How Traditional Are Tradwives: Evaluating the Social Media Movement

Author:

Anne Kennedy

Article ID:

JAF0624AKTT

Updated: 

Jun 19, 2024

Published:

Jun 13, 2024

Theological Trends Column


When you  support the Journalyou join the team and help provide the resources at equip.org that minister to people worldwide. These resources include our ever-growing database of more than 2,000 articles, as well as our free Postmodern Realities podcast.

Another way you can support our online articles is by leaving us a tip. A tip is just a small amount, like $3, $5, or $10, which is the cost of a latte, lunch out, or coffee drink. To leave a tip, click here


One evening I casually posed this question to my six children and got six different answers: What is a tradwife? One named a sweet, soft-spoken mother in our church. Another spoke volubly about Shaye Elliott merch.1 A third began searching through her phone for an account, the name of which she could not remember. A fourth — the most sarcastic of the bunch — shrugged and said, “Is that like a mommy blogger? Weren’t you the original tradwife?” The two boys made a lot of jokes at my expense, and the conversation devolved as everyone pulled out their devices and started scrolling. In the end, we were all stooped over my phone watching professional model Nara Smith, in full makeup and runway fashion, making marshmallows from scratch.2

Like so many social media phenomena, the tradwife trend flows like a swift current carving out a new riverbed. A torrent of clicks will transform the hashtag of last week into an entirely new genre by the end of summer. A “generation” online lasts the blink of an eye. It is no surprise, then, that the person some people say was the “original” tradwife — Alena Kate Pettitt, who blogs about manners and housekeeping on her site called Darling Academy — recently expressed fear that the movement had lost its way. “The movement, her movement,” writes Sophia Elmhirst in the New Yorker, “had been hijacked by extremists and grifters.”3 Which is to say, as a recognizable trope, what the viewer thinks it is will depend on the algorithm, her political and religious inclinations, and, most importantly, her aesthetic preferences.

Linen Aprons and Kefir. The click of a pilot light as the flame is about to catch, the sound of a heavy skillet set carefully over the flame, and the rustle of paper as a block of hand-churned butter is unwrapped; the latest iteration of tradwife influencers leans heavily, though by no means exclusively, into the homey sounds of domestic work. Soothing, motherly voices introduce each task. “Spend the day with me while I put my house together after a busy weekend,” says Lisa at Farmhouse on Boone.4 “Hello Lovelies,” smiles Parisienne Farmgirl.5 My favorite is Nara Smith, who confesses to some obscure culinary craving and then says, “So I got started right away.” In awe, I stare open-mouthed while she compresses what would take me a week of hard labor into thirty seconds by dint of brilliant editing software.6

I’ve lost myself in the glow of Melanie Renee, a pastor’s wife in Alabama who always says, “Hello, Beautiful people,” and then cooks heaps of delicious food for her nine children on a shiny griddle while restocking her in-home salad bar with the help of her husband and sons.7 And there is Sophia on TikTok, who tries on clothes from her modest clothing brand, See Rene Boutique, and films herself getting ready for Shabbat.8 Or the woman who runs The Crafty Corner on Instagram whose immaculately clean house and coffee corner is to die for, and who is definitely not a tradwife, but whose content always appears in my tradwife feed.9

Depending on your preferred aesthetic, there will be a slew of content for you to consume. Farming, homesteading, homeschooling, child-rearing, cleaning out your cupboards, teaching music, cooking everything from scratch, going away and coming back again — for tradwife content, the essential ingredient is a woman keeping her home.

Is Anyone in America Trad? I grew up in what we might now call a “traditional” agrarian society. Far away from electricity, running water, or any modern technology, traditional gender roles, what Ivan Illich calls “vernacular gender,”10 governed social norms. Women cooked and did some work in the fields — older girls and grandmothers minded babies. Men plowed, planted, mended equipment, and traveled into town sometimes. Nobody woke up in the morning and wondered what they would do that day, making a cup of espresso in a sleek device and staring into the middle distance.

What does “traditional” mean? In some ways, even talking about it means that it doesn’t exist. If two people marry and then adopt a more traditional way of life, the very act of choosing belies the existence of a tradition. We are sitting, corporately, in the rubble of dismantled and deconstructed traditions. Almost everything that mediated familial relationships and made them habitable has been torn down. And so, every couple must decide for themselves how they will rebuild. And because we don’t live in a pre-technological agrarian age, just to state the obvious, and everything we do is mediated by technology, the traditions we are building are new, which makes them, by definition, not traditions.

