The Uneven Load

Even in the most modern family, the wife often winds up with most of the work. Is that inequality or simply reality?

Cover Story

April 14, 2002|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

David and Michele Cordle of Annapolis have about as egalitarian a view of marriage as anyone they know. They are co-equals with successful careers but still make family their top priority.

So why is it that Michele seems stuck with most of the chores? Even by David's accounting, his wife handles about 60 percent of the workload from cleaning to shopping and looking after their four children. He's no slouch, they both agree, but she does much more and they sometimes end up arguing about it.

"I'm not doing what she thinks I should be doing," admits David, 44, chief investigator for the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office and an elected city alderman.

Michele, 41, a real estate broker who handles millions of dollars in annual sales, doubts that ratio is ever going to change. "His projects always take precedence. Now if I want to get something done, I'd also have to simultaneously pick up the kids, fix some things, and so on."

For most working couples this conversation may sound eerily familiar. After all, the housework-averse man has fueled many a family argument and provided comic fodder for generations from Erma Bombeck to Roseanne.

But a new book suggests a darker side, portraying married women as victims of a kind of gender discrimination that most Western nations wouldn't tolerate in the workplace.

"It's so much a part of our environment, the water we swim in, that it's so obvious we can't see it," says Susan Maushart, an Australian newspaper columnist and author of Wifework: What Marriage Really Means For Women (Bloomsbury, 2001, $24.95). "Maybe it's because we prefer not to see it. I think it implicates everybody. It's scary, this denial thing."

At a time when President Bush has promoted marriage as a solution to social ills, Maushart has offered an opposite view - she thinks the institution of marriage is a social ill all by itself, and she has the studies and statistics to back up her case.

Marriage has its benefits to society, she admits, but they are mostly accrued by husbands and children. Husbands live longer and more happily than unmarried men, for instance. Children are better off for the presence of two caring adults in the home.

But what of wives? "Marriage offers some protection to women's physical and mental well-being, but it's just not the fantastic bargain for women that it is for men," she says.

A half-empty glass

As evidence, she cites a classic piece of American research: Men do about 16 hours of housework per week, compared to 12 hours in 1965, according to a long-term study by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. That's a big improvement until you look at the other side of the ledger - women did about 40 hours of housework in 1965. Twenty years later, it's about 31 hours or about twice what men do.

Considering that far more women work outside the home today, and that men actually work fewer hours outside the home compared to their 1965 counterparts, the results are not that impressive.

A slew of studies in Europe and Australia bear nearly identical results. Often, these statistics are represented as progress - men are doing more - but Maushart is more inclined to look at the glass as half-empty: they aren't doing that much more.

"Social change is slow, but I find it interesting how many women my age think their kids will be different," says Maushart, a 44-year-old twice-divorced mother of three. "I have to ask them, `where are your kids getting their ideas about what marriage is like?' I think we're still modeling for our kids an unequal situation."

Maushart, a native Long Islander who lives in Perth on Australia's western coast, thinks the stress of "wifework" - which she defines as not only the principal person performing housework and child care but fulfilling the emotional and sexual demands of a marriage as well - is a big factor in America's high divorce rate. She notes that three-quarters of divorces are sought by women.

She thinks the only way to fix this imbalance is for women to stop "this denial thing" and recognize that they haven't gotten fair treatment. Men, meanwhile, need to be more dedicated to their children. "Biology is not destiny. If it was, we'd still be swinging from the trees."

No easy solutions

While Maushart's conclusions are potentially incendiary, much of the evidence she cites is nearly incontrovertible. Like the Michigan study, University of Maryland researchers have found that even in two-wage-earner households, women do far more of the domestic labor than men by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.

"She has a reasonable hypothesis," says Suzanne Bianchi, a Maryland professor of sociology and director of the school's Center on Population, Gender and Social Inequality. "I suspect couples who stay married have arguments about this, too. There's so much work to be done in a dual-earner household. My guess is that it's just a matter of whether a couple decides whether these fights will lead to divorce or not."

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