- Left Alone and Left Behind: Policy Responses to the “Displaced Homemaker” in the 1970s
The Congressional Record in the mid- to late 1970s contains many stories of the newly discovered “displaced homemaker,” most of which are narratives of life plans gone badly awry.1 One story highlighted a forty-four-year-old ex-wife of a periodontist who had hardly paid a bill in her life until he ended the marriage and she was forced to go back to school, sell small household items to help with her expenses, and wonder if their children would love her husband’s new wife more than her.2 Another profiled a fifty-three-year-old widow whose husband died after a long illness—but short of retirement—so that she was entitled to no pension money, Social Security (too young), or Aid to Families with Dependent Children (grown children). After paying his medical bills and funeral costs, the woman, who hadn’t worked outside the home in thirty years, was now facing a bleak future without any income for at least seven years and with no job prospects.3 One article mentioned a sixty-five-year-old woman whose husband left her for his secretary and who was forced to work in the home her ex-husband shared with his new wife to earn money as a babysitter.4 These women were faced with financial hardship they had never anticipated and for which they were not prepared. In the words of the two leading activists on this issue: “Displaced homemakers are the victims of a quieter transformation in the structure of the American family. They are primarily older women who have been forcibly exited from a role, an occupation, dependency status, and a livelihood.”5 [End Page 569]
This article examines the emergence of the “displaced homemaker” in the late 1970s and the development of the legislation crafted to ease her struggles. The activists who led this organizing effort worked to turn seemingly utopian feminist ideas like “wages for housework” into nuts-and-bolts legislation and concrete public polices. The work of developing these polices involved grassroots organizing and exceptionally creative proposals that took seriously the task of answering the $64,000 question, “What does it actually mean to make housework ‘work’?”
The term “displaced homemaker” was coined by Tish Sommers—a leftist activist, national board member of the National Organization for Women, and California divorcee—who led the organizing efforts around this newly identified political constituency. Lisa Levenstein has recently offered a compelling scholarly treatment of the genesis of the displaced homemakers’ movement and its relation to the larger feminist movement of the 1970s.6 This article complements Levenstein’s work by taking a different perspective, one that focuses on the pursuit of concrete political gains by offering the first scholarly account of the development and passage of displaced homemakers’ legislation in California and then in the U.S. Congress. Following this history from the mid-1970s into the 1980s allows us to add significant observations to the narrative of displaced homemakers. First, assistance for displaced homemakers was originally envisioned as a federal rather than a state program, and the first full draft of legislation was intended for consideration by Congress, not a state legislature. Second, reviews of the legislative records and popular press of the time indicate strikingly widespread support for displaced homemakers and the claims of advocates that housework was not sufficiently valued in the United States. Yet the final product of this consensus was only a cursory acknowledgment of housework as work, providing the rhetorical foundation for the therapeutically oriented service centers that would come to define the displaced homemakers’ policy program. This surprising outcome reflects the immense challenges facing advocates whose policy goals— whether or not intentionally—depended upon their ability to reshape key premises of American capitalism.
The first section of this article examines the substance of the proposed legislation in California and the process of its passage, which depended heavily upon grassroots organizing. It then turns briefly to the other states that followed California’s lead. Finally, the article examines the tortuous path of displaced homemaker legislation in Congress. Throughout it all...