Yet might the assumptions of feminism — that men and women are equal, or at least should be, in every sphere but especially in the workplace — a hundred years on from the 19th Amendment, be considered a tradition? Witness that when women, like the busty and self-confident Estee Williams (who knew almost everything there was to be known about marriage several years before she tied the knot), want to dismantle feminism and reprise ways of life from previous generations (like the 1950s or the 1850s), the hue and cry from the New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, and even Christianity Today borders on hysteria.11 Estee insists that a tradwife is a woman who “prefers to take a traditional or ultra-traditional role in marriage, including the beliefs that a woman’s place is in the home,” and that she will probably “submit to her husband and serve her family. This concept is not degrading and she is not considered of lesser importance than him. (This is also common with more traditional Christians).”12 Delivering this uncomfortably counter-cultural tidbit, she smiles and bats her eyelashes.

Proverbs 31 Technology. Tradwife content is made by women for women. Setting aside for a moment the question of form and medium, the deep waters of content production in a social media age illumine some essential features about being a human person, and, more crucially, about being female. In spite of a century of efforts, both culturally through the upheaval of industrial and sexual revolutions and technologically through the pill, to suppress female biological realities, to invite, and in some cases, to coerce women into the workforce, the fact that so many women want to be at home represents a surprising denouement. Watching Chelsea Handler meltdown over a football player rejoicing in the wife of his youth and lauding her care of his children and their home — a domestic situation an increasing number of young women are pining for — is at once heartbreaking and comforting.13 Handler is a sort of icon of feminist Betty Friedan without the intellect or philosophical acumen; her fellow feminists worked so hard while pregnant women sat around their kitchens in bare feet, cooking for their husbands. Only now, some of them wear evening gowns.

The tradwife life isn’t a conspiracy and certainly isn’t radical. What would it look like to be the wife of Harrison Butker? Well, check out her age and income and you will find many influencers doing exactly what she is, using their money and energy to be married and raise children. These are not women locked behind doors, heads covered, denim skirts swishing over the floor. These are exactly the kind of women Proverbs 31 says a man should look for. Women who can earn money and at the same time build a life and a home without crouching in the corner, moaning about their rights and drying out from a wine binge in a cryogenic chamber.

And, crucially, technology undergirds the re-creation of those lost agrarian social formulations — working together in one location. “For us, it’s been so nice to be able to work together. We obviously have a lot of kids, so we have a lot of responsibilities,” explains Daniel Neeleman of Ballerina Farm.14 He and his wife Hannah have a clear division of labor centered around content production on her side and free-range pork on his. They aren’t larping (live-action role-playing) exactly. They are attempting to recreate a traditional way of life by means of new technology. Adaptability, it might be said, is the oldest of all traditions.

Husbands and Hypocrisy. As I devoted myself to consuming as much tradwife content as I could, I became more and more bemused by the man’s place in the narrow TikTok frame. Sometimes, the husband does appear, sometimes not at all. Depending on the account, it might be at least once a reel, or only very sparingly. Why is this? According to the New York Times, tradwife content is for patriarchal men who need to subject their wives to their misogynist control.15 That’s what the patriarchy means. The valorization of homemaking and childrearing is a nefarious and retrograde effort to destroy women, subjugate them, and take away their hard-won equality. If this is so, then why aren’t there more men in the frame demonstrably bossing their wives? As a Christian, it’s hard to take the accusation of misogyny seriously.

Certainly, it is the case that women fall into toxic marriages with controlling husbands. Lauren Southern is one recent example. She tried the tradwife life and, by her own account, it ended very badly. She tried to shape herself to the inclinations and desires of a husband for whom nothing was ever good enough. When she went home without his permission for a family funeral, he divorced her.16 Similarly, it would not be too much to say that hypocrisy abounds — the form demands it. I wouldn’t be inclined to watch a reel of someone in a house that looked like mine — full of clutter, dirt, stacks of books and paper I haven’t had time to put away, and all the detritus of the end of the school year. If I did want to post something funny about how out of control my life was, I would make sure to adjust the chaos to look bougie. None of us would watch a video for very long of slovenly and chaotic disorder — a man screaming at his wife, the children running amok, and the sourdough failing. Those videos are addictive for other reasons. This is not that genre.

