Gendered Family Relations: The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Lori A McGraw & Alexis J Walker. Handbook of Contemporary Families. Editor: Marilyn Coleman & Lawrence H Ganong. Sage Publication. 2004.

Over the past 30 years, tremendous change has occurred in the ways that North Americans structure family life. In many ways, what was commonly expected of women and men in the early 1970s is not the same as what is expected of them today. Perhaps the most significant change has occurred in how women arrange their paid and unpaid work. Though working-class and minority women in the United States have almost always combined the unpaid work of child care and housework with low-wage jobs, middle-class women are increasingly working for pay not only before marriage and the arrival of children but also when their children are young (Cohen & Bianchi, 1999). In these times, unlike times past, most women and men agree that women should have opportunities to participate in higher education and paid employment.

This change in women’s paid labor force participation has been accompanied by a decline in their participation in unpaid family work. Compared to 30 years ago, women spend significantly less time engaged in housework and child care. Consequently, present-day children are much more likely to spend time in nonparental care than they were in the 1970s (Glass & Estes, 1997). Interestingly, men have increased only slightly their participation in housework and child care during this same period despite popular depictions of men as much more involved in family work now than in the past. In other words, gender arrangements in families have changed, but they also have remained the same. In this chapter, we examine both change and stability in paid and unpaid labor to provide an elaboration on how gender is constructed both in families and in the larger social and economic structure of the United States.

As noted above, gendered relations within families can be characterized as exhibiting both change and continuity. It is also true, however, that women’s lives have changed more dramatically than men’s lives, and this disjuncture has created tension resulting in disagreements about the appropriate roles for women and, to a lesser extent, for men. The disagreement about gendered relations within families has come to be known as the family values debate. Though the debate has been characterized as a problem with family values, the fundamental issue is really about changes in women’s work over the past 30 years.

The argument against change in women’s family roles and responsibilities is most prominently articulated by David Popenoe (1993), who suggested that “families have lost functions, power, and authority, that familism as a cultural value has diminished, and that people have become less willing to invest time, money, and energy in family life, turning instead to investments in themselves” (p. 527). He claimed that the family as an institution is in a state of decline and that it would be strengthened if more families had one full-time wage earner and a second adult who accepted responsibility for caring for that wage earner, their children, and any other dependent family members. Those in agreement with Popenoe suggest that divorce should be made more difficult to obtain in order to discourage further family decline. Although the language Popenoe used was gender neutral, he focused on the problematic nature of maternal employment. His hidden message was that women have become less willing to invest time, money, and energy in family life, turning instead to investments in themselves. Problematically, the implementation of a single-wage-earner-with-a-caregiving-partner policy leaves one partner of an intact couple economically vulnerable and leaves out the multitude of families that do not consist of two adults.

Conversely, opponents of the family decline position emphasize that women have the right to pursue individual freedom and power via education and employment and that this pursuit can be family friendly. Perhaps the most prominent proponent of the alternative view is Judith Stacey (1993). Stacey suggested that social scientists should focus on

restructuring work schedules and benefit policies to accommodate familial responsibilities, redistributing work opportunities to reduce unemployment rates that destroy spirits and families, enacting comparable worth standards of pay equity to enable women as well as men to earn a family wage, and providing universal health, prenatal, and child care (p. 547)

rather than on berating mothers who work in the paid labor force and who are raising children in single-parent, divorced, or blended families. She also argued that “under present conditions of political, economic, social, and sexual inequality, truly egalitarian marriage is not possible for the majority” (p. 547).

She suggested that social inequality in marriage combined with women’s slight increase in financial power rather than women’s selfishness is the primary contributor to marital instability. Opponents of the family decline position suggest that instead of making divorce more difficult to obtain, improving the quality of marriages via the encouragement of loving, democratically structured relationships would help dissuade heterosexual couples from divorce.

Though these relatively polarized positions highlight the social tensions within our society, they also detract from substantive efforts to answer the following questions: (a) How should paid and unpaid work be organized? (b) Who should be responsible for engaging in both types of work? (c) What value should we place on “men’s” and “women’s” work? and (d) What role should society play in resolving these questions?

