July 1983 // Volume 21 // Number 4 // Feature Articles

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Displaced Homemakers: An Overlooked Extension Audience

Skills and knowledge available through Extension are needed by those who are financially responsible for themselves. The displaced are an overlooked Extension Audience.

Willodean D. Moss
Associate Professor and Head
Department of Home Economics
Berry College-Mount Berry, Georgia

Jean A. Baugh
Home Economics Extension Agent
Fayette County, Kentucky

Ethel, 55, is terrified. At the end of the month she may lose her modest home. Her less than $200 monthly income is insufficient to support herself, her invalid mother, and maintain the house.

Janet, who has eaten only one meal a day for seven months, says she has had the happiest summer of her life. Her ex-husband, who operated his business from their home, hadn't let her leave the telephone in the daytime for 19 years.

Tens of thousands of other displaced homemakers are eking out an existence at a part-time or menial job, trying to be a good parent with too few emotional and financial resources, and living a personal life of quiet desperation.

Displaced Homemaker

The displaced-homemaker problem is unpleasant, mushrooming, and generally unaddressed by Extension. But, Extension agents hold keys to skills and concepts that could help alleviate much of the human suffering involved when a homemaker becomes financially responsible for herself due to divorce, death, disability, or other circumstances. In all probability, she never expected to work outside her home, thinks she has no marketable skills, and doesn't know where to turn for help.

From 1970 to 1981, the number of households headed by women had increased by 65% -for a total of over 9 million households.1 Financial problems loom large in these households. Nationally, only 14% of divorced women were awarded alimony and less than 7% ever collect regularly. Only 46% of mothers are awarded child support and less 2 than 50% of these receive the payments on a regular basis.2

Widows face the problems of settling estates, claiming insurance and retirement benefits (if there are any), and filing for Social Security if they're eligible.

Homemakers also have problems that come out of a lack of identity and recognition by society: (1) no work regulations, (2) no employment records, (3) work contribution of the homemaker isn't included in the Gross National Product, (4) no recognition of contributing in estate matters, and (5) during divorce proceedings, no recognition given to the financial contribution of the homemaker.3 When a homemaker becomes displaced she must face both a personal crisis and an employment crisis.

The woman who has constantly defined herself through others needs time to shift gears, readjust, and reeducate herself before she can be expected to succeed. She may even have lost the ability to see herself as a separate being with legitimate needs and aspirations.

Counselors of displaced homemakers say that the displacement causes a lowering of self-esteem in their clients. Brothers cites instances of severe manifestations such as:

  1. Agoraphobia, a fear of open and public places, is found in midlife women four times more often than in men.
  2. Alcoholism and drug abuse are spinoffs of her identity crises, and her declining self-esteem makes suicide a risk. The median age for drug-related deaths for white and black men and black women is 28: but for white women it's 43
  3. Depression is the third major reaction to midlife stress.4

The mobility of modern families is another detriment to the self-esteem of the displaced homemaker. She needs her support system of family, friends, and institutions located close by because often she can't afford to travel.Centers to help displaced homemakers are now located in almost every state and in Washington, D.C. Some are part of vocational education, some are sponsored by local groups, and in some areas Cooperative Extension is taking the lead. Counseling, job training, and placement are integral parts of most centers.

Kentucky Study

The previously described circumstances pose many problems. The Kentucky study was designed to look at only a few of the questions.5

A questionnaire consisting of a personal data section, a needs survey, and the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale6 was mailed to all those women in Fayette County, Kentucky, who were divorced or widowed during the selected time sample from July 1, 1979, to June 30,1980. The divorced women were between the ages of 35 and 64. The widows were those whose husbands had been between 35 and 65 at death. There were 431 divorcees and 194 widows. Questionnaires were returned by 132 divorced women (31 %) and 69 (36%) widows. No generalizations of the survey findings can be made to other populations of divorced or widowed women.

The respondents averaged 48.2 years of age-the divorcees 45.8 and the widows 51.9. The major problems reported by the divorced group were financial instability and loneliness. The widowed group reported loneliness as the major problem. The divorced group had a greater decrease in income after the displacement than did the widowed group. Only 11 % of the divorced group reported alimony as a source of income. The services the respondents said they most needed were classes in exercise and physical fitness and in personal and financial counseling.

