Women and men typically experience different rights and responsibilities in marriage, in spite of widespread beliefs in marital equality. These differences led sociologist Jesse Bernard (1972) to coin the phrase ”his and her marriages.” Gender-based patterns of inequalities in marriage have existed historically in the US and other western nations, though they have declined somewhat in recent decades, and they persist in other parts of the globe, as well. For various reasons, which will be outlined below, there are systematic gender differences in the amount and type of domestic labor and family care per formed by spouses, in power and authority in marital decision making, in access to and control over household resources, and likelihood of experiencing severe injury as a result of spousal violence. Gender based inequalities continue after divorce, characterizing property settlements and custody arrangements as well as the relative economic circumstances of former spouses.
Inequalities in The Division of Household Labor
Studies of the division of household labor con ducted over the past 40 years have shown that women allocate considerably more time each week than men to various household tasks and family care even when they are employed outside their homes. Today, women typically devote about 19 hours, and men about 10 hours, to housework each week (Bianchi et al. 2000). The types of household tasks performed by women and men also differ. Men tend to do those that are more flexibly scheduled and at least somewhat discretionary, whereas women perform routine and repetitive labor that must be per formed on a regular basis (Hochschild 1989).
In terms of childcare, fathers are more likely to spend time with children in recreational activities while mothers allocate considerable time to basic ”maintenance” chores. The gender based pat terns of family care are even more pronounced when it comes to elderly relatives. Nearly all the work that is done for ill or dependent elderly people in private homes is done by women. British researchers estimate that the ratio of time women and men spend in elder care approaches 19 to 1 (Abel 1986). Even in households where time allocated to household tasks and family care by spouses is similar, wives perform an ”executive” function, monitoring family needs and ensuring that they are met in a timely and effective fashion. This may mean hiring and supervising outside help, in which case wives are likely to use their own salaries to pay for the costs of the auxiliary help. As a result, women spend more of their time in various types of labor and have less time for leisure and sleep. Among married couples with infants, women work an extra day, or 24 hours more per week than their husbands (Rexroat & Shehan 1987).
Inequalities in Power and Decision Making
Marital power can be defined as one spouse’s ability to impose his or her will on another, which can mean forcing the other spouse to act in certain ways or accept a specific ”definition of reality” as one’s own (Aulette 2002). Alternative explanations for the balance of marital power emphasize individual traits or abilities such as one partner’s greater size or strength, greater knowledge or expertise, control over socioeconomic resources, or superior communication skills. Thus, the balance of power swings to the stronger spouse or the one who contributes more money and status. When decisions are contested, the partner with the greater interest in or knowledge about the issue may have greater say in the final outcome. Or, in some cases, the more persuasive partner may win out. These bases of marital power often favor husbands insofar as men, on average, are larger and stronger and earn higher wages than their wives. Gender differences in communication styles in which men tend to control the course of conversations by talking more, interrupting more, and vetoing topics, may also swing decision making power to husbands. One of the most important bases of power in marriage is patriarchal authority: legitimate authority bestowed on men to act as the heads of their families and/or households. Patriarchy is institutionalized in religious customs and governmental policies.
In many cultures, women’s secondary status is linked to social systems which connect kinship and patriarchy. In such societies, social relations, including those within families, are influenced by traditional views of women and men. Kin groups are built around male headship. Traditions of patrilinealism and patrilocality have restricted women’s choices inside and outside the home (Lerner 1987). In recent years, however, extended families have become less common around the globe. While this change has been bemoaned by some as a loss of tradition and family ties, it is also linked to greater freedom for women.
Today, in most western societies, patriarchal authority in families and households does not have the same influence it once had, but it still exists and in certain segments of American society it continues to be strongly supported. Evangelical Christians, for instance, often adhere to patriarchal authority, as do other religious subcultures such as the Hasidic Jews, the Old Order Amish, and to a lesser extent, the Mormons. Some ethnic and nationality groups in the US also adhere fairly closely to a patriarchal ideology. These include people who have recently emigrated from the traditionally patriarchal cultures of the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Asia. African American and Latino populations have cultural elements that support patriarchy, although other aspects of their lives (such as the need for women to be employed) may counterbalance the traditional view of male dominance.
