Every morning, Estee Williams slips on a vintage dress, styles her platinum blonde hair and applies makeup for a long day of cooking and cleaning. As a 25-year-old wife, Williams believes in submitting to and serving her husband as a traditional homemaker.
“It’s 2023 and this is my choice,” says Williams.
Although she is responsible for cooking and cleaning their Virginia home, Williams doesn’t venture outside — not to the gym, to buy cleaning supplies or to meet a girlfriend for coffee — without calling her electrician husband Conner to ask for permission, nor does she leave the house after dark alone.
I put my husband’s wants ahead of my own, and this has done nothing but benefit myself and my marriage.
Asking for permission "is a respectful thing,” Estee Williams tells TODAY.com. “I am happy to do it and he’s happy to usually grant it.”
Williams is one face of the “Tradwife” (traditional wife) movement, composed largely of Christian, conservative millennial and Gen Z women who are leaning out of the workforce and into homemaking. This decision is not primarily logistical or economical; instead, it is philosophical.
Some Tradwives say the demands of corporate America have made them long for a so-called “simpler” time.
They say they yearn for what they describe as America’s Golden Age. Some, but not all, Tradwives wear 1950s-inspired clothing and style their hair with retro cuts and “Marilyn bobs." Many believe in clearly defined gender roles.
While Tradwives usually embrace a certain look, they can hold a variety of personal, religious and political beliefs — some defer to their husbands for all decisions; others define marriage as a 50-50 partnership in which running a household carries the same weight as working outside the home.
Williams says she was motivated to become a Tradwife in part because of her “chaotic” childhood with a “struggling single mom” after her parents divorced.
“She worked all these jobs and then she would come home and try her best to make us really good food, have the house clean,” she recalls. “I saw the stress and burnout and I always knew that I did not want that.”
Estee and Conner Williams met in middle school and started dating two years ago, when she was a college sophomore studying meteorology. They bonded over their religious values and a shared desire for a marriage with traditional gender roles. Soon after, Estee dropped out of school. Since their January 2023 wedding, they’ve carved a life from a bygone era.
Estee Williams says they both believe that husbands should have final say on large financial purchases. They share a joint bank account, and each has their own debit card. Estee doesn't consult Conner when she withdraws money for groceries, for example, but for purchases over $100, she says Conner makes the call.
Neither of them cultivate opposite-sex friendships, and Estee takes Conner’s beauty and fashion preferences into consideration when choosing her clothing and hairstyles.
“I put my husband’s wants ahead of my own, and this has done nothing but benefit myself and my marriage,” she said on TikTok.
They don’t have kids yet, though Williams tells TODAY.com she knows how she wants to raise her future children: “Our son will learn how to work on cars and build and fix things; our daughter will learn how to cook, clean and maintain a home.”
Why Tradwives are a thing
Tradwife culture, a niche lifestyle that's finding a larger audience on TikTok, could be a reaction to the overall liberalization of American belief systems, says Noam Shpancer, a professor of psychology at Otterbein University in Ohio. A 2021 New York University study found that each new generation tends to become more open-minded than the previous one in regards to race, sexuality and gender.
"Whenever there is a social change, not everyone will be happy," Shpancer tells TODAY.com. He compares Tradwives to people who support laws like the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida, both seeking to return society to what some people see as a simpler time with fewer individual freedoms.
In the human psyche, any order is better than chaos.
The Tradwife lifestyle shares borders with the alt-right movement on social media through common hashtags like #FeminismSucks, #ConservativeWomen, #TwoGenders and #DomesticDiscipline. Often these hashtags accompany vintage memes showing housewives smiling while sorting laundry and serving dinner.
Not all Tradwives are alt-right or far right politically, though. Shpancer mentions another reason for the rise of the Tradwife movement: a desire to retreat from a society that offers so many life choices.
“Freedom has obvious benefits like choice, opportunity and self-actualization, but it's hard work," he says. "Handling it requires maturity, discipline and an ability to tolerate ambivalence and uncertainty."
He notes that excessive freedom can be anxiety-provoking for many people.
"Humans need structure and clarity to function well and for the story to be coherent," he notes. "In the human psyche, any order is better than chaos."
