Prior to the Industrial Revolution, economic production was organized around the home, and households were relatively self-sufficient. Households were multifunctional, acting, among other things, as eating establishment, educational institution, factory, and infirmary. Everyone belonging to the household, including family members, servants, and apprentices, did their part in the household’s productive labor. The word ‘‘housework,’’ first used in 1841 in England and in 1871 in the US, would have made little sense prior to that time, since all work was focused in and around the home.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, however, the Industrial Revolution severed the workplace from the place of residence. Coinciding with this process, the ideology of separate spheres emerged, reflecting an increasing tendency for men to seek work in urban factories while women stayed home to look after the family. This ideology defined not only separate spheres, but different personality characteristics and divergent family roles for men and women, as well. In doing so, it naturalized the notion that men, strong and unemotional, should occupy the status of family breadwinner. Conversely, women, frail, pure, and living under the spell of the ‘‘cult of true woman hood,’’ should aspire to nothing more profound than being good wives, mothers, and home makers.
Thus, as men and single women ventured forth to work in the impersonal factories and workplaces of urban centers, married women, particularly those of the middle classes, stayed home to cook, clean, and raise the children. Production and productive activities moved out of these households into the industrializing workplace. Concurrently, the value and status of men’s labor went up, while that of women’s household labor went down. Previously an integral part of the home centered production process, middle class women found themselves with less ‘‘productive’’ work to do. As a result, their energies became more focused on reproductive work, which included making sure that their husbands and children were clean, well fed, clothed, and nurtured. Although economic necessity continued to force working class wives and women of color to seek employment outside of the home, the pattern of separate spheres reflected an ideal that most families desired to emulate. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, as households were increasingly motivated to purchase industrially produced necessities, women also became the family household consumption experts. As such, they orchestrated the family’s purchase of food, clothing, soap, candles, and other material necessities that they had once helped produce in the home.
In the US, the home economics movement emerged around the turn of the century, at least partly in an attempt to elevate the status of housework. Home economists provided instruction on the ‘‘science’’ of household labor, schooling women in the provision of a scientifically sound and hygienically pure home. As early twentieth century housewives found themselves at the mercy of these household labor ‘‘experts,’’ standards of cleanliness began to rise. Meanwhile, newly developed electricity and indoor plumbing facilities encouraged the invention of household labor saving devices. Electric refrigerators replaced ice boxes and washing machines replaced wash tubs, scrub boards, and elbow grease. As the public sphere industrialized, so, too, did the household, albeit with certain important differences: in the home, the labor remained unpaid, workplaces were isolated, and the workers were generalists, good at all types of housework. Even with the industrialization of the home, however, the time non employed women spent doing housework remained stable from the late 1920s through the 1960s, as standards for cleanliness increased, and tasks such as canning and sewing gave way to increased time doing chores like laundry and shopping for prepared food and readymade clothing.
Before the 1970s few studies examined the division of household labor, since most people accepted as ‘‘natural’’ the separate spheres ideology making women the housework and childrearing experts. As the women’s movement gained momentum, however, feminists began pointing out the disproportionate amount of time women spent doing housework, even as they labored alongside men in the paid workforce. Moreover, feminists suggested, the fact that women did the majority of housework disadvantaged them in the workplace. These challenges prompted research examining the household division of labor, its relative distribution, and the relationship of housework contribution to women’s status in the paid labor market. In 1965, researchers from the Survey Research Center of the University of Maryland found that women did roughly 92 percent of routine housework, while men did approximately 49 percent of occasional tasks such as lawn care, household repairs, and bill paying.
Changing patterns in the division of house work began to appear in research from the 1970s and 1980s, as women started to reduce their contributions, and men, somewhat less dramatically, began to increase theirs. Reasons for these changes included women’s increasing presence in the paid labor market, as well as general trends toward egalitarian attitudes in the home. Nevertheless, even as women assumed more significant roles as family breadwinners, men continued to resist doing housework. By the mid to late 1980s, researchers found that women were still doing approximately three times the amount of routine housework that men were doing. This general pattern continued throughout the 1990s, with men’s proportional contribution to routine housework increasing, primarily as the result of the cutbacks made by women. Researchers note that, although the gender gap in family work is reduced when accounting for total hours of paid and unpaid labor, nevertheless, women essentially put in one extra full day of family work per week, a phenomenon that has been referred to as the ‘‘second shift’’ (Hochschild 1989).
