Housework and the Modern (Super) Woman

Written by Kristin Clift on . Posted in Culture

In the fifth grade, our teacher asked the boys in the class if they expected their future wives to be housewives or to go out and get jobs. I attended a trailer-trash-tastic farming school (seriously, we played with chickens, sheep and even a llama during recess), so even though it was California, I expected these farm kids to have more conservative views of marriage roles.

To my surprise, the majority said they expected their wives to go out and get jobs. (One particular booger-eating gross boy even used the word “lazy” in his response.) The handful of respectable boys in my fifth grade class said their future wives could do whatever they wanted to do. And only one boy said he expected his wife to stay at home. The fifth grade was a long time ago, but even then I realized how much gender role expectations have drastically changed in America over the years.

How much have they really changed, though?

When I picture familial relations of say, the 1950s and 1960s, images of Stepford wives and Leave it to Beaver pop in my head. Congruently, when I think about the attributes of women living in that era, “submissive,” “subservient” and “cracked-out robots” are the words that come to mind. I’m grateful for the zealous bra-burning ladies who came before me and opened up infinite opportunities for my life as a woman today.

If you read something like this marriage textbook from 1962, you can see that the woman’s domestic responsibilities are outlined and her role expectations are clearly defined. I especially love the part where, in regards to women working outside the home, it states, “A few women have special talents and skills which ought not to be wasted” — as if the majority of us are only valuable humans if we are baby-popping, house-cleaning machines.

Even to this day, I hear people argue that women’s roles as nurturers and homemakers are inherent attributes. However, Margaret Mead, a famous anthropologists who your parents have probably heard of, examined gender roles and division of labor among three different cultures — Arapesh, Mundugumor and the Tchambuli. The differences she found showed that gender roles and characteristics are a result of socialization.

In terms of stereotypical temperament of the sexes within homes, Mead’s studies produced interesting results. The Arapesh men and women have a collaborative relationship with each other. In the Mundugumor culture, both the men and women displayed equally obdurate personalities. And most shockingly, the Tchambuli women were the dominant ones and the men were more dependent. What? You mean being submissive is not the inherent, fundamental role for women? I know, totally mind-blowing, right?

With the feminist revolution in America, female gender roles have become redefined. Now it is normal and even expected for women to work outside the home and perform tasks that were once typically designated to men.

So I guess women can pat ourselves on the back. We can become high-powered lawyers, doctors, CEOs or whatever the heck we want (as long as we’re hot while doing it, but that’s a whole other can of worms). Yet one huge issue remains unresolved: Who does the child-tending and housework? Oh, it’s still a woman’s responsibility.

The working woman still does 70 to 80 percent of the housework (according to this handy fact book). I don’t know about you, but working full-time plus doing 80 percent of the housework sounds exhausting. Also, when a woman marries, her household labor increases by five hours a week and a man’s amount of housework remains unaffected by marriage.

Apparently, men’s gender roles did not adjust to the shift in the division of labor. Will they ever? From examining other cultures, we can see that gender divisions of labor are culturally constructed. But how do we get there? How do we construct a more balanced division of labor within the home? If it is a possibility to change our culture’s paradigm to that of equally shared responsibilities between the genders, how do we bring about that change?

Obviously some things are purely biological — men can’t physically give birth to children. But here’s a good place to start — maybe we could implement better social structures (like a legal right to a substantial paid maternity leave) that provide better support systems to make it easier for women to have both a career and a family. In some modern countries, men even get this thing called “paternity leave.” Whoa.

Women today continue to fight hard to have more choices. However, the onus is still placed solely on women for the vast majority of housework and child-rearing. And if the boys in my fifth grade class can abstractly represent the American male population, a woman’s role (in a heterosexual cohabiting marriage/relationship) includes the choices to: a) work inside and outside the home and never rest again; b) work outside the home and let our homes fall apart while we constantly nag our husbands to “help out around the house;” or c) work outside the home and hope we can afford a maid.

It makes me want to reconsider the cracked-out robot option.


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