Girlbosses ran so traditional wives, better known as “tradwives,” could walk. Yes, you read that correctly — more than 100 years ago, women fled the home for the workplace so that a group of grown-up “pick me” girls could wash a few dishes in 2023 and prove to men they’re “not like other girls.” Let me explain.
If you have been on TikTok in the last six months, you have probably come across at least one video of a blonde woman making sourdough while personifying a confused, retro aesthetic that falls somewhere between the 1950s and “Little House on the Prairie.” That is a tradwife. A TikTok sound that has become popular among tradwives on social media exemplifies just how seamlessly they modulate between different kinds of conservative ideology: At first, tradwife messaging is anti-feminist. “We live in a day and age where traditional homemaking has been forgotten,” the TikTok sound starts, “where women are fighting to be in the same positions as men, indoctrinated to focus more on their careers and less on the home.” In the next instant, tradwife ideology becomes Christian fundamentalist: “When God created men and women more than just biologically different, our roles are meant to complement each other, not to compete.” The next ideological shift is marked by traditionalism: “Our husbands are to be the breadwinners as we are to be the breadmakers.” Finally, the ideology swings farthest right in opposition to big government: “Somewhere along the line, ‘feminine’ has been replaced with feminism with the sole purpose of keeping women out of the home, which forces those to rely on the government to teach and raise our children.” This ideological snowball makes it hard to believe this isn’t satire, but I promise, these hyper-conservative convictions are 100% sincere.
Across social media, tradwives have built entire platforms around highly-choreographed performances of domesticity. As Kathryn Jezer-Morton from The Cut points out, these performances differ by their efforts to indoctrinate viewers with ideologies versus aesthetics. On TikTok, for example, tradwives are more ideologically driven: They post three-minute-long, selfie-camera monologues explaining how to become one. Instagram tradwives, on the other hand, pay much greater attention to producing the visuals of homemaking, in which talking is displaced by silent displays of cooking and cleaning. By showing homemaking as opposed to merely talking about it, Instagram tradwives almost entirely conceal, or rather distract from, their ideologies with pastoral, homesteading aesthetics.
I had encountered Ballerina Farm’s Hannah Neeleman countless times on my Instagram Explore Page before it ever crossed my mind that a mother of seven, who rarely ever videotapes herself outside of her Utah farm, was a tradwife. I didn’t think it was possible to make everything from scratch until I watched her knead milk curds into mozzarella, and the best part of it all: She was just making sandwiches (and yes, the bread was sourdough). Evidently, her commitment to this pastoral, farm wife aesthetic is so great, it feels like she’s cheating every time she uses modern kitchen appliances like her yellow KitchenAid.
As far as tradwives go, Neeleman is largely unproblematic. In the absence of hashtags, let alone spoken words, the ideologies underlying her traditional lifestyle are relatively inconspicuous. However, when I discovered who she really is — the daughter-in-law of JetBlue founder David Neeleman who boasts a net worth of $400 million — her silence felt much more like a choice to obscure the perception of her family’s affluence.
Neeleman’s exorbitantly wealthy background threatens the authenticity of her rugged, pioneer aesthetic. This is because real homesteaders didn’t have Daddy’s money. In fact, at the outset of the movement, the Homestead Act of 1862 catalyzed what some call “the federal government’s biggest wealth-distribution program ever,” offering 160 acres of free public land not just to white male settlers, but to women and immigrant settlers as well. In 1866 and 1898 respectively, the Homestead Act’s offerings were made available to Black and Asian Americans too. While scholarship shows that this land distribution was still discriminatory in practice, the homestead movement was, by and large, spearheaded by socially and economically marginalized Americans.
As a vehicle of socioeconomic mobility, homesteading, in other words, is neither an Instagrammable aesthetic nor an opportunity for rich people to cosplay poverty. In an article for The Baffler, Vice reporter Gaby Del Valle juxtaposes Neeleman against scholarly accounts of actual pioneer women, who wrote in their diaries about their profound discontent with the life Neeleman seeks to emulate. “I have cooked so much out here in the hot sun and smoke, that I hardly know who I am,” one woman wrote after settling in Kansas with her husband and kids, “and when I look into the little looking glass I ask ‘Can this be me?’ ” Conveniently, the style of Neeleman’s content — short-form, silent cooking tutorials — precludes her from speaking to her audience about these ugly topics.
