How Did Feminism Lead to Programs for Displaced Homemakers?

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A displaced homemaker describes someone who has been out of the paid workforce for years, usually raising a family and managing a household and its chores, without pay, during those years. The homemaker becomes displaced when for some reason – most often divorce, a spouse’s death or a reduction in household income – she must find other means of support, likely including re-entering the workforce. Most were women, as traditional roles meant more women stayed out of the workforce to do the unpaid family work. Many of these women were middle-aged and older, facing age as well as sex discrimination, and many had no job training, as they had not expected to be employed outside the home, and many had ended their education early to conform to traditional norms or to focus on raising children.

How Did this Term Arise?

Sheila B. Kamerman and Alfred J. Kahn define the term as a person

"over 35 years of age [who] has worked without pay as a homemaker for his or her family, is not gainfully employed, has had or would have difficulty finding employment, has depended on the income of a family member and has lost that income or has depended on government assistance as the parent of dependent children but is no longer eligible."

Tish Sommers, chair of the National Organization for Women Task Force on Older Women during the 1970s, is usually credited with coining the phrase displaced homemaker to describe the many women who had been previously relegated to the home during the 20th century. Now, they were facing economic and psychological obstacles as they went back to work. The term displaced homemaker became widespread during the late 1970s as many states passed legislation and opened women’s centers that focused on the issues facing homemakers who returned to work.

Legislation to Support Displaced Homemakers

During the late 1970s and especially in the 1980s, many states and the federal government sought to study the situation of displaced homemakers, looking at whether existing programs were adequate to support the needs of this group, whether new laws were needed, and providing information to those -- usually women -- who were in this circumstance.

California established the first program for displaced homemakers in 1975, opening the first Displaced Homemakers Center in 1976. In 1976, the United States Congress amended the Vocational Educational Act to permit grants under the program to be used for displaced homemakers. In 1978, amendments to the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) funded demonstration projects for serving displaced homemakers. 

In 1979, Barbara H. Vinick and Ruch Harriet Jacobs issued a report through Wellesley College's Center for Research on Women titled "The displaced homemaker: a state-of-the-art review." Another key report was the 1981 document by Carolyn Arnold and Jean Marzone, "needs of displaced homemakers." They summarized these needs into four areas:

  • Informational needs: reaching often-isolated displaced homemakers through publicity and outreach, helping them understand that services were available as well as more specifics on what services might be available to them.
  • Financial needs: temporary financial support for living expenses, child care, and transportation
  • Personal counseling needs: these might include crisis counseling, financial and legal counseling, assertiveness training, psychological support including support groups. Counseling might specifically address single parenthood, divorce, widowhood.
  • Vocational needs: assessment of skills, career/vocational counseling, help with job search and job placement, creating jobs, opening apprenticeship programs to older women, advocating for the hiring of displaced homemakers, affirmative action, working with employers to advocate for displaced homemakers and help employers deal with their needs. Once a displaced homemaker with children found a training program or job, child care and transportation were also needed.
  • Education and training needs: developing skills, finishing educational levels likely to be required by employers

Government and private support for displaced homemakers often included

  • Funding agencies where displaced homemakers could go for advice or counseling, and to find out what services were available to them. Many states provided a Displaced Homemaker program, often through the Department of Labor or through departments serving children and families.
  • Job training programs, including related training such as English, writing, goal-setting, financial management, etc.
  • Funding for higher education programs or for completion of high school.
  • Job placement programs, to help match applicants to available jobs.
  • Counseling programs, to deal with the personal change issues of divorce, the death of a spouse, and the effect of the challenge of their new circumstances to their expectations.
  • Direct funding, via welfare or other programs, to sustain the displaced homemaker while s/he was in job training or counseling.

After a decline in funding in 1982, when Congress made the inclusion of displaced homemakers optional under CETA, a 1984 program significantly increased funding. By 1985, 19 states had appropriated funds to support the needs of displaced homemakers, and another 5 had other legislation passed to support displaced homemakers. In states where there was strong advocacy by local directors of job programs on behalf of displaced homemakers, significant funds were applied, but in many states, the funding was sparse. By 1984-5, the number of displaced homemakers was estimated at about 2 million.

While public attention to the issue of displaced homemakers declined by the mid-1980s, some private and public services are available today -- for example, the Displaced Homemakers Network of New Jersey.

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Your Citation
Napikoski, Linda. "How Did Feminism Lead to Programs for Displaced Homemakers?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Napikoski, Linda. (2020, August 26). How Did Feminism Lead to Programs for Displaced Homemakers? Retrieved from Napikoski, Linda. "How Did Feminism Lead to Programs for Displaced Homemakers?" ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).