Today, in the US and much of the industrialized world, household labor continues to be performed mostly by women, with chores themselves also segregated by gender. Women are still doing the majority of ‘‘routine’’ tasks, including cooking and meal preparation, meal clean up and dish washing, laundry, house cleaning, and grocery shopping. Men, on the other hand, do the occasional chores such as lawn mowing, household repairs, car maintenance, and, less often, bill paying. Characteristically, routine chores tend to be more repetitious, time consuming, time sensitive, and boring than occasional chores, which are less tedious and can usually be completed when convenient. While studies of household labor tend to separately analyze routine and occasional housework, they often omit childcare or, alternatively, include it as a separate category of family work. Nevertheless, the presence of children also substantially increases the amount of routine housework that needs to be done, so the amount of household labor that women perform tends to go up when children are born. Men, on the other hand, spend more time in paid labor when children arrive, but often reduce their household labor participation. Some studies suggest that when men do more childcare, they may also increase their contributions to housework.
Some researchers see shifts in the division of household labor over the latter part of the twentieth century as dramatic, while others characterize them as relatively modest. For instance, in the US, men’s proportionate sharing more than doubled between 1965 and 1985. Nevertheless, the narrowing of the gender gap in housework performance has been driven more by women cutting back their hours than by men augmenting theirs. Moreover, time diary studies have shown that while reductions in women’s housework performance continued throughout the 1990s, men’s actual housework time has increased little since about 1985, creating what one sociologist has called a ‘‘stalled revolution’’ (Hochschild 1989). Thus, studies continue to show that women do at least two thirds of the family’s routine household labor.
Besides continuing to do the bulk of routine chores, women are still considered to be the household managers. Whether they actually do the chores, delegate the work to other family members, or hire outside help, women are largely responsible for ensuring that the work gets done, as well as establishing the standards by which the completed work is judged. Men, even as they do more, tend to be seen (and to see themselves) as ‘‘helpers.’’
Although the amount of housework per formed by unemployed women remained relatively stable over much of the twentieth century, in the US and other industrialized countries, women’s participation in the paid labor force increased considerably. In 1890 only 4 percent of married women in the US reported having paid employment outside of the home. By the 1950s that figure jumped to about 22 percent, and by 2002 the labor force participation rate of married women reached 61 percent. Married mothers with children under age 18 made particularly large strides in paid employment, and by 2002, 68 percent worked outside of the home. Importantly, the employment rate of married women with young children under age 6 has more than doubled since 1970 in the US, from 30 percent to 61 per cent in 2002. By 2003, women comprised nearly half (47 percent) of the total US labor force. Similarly, the latter part of the twentieth century witnessed a significant increase in female labor force participation in countries such as Canada, Japan, and those of the European Union. Nevertheless, and in spite of the fact that many women worldwide now continue paid employment through their reproductive years, employed mothers report persistent unequal treatment in the workplace.
Although women’s earnings remain substantially lower than those of men, the gender gap in wages has decreased in the US to the point that women earn approximately 76 percent of what men earn, based on full time, year round work. Thus, with married women sharing more of the family breadwinner duties, it has generally been expected that their husbands would share more of the housework. The absence of men’s sustained movement in that direction has been, therefore, a source of some disappointment to advocates of gender equality. Moreover, these paid and unpaid labor patterns appear to extend well beyond the borders of the US.
International trends largely appear to reflect those occurring in the US. Women in most developed countries do the majority of the routine housework, although their contributions are declining while those of their male partners are increasing slightly. Japanese wives, for instance, continue to report doing a large majority of housework. On the other hand, wives in many formerly Soviet countries more often report that their husbands share housework equally than do women in the US. Still, women in most countries devote well over half of their work time to unpaid labor while men devote one third of their work time or less. The presence of young children increases women’s unpaid labor time substantially more than that of men, while, in many countries, women whose education level exceeds that of their husbands do relatively less housework. Moreover, women worldwide are balancing their unpaid family work with increased time spent in the paid labor force, and while men’s economic activity rates have decreased in many areas, women’s rates have generally increased.
Within the last several decades, the number of family and household types has grown. Stu dies have begun to examine how housework is shared between cohabitors (both same and opposite sex) and in remarried families. Findings show that in each of these family types, sharing between partners tends to be somewhat more egalitarian than it does between spouses. Children’s participation in household labor has also been studied, although much less extensively. Data from one large national survey (the National Survey of Families and Households) showed that, in the late 1980s, all children in the household were doing slightly less than 6 hours total of housework per week. Moreover, children’s housework is allocated based on age and sex, with teens delegated more tasks than younger children, and girls allocated more tasks than boys. As teens, in particular, girls are given more of the routine household tasks, while boys are expected to contribute to outdoor chores. In this way, children are socialized into gendered patterns of family work that often replicate those of their parents.
