ONE of the most modest job descriptions around never appears on any resume. Instead, it is delivered casually by countless self-effacing women who, when asked what they do, reply simply, "I'm just a housewife."
Although substituting the word "homemaker" improves their perceived status somewhat, many women at home identify all too closely with Emily Dickinson's poem, "I'm Nobody! Who are you?/ Are you - Nobody - Too?" With no paycheck or vacation, no job description or performance review, no social security or pension, who, these homemakers wonder, will take them - and their endless duties - seriously?
That question apparently didn't trouble earlier generations of women at home. According to Eleanor Arnold, editor of "Voices of American Homemakers," a new oral history of homemakers between 1890 and 1940, "The homemaker of that day did not need to be assured that she was needed. It was a fact of life."
Large families and a lack of labor-saving devices meant that these wives spent drudgery-filled days pumping water, scrubbing clothes on washboards, cooking on wood stoves, sewing, and growing and canning a summer's bounty of fruits and vegetables. They were, as Mrs. Arnold notes, "experts in making do and getting by" - models of courage, stamina, and common sense.
Yet that kind of essential contribution to families and communities still escapes the attention of most scholars - an omission Arnold's book helps to rectify. Similarly, these skills are not the ones likely to be honored during the current observance of Women's History Month, an event that tends to spotlight achievers whose accomplishments are more visible.
Arnold's book, published by Indiana University Press, draws on the experiences of more than 200 rural and small-town women. Although they represent a different period in history, their comments and feelings convey a timelessness and universality about homemaking experiences. Microwaves may be the high-tech alternative to wood-burning stoves and Maytag may have made washboards and clotheslines obsolete, but the basic tasks - cooking, cleaning, child-rearing - remain essential.
One of the book's narrators, Jalie Martin of New Mexico, defines her role this way: "There is a difference between a homemaker and a housekeeper. A housekeeper keeps a house clean, keeps it picked up, cooks meals. But a homemaker does it with love. Love for her family, love for her mate. There is a lot of difference, and I am proud to be a homemaker."
As the workplace has increased in importance, domesticity has been devalued, making Mrs. Martin's obvious satisfaction harder to duplicate. Yet even the national debate that grew out of the Zoe Baird hearings - Who will care for children and keep a household running smoothly while parents spend long days at the office? - testifies to the continuing importance of work done within the home.
The working mother has her special and well-publicized problems. But what about the homemaker, forced out of her chosen place in life? The divorce rate puts her at risk far more often than homemakers 50 or 100 years ago, and ironically, because of such social instability, she is less likely to have an extended family to fall back upon.
Traditionalists of earlier generations probably could not have imagined a need for the Displaced Homemakers Network, an organization founded 15 years ago to help women overcome the devastating economic consequences that can occur when a marriage ends, either through divorce or a husband's death, leaving a wife with nothing to put on a resume except: homemaker. Who can blame women's groups for seeking Social Security credit for homemakers, so that the years a wife and mother spends out of the work force, caring for children, do not count as zero? It is one way of helping women become self-sufficient.
The issue should not be either-or - one that pits working mothers against homemakers. Both need all the support they can get - and then some. But where the homemaker runs a poor second is in terms of respect. At a time when the homemaker is still caricatured sitting on a sofa, munching chocolates and watching soap operas, Arnold's history restores balance and dignity to the other legitimate career for women.