Terrance Heath

Will Marriage Equality Lead to Equal Sharing of Housework?

Filed By Terrance Heath | April 10, 2013 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Marriage Equality
Tags: marriage equality, progressive families, same-sex marriage, women's roles

My mom turned to me one day and said something I’ve never forgotten since. I was in my teens, and was probably complaining about some chore that she wanted me to do, when she said to me, “There is no excuse for a young man in your generation not to know how to cook his own meals, wash his own clothes, and clean his own house. And before you leave this house, you will know how to do at least that much. ”

She meant it, and I did learn. My sister and I took turns doing the exact same chores. Today, I can cook, clean, and kiss boo-boos with the best of ‘em. But apparently, many men from my generation on down can’t, or just don’t.

It’s something I’ve written about before: even in the most progressive families, the lion’s share of housework and childcare still falls to women.

Women spend a greater number of hours doing household and caregiving duties, which decreases the number of hours they can work for pay. Even for full-time workers, men worked on average 8.3 hours per day while women worked 7.8 hours per day in 2011.

The differences in the daily activities that men and women perform are captured by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey. The survey has 12 major categories of how we use our time, and women dominate eight of the 12 categories.

In 2011, the latest year available, we see the expected gender division in time use with women spending an average of two more hours per day than men doing the activities of personal care; household chores; purchasing goods and services; caring for and helping household and nonhousehold members; organizational, civic or religious activities; telephone calls, mail and email; and other activities not classified elsewhere in the survey.

How did men allocate their time? They spent an average of an additional 40 minutes per day on sports and leisure compared with women, four additional minutes on eating and drinking, two additional minutes on educational activities, and 1 hour and 16 minutes additional time working and performing work-related activities.

The two of the areas with the largest deficits for men were 47 fewer minutes per day on household activities and 22 fewer minutes on caring for and helping household and nonhousehold members.

I’ve got something that might help solve this problem: marriage equality. What’s gay marriage got to do with this? What’s the only thing that’s keeping us defining housework as “woman’s work”? As Anne York explains in the post quoted above: “It is only our cultural norm that is defining who does which task.”

What’s one of the top arguments against marriage equality? Opponents of marriage equality often define themselves as defenders of long-standing “cultural norms, because they know same-sex marriage undermines the cultural norm that keeps the gender-based division of labor in the home.

The threat of legal same-sex marriage, then, is actually doubled. It carries one step further the progress that's lead to women no longer having to "submit to their husbands"; they might volunteer, a'la the "surrendered wife" model, but not many women have to marry and thus "submit to their husbands" as a necessity for survival. Social progress changed the status of women, and the same people who oppose same-sex marriage would like to undo that progress to whatever degree they can. Legal same-sex marriage further cements those social changes, and makes it even harder to turn back the clock.

It's no coincidence that the political forces opposed to same-sex marriage or marriage equality also oppose gender equality and advocate returning to more strictly enforced gender roles. The Institute for Progressive Christianity recently published a paper titled "The KIngdom of God and the Witness of Gay Marriage," which includes among it's premises:

1. Gay marriages demonstrate the possibility and desirability of gender equality in any marriage by modeling a relationship where the parties to the marriage do not distribute roles and responsibilities based on gender. This modeling supports the positive transformation of the curse of gender conflict, and subsequent patriarchal domination pronounced at the Fall from Paradise into gender egalitarianism .

2. Gay marriage's ascendancy and resilience in society participates in a fundamental shift of the culture's understanding of marriage. That is, marriage is being transformed from a utilitarian arraignment grounded in the idea that women are sexual property to an egalitarian life journey with a partner who one chooses to develop and share mutual love, affection, respect, and support.

... One of the most obvious issues to which gay marriage speaks is gender equality. One of the strongest and most relied upon objections to gay marriage from the Right is that it violates the concept of gender complementarity. Gender complementarity is the metaphysical claim that men's and women's social functions in the world are determined dichotomously by their biological sex, such that where men are convex women are concave.

... Undergirding the concept of gender complementarity is the assumption that men are metaphysically meant to rule over women (ideally in the spirit of love, of course) and women are metaphysically meant to serve men

... Thus, from the gender complementarian perspective, those who act as though women and men gain equal spiritual, emotional, psychological, and existential satisfaction and dignity from leading and serving, and are meant to experience both of these sides of the human psyche, are disordered, as are those who advocate this notion of equality and balance.

The possibility of gay marriage invites heterosexuals to view their intimate partners (or potential intimate partners) not through a lens of gendered otherness primarily --that is through the lens of gender complementarity-- but through the lens of sameness, that is through the lens of sharing a common human dignity, as it was in the beginning.

As much as it may seem like a tangent, the above both reinforces the relationship between sexism and homophobia, and places gay & lesbian equality in general and marriage equality specifically in the context of earlier progressive social movements, all of which -- from the abolitionist movement, to women's suffrage to the civil rights movement -- had strong foundations in moral principles; progressive moral principles like those Pitt referenced in his column.

