Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Feminist classic on women's household burden: Hochschild's "The Second Shift"

I picked up Arlie Hochschild's The Second Shift this past week on vacation, a book I'd been meaning to read because it was "a classic" but which I also dreaded would be a dry screed on hopeless inequities that didn't really affect me. But I kept picking it up, in every bit of downtime I had, and now I can't stop talking about it with everyone I know. (Unlike The Quants, which I have to finish for my work bookclub next week but can't get into - is that because it's a Man Book?)

Hochschild, a professor at UC Berkeley, first published this book in 1989, after extensive fieldwork interviewing and observing two-career couples in the greater Bay area. She compiled case studies of exemplar families, detailing the breakdown of childcare and housework as well as the relations between the two. Hochschild also documented the participant's family background, feelings and ideology regarding gender roles, and opinions about how work was being divided (which often conflicted with her observations). Her conclusion was that in the vast majority (~80%) of households, women carried a disproportionate share of the load, in essence working a "second shift" after they got home from work. The case studies are presented objectively, but are nevertheless incendiary, both for the story they tell and the clarity they draw to unfair breakdowns of household labor many readers have seen or experienced personally.

This inequity in labor may have changed dramatically since the book's original publication, but I think the case studies continue to hold true for many families. A recent article over at Jezebel supports the notion that the workload remains unbalanced. Hochschild maintains that this effects the marriage market, by making women's disproportionate domestic work table stakes. Key to this assertion is the premise that women have much more to lose in a divorce financially - in terms of lost household income (men's standard of living increases, while women's declines) and frequently the sole responsibility for children (unfortunately child support is not paid all that frequently).

I don't know what impact this book had upon its original publication, but Hochschild's updated introduction suggests it started a firestorm in homes across America, helping wives to recognize that their "private problem" was shared by women nationwide. I can believe it, as this book gave me a more critical view at the gender relations I've observed, and I was already highly sensitive to these inequalities. Personally, I can't imagine being romantic with a man that I constantly clean up after, feed, and take care of. It infantilizes the man (not hot) and would definitely make me feel resentful and treated unfairly. I'd really rather be single. And it is sad that a father would not share in childcare for any reason, since many people find raising children to be the most meaningful and fulfilling task of their lifetimes. I would prefer to raise a child alone than with an uninvolved father - taking care of a child sounds less difficult than taking care of a child and adult man.

However, I also refuse to believe that these are still the table stakes for heterosexual relationships. I personally know many men who are active parents, and I suspect that men are sharing in housework more than before. I strongly recommend this book to everyone - single and married, male and female. It is a compelling read and will have immediate insight for most adults in our society. I am very excited to read Hochschild's other works, particularly The Time Bind.


  1. This is definitely a hot button topic for me. It was one of the hardest things about getting into a relationship and cohabiting--realizing the ways in which I was taking on a disproportionate share of household work and fighting back against that. To really conquer it, I had to fight both my BF's tendencies to let things slide and my own tendencies to take things on. I'm happy to report that we've reached a good equilibrium, and it is possible!

    Here's a couple tips I learned in the process (although, it still is a process, so I hope you'll share yours as well):
    1) If you grew up cooking, cleaning, and doing chores, understand that your partner may not have. Ask him or her which parts of their non-chore-doing are being driven by simply not knowing what needs doing, how, or when. Then you might have to teach them. Patiently.
    2) Along with this, recognize that their perspective might be different than yours, both on what's important and what should be done to fix it. Your partner might perceive "dirty" as different than you, and so if you're expecting them to clean when it hits your dirty threshold, that'll take more work. Your partner might think it's ok to feed the kids takeout if no one has thought about dinner, whereas you might prefer home-cooked. To negotiate chores, you also have to negotiate the values behind the chores. (sounds way over-dramatic, but it's true!)
    3) Things might not get done the way you want. Many of us have probably had the experience of sending a partner to the grocery store, and having the bill come back twice its usual. To split the work, I had to start accepting his way of doing things, even if it meant a higher grocery bill because he likes to buy the brand, or having a once-monthly cleaning person that I thought we couldn't afford, but actually costs less than cable TV.

    Readers, have any others?

  2. Also, Renee has a great post on this on not wanting to give up her role as mother and nurturer, even as she fights for career equality. Her situation is interesting because her health prevents her from cooking as much as she'd like, so her partner actually takes on more of this household chore than Renee prefers.

  3. I have to say that your experience paints an awfully optimistic picture - I don't think this is possible for everyone. One of Hochschild's points is that the high rate of divorce and its cost to women means most women have to come to the hetero relationship table willing to do the second shift, or at least most of it. She also explores the balance in couples who couldn't afford hired help of any kind (not my privileged situation).

    Here's my next read on the topic The War on Moms, which explains how the deck is stacked against working mothers in the US versus other developed countries. I think working for family-friendly policies is an important feminist (nay! humanist - it also benefits men) issue.


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