What being a 1950s housewife was really like
Life in the 1950s certainly had its advantages — for men.
Middle-class men had more vacation time, shorter workweeks, better pension plans and higher salaries than their modern-day counterparts, says Stephanie Coontz, the director of research and public education for the nonprofit organization Council on Contemporary Families.
In the 1950s ... homemakers weren’t entitled to a share of what their husbands earned during the marriage.
According to Coontz, author of the forthcoming book “For Better and Worse: The Problematic Past and Uncertain Future of Marriage,” the average 30-year-old man in 1959 could pay the mortgage on a median-priced home using only 18 percent of his gross monthly pay; women had little economic opportunity outside “Gal Friday” office assistant jobs, earning just 60 percent of male wages.
“Until 1970, the average female college graduate working full time year-round earned less than the average high school educated male,” she tells TODAY.com.
Marriage was a potentially sweet but always uncertain deal for women. Justice was not always served in bad marriages, as there were little to no protections against marital rape and domestic abuse.
“Police often would not make an arrest unless the wife’s wound required a certain number of stitches,” says Coontz. “And many psychiatrists believed that women provoked their husbands into beating them.”
Divorce was not an easy way out. At the time, it was common for ex-wives to walk away with little or nothing.
"A husband had the right to determine the family residence, so if he moved and she refused to follow, she could be charged with desertion," Coontz says. "And several states allowed husbands to mortgage their homes without consulting their wife, or even to bequeath community property to someone else.”
Women couldn't even reliably get their own credit cards until the 1970s. Only in 1974 did it become illegal for creditors to discriminate on the basis of sex or marital status. Before then, says Coontz, "If a single woman with a credit card got married, her husband had to become the legal account holder."
In the event of divorce, she adds, "In the 1950s and 1960s, most states held that earnings acquired during marriage were separate property, so homemakers weren’t entitled to a share of what their husbands earned during the marriage."
Even among families that stayed together, says Coontz, anecdotal evidence from this time period shows that some housewives abused alcohol and tranquilizers in an era before drug addiction treatment was readily available. And although moms were physically present, Coontz says diaries from the 1950s reveal that on average, they spent less time reading to, playing with or otherwise interacting with their children compared with employed women today.
The choice to be a Tradwife
Most Tradwives say they’re happily married to men who pamper and adore them and respect their roles as homemakers. They also insist that their personal decisions are not meant to dictate to or shame other women.
Placing women on pedestals sounds great on the surface, but ... there’s a trade-off.
Rachael D. Robnett
But there's a catch, says Rachael D. Robnett, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“Our social structure still affords men greater power and status than women, so it’s a choice with an asterisk,” she tells TODAY.com. “Placing women on pedestals sounds great on the surface, but it can be at the expense of their agency. So there’s a significant trade-off.”
Robnett points to “choice feminism,” the act of justifying life choices by evoking feminism without reflecting on broader social structures: Women are still victims of sexual violence at disproportionate rates to men, women earn 84 percent of what men make, and in cases where women out-earn their husbands, statistics show, they still tackle more domestic labor.
“The word 'feminism' has been so abused and misused,” says Coontz. “Feminism is a belief that women should have equal rights and responsibilities with men. It doesn’t ask for special privileges for women. It means that, to the extent that it’s about choice, it’s about expanding the choices that men and women can make.”
Many Tradwives do not consider themselves feminists.
"I don't support modern-day feminism," Williams says.
While the majority of Tradwife images depict white women, Black women also have a presence in the movement, according to Adara Sherron, a Christian speaker and entrepreneur in New York.
Sherron says she does not identify as a Tradwife, in part because she works part time — but she does appreciate being a homemaker.
"Many Black women enjoy homemaking, sewing, gardening, growing food, having a farm, etc. Even if the media and social media only show a very small representation of us,” Sherron captioned a TikTok video on her account, "Adara The Explorer." “We have had a long and complex history with these things BUT they are still RICHLY part of our history and our future.”
Coontz speculates about why some Black women may be drawn to the Tradwife movement.
