Assess the view that conjugal roles, domestic labour and power relationships have changed significantly over the past 50 years Essay

“Assess the view that conjugal roles, domestic labour and power relationships have changed significantly over the past 50 years (24 marks).” Different sociologists have had different views to whether conjugal roles have become equal. Some researchers have concentrated on the division of labour in the home by examining the allocation of domestic work between husband and wife, and the amount of time spent on particular tasks. Others have tried to measure the distribution of power within marriage. Willmott and Young argued that conjugal roles are equal. However many sociologists such as Ann Oakley found little evidence that couples share equal division of domestic tasks. Willmott and Young agree with the statement that conjugal roles have become equal. They introduced the idea of the symmetrical family which is a family in which the roles of husband and wife are similar. In the home the couple ‘shared their work and shared their time’. Husbands were seen to be increasingly helping with domestic chores, child rearing and decision making about family life. Women now go out to work (although it may be part-time) which means they have more responsibility for their own money. Couples also spend more leisure time together instead of separately.

They are more home-centred or ‘privatised’. Young and Willmott see the rise of the symmetrical nuclear family as the result of major social changes that have taken place over the last 50 years. They include; changes in women’s position (including married women going out to work), geographical mobility (more couples living away from the communities in which they grew up), new technology (labour-saving devices) and higher standards of living.

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Ann Oakley is one sociologist who criticises this view of Willmott and Young who had claimed that 72% of husbands ‘help in the house’. In 1974 Ann Oakley pointed out that included in this figure were husbands who did very little, only had to perform one household chore a week. She found there was greater equality for domestic tasks in the middle class than in the working class, however in both classes few men had a high level of participation in housework and childcare. Sociologists such as Ann Oakley have argued that women have increasingly been taking on a dual burden: they have retained primary responsibility for household tasks while also being expected to have paid employment. Some sociologists such as Jonathan Gershuny argue that women working full time causes an equal division of labour in the home. He found that wives that didn’t go to work did 83% of the housework, wives that worked part time did 82% and full-time working wives did 73% of the housework. He also found that the longer the wife had been working full time, the more housework her husband was likely to do. He argues that social values are gradually adapting to the fact that women are now working full-time. The commercialisation of housework reduces the amount of domestic labour that needs to be done. This is because goods and services that housewives previously had to produce themselves are now mass-produced and supplied by supermarkets, fast food outlets and so on. The fact that women are now working means they are able to purchase these goods and services. Silver and Schor argue that the burden of domestic chores has decreased because of the commercialisation of housework. Schor even claims it had led to the “death of the housewife role”.

On the other hand many poorer women won’t have access to these goods and services. And just because commercialisation has reduced the amount of housework to be done, it doesn’t mean that that couples are sharing the remaining chores equally. This leads onto the ‘duel burden’. Many feminists argue that because women are now working as well as doing more housework than the male, they have acquired a duel burden doing paid work and house work. Feminists still view the family as patriarchal so they see the husband benefits both from the woman’s earnings and from their domestic labour.

In the middle ages most societies were patriarchal and there were few laws and values which supported fairer treatment for women. This meant that the norms of a woman in a society like this would typically stay at home doing housework and caring for the children. Or for upper class hire another woman to do so. Marriages were arranged by the parents of a man and a woman and the women were used to make the image of the family they came better. They often had little or no say in who they married which also meant that they had very little power within the relationship. This can be applied to modern relationships but it is not as common because laws and views on male domination in a marriage have changed. However this does not mean it doesn’t exist. If the male has all the power in the marriage they could neglect or abuse the female especially if they are the ‘breadwinners’ and their wives
rely on them for a source of income. This leads onto the topic of domestic violence.

Domestic violence is “physical, psychological, sexual or financial violence that takes place within an intimate or family-type relationship.” Mirrlees-Black found that ¼ women have been assaulted by a partner at some point in her life, and 99% of all incidents against women are committed by men. Dobash and Dobash found that violent incidents could be set off by them thinking their partner is challenging their authority. For example asking why he is late home. Official statistics aren’t entirely true for two reasons. Firstly, victim may be reluctant to come forward and report their partners for domestic abuse. And secondly police and prosecutors are reluctant to fully get involved with domestic abuse cases because they feel it is invading their privacy. Some radical feminists would argue that domestic violence is due to every society been patriarchal, and he women been oppressed by the men. To summarise, there is some evidence that a woman being in employment leads to more equality in the division of housework, and more so if she is working full-time.

Feminists argue this is still not effective as women still tend to do more house labour than the men. There is also the issue that there is an inequality in who gets what in the family. Michelle Barrett and Mary McIntosh note that men gain far more from women’s domestic work than they give back in financial support. The financial support that men do give often is unpredictable and has ‘strings’ attached, and men usually make the decisions about spending on important items. Although the equality over domestic labour within a family might not be improving significantly in favour of the women, there have been many significant changes in how the family operates.

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