Collage: Cathryn Virginia | Photos via Getty Images and Estee Williams
Estee Williams grew up in a broken household and realised quickly she didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of her parents.“I didn't grow up traditional,” she says. “And I think that does play a big part in my decision to move towards this lifestyle. I grew up in a very hectic household and my parents got divorced when I was younger.” Williams watched her mother work all hours of the day, then come home and cook and clean for her family. “I just knew I didn't want to be that wife or mother that went to work full time and came home and still had to do the cooking and cleaning,” she says. “I really admired different families around me who had more of a traditional mother at home doing these things.”
So she jacked in her college degree and adopted the stay-at-home lifestyle at the behest of her electrician husband. At the same time, she decided to document her life on TikTok, bedecked in plaid dresses and with a Marilyn Monroe-like blonde bob.The 24-year-old now has 83,000 followers on the app, a good number of whom seem to hate follow her. And like any good mainstream media sensation, Williams has transcended TikTok: She’s become the face of the app for those on Twitter who don’t spend any time on TikTok, thanks to people reposting her videos on Twitter alongside caustic commentary about what it says about the state of the world.Williams first posted tradwife content on TikTok in July 2022, and has since gone on to give people an insight into her daily life – often to significant criticism from those who point out that it sets back women’s rights by seven decades. She herself admits that she’s romanticising the 1950s aesthetic, but says “there's both positive and negative things about the 50s housewife idea,” saying that she recognises some could absolutely identify issues with the way women were treated back then.“I think it's overreaction to problems that a lot of younger people are seeing in our culture,” says Jordan B. Cooper, an ordained Lutheran pastor and adjunct professor of systematic theology at Cornell University, who posted a YouTube video outlining five problems he had with the trad movement earlier this year. Half of those watching videos tagged #tradwife on TikTok are aged 18-24, according to the app’s internal stats – and videos tagged #tradwife have been seen two million times worldwide in the last week. Not all of those people watching will necessarily be wanting to replicate the olden days: some likely watch tradwife content as part of a fetish, with some pointing out the sexual connotations of a motherly figure comforting you through a smartphone screen.
But the tradwife movement is just part of the broader shift harkening back to an earlier time. Videos tagged #trad have been viewed six million times in the last week, with more than 1,000 posts in the last seven days. The trad movement writ large includes those wishing for a return to more old-fashioned architecture, including one Twitter user who shared a picture of the Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria, Germany – most famous for being where the Nazis stored their looted artworks, and which Hitler held in such admiration that he painted the building. The tweet, by @Culture_Crit, who did not respond to a request for comment, captioned the image of the controversial castle with the message “Why did human beings stop building things like this?”
The dog whistle comment isn’t all that subtle – and shows how the trad movement has been co-opted by those with more nefarious aims.“The most scary to me is the tradwife groups,” says Noelle Cook, who has researched the rise of the right wing through social media and the trad movement more generally. “They are the younger ones, the homesteaders, the self-sufficiency crowd.” For the record, she says, she doesn’t believe tradwives are deliberately creating fetish content: “The women themselves are using the identity as a white identity or [as a] Biblical womanhood identity.”
She points out that many tradwives – though not Williams – posting on platforms like TikTok and Instagram will often hide in plain sight supremacist messages through their use of hashtags. Among them? #revoltagainstthemodernworld on Instagram and TikTok, which is used by users alongside #homemaker, #housewife and #traditionalwife.On the face of it, it seems innocuous, and emblematic of what the trad movement is: a revolt against the modern world. But it’s also the title of a book by right wing Italian ideologue Julius Evola, who had ties to both the fascists in Italy and Nazis in Germany. Others, particularly in the homesteading movement, use #uncleted, a reference to Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Cook believes many of those who follow the trad lifestyle are very thinly disguising their support for right-wing, white supremacist movements, luring in unsuspecting users who like the idea of a more laid-back lifestyle, before bombarding them with hate.“It will start with something totally benign, like someone with an antique sewing machine making vintage clothing from old patterns,” says Cook. “They’ll think that’s cool, because they’re not paying attention to the hashtags. But when they click on it or they like it or follow that person, they’ll get served a whole load of other people. It expands the exposure.”
It sounds concerning. But it’s not what some of those spearheading the tradwife movement are up to. “I think that’s ridiculous,” says Williams when asked about criticism that the tradwife movement is seen as a dog whistle for the far right. “I do not support anything like white supremacy,” she says. “I don't want to be associated with anything like that.”For her and Cooper, who is a Republican, the rise of the trad movement is a reaction to the displacement young men feel in society today. “One of the things that I see pretty consistently, is, young men feel very worthless,” says Cooper, who sees many of them in both his academic and pastoral roles. “They feel like they can't contribute anything. They're confused about who they are. They're confused about what their place in the world is. They're confused about exactly how they offer something valuable to the world.”He's seen “a lot of crossover” between the trad and incel movements. “I know a number of people who call themselves trad, who are really angry men who are single, and who do not have any prospect of a spouse at all,” he says.“It's very young guys who just have these ridiculous ideas and are just angry and venting online,” he continues. “And, of course, people like that are likely not going to get spouses. Then they wonder why. The reason isn't because of traditional culture changing or something. The reason is because they're just jerks. Why would anyone in America like that?”One clue might be in the way it departs from the modern day. The 1950s stay-at-home wife that the tradwife movement fetishises isn’t one that necessarily ports easily to today’s way of life in the same way, says Cooper. “A huge missing component in the whole trad movement is an understanding of traditional culture as living a life that is communal,” he explains, “not this kind of isolated woman at home who's expected to be the super woman and take care of so much. It’s just kind of an impossibility.”Cooper believes people putting their belief in the trad movement to improve their lot is misplaced. “The kind of things that often show up in the trad movement, especially on TikTok and various social media platforms, are not really formed by any real comprehension of what traditional culture actually is,” he says. “I think it's a very simplistic view, and one that is formed probably more by stereotypes that they've seen on TV. I don't think it's based on actual traditional cultures and societies.”