"Black women have long been responsible for keeping families together and compensating for the tremendous discrimination, including violence, directed at Black men and boys," she says. "And with discriminatory wages and greater unemployment of Black men, they have often had to take low-quality, difficult jobs to help support the family. So it’s understandable that some women who may not believe in the subordination part of the so-called traditional marriage may long for a family where the man has a good enough job to support her at home and she can keep her children safe."
I have seen career women look down on those who choose to be wives and moms first, and I’ve seen wives and moms put down career women.
Sherron says she experienced a brief spell as her family’s breadwinner when her husband was unemployed. As he got back on his feet, Sherron was laid off, and she took the opportunity to stay at home with their daughter.
"I have seen career women look down on those who choose to be wives and moms first, and I’ve seen wives and moms put down career women," Sherron tells TODAY.com. "There’s no one lifestyle that’s right or wrong. As a society we have to be cognizant of the fact that not every woman wants a husband or kids. And that's OK."
Stay-at-home Tradwife K.M., who asked TODAY.com to publish only her initials to protect her privacy, says she is a “reformed radical feminist,” having grown up in a Muslim family before converting to Christianity.
The 21-year-old says she believes traditional gender roles primarily benefit women. She notes that U.S. workplace policies don’t guarantee paid maternity or menstrual leave.
"If a woman goes through the difficult process of pregnancy and childbirth, and she has several kids and is home all day and the husband has a full-time job, her work is just as important as his work," says K.M., who runs the Stay At Home Ladies Club Instagram account. "I don’t understand why she would have to get a full-time job in addition to the work that she’s already doing."
A love of Jell-O salad with grated carrots
For Emily Perea, 39, a stay-at-home mom in New Mexico, the Tradwife movement is a way to escape “from a world that doesn’t appreciate someone staying home and raising children and to one that puts people on a pedestal for it.”
As a mom, Perea says she wanted to recreate her “idyllic” childhood in which she idolized “Little House on the Prairie” writer Laura Ingalls Wilder. And with few job prospects in her rural community, she says homemaking was logical.
Perea struggled with organizational tasks until she discovered “America’s Housekeeping Book,” published in 1941, and was mesmerized by its step-by-step instructions for home maintenance. As a collector of vintage housekeeping books, Perea appreciates the empowering messaging woven into the pages.
"It's very much, 'You should make this work for you, but not clean so much that you don’t go on picnics with your kids,'" she notes. "I realized that the difference (between then and now) is that we've lost respect for unpaid caregiving and we no longer treat it as a profession."
We've lost respect for unpaid caregiving.
When her husband is working as a gardener, Perea homeschools their eight children using textbooks published in the 1800s and the 1950s. She also cooks “square meals” (featuring meat, lots of sauce, vegetables, salad and dessert) from vintage cookbooks.
“I love making lemon or orange-flavored Jell-O salad with grated carrots and pineapple on lettuce leaves with sour-cream salad dressing,” she says.
Perea runs the recipe-and-etiquette blog “Mid-Century Modern Mommy” to advertise her homemaking coaching services and share 1950s-era advice for a happy home and marriage.
"When he takes the wrong freeway exit and he keeps going in the wrong direction, you will go past the state line and still not correct what he’s doing," reads one post. According to another, "Don’t let yourself go. Physical beauty is not the first requirement of femininity. But when a woman lets herself go, she is announcing to men that she doesn’t care whether they like her or not — which is not feminine."
Perea says she and her husband blur gender roles and they divide chores based on each other’s personalities and strengths. For example, she cleans but he mops, and their five sons are taught how to run a household along with their sisters.
"My main reason for being a Tradwife is that everyone deserves to know how important it is to have a home," she says.
It’s worrisome if people in the movement convince young women that depending on a male breadwinner will solve their work-related frustrations.
Experts say families should carve their own paths. But, they warn, following a glossy social media trend into the world of Tradwives could be dangerous.
"It’s worrisome if people in the movement convince young women that depending on a male breadwinner will solve their work-related frustrations, without considering the risks that a man might lose his job, die early, mistreat them or abandon them," says Coontz.
"Unless Tradwives are sure that those watching are protected against the abuses that characterized the 1950s," she adds, "it doesn’t have much to do with choice, but rather wishful thinking.”