hope you enjoy the view …

Eva Wiseman
Anna Bu Kliewer
Adam Firman
Tradwives: What are they, where did they come from and how are they shaping our homes?

Here is a kitchen at probably dawn. Picture a wide clean countertop made of roughly hewn pine, upon which two stand mixers have been churning cream into yellow butter already for some time. Over there is a blousy jug of wildflowers upon a white linen tablecloth, and out the sash windows there is green land for miles. Soon the scene will be scattered with children – five, maybe six of them, possibly eight – helpful and curious, blonde in gingham, and serene in the middle (for this is not just her kitchen but her stage, her studio, her office, her kingdom) is their mother, the tradwife.

Tradwives are women that live as idealised homemakers, cooking, cleaning, raising children, and today, performing and documenting these pursuits online. Which means of course, that we, their sometimes-unwitting audience, might be subtly or overtly influenced not just by their hairstyles (bouncy and golden), their recipes (buttermilk pie), births (home) or their politics (distrust of the government), but their interiors.

These are rural houses or farmsteads characterised by a handmade, candlelit aesthetic that idealises a certain kind of purity, a certain kind of perfected domesticity. In The New Yorker, Sophie Elmhirst described the recent online movement as “an amped-up, kink version of cottagecore with political and religious overtones.” These women share videos of their mornings making sourdough bread alongside opinions about the importance of obeying their husbands, and millions of people follow along in awe or disgust, or, increasingly, some modern and complicated combination of the two.

Because, despite the fact that presenting as a tradwife is a deeply political act, with their identities tied to anti-abortion and anti-vax beliefs, and their Instagram profiles only a couple of taps away from extreme and quite terrifying right-wing content, their aesthetic can feel (is in fact, designed to feel) deeply soothing. With good light and muslin, and some sturdy editing skills, they make domestic toil look uncomfortably appealing. It is nostalgia, performed through sourdough.

This is a world outside of the world, a place of extreme yet laboured privilege, where the long days are filled with ritual and routine, and something delicious to show at the end of it. It’s a display of a slower, simpler way of life, out in nature, and away from the chaos of supermarkets, schools, other people. Though the influencers are turning over huge profits, some with successful online shops selling things made of linen, and home-reared meat, and a box of croissants for, somehow, £117, what customers are really buying is the idea that they too could live like this, an anti-materialistic mirage. The lines between their aesthetics and their ideologies are blurred by butter.

To illustrate the idea that everything can be (and, actually, sorry, should be) made at home, these are houses of handmade quilts, and well-stocked pantries, of handmade curtains and tablescapes bejewelled with tiny jam tarts. These are homes of wooden cabin beds, to accommodate the very many children spawned, and highly photogenic vegetable patches, both, crucially, symbols of grand fertility. These are homes where the family becomes a brand and the house a character. Every plate or piece of furniture, every linen curtain or special, well-loved pan is framed to tell a story of abundance, taste, duty, precision and wealth.

The origins of the modern tradwife phenomenon in the US can be traced to their religious alt-right, itself a cultural reaction to progressive feminism. In her 1989 book Backlash, Susan Faludi documented the ‘feminity movements’ that have followed each wave of feminism. “The backlash remarkets old myths about women as new facts and ignores all appeals to reason,” Faludi wrote.

Today, the tradwife lifestyle extends beyond religion. American tradwives slide into our daily scrolls, sometimes from farmsteads, sometimes from marble kitchens, recreating Cocoa Puffs from scratch for their toddlers. In the UK the fetishisation of a ‘softer’ life is found in thatched cottages and wildflower arrangements. One British influencer, Michelle Clare, posts under the name @rememberingtheoldways from a country cottage in the Cotswolds, where she homeschools her eight children, sharing pictures of her vintage kitchenalia and their Saturday spreads of cake and cheese. There are yellow roses, roaring fires, china teapots – it’s a scene of ancient, wholesome comfort. You know where you are in a tradwife’s house, and where you are is the early 1950s.

The appeal of these homes is twofold. There’s the lure of their seeming simplicity, of the way they make a beautiful life appear accessible, just within reach. And then there’s the suggestion that, in a time when many are facing burnout from juggling family life and work, there might be community and satisfaction in a life spent at home. Perhaps there is a certain hatefulness in our attraction to their perfect interiors too, some pretty loathing towards both the women whose choices (choices that appear to stick a finger up at decades of feminist struggle) are defined in white cotton and copper, and the ways they make us gaze with once-removed judgment at the chaotic, ready-meal, Ikea-fied reality of our own homes.

The happy truth is, of course, that those of us with politics that do not overlap with those of the online tradwife, those of us who believe in, for example, abortion rights and financial independence, those of us who have neither the time nor the inclination to make either pastry or babies, can still dabble in a light tablescape, can still enjoy the gentle satisfaction of arranging a posy of flowers in a rinsed out milkbottle. Or, failing that, film ourselves toasting a crumpet in that good evening light, and smile at the camera, beatifically.

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