Perspective | Tradwives, stay-at-home girlfriends and the dream of feminine leisure (2024)

It’s always inspiring when citizens of the vast and disparate internet find something to unite them, and in late March, the unifying force was hatred for an essay, published in the Cut, called “The Case for Marrying an Older Man.” It was written by a woman who had done just that: Grazie Sophia Christie spent her undergraduate years at Harvard sneaking into receptions for MBA candidates where she hoped to bag a more established male before her “fiercest advantage” — her youth — disappeared and rendered her common. After some trial and error, at the age of 20, she made off with a 30-year-old whose defining characteristics seemed to be that he was French and rich.

The essay’s alleged offenses ranged from the kind that would irritate Greta Thunberg — the casual way Christie’s byline notes that she lives in “Miami and London” — to the kind that would irritate Gloria Steinem. “I’ll never forget it,” the author writes, “how he showed me around our first place like he was introducing me to myself: This is the wine you’ll drink, where you’ll keep your clothes, we vacation here, this is the other language we’ll speak, you’ll learn it.”


Christie was taking a cosseted, retro archetype — the gold digger — and presenting it as something intellectual and liberated. She hadn’t wanted to marry a fixer-upper, she writes, citing her younger brother who still left his towels on the floor. She wanted a man that some other woman had already fixed up, and who could, in turn, fix her. Not a partner, she writes, but a “mentor.” Specifically, one who could fulfill a promise that feminism had allegedly failed to deliver: “I had grown bored of discussions of fair and unfair, equal or unequal,” writes Christie, “and preferred instead to consider a thing called ease.”

A thing called ease.

That last sentence was the only one in the whole piece that made me stop in my tracks. It was breathtaking in its transparency: I’m not doing this out of principle or based on a worldview. I’m doing this because life seemed hard and this seemed easy.

You could argue, as many did, that if your relationship is predicated on you being young, it might get considerably less easy when you age. But castigating Christie’s essay was actually the least interesting way to engage with it, because, at heart, it was dealing with bigger themes than even she seemed to know what to do with: The elusiveness of female contentment in the modern era. The elusiveness of rest — for everyone — in the modern era. The concept of romantic relationships as the ultimate life hack, and the resigned idea that the only way to move forward is by moving backward.

Perhaps you’ve been seeing the term “tradwife” lately, a modern coinage for a TikTok-fluent married woman who keeps house, extols “traditional” values and yields to her husband. Perhaps you’ve even seen the term “stay-at-home girlfriends,” the influencer community’s true prophets of female ease. Unlike stay-at-home moms, whose days might be filled with school drop-offs and toddler-wrangling, the childless SAHG’s days are filled mostly with home care and self care: elaborate skin, fitness and food routines that keep their bodies beautiful and their lives serene for the boyfriends who are, after all, funding the whole shebang.

In one SAHG video, I watched a platinum blonde explain that her boyfriend agreed to pay for all of their travel if she would do all of the packing. The rest of the video was dedicated to the most meticulous suitcase job you’ve ever seen — sunglasses nestled in shoes, a rainbow of rolled shirts — which appeared to take her the better part of an afternoon.


Another video featured a young woman in a negligee patiently curling her hair while an overlay of text read: “People used to ask me, ‘what’s your dream job?’ I never knew the answer. I realized it’s because I don’t dream of labor. I dream of living a soft, feminine life.” The video was captioned, “I dream of feminine leisure,” which I soon realized was a sort of motto among this set.

“I dream of feminine leisure,” wrote a lovely brunette as she sauntered to the pool in a floaty coverup.

“I dream of feminine leisure,” wrote another lovely brunette as she applied a fresh coat of lip gloss at her vanity.

The comments on these types of videos abound with wistful envy: heart emoji, lipstick kiss emoji, green juice, vacuum.

What is feminine leisure, exactly? Is it a set of prescribed activities? An aesthetic? A vibe?

The simple answer is that it’s a solution — maybe not a good solution, but a conceivable one — to a problem. A problem some young women have diagnosed in the landscape of modern adulthood.