It’s a cultural norm that’s both overtly and covertly reinforced. One of the ways it’s reinforced (and the one one I find most annoying) is the “incompetent father” or “bumbling dad” stereotype. While we’ve made some progress in changing that old stereotype, it’s still ubiquitous in our media. It’s been an advertising staple practically forever, and it’s still around today.

Although he’s clever at times, he’s not usually allowed to be smart. He has no idea that Shortcuts Make Long Delays. He’s lazy, gluttonous and has miscellaneous other glaring vices. His children may love him, but they often don’t respect him. However, he is still a sympathetic character; the source of his charm is his complete love and loyalty to his family, even if the main way he shows it is by fixing problems he caused himself.

His family is made up of at least one child nearing or in their teenage years, and a wife (usually much prettier than Dad) who spends her time Parenting The Husband. If he has one or more teenage daughters, at least one will be a Bratty Teenage Daughter or a Daddy’s Girl; whether they are or not, the dad will be an Overprotective Dad in regards to the girl(s).

Often used as an enabler of several Double Standards. Sometimes, on the rare occasions that a mom does something dumb, she’s cut more slack than she otherwise would be, since the Bumbling Dad is there to make her look better by comparison. On the other hand, if everyone just gets used to tolerating Dad’s incompetence, they might still hold Mom to the standards of a competent adult – in fact, she may end up being held responsible for fixing his screw-ups. After all, somebody’s got to be the grownup in a family, and you can’t hold Dad accountable for not acting like one if he’s just an idiot. The frustrating and stagnant sexual roles enforced by this trope are often pointed to by feminists as a sign of how sexism hurts men as well as women.

This trope is still mostly seen in sitcoms and cartoons, along with many commercials, especially ones aimed at kids. In anime, this type of character is taken more respectfully, since it usually consists of a goofier dad, more involved with his family than the stereotypical Salaryman. This is even more common when his children have no visible mother.

As gay dads, we confront this cultural norm on a regular basis. We confront it when someone sees one of us out with the boys and comments that “It must be mom’s day off.” If our kids our infants, we confront it even from well-meaning people. I’ll never forget the elderly woman who approached me at the mall when parker was a baby. We were shopping, and Parker was fussy, so I took him out of the store while the hubby continued shopping. I sat down on a bench, reached in to the diaper back, made a bottle, took Parker out of the baby carriage, and gave it to him. I’d just finished burping him when this elderly woman came up to me and said with a smile, “I just wanted to tell you that you handle that baby just marvelously.”

My Southern manners kicked in, and I simply said “Thank you, ma’am.” But as she turned and went on her way, in the back of my mind I thought “Is there some reason I shouldn’t be good at this? Then I realized, she was from a generation in which she probably never saw a man -- a father -- doing something as simple as taking care of his child. No unless the child’s mother was sick or dead or something. No wonder she was impressed. Imagine if she’d stuck around for the diaper change!

My mom was undermining that “cultural norms” by insisting on raising me to do most household tasks myself. She man not have realized it then, but she was also undermining cultural norms when she justified my braiding the hair of of my sister’s dolls by telling my dad (who expressed concern that I was braiding a doll’s hair) that I might have a daughter of my own someday and I might have to know how to do her hair.

It’s almost like my mom was thinking of this dad.

The point is my mom had probably confronted the same thing that the elderly woman in the mall had confronted: generations of men not only raised to know nothing about taking care of their own homes and their own children, but to believe that doing so wasn’t in their job description. My mom decided she was going to raise at least one man who wouldn’t be quite so entrenched in a gender-based division of labor.

It happens that in our home there is no gender-based division of labor. We share the housework evenly. And if there a deciding factor in who does what, its not based on gender but on who prefers to do it, who’s better at it, or who has the time and flexibility.

It's interesting, because in our house we don't have gender-based division of labor to fall back on. That doesn't mean we don't have disagreements about housework. But it's based more on personal traits than gender. (For example, as I tell the hubby, it's not that clutter doesn't bother me. It just bothers him sooner than it bothers me.) For the most part, who does what in our house depends on who's free, and who prefers to do it. (Gardening, for example, I cede to him. But, I usually clean the downstairs bathroom, etc.)

Sometimes, it's a matter of consideration. For example, I'm going to come home late tomorrow, which means the hubby will have the boys by himself tomorrow night. Thus, before I go to bed tonight, I'll probably load and run the dishwasher, and pick up the toys, shoes, etc., scattered around the family room. So at least he can come home to an empty sink and a relatively tidy house. (It makes a difference when you're parenting solo.)

But the article reminded me of something else. One of the reasons for the opposition to same-sex marriage is the potential of marriage equality to call gender roles more into question.

So, yeah. That’s a “cultural norm” that we undermine on a daily basis. It also means that our sons are not growing up with a gender-based division of labor. They see two men cooking, cleaning, taking care of children, etc., and they will learn to do the same. And maybe their future spouses won’t be stuck with the lion’s share of housework.

To my heterosexual brethren, I say this. You, too, can help change this old, tired, “cultural norm.” And you don’t have to marry another dude to do it. You just have to pick up a mop more often, wash a few dishes, change your share of diapers, etc.

In other words, be an equal partner in your marriage and family.


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