Bargaining over Housework: The Frustrating Situation of Secondary Wage Earners

Article excerpt



AS MARRIED WOMEN HAVE ENTERED THE LABOR FORCE, their husbands have not assumed commensurate responsibilities in the home (Robinson and Godbey 1997; Bianchi, Milkie, Sayer, and Robinson 2000). The result has been the notorious "second shift" for married women (Hochschild and Machung 1989). Moreover, most men and women rate this arrangement as fair (Lennon and Rosenfield 1994; Coltrane 2000). It has been difficult to explain the behavior of men and women toward housework using the same theory. Exchange theory provides an explanation for the housework decisions of married women, as they tend to work less in the home as their earnings increase relative to their spouse (Brines 1994). The explanation for the behavior of husbands tends to be more complicated, with support for a combination of theories based on exchange theory and gender ideology (Brines 1994; Greenstein 2000).

In this paper, it is argued that the behavior of both married men and women can be explained by integrating the commonly accepted theories of housework. These theories can be viewed as complementary rather than competing. Two theories that influence housework are introduced that have been ignored in the prior literature. First is the effect of the shift from fault to no-fault grounds for divorce. Second is the effect of net earnings rather than gross earnings on decisions within families. An understanding of these factors helps to explain the limited response by primary wage earners, usually husbands, to the employment of their spouses, usually wives, and why couples tend to feel that the allocation of housework is fair.

In the next section, the theoretical perspectives on housework are reviewed and then integrated, with a special emphasis on the influences of unilateral, no-fault divorce and net earnings on bargaining within families. This analysis is used to generate hypotheses that are tested using data from the National Survey of Families and Households. The empirical analysis provides support for explanations for the housework decisions of both men and women based on this integrated framework.


Theoretical Perspectives

THREE THEORETICAL PERSPECTIVES ON THE ALLOCATION OF HOUSEWORK dominate the literature (Bianchi, Milkie, Sayer, and Robinson 2000; Greenstein 2000). The time availability and the relative resources perspectives are based on exchange or microeconomic theories, while the gender perspective has its roots in sociology. The time availability perspective suggests that housework is rationally allocated based on the time available to the spouses (Coverman 1985: England and Farkas 1986; Hiller 1984; Shelton 1992). The relative resources perspective proposes that the allocation of housework between men and women is based on resources that they bring to their marriage, with education and income being particularly important (Blair and Lichter 1991; Ferree 1991; Kamo 1988). The gender ideologies perspective argues that gender influences how men and women identify themselves with regard to marital and family roles that have traditionally been linked to gender (Ferree 1990; Greenstein 1996; South and Spitze 1994; West and Zimmerman 1987). Housework does not have a neutral meaning; its performance by men and women in households defines and expresses gender relationships. Gender is used to explain why women tend to do the tasks that traditionally have been thought of as "women's work" (e.g., cooking, laundry, housecleaning), while men have primarily done "male" tasks (e.g., yard work and automobile maintenance) (Blair and Lichter 1991; Hiller and Philliber 1986; Kamo 1988; Preset 1994). The work traditionally done by women has been identified as more routine, less autonomous, less fulfilling, and more isolated than men's (Ross and Wright 1998), usually lacking a leisure component, and its doer having less discretion in deciding when it is completed (Meissner 1977).

An Integrated Perspective

A closer review of the analysis of family production initialed by Becker (1973, 1974) suggests that these perspectives are complementary rather than competing. …