Trad wives are thriving in the post-Dobbs era

trad wife 1950 style
AI image of a 1950s trad wife Photo: Shutterstock

This article first appeared on Mother Jones. It has been republished with the publication’s permission.

Last year, despite minding other people’s business online, I didn’t know what a “trad wife” was. Now it seems like every time I log in to Instagram or TikTok, there is another video of a beautiful woman cleaning her home or making an extraordinarily long and needlessly difficult meal. These trad wives, short for traditional wives, are women who post online content showing themselves adhering to patriarchal gender roles while keeping house and raising children—and making it look easy.

Take Nara Smith, a model and mother of three who’s married to Mormon actor and model Lucky Blue Smith. Nara, who’s biracial and opaque about her politics and religion, doesn’t claim to be a trad wife, but the signs are there. Through mellow voice-overs, she walks us through cooking barbecue chicken pizza or pasta from scratch in full makeup, jewelry, and evening wear. No powder, liquid, or sauce ever touches the hem of her sleeve or splashes her face. Her kitchen is spotless and grand. There is not a single sweat bead dotted on her forehead. In short, everything is perfect.

I wanted nothing to do with her or any self-identifying trad wife in my own small piece of digital real estate, but their immense popularity (and algorithmic dexterity) had allowed them to trespass, and I find myself unable to turn away. Chances are, neither can you. But while it might be easy to write off the trad wives as a silly meme or a guilty pleasure, they should not be taken lightly. Given the misogynistic messaging and white-centric ideals some of these influencers peddle, they are indicative of larger forces at play—henchwomen in an ongoing effort to functionally erase modern women from the public sphere.

To fully understand the rise of the trad wife phenomenon, it helps to look at its origins. In some ways, trad wives resemble the mommy bloggers of the mid-aughts to early 2010s. Back then, momfluencers like Dooce’s Heather Armstrong and Catherine Connors of Her Bad Mother commanded massive audiences through confessional posts about breast pumps and postpartum depression. As writer Kathryn Jezer-Morton pointed out in a 2020 New York Times piece, mommy branding was different back then: These bloggers were messy; they did not hold back in revealing all of the stickiness and ugliness in their matrescence.

But then the vibe shifted. In 2016 and 2017, when Seyward Darby was doing research for her 2020 book, Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism, she noticed an ominous subculture gaining prominence, one in which women were performing this highly curated image of wife- and motherhood. “It was aggressively anti-feminist, anti-diversity; some of it was proudly pro-white,” Darby says. Trump’s rise helped give these women a larger megaphone.

Trad wives are indicative of an effort to functionally erase modern women from the public sphere.

Of course, many influencers bragging about being stay-at-home moms are not white supremacists, but, as Darby points out, “it is a slippery slope—and sometimes there’s no slope at all—between ‘I’m just a nice woman who wants to be a wife and mom’ and having a very white nationalist agenda. Whether they realize it or not, those are the waters they are swimming in.”

Watching trad wife content can pull viewers into territory they didn’t expect. “What’s scary is that there is a subtext in all these videos,” Washington Post tech columnist Taylor Lorenz tells me. For example, a trad wife might advocate for “natural living” or homeschooling, and then veer into anti–birth control rhetoric or religious indoctrination. “When you engage with these videos, because they are so adjacent to fascist, far-right content, you are quickly led down a rabbit hole of ­extremism.”

Not all trad wives have direct links to the far right. But what unites them is a romanticized vision of domesticity, or, as Darby calls it, “June Cleaver 1950s cosplaying.” As self-proclaimed trad wife Estee Williams, who rejects any associations with white supremacy, declared in a 2022 TikTok video, “We believe our purpose is to be homemakers.” It’s not simply about looking pretty. Their aestheticizing of housework is a throwback to the mid-20th century, when women weren’t even allowed to get a credit card or a loan. Publications such as Ladies’ Home Journal were responsible for promoting a certain kind of wife as a way to reestablish social order after World War II, when many women had entered the labor force. As Ann Oakley puts it in her 1974 book, Housewife, “a good wife, a good mother, and an efficient ­homemaker­…Women’s expected role in society is to strive after perfection in all three roles.” Most trad wife content is marked with this desire for perfection.

