When President Trump appealed to “suburban housewives” on Twitter, Darcy Page knew she was exactly the kind of woman he was targeting.
Page is 45 and married, based in a conservative suburb on the outskirts of Salt Lake City. Though Page, who is a Democrat, recently started working in administration at her parks and recreation department, she has spent much of the last 20 years at home, raising her four kids. In the president’s tweet, she said, Trump promised to keep families who rely on low-income housing from “invading” neighborhoods that look like hers. The subtext was clear, she said: Keep me in office, and your white-picket-fenced community will stay White.
“Suburban housewife,” Page said, feels like it might be a euphemism for “racist White woman.” On Twitter, other women say they feel the same way.
In one of the first speeches at the GOP convention Monday night, Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel referred to herself as a “real housewife,” a Michigan mother-of-two who also “happens to be only the second woman in 164 years to run the Republican Party.”
On Tuesday, first lady Melania Trump delivered a “special message” to the “mothers of this country,” targeting to the same White suburban demographic.
The term “housewife” seems specifically designed to target the White suburban moms who backed Trump by a wide margin in 2016, but who now appear to be deserting the president for Democratic nominee Joe Biden. While many women, including Page, are offended by the “suburban housewife” label — and the thinly-veiled racial fears it’s being used to stoke — the term also has clear appeal, evoking a far more prosperous time for White families, says Jane Yunhee Junn, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California at Dornsife, who studies women and politics.
“It’s kind of genius in some ways,” said Junn.
The term conjures a very specific image, said JoEllen O’Reilly, a 55-year-old based on Bainbridge Island, Wash., who stayed at home with her kids for many years. A “housewife,” she says, always has the laundry done, folded in a neat pile by the time her husband comes home. (After all, housewives only ever have husbands.) When she heard the word at the Republican convention, O’Reilly imagined a woman holding a home-cooked dinner in a “sparkling clean” house, with every little detail arranged “just so.”
It’s a picture rooted in the 1950s and ’60s, when sitcoms like “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Donna Reed Show” offered portraits of quintessential suburban life, which at the time was overwhelmingly White. But the term actually dates back to colonial times, when it had a very different meaning, said Stephanie Coontz, the director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families. When it was first used, a “housewife” described a woman who worked to financially support the family, Coontz said — because the house was a “production center,” a place to farm vegetables, tend livestock or make cloth.
The definition shifted dramatically after the Second World War, said Coontz, when White Americans moved to the suburbs in droves. It was a period of “staggering economic prosperity” for White men — when young White men made four times as much money as their fathers had at their age. At the same time, Coontz said, career opportunities for White women declined or stagnated, as a majority stopped working altogether to care for their families full time. Meanwhile, women of color continued to simultaneously parent and work outside the home.
The decision to use the term “suburban housewife,” instead of “stay-at-home” mom is likely strategic, said Junn, appealing to both men and women. Many White voters, particularly White working-class voters, are “nostalgic” for a more prosperous economic period. To be a housewife, or to have one waiting for you at home, is a “status symbol” to some, Junn said, signaling that the family is financially stable enough to rely on only one income. For many working-class families, the “suburban lifestyle dream,” as Trump described it in a recent tweet, might be something to aspire to, she said, evoking a time when men were the “providers,” feeling more “manly” and “powerful.”
While most White women probably have no interest in returning to the sexism and gender discrimination of the 1960s, Coontz says, they may be looking for a way to “relieve stress somehow,” especially as many schools and day cares are closed during the coronavirus.
“Trump is gambling that they so much want to relieve that stress, that they are willing to submit to the 1960s lifestyle,” Coontz said.
But along with the economic prosperity of that time period for White families, Coontz says, there was also widespread housing discrimination and redlining, policies that kept Black people from buying homes in predominantly White areas and the effects of which continue to haunt Black families today. Suburbs have become considerably less White since the 1950s and ’60s — in many suburban areas, the majority of residents are now people of color. In his messages to “suburban housewives,” Junn said, Trump is assuming that suburban White women are nostalgic for the policies of racial exclusion, preferring a neighborhood free from “low-income” residents, which many see as code for people of color.
These attempts to stir up racial fears aren’t subtle, said Junn.
“This is a call to the White heterosexual patriarchy,” she said. “It’s not a dog whistle — it’s a very clear call.”
When Trump is talking to women of her demographic, Page recognizes that he is trying to appeal to a “lizard brain of fear,” she says, trying to convince them that a more diverse neighborhood would “somehow destroy our lives.”
She worries that for some women, these tactics might actually be effective. Page remembers when Republicans made a similar appeal to suburban White women in the early 2000s, she says, when they stoked racial fears after Sept. 11, convincing women to support limitations on personal freedoms to combat terrorism and protect their children.
“And that worked, right?”
It won’t work on her, Page says. She recently changed her Twitter handle to “Nasty Suburban Housewife for Biden.”
She did it in a moment of frustration, eager to say: “I am your target demographic — and it’s not going to work on me.”