Scambition

Black “Tradwives” Say Marriage Is The Key To Escaping Burnout

On TikTok and Instagram, “tradwife” accounts extoll the virtues of traditional marriage —  where the man is the leader, sole provider and breadwinner, and the submissive woman upkeeps the household —  to hundreds, thousands, and sometimes, millions of followers. 
While most of these “tradwives” are white women, a growing number are Black women, many of whom say that traditional marriage is the key to Black women’s liberation from being overworked, economic insecurity, and the stress of trying to survive in a world hostile to our survival and existence. As tempting as this idea may sound to some, it’s one with numerous flaws and contradictions. 
Advertisement
 Interestingly, Black women rarely use the term “tradwife” on social media, opting instead for hashtags like #blackhousewife and key terms like “traditional marriage” and extolling the benefits of being a “submissive” wife, although their content is very similar to white content creators who use the term tradwife explicitly. Kayla McGugan, who posts about biblical womanhood on her TikTok, makes the distinction between “traditional marriage” and what she refers to as “biblical marriage.” 
“Traditional marriage assumes the posture of its environment or society.  Societies change their values, culture impacts the mindset of all who partake in it,” McGugan tells Refinery29. “Biblical marriage, on the other hand, is unchanging. The blueprint has been laid out in meticulous detail. The Most High God created an order for marriage and when that order is established between a man and his wife, it creates a unifying bond unbroken by changing times, hardships or societal pressures.”

[Black "tradwives"] say that traditional marriage is the key to Black women’s liberation from being overworked, economic insecurity, and the stress of trying to survive in a world hostile to our survival and existence. As tempting as this idea may sound to some, it’s one with numerous flaws and contradictions. 

But that doesn’t seem to be entirely true, as the rise in popularity of traditional or biblical marriage values among Black women is absolutely rooted in society and history. Due to centuries of oppression, Black women are paid over 40% less than non-Hispanic white men but make up one of the highest workforce participation rates in the country. Perhaps as a result of this many — regardless of their gender politics —  are expressing a desire to fall back from the professional pressures they feel and lean into a life of pleasure, rest, and comfort. 
More and more Black women on TikTok say they often feel that they’ve been “scammed” by feminism and professional ambition, choosing instead to direct their energy towards championing the idea that a woman’s place is in the home: cooking, cleaning and raising children.  It supplants the outlets of women’s ambition we’ve come to accept: career advancement, personal growth, being financially independent and living alone. Some, like McGugan, feel that all they’ve been taught about marriage is a lie. “[I came] into the understanding that what I had been taught aboutwho I am and the traditions of men that I had been raised to believe as hard truths about marriage and my role as a wife, were not so,” she tells Refinery29. McGugan doesn’t mention financial stress as one of her motivators, but it’s impossible to ignore that this has an impact. In pursuit of a softer life more unencumbered by trauma and financial stress, the title of wife and mother becomes paramount, while everything else fades into the background. Everything else is just gravy. 
Advertisement
It’s also no coincidence that this comes at a time of great economic instability, a worsening climate crisis, and the deterioration of governmental systems. 
All the pathways Black women were told to trust — our government, our leaders, our degrees, and the very earth we stand on — seem to be more uncertain than ever.  Some people don’t want to head into the unknown unpartnered, and alternative sources of community may seem less certain or socially advantageous as traditional marriage. “During uncertain times, people sell easy solutions. Because our brains, in times of precarity, crave simple solutions,” Bridget Todd, co-host of “There Are No Girls On The Internet” podcast, tells Unbothered.  “But often, those comforting, simple solutions are just placeholders for the reality, which is that the problem is actually systemic and institutional. You’re not going to dismantle it in your specific nuclear household and family. If you’re only looking within your own family, you're not looking hard enough at the larger issues at play.” 
The idea that marriage is particularly liberatory and restorative for Black women who find themselves burdened by a capitalistic society might sound like a confusing one, but it’s rooted in history. Todd says she believes the “tradwife” trend is partially a backlash to white feminism. “White feminism has not always meaningfully addressed, centered, or valued Black women. So there’s this idea that white feminists all lied to Black women when they said the key to liberation was getting a job and working outside of the home,” Todd says. But clearly, for the millions of Black women who have been working and studying and feel exhausted or economically unstable, getting a job isn’t working out the way they were promised.. Instead of digging deeper into the systemic issue, Black women creating tradwife content are revisiting and insisting that the institution of traditional marriage — which has always excluded Black women to varying extents — is the goal. 
Advertisement
This idea that traditional marriage is aspiratory idea is partially because historically Black people haven’t been invited into traditional aspects of gender, they’ve always been placed outside of it. And marriage is inextricably tied to these concepts of gender. Dr. Brienne Adams, Assistant Professor of African American Studies at Georgetown University, tells Unbothered, “Generally, Black women and Black men weren’t allowed to tap into the construction of femininity and masculinity — and with it, marriage to some extent.” 
During chattel slavery, Black wives and mothers were not allowed the legal benefits of either marriage or parenthood, nor were they allowed the ability to stay home. During Jim Crow, many Black women were forced to work instead. In 1918, the City of Greenville, South Carolina issued an ordinance requiring Black women to work.  “A number of complaints have come to members of the Council of Negro women who are not at work and who refuse employment when it is offered them, the result being that it is exceedingly difficult for families who need cooks and laundresses to get them,” reported the Greenville News in October 1918. 
 Some social media content creators embrace this tension our racial history has brought to the conversation about stay-at-home mothers in particular, seemingly without resorting to absolutist statements about gender roles but still hewing close to ideals of Christianity and the patriarchy. 
“My identity as a Black woman and embracing this divine order [of biblical marriage] go hand in hand,”  McGugan tells Refinery29. “ I think it’s important that we, as Black women, embrace a position within our homes that we were not afforded for so long. Black women were forced to work outside their home and incentivized by the U.S. government to remain unmarried. Disproportionate incarceration rates for Black men forced many Black women to raise children alone, and the list goes on. All of these unfortunate circumstances demanded Black women to assume both a masculine and feminine role, often at a young age, completely stunting the growth of our feminine and causing our soft nature to harden,” she continues. 
Advertisement

