What year is it again?
President Donald Trump has been tweeting and talking about the “suburban housewife” lately, a term that sounds strange to many of us in 2020. It hearkens back to the 1950s and 1960s, an age when it was a far more common household arrangement — at least for middle-class families — for the husband to go off to work while the wife stayed home, cleaning, cooking and caring for the children.
There’s a good reason why the term has fallen by the wayside, of course. Most working-age women are in the labor force now, suburban or not. And it’s been that way since at least 1980.
There are a number of reasons for that, including both increased professional opportunities and a decline in hiring discrimination for women after decades of activism, as well as economic necessity — typically, a single middle-class salary can no longer support a family, as it once could.
There just aren’t that many stay-at-home married women anymore, so it seems a little odd that Trump thinks he should be courting this particular demographic — although to be fair, he probably was trying to appeal to the broader category of suburban women, a demographic that has largely abandoned him. Calling them “suburban housewives” probably didn’t help his cause.
But how many stay-at-home married women are there in the suburbs, and to what degree have the numbers declined? I thought I’d take the opportunity to look at the numbers for this particular demographic in the Seattle area. I used census data, defining “suburban housewives” as married women, ages 18-64, who live outside of Seattle in King or Snohomish counties, and who are not in the labor force.
I also looked at the same trend among women in the city of Seattle, as well as men — “suburban house husbands,” if you will.
In 1960, it was far more common for a Seattle-area wife to stay home than to work. Of the roughly 124,000 working-age married suburban women, 86,000 — that’s about 70% — were not in the labor force. Only 30% worked.
It was somewhat more common for urban married women to work, but they were still very much in the minority. In Seattle city, among married working-age women, just 39% were in the labor force in 1960.
The most recent data shows the percentages have flipped.
Today there are about 412,000 working-age married suburban women in our area, and only 31% were not in the labor force in the most recent census data. That’s about 127,000 women who meet the definition of “suburban housewife” in the Seattle area.
The data is for the years 2014-2018 and presents a snapshot of the women surveyed at that time. People can, of course, go in and out of the workforce from year to year.
While 127,000 women is not an insignificant number, as a voting bloc for the president to court, they represent a small slice (5.5%) of the total 18+ population in King and Snohomish counties, which is more than 2.3 million.
And while the president might imagine “suburban housewives” as they were in the midcentury era — in other words, mostly white — that is certainly no longer the case in the Seattle area.
In 1960, 99% of the women who match the “suburban housewife” definition in King and Snohomish counties were white. Now only 60% are — that’s actually a slightly lower percentage than the total suburban population that is white.
Other racial/ethnic groups that are also underrepresented among the “suburban housewife” demographic when compared with their total population include Black, Hispanic, Native American and multiracial women.
But in the Seattle area, Asian/Pacific Islander women are significantly overrepresented for this demographic, making up 25% of the total number of stay-at-home married women, ages 18 to 64, who live in the Seattle suburbs. Asian/Pacific Islander people represent 16% of the total suburban population.
Among urban married women, just as in 1960, a smaller share stay home today compared with the suburbs. In the city of Seattle, just 23% of married working-age women are not in the labor force, in the most recent data.
While the “housewife” has been steadily declining, there’s been an opposite trend among the “house husband.” Stay-at-home married men remain much rarer than stay-at-home married women today, just as they were in 1960. But unlike women, the percentages for men have grown, which reflects a societal relaxing of traditional gender roles.
In 1960, a mere 3% of married working-age suburban men in King and Snohomish counties were not in the labor force. Today, that has tripled to 9% — a total of 35,000 suburban “house husbands.”
Interestingly, the percentages are basically the same for married men in the city of Seattle as they are in the suburbs.