Studies have also started to examine racial and ethnic patterns of household labor sharing. In the US, most research shows that African American men do more housework than either white or Hispanic men, although they still do much less than that done by African American women. Whether Hispanic men do more or less house hold labor than white men continues to be at issue, although a more consistent finding is that Hispanic women do more housework than either black or white women. Thus, more housework is performed in Hispanic households, although African Americans tend to be more egalitarian in their patterns of sharing. Moreover, when household labor is bought in the marketplace, it tends to be African American or Hispanic women, often undocumented, doing the labor for more well-heeled white women. In this way, gendered ideals about ‘‘rightful’’ domestic workers intersect with race/ethnicity to reproduce patterns of economic disadvantage and privilege.
Studies indicate that the most consistent predictors of men’s housework participation are related to women’s employment. The more hours wives work outside of the home and, often, the greater their proportional share of family income, the more husbands tend to share in the housework. Gender ideology also has an effect, with women’s belief in equal sharing predicting their partner’s increased contribution. In some instances, men’s egalitarian attitudes predict their increased sharing, although men’s attitudes are somewhat less predictive of their own participation. Generally speaking, more highly educated women do less housework and purchase outside domestic help more frequently. On the other hand, men with more education tend to do more housework. Marital status is a consistent predictor, with women doing more housework when they marry, and men doing less. When children arrive, the need for routine household labor increases, and most of the demand is assumed by women. Men tend to increase their hours of employment when children are born, which may have to do with women decreasing their paid employment to care for children.
In spite of the unbalanced division of house hold labor, most men and women consider their share of housework to be fair. Traditional norms suggesting that men are entitled to women’s labor in the home, and correspondingly, that women are obligated to perform it, can lead to this conclusion. Research shows that both men and women perceive housework distribution as fair when women are doing approximately two thirds of it. Reallocation of household labor, moreover, to create a more balanced division of labor typically does not happen spontaneously, instead requiring focused attention on change. While some may consider household chores to be a way to show love to family members, for the most part neither men nor women consider housework to be fun. Thus, wives may need to confront their husbands in order to get them to do more, thus causing marital conflict to increase. Since traditional norms tend to make women responsible for relationship harmony, wives may avoid ‘‘rocking the boat’’ to increase sharing. Accepting their unbalanced contributions as fair may be preferable for some women to creating disharmony in their marriage.
A number of theoretical perspectives have been proposed to account for the allocation of family labor. Three of the most often cited perspectives include time availability, relative resources, and gender ideology. Theories invoking time availability imply that the person spending the least time in paid employment will be expected to do the most housework. Because men have historically been more visible in the workforce, working longer hours, women would thus be expected to do the housework. Relative resource theories suggest that the partner with the most resources, including income and education, should be able to avoid large contributions to household labor. Again, drawing on relative resource theory, women’s disadvantage in terms of wages and, until recently, educational resources, has created expectations that they would do most of the household labor. Finally, theories implicating traditional notions about separate spheres point to housework as ‘‘women’s work’’ and paid labor as ‘‘men’s work.’’ When spouses subscribe to this conservative gender ideology, it is seen as natural for women and men to do ‘‘their jobs,’’ and women are therefore assumed to be the household labor experts. Other theories, such as economic dependency theory and the ‘‘new home economics’’ approach, also attempt to explain the persistence of disproportionate allocation of family work.
Family work includes both paid labor and unpaid household labor. While we are typically aware of the time family members spend in the paid workforce, we are generally less aware of the fact that nearly as much time is spent doing unpaid housework as is spent doing paid labor. We are also less aware of the ties between the two ‘‘spheres’’ and the fact that responsibility for unpaid housework takes away from time (and energy) that could be spent in the paid labor force. Because power accrues with work force participation, the person responsible for the unpaid household labor is less likely to be empowered, either in the household or when they do participate in paid employment. Moreover, since traditional norms presuppose unpaid housework as women’s work, women have been historically disadvantaged by the assumption of these cultural norms as natural and unchangeable.
Nevertheless, family work, both paid and unpaid, is changing. Women today are spending less time doing unpaid domestic labor, either because of constraints surrounding paid labor or diminishing expectations about how much time should be spent doing housework. Nothing suggests that women will spend less time at paid employment in the future. Men, on the other hand, appear to be doing somewhat more housework, particularly when that work is considered as a proportion of total household labor. This may reflect increasingly egalitarian attitudes in the home or it may point to more persistent demands by working wives that their husbands participate more equally at home. Whatever the reason, shifts that have occurred in the division of household labor over the course of the twentieth century are likely to continue into the twenty first.
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