I think many people understand American society as on a steady march toward the end of gender inequality. We might call this the “narrative of progress.” Within the boundaries of this narrative is the ability to recognize that women are still subject to various disadvantages, but (and here’s the important part of this narrative) things are better now than they used to be.
This particular form of collective nostalgia might be seen as empowering as it could potentially help us continue to push gender boundaries in new arenas. However, it also has more sinister consequences. This narrative only acknowledges forward progress and fails to examine the ways that “progress” is often accompanied by new forms of inequality. I’ll briefly discuss the narrative in relation to heterosexual families.
This narratives occurs in many ways, but three of the most pernicious ways are: (1) it’s not going to happen all at once, but we’ve always been moving in the right direction; (2) lots of heterosexual couples have achieved equality; and (3) even if men and women are responsible for different things around the house, what’s the big deal?
We’re Moving in the Right Direction… Aren’t We?
We’ve achieved progress since industrialization… right? When we hear “industrialization,” we tend to think of factories, assembly lines, daily commutes, etc. We don’t only think of industrialization as outside of the home, but as in virtual opposition to the home. This view hides an important reality, according to Ruth Schwartz Cowan: industrialization also occurred inside the home. We commonly highlight the ways that industrialization took productive work out of the home failing to appreciate not only the work left behind, but the creation of new work within the home as well as well as the transformation of responsibility for that this work.
Cowan argues that this economic transformation was far from progress toward gender equality. In fact, this transition created new inequalities between men and women and left women with more work than they were historically responsible for and less gratitude as the invention of housework incorporates the prefix “house-“ in part because it is seen as separate from the “real” work that goes on outside of the home. But, you might say, women are working outside of the home now, so things are a lot different NOW.
Things are a lot different today, but as with all forms of social change, unanticipated issues emerge in the wake. While women may work outside of the home, there is little doubt that most people, if pressed to assign a gender to “the workplace” would find it “masculine.” And what might seem like a casual association conceals a host of consequences. First, “the household” is gendered as well, and although women have moved into the workplace in incredible numbers, they are still largely responsible for the homes they leave behind as well. In fact, many of the occupations women occupy in the U.S. require the kind of care work at which women are thought to be naturally gifted.
The reality is that women are saddled with a great deal more work than men because they are often performing the lion’s share of the housework in addition to brining in a second paycheck. Arlie Hochschild famously referred to this phenomenon as the “second shift.” But more interesting than this was the ways that Hochschild found couples able to justify women’s double burden. Through a variety of what Hochschild calls “family myths,” she found that many couples come up with ways of subjectively rationalizing an objectively unequal division of household labor as “equal.” Thus, for instance, rather than listing each of their individual tasks, couples would say that they divided household labor in equitable ways with shorthand “upstairs/downstairs” or “inside/outside” rules that fail to acknowledge how often housework occurs and how difficult the work can be.
What’s the Big Deal?
A great deal of housework is more than just housework. It involves a very specific relationship with the family. Take the family meal, for instance. At a very basic level, the family meal requires preparing enough food for family members and finding an appropriate time and place to eat together. In Marjorie Devault’s ethnography of the family meal–Feeding the Family–she found that feeding a family is about much more than food.
Devault argues that making a meal involves knowing the intimate likes and dislikes of the family. Finding a meal time involves knowing the various (and often competing) schedules associated with many modern families. A meal creates the space for family rituals to occur. Many women in heterosexual couples are still overwhelmingly responsible for the family meal, and as such, many women have qualitatively different relationships with the various members of their families than do men. Certainly, preparing a family meal is only one small part of family life. But it is one way in which an intimacy gap exists in family life. Women are not only held more responsible for emotional care within families, but they are also better equipped to carry out care work.
In opposition to the dominant narrative of progress, men were much more involved in their children’s lives pre-industrially. Certainly, there are many aspects of colonial gender relations in the U.S. that perpetuated gender inequality, but to simply refer to the difference between now and then as progress disguises other ways of seeing these differences as anything but and conceals inequalities that were produced in their wake.