With a limitless pool of funds, Neeleman aestheticizes and thereby promotes a lifestyle that is only made glamorous and desirable because of her wealth. Case in point: her emerald green, cast-iron oven range. In the absence of modern, stainless steel finishes, it looks like it’s been there for 100 years. As it turns out, it’s less than five years old, and it costs $34,500.
When it comes to TikTok, tradwives are anything but subtle about their promotion of conservative agendas. If Neeleman personifies the image-focused, homesteading tradwife, Estee Williams embodies the ideologically-driven, 1950s tradwife. Williams’s content centers on sharing the Christian, anti-feminist, anti-college, submissively feminine beliefs that underpin her calling to the tradwife life. In one of her pinned videos, Williams details her rules for marriage — the highlights of which include never leaving the house after dark by herself, no opposite-sex friendships, Biblically submitting to and serving her husband and styling herself according to her husband’s preferences.
One look at the hashtags Williams uses across her videos will tell you everything you need to know about what kind of audiences she wishes to reach. By using #makewivesgreatagain, Williams makes a less than understated allusion to the former president’s infamous campaign slogan, which has become the linchpin of far-right, white nationalist movements across the country.
Similarly, #revoltagainstthemodernwrld represents yet another example of Williams’s ultra-conservative outreach. In this case, she references a 1934 book written by Julius Evola, an Italian fascist, who gained a cult-like following in radically right-wing circles during the aftermath of the 2016 election. To writer Morgan Jones, “Being into Evola as opposed to, say, Friedrich Nietzsche or Carl Schmitt is the far-right political theory equivalent of announcing oneself to be ‘not like other girls.’ ” How surprising. Even worse, when I looked up the hashtag on TikTok, I was led to openly antisemitic TikTok pages run by the only two types of conservative men on the internet: an incel, who posted a fan edit of actual red pills, and a Republican boob guy, who posted a meme claiming that self-fulfillment (“holding a sword to the sky while a girl with big boobies clasps my leg”) is only possible by meeting needs that are psychological and basic (“2/1 shoulder to waist ratio”). Dream on.
While Williams takes great pains to deny that the tradwife movement is a dog whistle for the far right, her choice of hashtags is evidence that she specifically aims her traditionalist agenda at alt-right audiences.
If you think Williams is bad, Gwen Swinarton, better known as Gwen the Milkmaid, is much worse. Well before the tradwife movement took off in 2022, Swinarton built her platform on a version of herself that’s diametrically opposed to the person she is today. GwenGwiz, as she called herself, was a pro-choice, anti-marriage, lesbian, vegan ASMRist who dabbled in OnlyFans content creation on the side. Across two YouTube channels — one focused on fashion and the other on ASMR — Swinarton built an audience of over 700,000 subscribers in just seven years. In summer of 2020, Swinarton joined the growing movement of influencers who turned to OnlyFans during the COVID-19 pandemic to make rapid financial advancements in their careers. According to an interview with Swinarton from 2020, in just a few months, her income increased from as little as $3,000 per month to over $70,000. Over the next two years, Swinarton stepped back from her YouTube career to focus on OnlyFans, which became her main source of income during this time.
Fast forward to the summer of 2022, and Swinarton had hard-launched her interest in homesteading and slow, off-grid living on a new Instagram account, then called “Growing with Gwen.” By the time she returned to YouTube a few months later, she was an entirely new person. Swinarton announced her indefinite hiatus from both OnlyFans and ASMR and her promotion of her new cottagecore aesthetic, which went hand-in-hand with her promotion of new right-wing ideologies. This is best exemplified by the TikTok page she created in the same week she returned to YouTube.
