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Rise of the ‘trad wife’: Some women are sick of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In manifesto

Disillusionment with the corporate feminist fantasy has seen the trend drift from the murky recesses of the internet into the mainstream. But are they yearning for a past that never really existed?

Last week, Sheryl Sandberg announced she was standing down from the board at Meta, the parent company of Facebook. When it comes to those boasting a decorated career, few can outpace Sandberg: at just 43 she had already worked at the World Bank and McKinsey; done a stint as chief of staff at the US treasury department; spent 6½ years at Google; and worked at Facebook as its chief operating officer. Who better, then, to have written the definitive treatise on women in the workplace, Lean In: Women Work and the Will to Lead.

The 2013 book was a phenomenon, spending more than a year as a New York Times best-seller. It argued that women should advocate for themselves in the office; that they should be more ambitious; that they could triumph in a male-dominated workplace if they just, well, took a bit more responsibility for themselves; that having a family and career success were not mutually exclusive ideals. In the denouement of the Obama years Sandberg turned to the women of corporate America and said: “yes, you can have it all!”

Just more than a decade later, as Ireland faces its referendum on women in the home, Lean In feels like a full circle moment, a neat convergence. It is hard to think of an idea more antithetical to the soul of Lean In than the Constitution obliging the Irish State to “endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”. Perhaps this clause has had little tangible impact on the fate of the contemporary Irish woman. The Lean In universe says the spirit of the sentence ought to be bad enough.

If only it were so simple. The Sandberg movement of the mid 2010s may have captured the hearts and minds of millennial women. But there now exists an entire movement across the liberal West of young women who are far more suspicious of such notions. Sandberg’s manifesto has been reappraised in the past decade as shallow; as a book that trades in hollow promises; as a book that does not have women’s best interests at heart.


Their argument is simple: women were told they could have it all. But in the wake of the financial crisis, spiralling inflation, prohibitively high childcare costs and a property market that erects huge barriers to young people starting families, this has started to feel like a lie. And now, disillusioned by the corporate feminist fantasy, a new trend has emerged from the murky recesses of the internet into the mainstream: the “trad wife”.

Picture this: Hannah Neeleman, an impossibly beautiful blonde 33-year-old woman with eight children, an Aga, a ranch in Utah, a life of pastoral bliss, and 13.2 million followers across TikTok and Instagram. Or how about Alena Kate Pettitt, the English founder of The Darling Academy, a website for “housewives, homemakers, traditionalists and anglophiles”. Or Gwen the Milkmaid, with a modest 60,000 followers, dressed in an apron, who recently asked in a video: “Ever noticed that everything modern feminism promotes leaves women unhappy and unfulfilled?” This is just a tiny sample size of a rather deep movement. I can imagine these women, and their millions of combined followers, looking at article 41.2 of Bunreacht na hÉireann and saying: “Hey, that doesn’t seem so bad?”

The rise of the trad wife feels like yearning for a past that never really existed; where wealth was abundant and the life of a housewife was easy

The great “trad wife” resistance (and its younger sister, “the stay-at-home girlfriend”) has been fomenting over the 2010s. And its source lies not just in economic angst, but in the apparent rapid liberalisation of western sexual ethics too. Louise Perry’s influential book The Case Against the Sexual Revolution (2022) articulated a disquiet: the advent of the contraceptive pill and the ensuing free love movement was supposed to provide women with consequence-free youth, but it seems plenty are increasingly unhappy with the new status quo. Meanwhile, the vertiginous fall in organised religion and the slow ebb of the nuclear family has left other women feeling adrift – in search of community and stability in a chaotic world. This ideological pivot inwards, towards the home, is perhaps not unexpected. And it certainly doesn’t feel unreasonable.

But I remain unconvinced on one basis. Of course it is no less important to raise a family than it is to follow in Sandberg’s footsteps. No reasonable person would suggest otherwise. But the rise of the trad wife feels like yearning for a past that never really existed; where wealth was abundant and the life of a housewife was easy. It seems a similar impulse to those – like Holly Cairns did in the Dáil – who argue their generation is worse off than their parents, but refuse to reckon with the very real material circumstances their mothers and grandmothers had to reckon with to lead us to the present day.

The Feminine Mystique (1963) by Betty Friedan first questioned the postwar ideal that women were most fulfilled by domesticity and child-rearing. For now, I am agnostic on the referendum. But I know I am grateful to the Sandbergs and Friedans of the world.