Women were given the privilege of being the makers of Jewish homes. The Hebrew word for "homemaker" is akeret habayit. Before discussing what this means in the Jewish context, let us clarify what it does not mean. An akeret habayit is not a housewife. The woman's role at home as it was traditionally understood in American culture is very different from how it is understood in Judaism...
For an akeret habayit, housework is a means to an end, and not the end itself. Akeret is the feminine version of ikar, which is the central aspect, or the essence of something. Bayit usually means "house" or "home." The Temple that stood in Jerusalem was called the "Beit HaMikdash," beit meaning "house of" and hamikdash literally meaning "holiness." Often, it is referred to simply as "HaBayit," "the House." Thus, in Hebrew the same word is used for both a home and the Holy Temple. In fact, the purpose of a home is to be a "mikdash me'at," a miniature sanctuary.
God commanded Israel to build the sanctuary so that He could dwell "b'tocham." B'tocham is often translated as "amongst them." However, its literal meaning is "within them." The purpose of a sanctuary is to help each of us build our own inner sanctuary where God can dwell. An akeret habayit is that central figure which transforms a home into a sanctuary where each member of her family can become a dwelling place for God's presence. Taking care of children means more than just making sure they are fed, clean, and receive quality time. It means chinuch - the Hebrew word for education and dedication to the service of God.
Being a [Western] housewife also meant being housebound. All of a woman's capabilities were supposed to be directed only to her home. There was no room for any self-development or pursuit of outside interests, let alone a career. To do so would seem manly and hence unnatural. It was reasoned that there is something about women, their "feminine mystique," which allows them to be fulfilled by shiny floors.
For an akeret habayit, there is no contradiction between valuing her central position in the home and developing her interests outside of it. A traditional Jewish woman who works outside the home considers herself every bit an akeret habayit as a woman who stays home. There is no "housewife" versus "career woman" dichotomy... In "Eishet Chayil," the ideal woman is described as an expert businesswoman.
An akeret habayit is still expected to place her family above her career, but so is a man. This is due to Judaism's beliefs that the goal of a person's life, man or woman, is self-transcendence rather than self-fulfillment. Life's goal is not money, prestige, or public recognition. It is about approaching one's Creator, whether it be through creating a Jewish home or learning His will as revealed in the Torah.
In much of the non-Jewish world, part of being a married woman was being subservient and submissive to the husband. As his "helpmate" (ezer k'negdo), it was her job to wait on him. Here is just one example of how an idea was taken from Judaism and perverted. This was all a part of her job to "obey" her husband as he was superior to her. As John Calvin said, "Let the woman be satisfied with her state of subjection, and not take it amiss that she is made inferior to the more distinguished sex." Just as the man was to subject himself to God, the woman was to subject herself to the man because he represented Godliness.
We have seen how a woman's being an ezer k'negdo means being in an equal relationship with her husband. A woman is considered to be made in the image of God, just like the man, and neither is seen as being more "Godly" than the other. A woman is not considered a missing piece to an otherwise whole man. She, like the man, is equal to half of the human being. In other words, a whole human being is 50 percent man and 50 percent woman, not 99 percent man and 1 percent woman, or even 51 percent man and 49 percent woman. As an ezer k'negdo, not only is a woman allowed to have a different opinion from her husband, but it is precisely because of her unique perspective that she is able to be his partner.
It was not enough for the housewife to be submissive to the man, she had to be subsumed by him. She was not allowed to have an independent voice. She was not allowed an independent identity. She was defined exclusively in terms of her roles as wife and mother. Until about 150 years ago, in American law a married woman did not have a legal identity separate from her husband. She was considered a "femme couvert," literally, "a woman under cover" of her husband. This was an application of the idea that in marriage, a husband and wife are united into one entity.
This may sound like what Judaism says, but the understanding of how this unity is achieved is opposite to Judaism. The two things which distinguish the human being from animals are free will and the ability to communicate. When a woman got married, she was expected to give up both to her husband. His will was to be her will, and she was not allowed her own voice. The "unity" of husband and wife was thus achieved by stripping the woman of her humanity. This was not a unity between two human beings, but a man's acquiring a female body...
The key to the previously mentioned vulnerabilities of women is their financial dependence on their husbands. On the one hand, the [Western] woman was encouraged to withdraw from the workforce and stay home or to go into a low-paying job. She thereby became financially dependent on the man. On the other hand, the woman was not guaranteed financial security in return. In the event that her marriage became abusive, a woman's choices were often to remain and face more abuse at home, or to leave and live in abject poverty.
In American law, there is no legal minimum that the husband has to provide his wife, making it easy for him to manipulate her. Once the marriage is over, whether through divorce, the husband's death, or simply his leaving, the woman's security is further jeopardized. If the woman divorces, then her alimony and child support, assuming she gets any, often does not provide her with the same standard of living.
Under Jewish law, a man must provide for his wife's financial security both during and after the marriage, and this is enforceable by the courts. During the marriage, the minimum a man must provide for his wife is food, personal needs, clothing, household needs, medical payments, and burial. This severely decreases his ability to manipulate her by threatening her financial well-being. If he divorces her, he has to pay her a substantial amount of money in one lump sum which would allow her to live comfortably for at least one year. This was instituted by the rabbis over two thousand years ago to prevent men from using divorce as a way to threaten or punish their wives, and to help make divorce a viable option for a woman if the situation called for it.
If a woman works, then she is still entitled to her husband's providing for all her needs. In return for this financial security, the woman's earnings belong to her husband. However, a woman can choose financial independence by stating that she wants to keep her earnings. The husband is then relieved of some of his financial obligations to her. A man, however, cannot tell his wife to work and keep her earnings so that he could lessen his responsibilities toward her.
When a man dies, his widow and unmarried daughters are supported from his estate. If a man has debts and he dies, then a portion of his estate must go to paying off all the debts. Whatever is left is divided among the heirs. In order to provide for the women's financial security, the widow and unmarried daughters are considered creditors. The "debt" to the widow is to provide her with financial support until she dies or remarries. She also has the right to continue living in her house. The "debt" to the unmarried daughters is their financial support until they are married. Whatever is left over is inherited by the sons. In this way, a woman's livelihood could not be threatened by the husband either during or after marriage. At the same time, the law also helps the man to provide for a woman's financial security.
It may seem that the laws concerning financial matters between husbands and wives are unequal. However, the rabbis knew that treating men and women as if they were equal (i.e., the same) in terms of financial standing would lead to vastly unequal outcomes. This has been borne out by the American experience. As Carol Tavris writes in "The Mismeasure of Woman":
"[N]otice that at the core of this vision [of treating women "equally" to men] is our now familiar male standard of normalcy. The goal is to treat women as men already are treated....
"Now many scholars of legal issues are questioning the wisdom and consequences of the symmetrical vision of legal equality and focusing on the male bias at its heart. One of their most powerful arguments against symmetry is the accumulating evidence that treating women like men often produces disastrously unequal outcomes."
She continues to demonstrate how treating women the same as men has left many women impoverished. The rabbis recognized that the majority of women would get married and have children and therefore be ill-equipped to financially support themselves. Jewish laws reflect this and provide for the akeret habayit's security. However, the rabbis also provided a way for married women to be financially independent. The choice between financial dependence and security, and financial independence was left to the woman.
For all the superficial similarities in the emphasis on home and family, the akeret habayit and the American housewife represent two different and often opposite beliefs about women, particularly married women, what their role is, and the value placed on their labor. The Jewish woman and her central role in building the Jewish family has always been highly valued in Judaism. This is reflected in Jewish values, and it is backed by the Jewish legal system.