Gwen the Milkmaid, as she calls herself, or lobotomized GwenGwiz, as I like to think of her, also calls herself a truth-seeking, red-pilled, agenda-2030-weary, anti-feminist, anti-vax, anti-birth control, holistic-living, anti-big government, Big Pharma-opposed, conspiracy theorist, homesteading tradwife. Utter word vomit, I know. Unlike other tradwives, Swinarton doesn’t merely use tags to target conservative audiences. Her content itself reflects this blatant far-right messaging — the most egregious perhaps being a video titled “LIFE HACKS 2023 EDITION.” The life hacks are as follows: “1. If the government is involved, avoid it; 2. If the government supports it, reject it; 3. If the government says it’s safe, it’s not; 4. If the government says it’s true, it’s false; 5. If the government says you need it, you don’t.”
What makes Swinarton’s content so dangerous is her aestheticization of alt-right ideologies. It’s not some unattractive man who’s yelling these conspiracy theories at you so loudly, veins are popping out of his neck à la Alex Jones. Instead, it’s a pretty, blonde white woman espousing these same kinds of beliefs while frolicking through nature in cleavage-baring dresses. In this way, Swinarton isn’t really a tradwife so much as someone who’s appropriating this lifestyle to promote and aestheticize the “crunchy-to-alt-right pipeline.”
When I looked back on Swinarton’s abandoned ASMR YouTube channel, I realized her old persona might not be as dead as we think. In the wake of her return to social media at the beginning of 2023, Swinarton explained that her recent disavowal of OnlyFans stemmed from feeling “called by God to speak against (it), to speak against porn in general.” But if Swinarton is really as opposed to OnlyFans as she claims, why hasn’t she deleted her account? In fact, the link to her OnlyFans page is not only active but easily accessible in the description of her ASMR channel. Today, you can still pay $20/month to gain access to all 4,171 of her posts.
When Swinarton explained her departure from YouTube to the subscribers of her ASMR channel, she didn’t make a single allusion to homesteading or her recent relationship or conspiracy theories. Instead, Swinarton simply cited her “new business” as the reason why she’s taking a break from ASMR content. The only evidence of such a business is an account tagged in Swinarton’s Instagram bio with fewer than 200 followers, claiming to be a “tallow beauty and home goods store, handcrafted in small batches” that’s “coming soon.” It’s unclear whether the “business” Swinarton was referring to in her video was this store or, conversely, her entirely new persona. If you ask me, I think it’s the latter.
Prior to her transformation, Swinarton repeatedly expressed frustration with her stagnating fashion content: “I felt like my content wasn’t nearly as good as the popular girls,” she said in a Q&A, “and it was really getting me down because no matter how hard I tried, it was never keeping up with theirs.” By carving out a space for herself — not in fashion but rather conservative, slice of life content — Swinarton finally made a name for herself. As a result, hundreds of articles from major news outlets across the globe have made her the face of the tradwife movement.
When you look at tradwife influencers as business people first and wives second, you deny their place in the subculture altogether. The movement was built around the idea that husbands should be “breadwinners” and wives should be “breadmakers.” But if that’s the case, isn’t the act of content creation antithetical to the movement? Neeleman, for example, goes to great lengths to idealize breadmaking as the purest expression of domestic bliss. But while she’s promoting these traditional gender roles, she’s also selling a sourdough starter on her website for $18. She even gave it a cute name — “Willa.”
Together, tradwife influencers advocate that women shouldn’t go to college and should instead embrace domesticity and create a life for themselves where they’re fiscally dependent on their husbands. However, by monetizing posts, accepting sponsorships and using their platforms to promote their homemade goods, tradwife influencers are building streams of income that are entirely independent from their partners. Content creation, in other words, affords these influencers the kind of financial freedom real tradwives would never have if they wished to leave their husbands. Tradwife influencers — Hannah Neeleman, Estee Williams, Gwen the Milkmaid and all — have built profitable careers for themselves by urging women to quit their jobs to pursue homemaking for their single-income families. Certainly, the irony is not lost on anyone.
While most of these influencers are walking the line of faking it, the media’s coverage of the tradwife subculture begins and ends with them. This is precisely why you can read 50 articles about tradwives but never really get a sense of what the movement looks like on a practical level. You’ll never know who the real tradwives are. To uncover this, my research had to dig deeper than any media coverage had dug before: I had to become one.
Daily Arts Writer Bela Kellogg can be reached at email@example.com.