... The problem is actually systemic and institutional. You’re not going to dismantle [capitalism] in your specific nuclear household and family. If you’re only looking within your own family, you're not looking hard enough at the larger issues at play.” 

Bridget Todd, co-host, “There Are No Girls On The Internet” podcast
Brooke Hicks-Nelson, a Black Christian stay-at-home mom influencer recently posted a video on TikTok about this ordinance. In the caption, she wrote: “Part of justice and righteousness is having tough conversations, and that’s what I seek to do here. So here’s to the many Black women who were forced to work outside their homes, and the Black women who did so because they had to provide. Here’s to the Black homemakers who have been forgotten by history.” Hicks-Nelson did not respond to our request for comment.
@its.brookelynne In Greenville, South Carolina, an ordinance said, and I quote “Negro women to be put to work”, due to a lack of laundresses, cooks, and maids for white families. Even if those women had the desire/means to not work outside their homes, they were legally required to do so. There is a long, painful history surrounding the conversation of homemaking, labor, and Black women, and unfortunately this is NOT being discussed in many spaces. Part of justice and righteousness is having tough conversations, and that’s what I seek to do here. So here’s to the many Black women who were forced to work outside their homes, and the Black women who did so because they had to provide. Here’s to the Black homemakers who have been forgotten by history. #homemaker #homemaking #homemakers #christianhomemaker #christianhomemaking #blackhomemaker #blackhomemakers #blackhomemaking #blacksahm #blackstayathomemom #blackstayathomemoms #blackhousewife #blackmoms #stayathomemom #stayathomemoms #sahm #sahmlife #sahmomlife #sahms ♬ original sound - Brooke Hicks-Nelson
According to the CDC, 69 percent of Black children are  born to unmarried mothers; even Black stay-at-home mothers are more likely to be unmarried than stay-at-home mothers from other ethnic groups. But it’s the vitriol and shame attached to being Black unmarried mothers — especially women whose children have multiple fathers — that becomes unbearable, as well as the constant public debate about the morality of Black unmarried  mothers. It’s a debate that extends to all aspects of Black women’s lives.  
“For Black women, these things are often public conversations about our desirability (or lack thereof), our sexual and romantic histories, our cleanliness, our childbearing, all of that,” Todd says. “Our bodies are public and political in such intense ways. And I think it really invites people to put a lot of projections onto us and who we are regardless of who we actually are.” 
This public nature debate on the nature of our bodies perhaps sheds some light on why marriage may seem like a shelter to Black women. Because even though it’s a regulated institution, people view it as a private space. Once you are married, your body is not up for debate, but only because it belongs to someone else. It belongs to the realm of the domestic. So some Black women might feel they’ve come out of the public sphere of ownership and into the domestic sphere of ownership. But that’s not really reclaiming agency, it’s transferring ownership. It’s also an illusion, because a married woman’s body is still a matter of public debate, as we’re seeing with the mass stripping of reproductive rights. 
Advertisement
Also, the domestic as a concept  can be a site of horror and abuse. But because of the perception that this very public institution is actually private and between two people, its victims are cloistered and the violence enacted upon them is hidden. Todd tells Unbothered: “One of the reasons why women who speak up when they leave abusive situations face such backlash is because of this perception that they have betrayed the privacy of the institution of marriage or of the domestic. I feel like when people say [this should be] ‘a couple's business,’ what they're actually saying is ‘it’s the man's business.’” 
Holding up traditional marriage as aspirational isn’t as illogical as it may seem. In a patriarchal society, it has benefits; benefits that have nothing to do with love. Marriage is a highly regulated institution in this country — as is the question of custody for children produced in that marriage  — but people often pretend it’s not, detaching themselves from the reality of the legal institution. But marriage means tax breaks, it means health and life insurance, it means mortgages and shared assets. It means if someone leaves you, you can petition a court and are not necessarily left without any assets. And it also means that now you have a particular standing in society, because you are part of this institution. Tradwife accounts are fully aware of this, as they frequently respond to criticism or harassment by pointing out the privileges marriage brings them — mainly economic and societal. Marriage is about how the world sees you, what you get from the world, and what the world takes from you. 
Advertisement
Despite the veneer of happiness, we know that content creators — regardless of race — don’t ever show us the whole picture. Some users on social media have criticized tradwives of purposely hiding their unhappiness to scam people, such as the viral TikTok of the “stay at home girlfriend,” whose journal was revealed to contain a great deal of loneliness and dissatisfaction with her career. But sometimes the act of creating the content itself can be self-soothing. Adams agrees that much of the desire to create the content can be for coping, or for affirmation. ”In showcasing the romantic relationship and getting likes and positive comments, it tells creators ‘people desire my life,’ and that feels good and makes you think you made the right choice.” 