The Bible’s Trad Women. I am not inclined to think that the absence of the man in so much “trad” content is insidious at all. If anything, it is the welcome resurgence of the once-acknowledged need for single-sex space. No matter what we may say, we believe ideologically, at the end of the day, we will click on the content we prefer, and for most women, even women who might profess otherwise, it is satisfying to watch a woman keep her home. The Bible’s declaration that a wise woman builds her home might be an exhortation to go and do likewise. But it might also be a slightly pedantic celebration of common grace (Proverbs 14:1).

In the same way that catching the bright details of women’s work in a warm and comfortable kitchen with sweeping views outside and small children twirling in the background, the Bible offers myriad homely snapshots of women doing what tradition and inclination prescribe. The widow of Zarephath picks up her sticks to bake her last cake of bread before settling down to die (1 Kings 17:7–16). Jesus and Martha wrangle in hushed voices in the kitchen about Mary (Luke 10:38–42). A woman mixes three measures of flour together with leaven to make bread, and this is like the kingdom of God (Luke 13:21).

There were no reels in the ancient world, no iPhones shipped in from far away built by unfair economic practices amounting to modern-day slavery. But there were, and always have been, women doing what traditionally was theirs to do. Women today who settle themselves into the minute, onerous, but pleasurable tasks of the home are no different. Their work makes them human — and women. And so, of course we all watch.

 Wholesome Content for Sale. If there is any “we,” any corporate shared culture in these latter days, it must include a virtual component. It is not polite for me to pop next door and try to chat with my neighbors. It would be intrusive for me to try to be friends with people on my street. Yet strangely, it is perfectly acceptable for me to comment on the thread of a stranger’s Instagram post to attach myself to a person whom the market has vetted for me through clicks and shares. The hive of the internet makes each of us feel safe in our individual spaces.

It may be time for me to put away my Gen X lamentations over the loss of the sort of embodied community I feel comfortable with and that shaped my expectations. The fact is that communities around shared assumptions and knowledge are being recreated. The aggressive tide of fourth-wave feminism is showing signs of receding, as women give up on birth control, as they make bread from scratch while simultaneously clicking through an Amazon order. If you’re going to be a tradwife, the first thing you need is a way to take payment online — and to make it.

Everything is commercial, but what is being sold matters. Young women today are choosing between starting an Only Fans account or larping the wise woman who builds her home, both online and in person. She might choose to have children, and unless she is already rich, she will probably want to contribute to the economic needs of her family financially. It is not unreasonable that she might do this by tapping into a nostalgic and universal longing for a better country. She will have to be careful not to run afoul of YouTube censorship while unboxing the latest product from some other micro-business marketed for women like her.

A little while ago, one of my teenage daughters was weeping that she couldn’t just be a medieval peasant, a farmwife with a pack of children about to butcher a pig. She said she wanted to be poor, which I disputed, given the rapidity with which she is able to text her friends. I took her in my arms to console her. “Don’t worry,” I said, “when you grow up you can be a tradwife influencer.” —Anne Kennedy

Anne Kennedy, MDiv, is the author of Nailed It: 365 Readings for Angry or Worn-Out People, rev. ed. (Square Halo Books, 2020). She blogs about current events and theological trends on her Substack, Demotivations with Anne.

