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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Why? Because according to the OECD a wife is a fabulous investment. She will spend almost double the time men do changing nappies, boiling pasta, whacking together costumes for library month, and sweeping up kitty litter (the precise figures for OECD countries are 273 minutes of housework per day for women compared to 141 minutes for men). Even better, if you’re a man in possession of a good fortune, you won’t need to feel guilty about your wife doing more work because as a society we have agreed that these chores are not labour, but love: natural, unpaid, and unnoticed. Happily, this then liberates the man of good fortune from domestic grime so that he can sally forth into the public sphere, occasionally returning home to ‘help’ with the children or be applauded for noisily blowing leaves in the backyard. Everyone’s delighted with this arrangement because it’s a family, and families are consensual and happy. Families are not comprised of Hobbesian combatants gnawing at each other’s legs over whose turn it is to unpack the dishwasher. Families are harmonious units.
Or so neoclassical economic theory will tell you. The gender division of labour, say orthodox economists, is simply a product of each family member maximising their utility to act in the interests of all. Family dynamics are about ‘exchange bargaining’: one partner (usually the man) works longer hours in paid labour while the other partner (usually the woman) performs household labour. Nobody doubles up and during early child-rearing it seems to make sense – breast-feeding babies need mothers to survive and men usually earn more money than women because, well, patriarchy.
Of course, we have known for a while now that this theory is just the magical thinking of skinny white men. Paid and unpaid labour are not of equivalent social value and multitudinous studies have shown that when women go back to work full-time there is no corresponding decrease in the amount of housework they perform. Far from harmonious units, family homes can resemble cushioned battlefields where exhausted partners fire volleys of resentment and guilt at each other. Time is bartered. Dishes stack up. Children are weaponised.
But there is another dimension to the gender division of labour that is less discussed: women don’t simply do more chores around the house, the kinds of chores that women do are often repetitive, thankless, and boring. We talk a lot about the gender division of paid and unpaid labour, but we speak much less about the unequal division of labour within the home. And of course, the two are related. Many of the chores that women are culturally assigned have no finite beginning and end. And nor can the labour of caring for a child be planned during a specific block of time. It’s not simply that scrubbing the grit out of the tiles in the bathroom is less enjoyable than tinkering on the car; it’s that women’s housework is unpredictable, time-consuming, and interminable. And according to a 2015 US time-use survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is no sign that things are improving. Eleven years ago, 63 per cent of men reported doing some household activity, compared to 84 per cent of women. In 2014, the numbers were almost the same: 65 per cent for men and 83 per cent for women. Why are women still not equal participants in the paid labour force? Herein lies one obvious reason: the time that women could be spending on their careers or creative projects is instead spent in domestic drudgery. In short, the private world of chores impacts upon the public status of women.
If you’ve ever found yourself muttering darkly at your partner as you juggle a screaming child with folding the laundry, as he luxuriates in the garden doing some light weeding, then you probably understand the chore wars. Sociologist Ron Kessler wrote about the issue in the 1990s. He found that domestic tasks are divided according to gender with women performing “eighty per cent of repetitive and routine indoor tasks, including almost all cooking, cleaning, and childcare.” Men, on the other hand, contribute by “mowing the lawn, taking out the trash, maintaining cars or playing with children.” Where mothers tend to the day-to-day feeding and supervising of young children, fathers obtain their primary identity from being a ‘provider’; they limit themselves to ‘helping’ with children rather than tending to their child’s everyday physical or emotional needs. Under the guise of ‘providing’, Kessler has also found that men often greet the birth of a child with vast quantities of ‘overtime’ in paid work. As the family home becomes chaotic, unpredictable, and uncomfortable, the office transforms into an arcadia of silence, offering uninterrupted time for thinking, chatting, and lunching. Working for the ‘good of the family’ is too often just a thinly veiled excuse to avoid family difficulties. If you really want to work for the good of your family, he says, then you should spend time with your family, not inflict upon them the physical and emotional severance demanded by ‘overtime’.
So why, given the gains that women have made in education, earnings, and workforce participation since the mid-20th century, does the issue of housework remain so intransigent? How did it even come to be this way? Sociologists agree that gender stereotypes play a large role in how chores are divided: women, who are seen as more nurturing and caring, are responsible for the feeding and supervision of children, protecting the family from disease through cleaning and maintaining the home as a haven from the outside world. Feminine labour is emotionalised; packaged by advertising companies as spontaneous acts of love and maternal instinct. Men, on the other hand, are responsible for the menial labour: heavy lifting in the yard, changing light bulbs, fixing the car. The division of chores both reflects gender stereotypes and is a means of displaying gender. A study by Janeen Baxter and Belinda Hewitt found that when women earn more than men they actually increase, rather than decrease, the amount of housework they do. Similarly, the less men earn, the less housework they do. The authors suggest that these baffling patterns are about couples conspiring to restore the gender order. Chores are a “means of reasserting gender identity”. To avoid emasculating their partners, women sweep and mop their way back into submission. Of course, it’s not their fault. Almost every television commercial will remind you that your masculinity or femininity is pronounced through the kind of housework you do. Look at the hopelessly lovable father ordering pizza rather than cooking a meal for the kids, or the woman helplessly searching for a man to change a tyre! Any time a man enters the feminine domestic sphere, riot and disorder reign: coffee cups are upturned and muddy shoes stomp on fluffy white carpets. Meanwhile, the woman benignly shakes her head and cradles her cleaning product like a confidante and saviour.
Which in turn raises the issue of consumption: how much could women’s servitude be alleviated if we challenged the standards of cleanliness set by companies that sell us domestic commodities? Does our emancipation lie in an acceptance of filth? Historically speaking this solution has some validity. There is nothing natural or timeless about the sparkling immaculacy we expect of our houses. The fantasy of a spotless kitchen only came about with the increase in mass commodity consumption at the turn of the 20th century. Our domestic dreams are a concoction of chemical products and manufactured desires: a consumerist fantasy of cleanliness and femininity. Initially it was thought that new commodities and domestic technologies would release women from housework, but as sociologists Anne Game and Rosemary Pringle maintain, they’ve often just created new forms of drudgery. “For instance”, they say, “no aspect of housework has been lightened so much as laundry, yet time spent on it has actually increased. Women can now be expected to wash clothes daily instead of weekly.” In the 1920s the average time women spent shopping for the weekly food was two hours. Now, it’s an entire day. It seems that we are tyrannised by choice.
While lowering our standards would certainly help, it still fails to solve the problem of women’s disproportionate responsibility for child-rearing or the gendered allocation of chores. For this we need to have small conversations of gigantic significance. A father caring for a child, rather than ‘helping’ to care for a child would be a joyful act of social revolution. A man who sees the scattered kitty litter, the toys on the floor, the grit in the tiles, the unwashed dishes, and who cleans them without waiting for his partner, may do more for feminism than any female CEO. Women’s public status as equal citizens rests on an equitable division of private labour. Put simply, we need men to commit to sharing the load.