We do not have the answers to all of these questions; however, in this chapter we explore more deeply the connections among gender, work, and family, illustrating how changes in women’s paid work participation have transformed the organization of families and the relationships within them. We also explore men’s slight increase in family work and the resistance of the marketplace to accommodating to the needs of family life, particularly families with members who have high needs for care. (For a discussion on adult psychological well-being, marital outcomes, parent-child relations, and child outcomes among dual-earner families)

In the following pages, we define family and discuss theoretical issues surrounding gender and family life. Then we provide an overview of the empirical literature to illustrate both change and stability over the past 30 years, focusing primarily on family and somewhat less on market work. Finally, we speculate about the diversity of future gendered family arrangements, and we provide a scenario of family life in America to suggest how paid and unpaid labor might be distributed in the year 2030.

The Illusory Ideal Family: Then and Now

The changes in women’s paid and unpaid labor over the past 30 years have been accompanied by a cultural struggle to redefine what it means to be engaged in “ideal” family life. Intertwined with this struggle has been a critique of the normative definition of an ideal family. This definition is intimately connected to sociocultural beliefs and practices related to gender, race, ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation. Traditionally, families have been conceived of as persons related by blood, marriage, or adoption living in the same household (Barrett & McIntosh, 1982). In the 1950s, this definition was exaggerated into an idealized image known as the nuclear family (Murdock, 1949) or Standard North American Family (Smith, 1993). This type of family, usually portrayed as white and middle class, consists of a breadwinner father, a homemaker mother, and children all living together. Though this image no longer has hegemonic hold over our collective view of the ideal family, it continues to influence cultural and research practices (Coontz, 1992). For example, the ideology of the Standard North American Family persists in shaping research and the collection of information by government agencies such as the U.S. Bureau of Census (Smith, 1993).

Feminists and other progressive family researchers, however, conceptualize families more broadly, focusing on the interdependence among family members rather than on a specific structural ideal (e.g., Scanzoni, Polonko, Teachman, & Thompson, 1989). This broader conceptualization reflects the reality of family life today and in the past. For us, family means persons who are bound by ties of marriage, blood, adoption, or commitment, legal or otherwise, who consider themselves a family. We do not restrict our definition of family to members who live in the same household, recognizing instead the complexity of household connections resulting from divorce and remarriage, cohabitation, and intergenerational relationships in adulthood. We also include nonheterosexual unions in our definition (Weston, 1991).

Though we strive for a broader conceptualization of family life, we recognize the limitations inherent in the practice of social research. For years, we and other family scientists have thought about families as if they were all white and also middle class. This practice is deplorable, given that the United States has always had a significant portion of families of color and far too many families in poorer and working classes. This diversity is even more prominent today. Fully 25% of the U.S. population one in every four personsis either Hispanic, African American, Asian American, Pacific Islander, American Indian, or some racial/ethnic combination other than non-Hispanic white (Harris & Sim, 2002). This proportion will continue to increase in the future.

Family scientists also have tended to minimize or problematize the diversity of structures within which family members struggle and prosper (Allen, 2001). This practice has become increasingly difficult to justify considering the diversity of family arrangements within the United States. For example, the model household today is not a nuclear family but a married couple without children present (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001). This change has occurred because younger married couples are delaying childbearing and older married couples are living together for longer periods of time after their children have left homea factor that is influenced by an increasing life expectancy. There are also more single-parent households today than in the past, and mothers head most of them (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001). The numbers of these families have increased because of an accompanying increase in the rate of divorce and nonmarital childbearing. The relatively high divorce rate also has contributed to a large portion of remarried couples, many with children from previous and present unions (Coleman, Ganong, & Fine, 2000). Cohabitation before marriage is now common, especially for couples in which at least one partner was married before (Smock, 2000). Furthermore, gay and lesbian couples with and without children have also become more visible during this time (Patterson, 2000). Clearly, family life in the United States cannot be characterized by the nuclear family.

Finally, the definition of family is connected to our values concerning ideal family functioning and the proper work for women and men. Many people today, both in academic settings and in popular culture, continue to idealize the image of the traditional nuclear family one consisting of a breadwinner father and a homemaker mother. The persistence of this image has a profound influence on the social supports that are created for families. Because this ideology remains strong, a dearth of support exists for families that do not conform to the image both in structure and in the gendered organization of paid and unpaid labor. In the next section, we discuss both mainstream thought related to women and men’s participation in market and family work and challenges to that thinking. We describe ways that family researchers conceptualize the roles of men and women differently to show that, although researchers generally agree that family life has changed, they do not always agree on how to interpret these changes.

