Assessment of the View that Conjugal Roles Have Become Equal - Family Essay Example

Different sociologists have had different views to whether conjugal roles have become equal - Assessment of the View that Conjugal Roles Have Become Equal introduction. Researchers have measured different aspects of equality/inequality in conjugal roles. Some have concentrated on the division of labour in the home: they have examined the allocation of responsibility for domestic work between husband and wife and the amount of time spent by spouses on particular tasks. Others have tried to measure the distribution of power within marriage. Willmott and Young, and Gillian Dunne are amongst those who have argued that conjugal roles are equal. However many sociologists such as Ann Oakley, Ferri and Smith, Duncombe and Marsden, and Edgel, who have carried out research into the area of conjugal roles, have found little evidence that couples share equal division of domestic tasks.

Willmott and Young agree with the statement that conjugal roles have become equal. During the 1970’s they announced the arrival of the symmetrical family, a family in which the roles of husband and wife were 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. Willmott and Young found that 72% of husbands helped with these household tasks. They argued that the change from segregated to joint conjugal roles results mainly from the withdrawal of the wife from her relationships with female kin, and the drawing of the husband into the family circle.


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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. During the 1970’s she collected information on 40 married women who had one child or more under the age of 5 and were themselves aged between 20 and 30. Half of her sample was working class and half was middle class. She found 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. She found that most wives saw these jobs as their own responsibility, where only 15% of men in marriages participated in them
at a high level. 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.

Jonathan Gershury agrees with Ann Oakley and disagrees with the statement that conjugal roles have become equal. He points out that dual burden could lead to increased inequality between husbands and wives as a rising proportion of women suffer from it. He believes that dual burden is a result of lagged adaptation where there is a time lag between women taking up paid employment and men adapting to this by increasing their contribution to domestic labour. In 1992 Gershury studied the changes in hours worked by men and women over time, analysing data from 1974/5 to 1987. It showed a gradual increase in the amount of domestic labour performed by men. This increase was greatest when wives were in full-time employment, husbands whose wives worked full time doubled the amount of time they spent cooking and cleaning. Gershury concluded that though women still bear the main burden of domestic labour, there is a gradual trend towards greater equality, however it is still a long way off from becoming equal.

Lagged adaptation can explain Stephen Edgell’s findings who did not find equality in either household tasks or power and decision making. In 1980 Edgell interviewed 38 middle class couples. He asked them who made the decisions and how important those decisions were. He found that men dominated what couples considered to be important decisions involving finance, moving house and buying a car. Women dominated less important decisions such as interior decoration, children’s clothes and spending on food and household items. The chores that tended to be allocated to men though were infrequent rather than the everyday, frequent tasks which the women dominated. However in his study Edgell did find a trend for childcare. Although no couples in his survey equally shared housework, 44.6% took joint responsibility for childcare. Ferri and Smith however found no equality in

decision-making regarding childcare. They studied as far as possible the lives of everybody born in Great Britain in a specific week in 1958. The sample included 2800 fathers and 3192 mothers. The survey found that it was still very rare for fathers to take primary responsibility for childcare in dual-earner families, no-earner families or families where only the woman worked, showing again inequality in conjugal roles. Therefore Ferri and Smiths findings disagree with the statement, showing inequality in conjugal roles.

Many women agree with Ferri and Smith that it is they rather than their partner who are responsible for childcare. A study conducted by Jean Duncombe and Dennis Marsden in 1993/1995 based on interviews with 40 couples found that most women complained of men’s ‘emotional distance’. The men see their main role as a breadwinner – proving money, rather than emotion work of which many women see themselves responsible for. According to Duncombe and Marsden many women have to cope with triple shift: paid work, housework and childcare, and emotion work. Therefore it is the woman in the relationship who does most in conjugal roles, disagreeing with the statement that they have become equal.

Money management however tends to be split more evenly. In 1989 Jan Pahl identified various systems of money management used by the 102 couples in her study. They ranged from housekeeping allowance system whereby the husbands give their wives a fixed sum of money for housekeeping expenses and control the remaining money, to a pooling system where both partners see themselves as equally responsible for and jointly controlling money management. A later study by Carolyn Vogler and Jan Pahl in 1994 showed that whatever money management system used, men tended to come out on top. Vogler and Pahl see a trend towards greater equality in access to and control of family finances, however research indicates that the partner with the largest income has the biggest say in family decision-making.

Gillian Dunne however suggests that in same sex households conjugal roles are split more evenly than in heterosexual households. In 1999 she examined 37 cohabiting lesbian couples. Many of the women felt that their sameness as women and the lack of different gender roles made it easier to share tasks equitably. Dunne found that the boundaries between masculinity and femininity, with men being dominate in most relationships, leads to divisions of labour in heterosexual households. However within single sex relationships, the conjugal roles have become reasonably even.

In conclusion from the evidence presented it is clear that there is little support to Willmott and Young’s study that conjugal roles have become equal. Ann Oakley’s study in 1974, Edgell’s ‘decision making’ study in 1980, Ferri and Smith’s study, and Duncombe and Marsdon’s study in 1993/1995 all suggest that conjugal roles have not become equal. Gillian Dunne however suggests that household tasks and childcare in single sex relationships have become equal, but haven’t in heterosexual relationships. There is though a trend towards greater equality. Jan Pahl’s study, Gershury’s research, and Edgell’s study into childcare all suggest this trend. Therefore it appears that conjugal roles have not become equal, but evidence shows they are becoming more equal.

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