NOTES

  1. The Elliott Homestead, accessed June 10, 2024, https://shoptheelliotthomestead.com/.
  2. Nara Smith, (naraazizasmith), “These!! #easyrecipe #homecooking #toddlersoftiktok #fyp #marshmallow #caramel,” TikTok, accessed June 10, 2024, https://www.tiktok.com/@naraazizasmith/video/7344091492358655274;
    Rebecca Aizin, “Who Is Nara Smith? All about the TikTok Creator Married to Lucky Blue Smith,” People, April 12, 2024, https://people.com/who-is-nara-smith-lucky-blue-smith-wife-8604660.
  3. Sophie Elmhirst, “The Rise and Fall of the Trad Wife: Alena Kate Pettitt Helped Lead an Online Movement Promoting Domesticity. Now She Says, ‘It’s Become Its Own Monster,’” New Yorker, March 29, 2024, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/persons-of-interest/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-trad-wife.
  4. Lisa Bass (farmhouseonboone), TikTok, accessed June 10, 2024, https://www.tiktok.com/@farmhouseonboone.
  5. Angela Reed, (ParisienneFarmgirl), YouTube, accessed June 10, 2024, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4P9zhII6woD8WriaQwk6bw; Parisienne Farmgirl, accessed June 10, 2024, https://www.parisiennefarmgirl.com/about/.
  6. Nara Smith (naraazizasmith), TikTok, accessed June 10, 2024, https://www.tiktok.com/@naraazizasmith.
  7. Melanie Renee (raisingcades10), TikTok, accessed June 10, 2024, https://www.tiktok.com/@raisingcades10.
  8. Sophia the Jew (sophiathejew), TikTok, accessed June 10, 2024, https://www.tiktok.com/@sophiathejew.
  9. The Crafty Corner (the_craftycornerr), Instagram, accessed June 10, 2024, https://www.instagram.com/the_craftycornerr/.
  10. See Ivan Illich, Gender (London: M. Boyars, 1983).
  11. Christianity Today’s recent article, “Tradwife Content Offers Fundamentalism Fit for Instagram,” by Kelsey Kramer McGinnis, surprised me for its unnuanced and rather uncharitable description of the trend (March 13, 2024, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2024/march-web-only/tradwife-influencer-movement-fundamentalism-christian.html). See also, e.g., Jessica Grose, “‘Tradwife’ Content Isn’t Really for Women. It’s for Men Who Want Submissive Wives,” editorial, New York Times, May 15, 2024, https://www.nytimes.com/2024/05/15/opinion/tradwife-tiktok.html; Annie Kelly, “The Housewives of White Supremacy,” editorial, New York Times, June 1, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/01/opinion/sunday/tradwives-women-alt-right.html; “What the ‘Tradwife’ Trend Says about Modern Life,” Impromptu podcast, Washington Post, April 17, 2024, https://www.washingtonpost.com/podcasts/impromptu/what-the-tradwife-trend-says-about-modern-life/; Monica Hess, “Tradwives, Stay-at-Home Girlfriends and the Dream of Feminine Leisure,” editorial, Washington Post, April 10, 2024, https://www.washingtonpost.com/style/power/2024/04/10/tradwives-stay-at-home-girlfriends-modern-couples/; “‘Trad Wives’ Are Trending. What Does That Say about Feminism Today?,” Weekend Edition Sunday podcast with Ayesha Rascoe, NPR, January 28, 2024, https://www.npr.org/2024/01/28/1227453741/trad-wives-are-trending-what-does-that-say-about-feminism-today; Mark Travers, “A Psychologist Explains the Dangers of the ‘Tradwife’ Movement,” Forbes, January 6, 2024, https://www.forbes.com/sites/traversmark/2024/01/06/a-psychologist-explains-the-dangers-of-the-tradwife-movement/; Julie Kohler, “Tradwife Influencers Represent an Authoritarian, Sexist Ideology,” Teen Vogue, July 3, 2023, https://www.teenvogue.com/story/tradwife-influencers-politics.
  12. Estee C. Williams (esteecwilliams), “What It Means to Be a Tradwife. #fyp #tradwife #homemaking #housewife #traditional #tradwifecontroversy #womenschoice,” TikTok, September 8, 2022, https://www.tiktok.com/@esteecwilliams/video/7141111247033912622.
  13. “Chelsea Handler Reacts to Harrison Butker’s Speech,” TENET Media, YouTube, May 28, 2024, 0:59, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLACV4qG-D0.
  14. Hannah and Daniel Neeleman, “Question and Answer with Hannah and Daniel of Ballerina Farm,” Ballerina Farm, YouTube, May 19, 2024, timestamp 12:50, https://youtu.be/5me4zGYbo8g?si=qI7rn9UII7tWTQm_. Stephanie McNeal, “Why Does Ballerina Farm Make Moms So Mad?,” Glamour, January 22, 2024, https://www.glamour.com/story/why-does-ballerina-farm-make-moms-so-mad.
  15. Jessica Grose, “‘Tradwife’ Content Isn’t Really for Women. It’s for Men Who Want Submissive Wives,” editorial, New York Times, May 15, 2024, https://www.nytimes.com/2024/05/15/opinion/tradwife-tiktok.html.
  16. Mary Harrington, “Lauren Southern: How My Tradlife Turned Toxic: The Online Ideology Doesn’t Work in the Real World,” UnHerd, May 6, 2024, https://unherd.com/2024/05/lauren-southern-the-tradlife-influencer-filled-with-regret/.
Loading
Share This