Theoretical Overview

Family scholars suggest that the work patterns of men and women have remained consistent since the rise of the Industrial Revolution and are intertwined with the ideology of domesticity (Ferree, 1991). This ideology is a gender system that (a) organizes market work around the ideal of an employee who works full time and overtime and takes little or no time off for childbearing and (b) marginalizes caregivers and those who engage in family work (Williams, 2000). The ideology of domesticity is rooted in the beliefs that men are “naturally” competitive and aggressive and best suited for work in the paid labor force, whereas women are “naturally” nurturing, cooperative, and caring and best suited for unpaid family work. These core ideas continue to structure market and family work in traditionally sex-segregated ways, especially for women with children. For example, though the wages of women who are not mothers have risen from 72% to 95% of men’s wages, mothers’ wages are only 75% of men’s (Blau & Ehrenberg, 1997). As Williams (2000) pointed out, “Our economy is divided into mothers and others” (p. 2).

Within the scholarly study of families, the notion of domesticity took root in Talcott Parson’s theory of structural-functionalism (Parsons, 1951; Parsons & Bales, 1955). Structural-functionalism states that adult family roles are divided into instrumental and expressive activities (Kingsbury & Scanzoni, 1993). According to Parsons, these activities are sex and gender segregated, evolving from biological predispositions and normative values. Husbands and fathers carry out instrumental activities such as providing financial resources for their families and protecting women and children from dangers in the outside world. Wives and mothers, in turn, engage in expressive activities. These activities include supporting husbands and nurturing children. From a structural-functionalist’s perspective, women and men have inherently different family experiences because they are biologically and psychologically predisposed toward these differences.

Though structural-functionalism remains central to the field of family studies, alternative ideas have risen to challenge the theoretical underpinnings of the theory. For this chapter, we focus on feminist critiques of the ideology of domesticity in general and structural-functionalism in particular. Feminists reject the notion that there are two distinct spheres of life private and public, expressive and instrumental that are predetermined by men and women’s differing biologies. Rather, feminists emphasize how unequal relationships between women and men are embedded in social processes related to power dynamics at all levels of social interaction. The gender perspective, a predominant theory used by feminist family scholars, “simultaneously emphasizes the symbolic and the structural, the ideological and the material, the interactional and the institutional levels of analysis” (Ferree, 1991, p. 105). This view is particularly relevant for understanding families, as they are the primary sites in which gender is taught, learned, and transformed (Osmond & Thorne, 1993). Finally, the gender perspective highlights how family members actively negotiate meanings of gender in their daily interactions with one another (West & Zimmerman, 1991).

Implicit in a gender perspective is an acknowledgment of how race, class, and other social locations, in addition to gender, influence family relationships. Drawing insights from feminist theorists of color, feminist family researchers acknowledge the diversity among women, men, families, and work, incorporating race into the mainstream of their thinking rather than marginalizing minority families as special cultural cases (Baca Zinn, 1991; Dilworth-Anderson, Burton, & Johnson, 1993). This insight is applicable to families of lower socioeconomic classes as well. Family researchers tend to identify ideal family structures and processes within a middle-class context and to compare lower-class families to these ideals. For example, today’s social scientists are emphasizing how marriage protects women and children from poverty, but minority married couples and their children are at a very high risk for poverty relative to white married couples (Lichter & Landale, 1995). Marriage clearly is not the answer to poverty for these couples. Feminist family scholars acknowledge class as a fundamental social structure that permeates all aspects of family life and results in different organizational and interactional patterns among families in different socioeconomic contexts (Lareau, 2002; Rubin, 1994). Rather than touting marriage as a cure for poverty, feminists focus on the intersections of gender, race, and class to highlight how low wages and poor educational opportunities are at the root of poverty, particularly for single-mother, minority households.

Differential access to resources and power exists not only between families but also within families. Thorne (1992) argued that the best way to analyze the social processes among family members is to examine the family’s embedded structures of race, class, gender, generation, and sexuality. To illustrate within family social processes, think about a white, wealthy woman who does not work for pay but is held in high regard because of access to her husband’s income. Should she and her husband divorce, her economic vulnerability and lower social status, relative to her husband’s, will become more visible. In turn, both partners in an African American working-class couple are likely to have experienced racism and the frustration of receiving low wages, but only the wife is disadvantaged because of her gender. For example, African American women, relative to African American men, receive lower pay and are more responsible for providing the unpaid labor of child care and housework.