A frantic mother of a 16-year-old wrote into Slate’s Care and Feeding advice column a few months ago to say that her formerly go-getter daughter had announced that she wanted to skip the rigors of college and instead focus on maintaining her appearance for a future husband. “She’s now talking about how great the ‘patriarchy’ is,” wrote the alarmed mom, “and how she can’t wait for someone to come and take care of her.”

From Christie to tradwives to SAHGs to the Patriarchy Daughter, the common thread seems to be the concept that liberation is overrated. That women raised on the virtues of female independence have been sold a bill of goods. Yes, we are allowed to have successful careers. But nobody had decreased the amount of laundry or errands that still needed to be run. Nobody had added any more hours onto the clock.

The Wall Street Journal recently detailed a new paper to be published in the journal Social Indicators Research that found that, “regardless of how the question is asked or what measure is used, women say they are more anxious, more depressed, more tired and more pessimistic than men,” the Journal said. At the same time, though, women are also more likely “to say they are happy and satisfied with their lives.”


It’s a phenomenon known as the “female happiness paradox,” and researchers can’t really explain it.

One guess cited in the article is that the measuring stick itself is off: Men, after all, are the ones who die more often by suicide, drug overdoses and alcoholism. So maybe it’s not that they are less anxious and depressed than women, but that, conditioned to be taciturn, they are less likely to report it. Another guess is that the things that stress women out — children, relationship-building, achieving work-life balance — are also the things that give them the most satisfaction.

Regardless of how to interpret the data, the facts of the matter remain that women are either miserable but happy or happy but miserable. And if scientific researchers can’t figure out what to do about this paradox, can 20-year-old women? Why knock yourself over trying? Crash the MBA reception. Curl your hair. Pack the suitcase. Choose ease.

I’ll pause to note that, generally, we see and hear much less from the men in these relationships than from their influencer wives and girlfriends; their voices are missing from this discourse. Maybe it’s because the mutual arrangement is working for them, but they’re afraid of being labeled sexist for admitting it. Maybe they don’t want to hurt their girlfriend’s feelings by explaining that they truly could not care less if their shirts are rolled. Maybe it’s just because they’re at their offices when all the lovely content is being made.

Whatever the case: I can imagine a lot of men would like to have a stay-at-home partner, not because they are misogynists but because it’s a relief when someone else has already done the grocery shopping — and I can imagine a lot of women would feel the same way. I can also imagine that a lot of men would like to saunter toward a pool in the middle of a Tuesday, or spend their days as Christie describes in the Cut: “Mostly I get to read, to walk central London and Miami and think in delicious circles.” So far, TikTok has not spun off an equivalent stay-at-home-boyfriend aesthetic.

The fact of the matter is that almost nobody who works for a living has the time they wish they did to look, feel or be their best, much less to cultivate a highly aesthetic relationship with a thing called ease.

What if the problem is not feminism but capitalism — specifically the American version, where work-life balance is a punchline? What if instead of 11 paid vacation days, as the average American gets, these women got the full month that is standard in the United Kingdom? What if instead of five (or six or seven) days a week, they worked the four days that countries such as South Africa and Belgium are piloting? Would that allow enough time to do a full skin-care regimen and pack a great suitcase? If college weren’t so ghastly expensive here, maybe that one lady’s daughter wouldn’t be so keen on the patriarchy as a route to leisure that bypasses the long, uphill road to financial independence.

It wasn’t fair when women had no choice to stay home. It’s not fair if women are working but are still doing the work of maintaining a home. It’s not fair if both men and women are trying to juggle it together and are still finding that there aren’t enough hours or dollars in a day.

Who wouldn’t dream of feminine leisure?

A few months ago, I decided to reread Ottessa Moshfegh’s brilliant novel “My Year of Rest and Relaxation.” It’s about a young woman struggling so much with her grown-up life that she embarks on a plan to sleep through an entire year via a steady influx of prescription narcotics. The ending is ambiguous — but, the way I read it, happy: By the end of the experiment, she has finally rested enough to rejoin the world, which she does with a rejuvenated and more optimistic perspective than she had before.

