Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Feminists and the Ideology and Practice of Marital Equality

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Feminists and the Ideology and Practice of Marital Equality

Article excerpt

In her 1972 book, The Future of Marriage, and again in the second edition (1982), Bernard concluded that the future viability of marriage will depend upon "upgrading" marriage for women.

After reviewing the literature on marriage, she declared that two marriages exist, his and hers, and that marriage is more attractive and healthier for the former than for the latter. Bernard (1982) was optimistic that couples were struggling to improve marriage to make it beneficial for both spouses, although achieving an equal division of employment and family work was "still more talked about than practiced" (p. 300). According to more recent research, equality between marital partners continues to reflect incongruency between ideology and practice. Individual couples may experience more congruency between talk and action, but for the majority of married couples, the discrepancy remains.

Traditional marital and family life, described as "patriarchal but father-absent" (Luepnitz, 1988, p. 111), is a tenacious script that some couples are attempting to rewrite with much effort and disappointment. Past research has found that when women in traditional marriages assume a feminist identity, they and their relational expectations change a great deal but their husbands have little interest in changing their beliefs and behaviors (Acker, Barry, & Esseveld, 1981).

Hochschild (1989) noted the incongruency between ideology and practice in marriage when she considered "the second shift" (i.e., housework, parental responsibilities, and domestic management). While 18% of the men studied shared the work of the second shift equally with their wives, the majority did not. However, even though research such as Hochschild's reports a continued incongruency for the majority of couples, it also indicates that, for some couples, congruency between the ideology and the practice of marital equality is possible (Gilbert, 1993; Jump & Haas, 1987). Among the men who subscribed to an egalitarian ideology, 70% shared equally, while only 22% of the men subscribing to a traditional ideology and 3% of men subscribing to a transitional ideology shared equally. Certainly an ideology of marital equality increases the possibility of sharing family work, although it is not a guarantee.


Feminism highlights first and foremost the oppressive character of structural inequality based on gender (Osmond & Thorne, 1993). Recent theorizing on gender has examined "the process of the social construction of maleness and femaleness as oppositional categories with unequal social value" (Ferree, 1990, p. 868). Distinctions based on gender require the ignoring and even suppression of similarities by "the constant and contentious process of en-gendering behavior as separate and unequal" (Ferree, 1990, p. 869). Gender becomes, along with race, sexual orientation, class, and age, an organizing category of peoples' lives.

Feminist analyses have provided an excellent critique of relationships as gendered constructions. Over the past two decades, feminists have demonstrated the problematic nature of marital and family life for women (Glenn, 1987). Women are the marital partners responsible for a family's emotional intimacy, for adapting their sexual desires to their husbands', for monitoring the relationship and resolving conflict from a subordinate position, and for being as independent as possible without threatening their husbands' status (Fishman, 1983; Thompson & Walker, 1989). Feminism has provided a critique of traditional gender-structured marriage, resulting in an awareness of its overwhelming cost to women in financial, emotional, and physical dimensions. The problematic nature of marriage for women has been linked to its centrality in patriarchy, the devaluation of women's work, and the hierarchy of gender (Ferree, 1990; Glenn, 1987).

Previously published research indicates a higher involvement of men in family life when married to women with equal or higher education, income, and status (Jump & Haas, 1987; Perry-Jenkins & Crouter, 1990). …

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