A recent episode of ABC’s “American Crime” made the potential weight and risk of being a housewife quite apparent.
In episode five of season three, which originally aired on April 9, 2017, we see white middle class housewife Jeanette wrangle with feelings of dependency and inadequacy after she tries to take a break from her husband and her marriage after experiencing an event that caused her to question her role in the relationship and her extended family, as well as the ethics and decision-making of her spouse.
In brief, her husband is involved in the produce business and apparently operates or is in partnership with a number of farms worked by undocumented migrant farmers. A number of abuses – and even deaths – have occurred on these farms. When Jeanette discovers the most recent case and finds out there have been others, she urges her husband to take action and even attempts to advance the conversation at other levels as well. But her efforts are capped; she quickly learns that her husband has sabotaged her attempts at advocacy, while his family “puts her on notice” as an interloper and non-factor, too.
Jeanette cannot stand this, but she seems unable to clearly articulate just why she needs to leave her marriage. She and her husband never had children, and Jeanette does not appear to have had a career or job experience in a long time (if ever). Upon leaving, she tries to apply for an apartment lease or even get a rental room but has no information to populate the job details section. She has no credit in her name, no independent savings or checking accounts, and no clear resources at her disposal that are not subject to her marital entanglements or obligations.
Realizing the codependence of her existence, Jeanette struggles with feelings of neediness, disempowerment and an almost total lack of agency. Under the haze of this epiphany, she asks her husband for money to live off of in the meantime. She doesn’t seem to know how long this break may last or whether she wants a divorce. Jeanette later meets with an attorney in an attempt to get some relief, too, but then realizes the stark departure in how her long-term marriage fails to align with the laws governing spousal support in her state during times of separation.
At the end of the episode, Jeanette shows up at her troubled sister’s doorstep, suitcase in tow, as a last resort.
What are the cautionary tales here? Do housewives see themselves in this series?
Admittedly, I had several “amen” moments while viewing this particular episode. And I felt a few pangs of identification and empathy with Jeanette as the reality of her sacrifices reckoned against her strides toward something new, if even unclear and unnamed.
In fact, it made me feel like going online and applying for regular full-time jobs! But that passed.
At the same time, I realized that while some housewives could end up like Jeanette, in this day and age, many do not have to resign themselves to such a risky fate.
For starters, it does not hurt for wives to familiarize themselves with the laws governing separation, divorce, child support and alimony in their respective state. Each state is different, and so are the factors surrounding an individual’s situation, but some locations trend toward certain standards and deciding factors, while others trend toward different considerations and rulings.
Secondly, many housewives, I have found, are educated. Many have undergraduate degrees, and some even have post-graduate degrees and credentials. Yes, there are some housewives who never completed their education or had a “real job,” but my observations don’t lend a lot of credence to this stereotype. On this note, it’s important for women to keep
a toe in their profession. This can be done by nurturing their network, maintaining continuous education, obtaining a part-time job or project work, and volunteering.
Thirdly, just as I believe women should have a “room of one’s own” (just like Virginia Woolf asserted), I think they should also have a bit of money of her own. This can originate from the resources a wife brought into the marriage from prior savings, investments or retirement funds. It can also be accumulated from her income-producing efforts (see above). I don’t believe women should hoard money in the spirit of fear or in a way that negatively impacts the financial standing of the household, but she should have enough funds available in the event of an emergency. I also believe that men who are husbands should have the same flexibility with some solo resources, too. The existence of this money should not be a secret to the other spouse and, optimally, both will have consensus on what the amount should be.
There are other variables housewives should consider to safeguard themselves in the event of a scenario like Jeanette’s. But these are the top three. If nothing else, this episode of “American Crime” is a commentary on how housewifery is viewed in our society and how basic protections have not coincided with the true equity (as in the value of owned shares or monetary percentage) such women bring to households, communities and cultural institutions at large.