The More Family Life Changes

The Transformation of Women’s Paid and Unpaid Work

As we stated earlier, one of the most significant changes in family life to occur is the unprecedented movement of women, particularly women with young children, into the paid labor force (Lichter, Anderson, & Hayward, 1995). Although women have always engaged in both reproductive and productive work, most women living in the middle of the 20th century did not engage in paid market work. In the 1950s, for example, only 16% of children had mothers who worked full time for wages outside the home. Fifty-nine percent of today’s children, however, have mothers who are employed (Spain & Bianchi, 1996). The rate of maternal employment has increased steadily for all racial and ethnic groups. Women from different groups, however, do not participate in market work at the same rate. Black women (78.3%) are slightly more likely than white women (76.6%), Asian/Pacific Islander women (71.4%), and Hispanic women (65.8) to participate in the paid labor force (White & Rogers, 2000). The main point, however, is that women from all racial and ethnic groups are participating in the paid workforce at high levels, a finding that dispels the structural-functionalist belief that women are not well suited to participate in market work.

Women are not only increasing their participation in productive work but also decreasing their involvement in reproductive or family work. Family work, initially conceptualized by scholars as housework and child care, has come to describe many unpaid activities in which people engage on behalf of their families. Examples of family work include housework, childcare, kinkeeping, emotion work, volunteering, and caregiving.

Robinson and Godbey (1997) showed that women’s time spent on housework declined substantially between 1965 and 1985, with employed women doing one third less housework than other women. Mothers also have reduced the time they spend in direct contact with their children (Demo, 1992). Rather than engage in housework and child care themselves, middle- and upper-middle class women are increasingly purchasing the services of others to cook and clean for them and to care for their young children while they are working for pay (Oropesa, 1993). Other women have lowered their standards of acceptable family work to engage in market work (Hochschild, 1997). Most women, however, struggle to participate in both market and family work (Garey, 1999). Clearly, the increasing participation of women in market work has transformed the organization of family life (Hochschild, 1989).

Women’s lesser involvement in family work is partially attributable to their increased participation in market work and partially associated with other factors. A decrease in marriage and fertility rates and an increase in education are related to women’s lesser participation in housework and child care. Cohabiting women, for example, do less housework than married women (Shelton & John, 1993a; South & Spitze, 1994). Cohabitation rates have increased and marriage rates have decreased over the last 30 years (Teachman, Tedrow, & Crowder, 2001). Mothers who have fewer children understandably do less than mothers with more children (Ferree, 1991; Shelton & John, 1993a). The overall birthrate in the United States has declined in the last 30 years, particularly among white women (Casterline, Lee, & Foote, 1996). Finally, highly educated women do less family work than poorly educated women (Shelton & John, 1993a). Women are better educated today than they were 30 years ago (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001). More highly educated women are more likely to be employed in well-paying jobs and to be married to men with higher levels of education and income. These resources provide more highly educated women with the ability to hire other women to do family work.

Men’s Response to Change

In response to women’s changing work lives, men have increased slightly their participation in housework (Coltrane, 2000) and child rearing (Marsiglio, Amato, Day, & Lamb, 2000). Demo and Acock (1993), for example, using data from the National Survey of Families and Households, showed that husbands invested 9 hours per week in housework in the 1960s (excluding child care and other aspects of family work) and 13 hours per week in the late 1980s. Robinson and Godbey (1997) described a similar trend in men’s housework participation. Their study, using national time-diary studies, found that men’s contributions to routine housework increased from about 2 hours per week in 1965 to about 4 hours per week in 1985.

Though men are participating in family work at slightly higher rates than they did 30 years ago, men and women have reached gender parity neither in housework nor in child care (Coltrane, 2000). As we will see in the next section, much of family work remains the responsibility of women.

The More Family Life Remains the Same

The Persistence of Patriarchy in Family Work

Though women increasingly work for pay, they continue to be responsible for the unpaid and underrecognized work of maintaining homes and family relationships. Both men and women participate in unpaid family work, but women continue to do so to a greater extent and with more consistency than do men, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, or marital status (Walker, 1999). In fact, the average woman does two times more family work than the average man (Coltrane, 2000), despite the popular belief that men and women are sharing unpaid work. Even when couples are committed to egalitarian divisions of family work, women do more (Blaisure & Allen, 1995; Schwartz, 1994). The fact that women do a majority of family workwork that is unpaid and undervalued serves to highlight the persistence of the patriarchal work structure within which women and men struggle for meaning and happiness.

The variability of women’s participation in family work illustrates that this work is not in the nature of women but instead is shaped by the social and historical circumstances within which girls and women live. For example, as we stated earlier, white women in upper-income families are likely to purchase the services of other women usually working-class women to assist them with family work (Cohen, 1998; Oropesa, 1993). These middle- and upper-class women, then, coordinate and manage the work of other women (Leslie, Anderson, & Branson, 1991; Mederer, 1993). In comparison, working-class women, particularly those women who are not white, do greater amounts of routinized and undervalued work for both their employers and their families (Ferree, 1987; Jones, 1995). Family work has less to do with the essential nature of women and more to do with the resources women draw from to serve their interests.

