Wednesday, March 14, 2007

An Unnoticed Complication In The "Great Housework Debate"

It's been awhile since I commented on the ongoing "Great Housework Debate", but Amanda's recent post on the subject at Pandagon sparked a little more thought on the issue. My question, and I don't know that I've ever seen this addressed before, is how do differing definitions of "housework" contribute to the overall imbalance in hours spent doing housework?

Consider the following: In a household where the woman does all of the housework she, in general, is solely responsible for defining the scope of the household's "housework practice". She defines what tasks need to be done, when they need to be done, and what constitutes "completion" for any particular task. Enter man and the non-gendered division of labor; now that there are two people doing the housework there are two competing views of what constitutes "the housework". I know that in my own marriage we disagree of what things should be done, what takes precedence over what, etc.

Now here's a deeper question: Is there an objective definition of what constitutes "reasonable housework"? There might be, but I'm fairly certain that there's no consensus definition. If that's the case then how are the woman and the man going to reconcile their differences of opinion?

Here I'm going to go out on a limb and say that, in general, the woman's view wins. Why? Because everyone knows that women are clean and men are slobs1. In all seriousness I suspect that, in contemporary society, a woman's view of what constitutes necessary housework is likely to receive more consideration than a man's. If that's the case it could contribute to the observed imbalance: a man who disagrees with the prevailing definition is likely to be regarded as a shirker.

On a related topic, it would be interesting to see whether there is a similar imbalance among homosexual couples. I suspect that, in any relationship, there's one person who is going to have a lower tolerance for dirt and disorder. This "neat member" of the relationship may very well spend more time with household chores due to personal predilection. If there is uneven division of housework among homosexual couples it would tend to back up this thesis. If you posit that in heterosexual couples the woman is more likely to be the neat member than the man then the narrative changes somewhat. The housework imbalance is then not necessarily the result of shirking on the part of men or overcompensation on the part of women, but rather is a side effect of subtle social conditioning vis-a-vis each gender's cleanliness requirements.

As a side note, I'd like to see a cite for the "experts" that Frieswick is quoted as citing. The contention that "Men largely define their maleness by rejecting femaleness" seems to be to be, at best, a gross simplification. It neglects the traditional male-defining factors of "agency" and "autonomy" entirely; I don't think its controversial to say that men have traditionally been regarded as "agentic". If the experts are correct then "agency" isn't regarded as a fundamental virtue but is instead derived from perceived female "non-agency", which just doesn't seem as plausible to me.

1 Irony!, Will Robinson, irony!


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