The respondents were asked if they sought outside help. Informal help was sought 172 times and 68% of the time the contact was described as helpful. Formal help from an agency such as an Extension group or an individual was sought by 153 of the respondents and was helpful 58% of the time. Formal groups organized for a specific purpose such as financial counseling or stress management were reported as helpful 83% of the time. One of the major reported needs, written in additional comments, was for accepting groups and individuals who would welcome and interact with the individual.

... Extension agents hold keys to skills and concepts that could help alleviate much of the human suffering involved when a homemaker becomes financially responsible for herself due to divorce, death, disability, or other circumstances....

The mean scores for self-esteem were identical for divorcees and widows-3.2 on a 4-point scale, with 4 being high or positive self-esteem. For the divorced and widowed women, neither counseling nor age was related to selfesteem. Educational level, job satisfaction, past and present income, and perceived happiness were all positively correlated to self-esteem in both groups beyond the.05 level. Using a t-test, self-esteem was determined to be significantly higher (p <.05 level) for those who were working outside the home or had worked during the marriage than for those who hadn't worked during the marriage or weren't presently employed.

Extension's Role

The displaced homemaker's orientation to life has to be totally refocused. She faces many problems alone for the first time. Extension agents have access to information in many areas that can help her solve her problems. At a forum co-sponsored by Extension, the women strongly expressed their preference for free help from agencies, such as Extension. Furthermore, they wanted the kind of help that would enable them to maintain their self-respect and help themselves.

The home economics New Initiative on Family Economic Stability speaks particularly to the needs of these women.7 Any program that helps them learn basic skills, manage resources, or understand and fit into the work world will be useful. They also need information to be able to establish credit, solve legal problems, and network effectively to establish a support base.

The home economics new initiative also addresses the real issues displaced homemakers have concerning personal development. These women are eager to learn the skills of problem solving, feeling good about themselves, letting go of negative feelings, controlling their emotions, being alone but not lonely, making good decisions, and establishing new relationships.

For those with children in the home, the challenges of single parenting are of deep concern. Dealing with guilt and grief is a problem for both parent and child. Discipline, a lack of a male role model, and poor communication skills plague the relationship. Often the child's school grades drop, and the mother carries guilt for that as well as for the acute financial distress everyone in the home experiences. Programs should address these needs as well as positive things like family fun and developing self-esteem.

Extension is unique in that its programs not only address the homemaker's needs, but also, through 4-H, many of the learning and developmental needs of her children. A leader or agent who works regularly with the child can be invaluable in providing esteem and stability during this difficult family time, and providing a creative outlet that doesn't require money the mother may not have.


Extension agents have the opportunity through educational programs and knowledge of community resources to help these women cope with the hardest challenge of their lives. It won't be easy to reach them, for they're often paralyzed by grief, social embarrassment, and financial distress. When they're working, they aren't available for daytime programs. By finding a way to help them survive with physical, emotional, and economic good health, a family may be saved. Children will have a role model of success, and the Extension agent may be a part of the success story.


  1. U.S., Bureau of the Census, "Household and Family Characteristics: March, 1983," Current Population Reports, Series T-20, No. 371 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1982), pp. 1 and 2.
  2. Cynthia E. Marano, "Displaced Homemakers: Critical Needsand Trends" (Speech given at the 1980 Agricultural Outlook Conference, Washington, D.C., November 7,1979).
  3. C. C. Fethke and N. R. Hauserman, "Homemaking: TheInvisible Occupation," Journal of Home Economics, LXXI (Summer, 1979), 20-23.
  4. U.S., Congress, House, Subcommittee on Retirement Income and Employment of the Select Committee on Aging, J. Brothers, National Policy Proposals Affecting Midlife Women, Hearing, 96th Cong., Publication No. 96-195 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1979).
  5. Willodean Moss, An Assessment of Self-Esteem and Perceived Needs of Widowed and Divorced Women (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Kentucky, Lexington, 1981).
  6. J. P. Robinson and P. R. Shaver, Measures of Social Psychological Attitudes (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Survey Research Center, Institute for Social Research, 1973).
  7. U.S., Department of Agriculture, Science and Education Administration, A Comprehensive National Plan for New Initiatives in Home Economics, Research, Extension and Higher Education, Miscellaneous Publication No. 1401 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, January,1981).