Family work also has little to do with the essential nature of men. Men are fully capable of engaging in housework and child care (Blaisure & Allen, 1995; Coltrane, 2000; Schwartz, 1994), yet they do so to varying degrees, depending on their social circumstances. Generally, white men in upper-income families do less child care and housework relative to lower-income men and men of color (Coltrane, 2000). For example, African American fathers in middle-income, dual-earner families spend more time with their children than do white fathers (Ahmeduzzaman & Roopnarine, 1992). Men of color do more housework than white men (Shelton & John, 1993b). Men also do more housework when they are divorced or widowed (South & Spitze, 1994), when they perceive their wives to be co-providers (Perry-Jenkins & Crouter, 1990), and when their wives earn more than they do (Shelton & John, 1993a). Gay male couples too are more likely to share housework than heterosexual men who are cohabiting or married (Kurdek, 1993). Men’s family work participation, like women’s participation, is rooted, not in their essential natures, but in the sociohistorical circumstances in which they live and in the resources they can use to serve their interests.

In addition to understanding how women and men in various social groups experience family work, researchers working in the last half of the 20th century and the early 21st century have attempted to dissect the various components of family work and the qualities that characterize this work. Housework is the most frequently researched form of family work and includes tasks such as housecleaning, washing dishes, doing laundry, shopping, preparing meals, driving, gardening, and balancing household budgets (Walker, 1999). Ferree (1991) argued, however, that the definition of housework is amorphous because it “comes from imposing culturally shared gender categories on a historically shifting domain” (p. 111). In other words, what counts as housework changes depending on the time frame and culture being investigated.

Regardless of the changing nature of housework, present-day researchers continue to refine their operationalization of it. One way researchers have done this is by distinguishing between routine and discretionary tasks. Housework defined as “women’s work” is more likely to be routine, and that defined as “men’s work” is more likely to be discretionary, giving men more freedom and control over their housework (Blair & Lichter, 1991; Coltrane, 2000, Hochschild, 1989; Starrels, 1994). Twiggs, McQuillan, and Ferree (1999) showed that housework is segregated by sex much as occupations are segregated. These authors suggested that a hierarchy of household tasks exists, with dishwashing as the task men are most likely to do and preparing meals as the task they are least likely to do. They also argue that there is more than one gendered threshold husbands must cross to become high participators in housework (p. 722). For example, husbands who wash dishes need only normative support to do so. Stated another way, husbands will wash dishes when it is expected of them and when they and those around them think it is not unmanly to do so. Husbands who prepare meals, however, must have both normative support and practical circumstances to push them toward this household chore. Men who prepare meals are more likely to have wives who work more hours and contribute a higher proportion of family income than wives of husbands who do not prepare meals.

Caregiving is another type of family work that remains highly gendered. Caregiving takes place across the life span and includes care given to children, dependent older people, and those who have short-term and long-term illnesses or disabilities. Caring for children, for example, is a caregiving activity that takes place relatively early in the life span and is done mainly by either mothers or mother substitutes. Similar to mothers of the past, present-day mothers provide most of the primary care for children of all ages, particularly children with intense needs (Traustadottir, 1991). Mothering gives women a sense of personal fulfillment and joy, as well as feelings of distress, depression, and anxiety (Oberman & Josselson, 1996). Contrary to the popular belief that working mothers are neglecting their children, empirical evidence suggests that employed and full-time mothers engage in the same types of child care activities and spend similar amounts of time in intense interaction with their children (Arendell, 2000).

Fathers also provide care for their children, but they spend less time and take less responsibility for them than mothers do (Asmussen & Larson, 1991). In 1988, LaRossa wrote that the culture of fatherhood had changed but the conduct of fathers had not. Though popular representations of fathers suggest that men are increasingly involved in the day-to-day lives of their children, empirical evidence suggests only a small increase in the level of father involvement in two-parent households since the 1970s, in both proportionate and absolute terms (Pleck, 1997). Children today see their fathers as much less involved with them than their mothers are. This finding is particularly true for daughters (Asmussen & Larson, 1991; Starrels, 1994). These fathering patterns are similar to patterns that existed 30 years ago.