The idea that Black women should aspire to traditional marriage as a way out of capitalist exhaustion is a deeply flawed one, as these are the same systems that excluded us.

Consuming content can also be about coping, sometimes with abusive or harmful messages. Overall, tradwife content teaches women to bend, to submit, to cater to a man’s needs and emotions. And it tells you that you will be rewarded with material wealth, a beautiful family, and love. One of McGugan’s videos features her talking with her audience about biblical womanhood and being a submissive wife by admitting her own “faults.” She told of a time that she disagreed with her husband’s parenting decision in front of their child. She says at that moment she was in “blatant rebellion in front of our child…my husband, being the gentle, patient man that he is, gently corrected me and instead of taking my L, I rebutted.”
Advertisement
@kaymcgugan “As the sun when it ariseth in the high heaven; so is the beauty of a good wife in the ordering of her house.” ‭‭Ecclesiasticus‬ ‭26:16‬ ‭KJVAAE‬‬ #biblicalwomanhood #setapart #husbandandwife #cleaving #twobecomeone #oneflesh #hebrew #hebrewwomen #sahm #biblicalmarriage #faithwithoutworksisdead #biblicalmarriage ♬ Lo-fi hip hop - NAO-K
For Adams, there’s a worry that the messaging behind tradwife accounts could lead viewers in abusive relationships to appease their partner and  learn that submission is the pathway to survival. 
“I think a lot of content around dating and relationships generally sometimes can be the impetus to help you to make decisions and then to help you make it okay,” Adams says, when asked if tradwife content can be a coping mechanism for both creators and consumers trapped in harmful or abusive relationship dynamics. “What are the mental gymnastics that you have to do to get into a relationship that embraces cishetero-normativity and then stay in said relationship? Those mental gymnastics are what the whole [tradwife] industry is predicated upon. [It says] ‘I’m going to teach you how to stay.’” 
But McGugan feels that submission doesn’t enable abuse, and she cites her differentiation between traditional and biblical marriage as part of her reasoning. “Traditional marriage standards can absolutely enable abuse. The lines are blurred and there is the assumption that because the husband has authority over his wife, he can set and change the goal posts of what behavior is acceptable at any given time. In a truly biblical marriage, which is the standard my husband and I hold ourselves to, there is an ordained order and a standard of behavior that must be upheld at all times. I don’t submit to my husband out of fear, I submit to my husband out of reverence,” McGugan says. “He assumes the role of protector and provider without complaint. I trust him to not only protect our family physically but to also take care when it comes to my emotional and mental wellbeing. As a wife, submission requires trust, respect, a meek spirit, and the learned ability to be led.” 
Advertisement
When asked how wives should balance a need for healthy discussion of conflict with issues with the need to be independent, McGugan says “It is my belief that wives shouldn’t be seeking independence within the union of a healthy marriage. And neither should the husband. As husband and wife, your goals and visions for your family should align.” 
Even though she believes in wives being submissive to their husbands, McGugan says she tries to discourage abuse in her role as content creator. “I’m usually very careful in my TikTok posts to make a conscious effort to point out that my advice on submission is for women in healthy marriages with husbands who love and care about their total well-being (physical, mental, emotional). My advice would be to first understand that submission requires a trust that your husband will lead you toward safety and not harm. Prioritize your safety and do what you need to do to protect yourself and your children,” she says. 
In the end there’s nothing wrong with celebrating your marriage publicly or staying at home, but social media users should think critically about the messages and the context they’re being delivered in. The idea that Black women should aspire to traditional marriage as a way out of capitalist exhaustion is a deeply flawed one, as these are the same systems that excluded us, and now this feels like another means to control us. Our inclusion is also a tool of control, as traditional marriages are also dependent on capitalism and are institutions that can harm Black women. “Tradwife content, particularly on a platform like TikTok can be dangerous because it can usher folks down pipelines to more extremist ideology and ways of thinking,” Todd says. “Whenever someone is selling you aspiration, I think alarms should be going off saying ‘I should be consuming this with a critical eye.’” 
Advertisement

More from Living

R29 Original Series

Advertisement