Some trad wives’ aesthetics hearken back to America’s colonial past. Ohio-based Kelly Havens Stickle, who has more than 56,000 Instagram followers, has published long posts in which she likened herself to “a pilgrim raising pilgrims,” “an old soul” who is “drawn to a nostalgic time in the past and pines for it to come back.” Another one of the internet’s most prominent trad wives is Hannah Neeleman (nine million Instagram followers), the mother of eight children and co-operator with her husband of the booming Ballerina Farm in Kamas, Utah. She will often post videos of Sunday morning church prep, her daughters getting their hair done while wearing quilted dresses as the American flag waves from the front porch. Or she’ll promote her linen aprons. The dream of homestead life among trad wife influencers is a bat signal for women who grew up in Christian fundamentalist spaces, as Kelsey Kramer McGinnis argued for Christianity Today: “They see it as a new way to spiritualize hyper-feminine womanhood and strictly defined gender roles. It’s content they have seen before, repackaged for a new generation.” It urges them to reminisce about a simpler time, when gender roles were firmly in place.

There are plenty of reasons not to glorify that era. As Gaby Del Valle pointed out in an essay for The Baffler,­­ during the Free Soil Movement of the mid-19th century, homesteads were only offered to white families. When the birth rates of those families declined by 1890, social scientists warned of “race suicide,” urging white women to have more babies. Echoes of this appear in the posts of Ayla Stewart, one of the women Darby profiles, who blogs as Wife With a Purpose. To “restore our nation,” Stewart proposed a “white baby challenge” to see if other white women could match the six babies that she had birthed. Supporters reportedly responded to this content with “Make White Babies Great Again!”

Distracted careless housewife chatting with her phone, she is burning clothes with the iron

So why are many millennial and Gen Z women an eager part of the trad wife audience? Here’s my theory: We’ve given up. The popularity of the trad wife content is demonstrative of a psychological resignation. In the past several years, we’ve experienced a pandemic, the fall of Roe v. Wade, and the end of the Girlboss­­ Era. The rise of the trad wives marks what Samhita Mukhopadhyay, author of the 2024 book The Myth of Making It: A Workplace Reckoning, believes is “a response to the failures of a neoliberal workplace feminism” stretching from the 1960s to the present day—one that focuses on individuality. “What women fought for was an entry into the workplace,”­ Mukhopadhyay explains, but “being a mother in the workplace was almost untenable.” Even after decades of supposed progress, she points out, “we’re still not paid equally, and most women still don’t have resources commensurate with how hard they work and how they contribute to their families.” According to a 2023 report from the liberal research and advocacy organization the Center for American Progress, women were 5 to 8 times more likely than men to work part-time or not at all because of caregiving responsibilities. Maya Kosoff, a content strategist and writer who admits to me that she has become obsessed with trad wives herself, says their popularity is “a reaction to perceived systemic failures” that seem like they “can be easily solved by turning to the simpler life of homesteading.”

So why are many millennial and Gen Z women an eager part of the trad wife audience? Here’s my theory: We’ve given up.

And look, escapism isn’t anything new. When life gets harder, it’s only natural that one would daydream about a different time. But fantasies are dangerous when the stakes are so high for American women right now. We have only started to feel the effects of the Dobbs decision. “We have not seen how bad it’s going to get as women are pushed out of public life over the coming years,” journalist and MeToo activist Moira Donegan tells me. “Our main educational institutions, our workplaces, our elected officials are going to start to look more male.”

Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom similarly argues that attacks on reproductive rights represent an erosion of women’s place in a democracy. “Women only get to be full citizens if they have control over when and how they have babies,” she says. “When that changes, your citizenship becomes vulnerable, so you attach yourself to a citizen: men. I think this reclaiming of being the traditional wife is here so long as there’s a threat.”

Trad wives may submit to their husbands, but that doesn’t mean “we think that we’re less than a man—that’s not what we’re saying,” Estee Williams argues. “Trad wives just believe that they are here, as women, for a different role—equally as important.” Though trad wife influencers freely choose to assume the role (and plenty make a pretty profit off the performance), their videos function as siren calls for women to close their laptops and pick up a mixing bowl and recede to the shadows like “the good ol’ days.”

You might be asking yourself at this point, Why can’t people simply enjoy things? So what if I like to watch beautiful women make marshmallows from scratch? Here’s the thing: We live in an attention economy. Your attention is currency. Every time you look at a video on Instagram or TikTok, the algorithm will keep boosting those same types of stories onto your feed. As Kyle Chayka, author of the 2024 book ­Filterworld, wrote in the New Yorker, “Algorithms would not have the power they have without the floods of data that we voluntarily produce on sites that exploit our identities and preferences for profit.”

You can never “simply enjoy things” when you log in to a social media platform. Every interest or disgust you have toward a topic is up for extraction. When you feast on trad wife videos, your eyeballs are implicated. Even if you don’t subscribe to the far-right or racist ideologies, you’ll be fed them so long as you keep watching. Believing you have no part in it is as naive as believing that touching a hot stove won’t get you burnt.

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