As with parenting, women and girls remain predominantly responsible for providing care to family members who are frail, are ill, or have long-term disabilities (Hooyman & Gonyea, 1995; Traustadottir, 1991). For example, daughters rather than sons are more likely to be responsible for providing care to their aging parents, particularly those with high needs (Stoller & Pugliesi, 1989). Though sons feel obligated to provide care for their parents (Finley, Roberts, & Banahan, 1988), they are more likely than daughters to be secondary care providers (Mathews & Rosner, 1988).

Finally, volunteering on behalf of children and other family members in organizations such as schools and churches is another type of family work in which mostly women engage. Women often see their volunteer work as an extension of their roles as wives and mothers (Wilson, 2000). Sometimes their volunteer work springs from a particular family challenge. For example, Traustadottir (1991) found that women who have children with disabilities extend their caring work to advocate for their own and other children in the larger community. The unpaid work of family advocacy is one way that women have been influential in changing the political climate of their local communities and the larger society (Pardo, 1990). Another example is the work of African American women who fought for civil rights for themselves and their families in the 1950s and 1960s (Jones, 1995). Similar to other types of unpaid family work, women’s volunteering is often unrecognized and undervalued (Daniels, 1987; Margolis, 1979).

Unlike women, men are more likely to regard volunteering as complementary to their paid work (Wilson, 2000). Rather than engage in volunteer opportunities that involve helping others, men volunteer in organizations that benefit their paid employment and that support their leisure activities. Men gravitate more toward leadership positions in volunteer organizations and are more likely than women to volunteer in public and political groups (Wilson, 2000).

The Ideology of Domesticity Prevails in Market Work

Not only do women continue to be responsible for family work, but men also continue to be responsible for providing, though to a lesser degree than in the past. For example, the gap between men’s rates and women’s rates of labor force participation is far smaller today than it was 30 years ago (White & Rogers, 2000). Still, many men continue to feel a deep sense of commitment to the role of breadwinning and are reluctant to accept their wives as equal providers (Gerson, 1993; Hochschild, 1989). Today, masculinity, authority, and paid work are as inextricably intertwined as they were in the 1970s. The fact that men continue to earn higher wages than women (White & Rogers, 2000) supports men’s primary participation in market work and rewards their resistance to doing family work. Women, however, tend to work in the secondary labor market. This market offers low wages and little job security but also offers women the flexibility to combine both family and market work (Wright, 1995).

Because many men do so little family work, their primary contribution to families is often financial. Empirical evidence suggests, for example, that some nonresidential fathers are involved with their children only through financial support (McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994). Regardless of family structure, fathers who provide economic resources improve their children’s well-being and developmental outcomes (Acock & Demo, 1994). As historian Robert Griswold (1993) explained, “Despite men’s differences, breadwinning has remained the great unifying element in fathers’ lives. Its obligations bind men across the boundaries of color and class, and shape their sense of self, manhood, and gender” (p. 2).

Though men are more highly rewarded for their breadwinning than are women, both are constrained by our economic system. The organization of market work in the United States encourages at least one parent, usually a father, to become the primary breadwinner and another parent, usually the mother, to become a secondary breadwinner in combination with primary responsibility for family work (Hochschild, 1989). It is exceedingly difficult in our system for both parents to participate in the primary paid market while ensuring that all of their children’s developmental needs are met (Hochschild, 1997). This is particularly true given that Americans so highly value primary care by mothers and do not encourage the development of institutions that would replace them as primary nurturers of their children (Garey, 1999; Hays, 1996). The practices of employers and the policies of our government also do not support the restructuring of the primary market to encourage parental care by both mothers and fathers. Rather, the same principles and forces that evolved during the rise of industrialization and the beginning of the ideology of domesticity continue to regulate today’s market economy (Williams, 2000).

To be a primary breadwinner at the beginning of the 21st century, a worker must be able to participate in an economy that was founded on the principle that employees will be solely committed to wage work without obligations to engage in family work. This is true for blue- as well as white-collar workers. The current definition of an ideal worker is someone who works full time and overtime (Williams, 2000). Workers in elite jobs, for example, often must be able to work 50 to 70 hours a week. This is true for employees in manufacturing and other skilled trade positions as well. Ideal workers are also those employees who can move if the job requires it. For example, employees in research and management must be able to relocate when opportunities ariseto advance in a profession or even to get a job (Williams, 2000). Few women with children can meet the standards required of ideal workers, mainly because they do not have the social support men have. In other words, women do not have wives to help them meet the demands of their paid employment and raise their children. Similarly, few men feel free to diverge from the ideal worker norm because doing so could jeopardize the financial well-being of their families.

The problematic nature of the market structure and the accompanying ideology of domesticity are magnified in the high poverty rate of single-mother families, particularly those who are racial and ethnic minorities. Even though single-father and single-mother families are both at risk for poverty (partially because of having only one wage earner), single mothers are particularly vulnerable to poverty (Seccombe, 2000). One reason for this vulnerability is that single-mother families earn lower wages than single-father families. Single-mother families also are especially unlikely to be able to afford child care because they are among the poorest of the poor (Edin & Lein, 1997). Single women with children do not fit into the structure of domesticity because they cannot engage in market work unencumbered by family work and usually do not have the financial resources to purchase the services of other women to care for their children and to do their housework.

Similar to other single-mother families, divorced-mother families face many obstacles within the system of domesticity. Present-day divorce court judges, for example, operate under the assumption that men and women own their wages a reasonable assumption except that most mothers are less involved than most fathers in wage work in order to raise children and manage households. Coinciding with the assumption of wage ownership is the fact that judges tend to ignore or minimize mothers’ family work both during marriage and after divorce in ways that detrimentally affect women’s awards of property, child support, and alimony (Williams, 2000). These patterns mean that divorced mothers raising children can expect to live below the standard of living available to them in marriage. Men, however, maintain ownership of their wages, benefit from having their children cared for, and often have a better standard of living than do women after divorce (Arendell, 1995).

Domesticity’s Influence on Family Relationships

We end this section by considering how the ideology of domesticity shapes the quality of family relationships encouraging women’s connectedness and accepting men’s relatively distant ties. Domesticity also makes it difficult for men and women to engage in egalitarian relationships, even when both partners are interested in equality for women.

Much of the research on gender and family relationships focuses on the discrepancy between wives’ higher levels of participation in unpaid family work relative to husbands’ and spouses’ assessments that this arrangement is fair. Thompson (1991) postulated that women might do more family work, in part, because they value the positive relational outcomes that result from such work. Mothers may accept primary responsibility for child care, for example, because they believe that relationships with their children are important to nurture. Research supports the idea that caregiving and relationship quality are connected. Across the life course, fathers, who engage in relatively less child care than mothers, have less close ties with their children than mothers do (Aquilino, 1994; Rossi & Rossi, 1990; Silverstein & Bengtson, 1997). More broadly, when a woman is involved in any type of family relationship, the relationship is more likely to be described as close by both partners (Rossi & Rossi, 1990). This correlation coincides with the fact that women continue to feel responsible for family members’ well-being and are more likely than men to adjust their schedules to accommodate others (Hochschild, 1989; Sanchez & Thomson, 1997; Shelton, 1992; Spain & Bianchi, 1996). Part of promoting connection, then, seems linked to the process of engaging in family work.

Hochschild (1989) showed how couples’ negotiations about family work were fundamentally negotiations about care. When one partner, usually the husband, refused to do a fair share of family work, the other partner, usually the wife, felt less loved and valued. Within our patriarchal society, these couples were not negotiating for husbands’ equal participation in family work. Wives, instead, wanted husbands to increase their participation in housework and child care to lessen wives’ burdens of full-time paid employment and care for very young children. Most wives were willing to do more family work than their husbands.

Evidence suggests that husbands can make up for their lack of participation in family work by being emotionally supportive of their wives. Erickson (1993) showed that husbands’ performance of emotion work was more important to their wives’ marital well-being than was husbands’ performance of housework and child care.

Though husbands’ emotion work generally is more important to wives’ marital well-being than performance of housework and child care, the unequal division of paid and unpaid work can have a detrimental influence on relationship quality (Schwartz, 1994), particularly if couples disagree on appropriate gender behavior (Hochschild, 1989). For example, Zvonkovic, Greaves, Schmiege, and Hall (1996) showed that couples’ decisions about participation in paid and unpaid work were shaped by their gender beliefs and by the quality of their relationship. Positive relationship processes were associated with decisions that benefited wives’ viewpoints on a minority of occasions. Negative relationship processes were correlated with wives’ awareness of having less power in their relationships than their husbands. Ambivalent relationship processes were related to decisions benefiting husbands and to wives’ desire for more support from their husbands. In these ambivalent relationships, an apparent consensual decision-making process was undermined by husbands’ passive contention.

Zvonkovic et al. (1996) indicated that their findings were congruent with Komter’s (1989) conceptualization of hidden power. Komter explored three types of power dynamics in marital relationships: manifest, latent, and invisible. Manifest power usually consists of husbands’ negative responses to changes suggested by wives. In latent power dynamics, wives anticipate the needs of husbands and act in ways to minimize conflict. Finally, invisible power reflects the patriarchal social structure surrounding couples, resulting in power inequity between husbands and wives. Like the work and family decisions made by the couples in Zvonkovic et al.’s (1996) study, invisible power serves to justify and confirm the status quo.

Common conflict patterns between spouses in mostly white, middle-class married couples also are evidence of the unequal power distribution between men and women (Christensen & Heavy, 1990; Heavey, Layne, & Christensen, 1993). The pattern of wives demanding and husbands withdrawing during conflict occurs only during discussion of something wives want. Christensen and Heavey argued that men’s favored position in society ensures that relationships are already structured as they wish, whereas women’s weaker position encourages their desire for change. To avoid change sought by wives, husbands withdraw. This demand-withdraw pattern is harmful both to relationship quality and to marital stability (Heavey et al., 1993). (For a more detailed discussion on gendered marital negotiations)

What Does the Future Hold?

Throughout this chapter, we have explored how the system of domesticity a gender system that organizes market work around the ideal of an employee who works full and overtime and takes little or no time off for childbearing and that marginalizes those who engage in family workshaped family life in 1970 and continues to do so today. Even though domesticity exerts a powerful force on family life, women and men are purposeful in the ways they create their lives within this system. The most dramatic changes to take place have been women’s increasing participation in market work and their decreasing participation in family work. The system of domesticity persists, however, and much about family life remains the same. Men continue to be responsible for providing, and women continue to be responsible for family work. This pattern has implications for family life generally and for family relationships specifically. Will the system of domesticity change in the future?

If the last 30 years are any indication of what families will be like in the future, then the next 30 years will probably consist of increasingly diverse family arrangements, both in the ways that families are structured and in the ways that women and men cooperate (or not) to accomplish family life. Earlier, we critiqued the structural-functionalist’s family ideal (consisting of a breadwinner father and a homemaker mother) by illustrating the variety of ways women and men engage in paid and unpaid work and the diversity of family structures that operate in the United States. Our assertion has been that the organization of work and the structure of families have less to do with the essential, biological natures of women, men, and children and more to do with the resources people draw from to serve their interests. Resources are inequitably distributed in the United States, resulting in contradictory and diverse constructions of gender in families.

This process will remain constant in the future. For example, an increasingly disparate class system will mean that women with more financial means will have increasing opportunities to choose how to structure their paid and unpaid labor, whereas women with fewer financial resources will increasingly “have to work” to support themselves and their families. Wealthier, more highly educated women will be able to choose from a variety of cultural scripts, from creating traditional family structures in partnership with men to focusing singularly on their careers and they will have the means to enact these scripts. Wealthier, better-educated men will have a similar opportunity to choose how committed to family life they would like to be and how enlightened they will become in terms of sharing all aspects of family life with women.

For most men and women, however, choice will play less of a role in their lives. Most will have to work for pay, and couples, particularly those with children, will have to negotiate an acceptable sharing of family work. Spouses and partners will continue to interpret their gender arrangements as satisfactory or problematic, depending on their values. Significant sectors of the U.S. population continue to idealize the nuclear family and believe that men should have more authority than women. Many other people within our society remain ambivalent about men’s and women’s family roles. Still others are firmly committed to equality for women and to the creation of democratic family relationships. Because of this continuing diversity of views, no pervasive social or political will exists to challenge our system of domesticity. In addition to the cultural lack of will, worker unions are relatively weak, and suspicion of government intervention is relatively high. Both of these mechanisms have been traditional vehicles for progressive change. We are not optimistic that our vision of equality will come to fruition because of this lack of organization and because our society remains unable to agree on the answers to these questions: (a) How should paid and unpaid work be organized? (b) Who should be responsible for engaging in both types of work? (c) What value should we place on “men’s” and “women’s” work? and (d) What role should society play in resolving these questions? In essence, the family values debate rages on.

Though we are not optimistic that gender relations will be transformed in the future, we remain steadfastly hopeful that they will be. We believe that one key to opening the door of progress will be to reevaluate the importance of family work or family care. We agree with Tronto (1993), who says, To recognize the value of care calls into question the structure of values in our society. Care is not a parochial concern of women, a type of secondary moral question, or the work of the least well off in society. Care is a central concern of human life. It is time that we began to change our political and social institutions to reflect this truth. (p. 180)