Patriarchy is also built into civil laws. In a very real sense, American state and federal governments create a hidden marriage contract through laws, administrative rulings, and court decisions. This contract defines the rights, responsibilities, and obligations of married per sons and is based on traditional assumptions about the roles of husbands and wives which grew out of English common law. Any person who marries is agreeing to conform to any and all conditions of the hidden contract (Stetson 1991). Primary among these assumptions are the following: husbands are the heads of their households; husbands are responsible for the economic support of their wives and children; and wives are responsible for domestic services and childcare. Under the common law tradition, husbands had the right to decide where they and their families would live. They were also given control of the family’s economic resources, including the wife’s property and possessions at the time of their marriage. When a wife was employed under these conditions, her husband was entitled to her wages.
Inequalities in The Likelihood of Intimate Partner Violence
While men are more likely than women to be victims of reported violence in our society, they are considerably less likely to be victims of inti mate partner violence. If women are violently assaulted, their assailant is most likely a husband or boyfriend. When women are assaulted, they are more likely to be injured if they have an intimate relationship with the perpetrator. Bureau of Justice statistics reveal the extent of the gender difference: roughly 7.5 women and 1.4 men in every 1,000 are victims of crimes with intimate perpetrators. Feminist scholars argue that gender inequality and the oppression of women are the central features of violence in families. Historically, there have been norms and laws that condone violence against women. In the nineteenth century, for example, many states had laws specifically approving of wife beating. Battering is a reflection of the inequality between women and men and is a conscious strategy used by men to control women and to maintain the system of gender inequality.
In 1993 the United Nations adopted the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. UNIFEM, the branch of the United Nations which deals with women’s issues, has focused its attention on the global epidemic of violence against women and girls, especially violence that occurs within families (Sev’er & Yurdakul 2006). Because of the strong preference for sons, girls face a high risk of violence beginning at or before birth. Parents may use practices such as sex selective abortion or infanticide to increase their chances for a son (Ravindran 1986). Worldwide, millions of girls have been victimized by a practice known as female genital mutilation (FGM). This cultural practice involves some combination of procedures ranging from partial to total removal of the clitoris and/or sewing together the external genitalia, often under very harsh and unhygienic conditions. It is used to ensure the virginity of girls, thereby increasing their opportunities for marriage (World Health Organization 1995).
Cross cultural studies indicate that wife beating is the most common form of family violence (World Health Organization 1995). Estimates of the incidence of wife abuse are conservative, due to shame and guilt on the part of victims, lack of legal recourse, and fear of partner retaliation. In recent years, extreme forms of violence against wives have been exposed. In India, for example, wives are expected to express deep gratitude for selection into marriage and to show deference to husbands and other family members. Bride burnings may result from a wife’s alleged infidelity or a family’s inability to pay the dowry in full to the husband.
In recent years, honor killings have been publicized in such nations as Pakistan, Egypt, and Turkey (Sev’er and Yurdakul 2006). Such countries have a strong tradition of family based patriarchy and may customarily mandate complete control over women’s social, reproductive, and economic lives. In Turkey, for example, wives have virtually no rights to property, and their sexual behavior continues to be controlled even after a legal separation has been granted. Wives are not protected against marital rape unless they sustain a serious and obvious physical injury. Furthermore, law enforcement officials continue to hold very traditional ideas about sexual assault, believing that women provoke such crimes in most cases.
Despite the prevalence of traditional or patriarchal marriages, it does appear that some couples today are attempting to create and maintain what has been described as egalitarian or ”peer marriages.” Greater awareness of gender inequalities, changing gender roles, as well as the need for two wage earners, has prompted some couples to consider a more equitable type of intimate relating. Clearly, the inequalities associated with marriage have been a major source of marital dissatisfaction in the past. Couples who maintain or who perceive that they maintain equity in their relationships express higher levels of marital satisfaction. Sociologists have coined the term peer marriage to refer to relationships that are built on equity (i.e., each partner gives to the relationship in the same proportion that she or he receives) and equality (i.e., each partner has equal status and is equally responsible for emotional, economic, and house hold duties). Peer marriages are difficult to achieve and maintain, however, due to the over whelming acceptance and established traditions of patriarchal marriage. Couples who strive for egalitarianism are viewed with suspicion, disbelief, or hostility (Blumstein & Schwartz 1983). Not surprisingly, women are often the first to initiate or express a preference for peer marriage (Schwartz 1994), although feminist ideology is not often cited as the reason. More often, wives cite the desire for more shared parenting as their primary motivation. Peer marriages remain quite rare (Risman 1998).
Peer marriages have four important characteristics: a nearly equal division of household labor and childcare; equal influence over important decisions; equal control over the family money; and equal consideration given to both partners’ work in family decision making.
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