Marriage is in trouble. At the very least, it is changing. Some say this is a good thing, while others do not. As a result, I have been doing research on the subject. More specifically, I have begun reading a broad range of books about intimate relationships. My objective has been to gain an overview of what experts have thought about the matter as a prelude to digging in a bit further.
One of the first works I examined was Arlie Hochschild’s classic The Second Shift. First published in 1989 and then revised in 2003, it is a feminist’s perspective on the sharing of household tasks in dual career families. Professor Hochschild, who teaches sociology as the University of California in Berkeley, made her initial reputation in a study of emotional labor among airline flight attendants. Here she has produced an equal splash by documenting the way husbands and wives divide the work they do at home after their official jobs are done.
Ostensibly a balanced ethnographic report on a series of in depth interviews, the last thing this book is is disinterested sociology. From its very first page it has an ideological argument it wishes to promote. Dr. Hochschild is a veritable cheerleader for androgynous marriage. She clearly wants men and women to be completely equal—including at home. Well, actually the equality she seeks is not of the moral variety, but seems to tilt in the direction of women. It is obvious that it is them for whom she has sympathy and their interests she seeks to defend.
Dr. