Conjugal Relationships 2

Conjugal Relationships 2

A vast amount of empirical evidence suggests that conjugal relationships are not symmetrical. Mary Maynard, Contemporary Housework and The Houseworker Role (1985) provides two types of evidence that suggest otherwise, from the USA time-budget surveys, sociological surveys and studies of housework - mainly British in origin.

Time-budget studies generally involve asking respondents to record their activities for a specified time interval over a number of days, or have them keep diaries registering the number and nature of tasks performed. The findings are remarkably consistent.

One study completed in the late sixties shows housewives without paid employment spending 57 hours a week on domestic tasks (Walker and Woods, 1976). More recent research shows women spending similar amounts of time on domestic tasks, to the extent that if it were paid employment it would certainly be regarded as a full-time job (Berk and Berk, 1979).


For women with outside employment, it appears that the more waged work they do, the fewer hours they spend on housework, but the longer their overall working week. Husbands of wives in waged work do not appear to do any more housework than husbands with unwaged wives. This apparent lack of response from husbands is corroborated by a study of 3,500 couples from the USA, reported in Hartmann (1981).

The domestic burden increases substantially for women when children are involved. The wife's working week expends to meet the needs of the family, (Walker and Woods, 1976); nearly 30 hours of this is childcare.

Researchers do not appear to regard male contributions to housework as significant. They point out that men are likely to be occupied in this way after dinner. At this time childcare typically consists of talking to and playing with children - not particularly burdensome tasks. The activities of husbands are essentially back-up for tasks that remain primarily a woman's responsibility.

Research suggests that during the last century there has been a change in the content, but not in the amount of housework performed, (Bose, 1982). Obviously, although late arriving in the home, technological developments have significantly changed housework. But changes in technology do not necessarily alleviate women's domestic role. Rather it is suggested that the more technology present in a household, the more time is spent in its acquisition, use and maintenance.


The British pioneer in the field of housework is A. Oakley, The Sociology of Housework (1974). They were the first studies to consider housework as work. The picture Oakley paints for both middle class and working class women is of housework being unpleasant. However, despite their dislike, the role was central to the identity of many of her informants. Rejection of the role would have meant rejection of gender identity as well.

She concludes:

'In only a small number of marriages is the husband notably domesticated... home and children are the woman's primary responsibility.'

Hunt (1980) found that husbands of both waged and unwaged wives helped only on a spasmodic basis. The waged wife does a double-shift. A number of studies also reveal that childcare by a husband is still regarded as a favour to a wife. A man's involvement with children is recreational.

Oakley's conclusions are reinforced by Edgell, Middle Class Couples (1980). His data confirms the view that contemporary married life involves variations on the theme of the traditional sexual division of labour, which has not been significantly altered. Edgell locates this inequality in the dependence of the husband on his employment and the dependence of the household on the husband for financial support, and hence the dependence of the wife on the husband.

Like Edgell, Jan Pahl, Money and marriage (1989) took a decision making approach to conjugal relationships. While there are a variety of financial arrangements between couples, Pahl concludes that in most cases, men benefit.

Oakley's sample was small, but her findings have been backed up by Martin and Roberts, Women and Employment (1984), based on a study of nearly 6,000 women aged 16-59. This found that men were more likely to take an active role in domestic life if the wife had a paid job

Fiona Devine (1992), in her study of car worker's families in Luton, she found an increasing proportion of women work part-time resulting in greater involvement by men in childcare and to a lesser extent housework. However, she suggests that the men's involvement was a result of financial necessity rather than from a desire for greater involvement. She concludes that conjugal roles were, for the most part, segregated.

Above all, women remain responsible for childcare and housework and their husbands help them.

Even in families where the male is unemployed, traditional sex roles persist, and can even be strengthened. McKee and Bell (1986) suggest that men's masculine identity is threatened by losing a job and that wives are unwilling to threaten it further by insisting that husbands take on more domestic responsibility.