I mentioned this to a friend, who looked at me funny.

“Oh,” my friend said. “I thought she died.”

While writing this, I learned that a colleague and I were both obsessed with an influencer with a tradwife aesthetic who made elaborate pastries while wearing a placid, unchanging expression that made her look like a high-functioning lobotomy patient. In 2024, was this satire, or serious?

The same co-worker had been served the SAHG skinfluencer videos that also populated my social media feeds. Could you imagine, we asked one another, spending 30 minutes a day washing your face?

Then I went home and started thinking about the most satisfying day I’d had in recent months: A bundle of accrued comp time had allowed me to take a paid day off work on a random Wednesday. I went to yoga, bought a fancy sandwich, booked summer travel, researched preschools and made a dinner that was, for once, assembled patiently and attractively and not after desperately Googling “15-minute dinner can of beans and one potato?”

There was a good amount of leisure in there — even a good amount of feminine leisure.

But here’s the thing: The day hadn’t felt satisfying because I had achieved harmony with my feminine destiny; it felt satisfying because I, like most other adult humans of any gender, have a long list of necessary tasks, and almost never enough time to get through them. American culture is not conducive to helping to-do lists get shorter. Workweeks are long, vacation is limited, preschools are not universal and must therefore be researched.

And dreams? Dreams are dreams.

I wondered about the women who seemed to be seeking a relationship solution to the societal and existential problem of unrest. Did they really want to have no control over their own finances? To have to ask for an allowance? How would they feel about themselves and the choices they had made in five, 10, 20 years? When their skin was going to get wrinkles no matter how well they had cared for it. When they had run out of ways to film their get-ready-with-me mornings.

Cosmopolitan ran a story last month about some women who had once identified as stay-at-home girlfriends but who don’t anymore. “If he is paying for your whole life and you don’t have any income at all, there will start to be resentment,” influencer Bella Greenlee was quoted as saying, later adding: “I would clean the house more than I had to, just to keep myself entertained. I didn’t really have a lot to do, so I was kind of going crazy.”

The solution to this messy moment in the history of gender and work is not to dream backward, to the way the middle class used to do it — women as pretty property and men as forced breadwinners — and decide that if today isn’t working, yesterday must have been. The solution is to wonder what we might do about tomorrow.

A few days after the “Case for Marrying an Older Man” essay came out, the New Yorker published an article that received much less vitriol and attention. It was a story about a woman named Alena Kate Pettitt, who had gained fame four years ago as one of the original tradwife influencers. Since childhood, she’d prized the idea of a well-kept home and well-set table, and, after marrying and getting pregnant, she quit her job to make such a life a reality. She ironed. She sewed. She took pictures of herself making banana bread and getting dolled up in 1950s-style clothes, and she posted them to Instagram.

Then, gradually and for a lot of reasons, she got tired of being an influencer. She didn’t like how her lifestyle, which she’d pursued out of genuine interest, had slowly become symbolic and politicized. She noted how her content had become an ouroboros: If she tried to post pictures of herself being domestic in jeans and a T-shirt, the reaction was “muted,” according to the New Yorker, while the dolled-up photos of retro housedresses went “through the roof,” she said. So she wore more dresses, and got more followers, and wore more dresses, and what she was doing started to seem progressively more like a myth than real life.

It was lacking, shall we say, ease. Even wrapping herself in a retro bubble hadn’t protected her from having to make difficult choices, engage in self-introspection, work hard, live life. Being a public-facing tradwife turned out to be just as false of a promise as having it all.

Last year, Pettitt made the radical decision to leave Instagram. Her son was about to start high school, and her family was planning a transcontinental move. It seemed like a good time to consider all of her life choices, she said. She’d always wanted to own a coffee shop. She thought she might go back to work.

Perspective | Tradwives, stay-at-home girlfriends and the dream of feminine leisure (2024)


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