Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Back to the Basics: Trends in and Role Determinants of Women's Attitudes toward Housework

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Back to the Basics: Trends in and Role Determinants of Women's Attitudes toward Housework

Article excerpt

Missing from the expanding literature on the division of household labor and perceptions of equity is an understanding of basic attitudes toward housework. We examine whether changes in women's roles have been accompanied by a psychological disinvestment in housework (e.g., in standards) over time. Such a change might speak to the relatively little distress noted by researchers when husbands contribute minimally. We also argue that role overload and conflicts over the division of labor may be expressed in terms of unhappiness with home cleanliness. Using 1975 and 1995 national probability samples, we find, unexpectedly, that women in 1995 report similar attitudes about housecleaning as women in 1975, though there is some evidence that cultural standards have declined. We do find that marriage, motherhood, and employment predict lower satisfaction with home cleanliness.

Key Words: attitudes, cleaning, equity, housework, trends.

Housework is popularly characterized as tedious, boring, and unsatisfying labor, and those who do it have not been afforded high social status (Friedan, 1963; Hartmann, 1981). Indeed, its devaluation, along with its perception as "women's work," may explain why housework has been historically disregarded as a topic of sociological research. Fenstermaker (1996) notes: As "women's work"-something different from "real" work-any mention of it was relegated to discussions of the family-then the sole sociological province of women.... Even among sociologists who were interested in women's activities within the family, the unthinking exclusion of household work from the discipline meant that no one had taken a close look at the content, organization and structure of those activities. (p. 232) In recent years, however, there has been a proliferation of research on the organization, structure, and social meaning of housework, with notable volumes by Berk (1985) and Hochschild (1989). Research has been concentrated largely on the twin areas of the division of household labor and perceptions of its fairness. This has contributed to an understanding of the gendered aspects of housework, but also suggests somewhat puzzling findings. At the same time that women do the majority of household labor (even when employed full-time), they generally perceive little inequity or conflict with significant others about this work (Berk, 1985; Spitze, 1988). A central question that researchers pose about housework relates to equity outcomes-in particular, satisfaction with husbands' domestic contributions, given a gap between his and her inputs. We attempt to contribute to understanding equity issues within households by taking one step back and examining a central goal of doing housework-to produce a clean home. We argue that to better understand equity issues surrounding housework, the answer to a more basic question-"Is my home usually clean enough?"which is rarely discussed in the literature, should be considered.

We examine two general hypotheses that may contribute to understanding how women's stresses and conflicts surrounding household labor may be channeled, given that research suggests women are not generally directing dissatisfaction with housework toward husbands (Pleck, 1985; Spitze, 1988). First, because neither husbands nor children have picked up the slack when women have become attached to the paid labor force in recent years, homes on average, are less likely to be consistently clean or kept up. Yet if standards for home cleanliness have changed, men's increased household labor becomes less important. In fact, there might be less dissatisfaction with the unequal division of labor than researchers expect. Ferree (1980) suggests that the collective cultural context in which women's paid and unpaid labor takes place has been relatively ignored. Changes in work roles and cultural norms in the past generation may have been accompanied by a psychic disinvestment in housecleaning, suggesting that women do not generally get distressed by husbands and children who do not pick up the slack. …

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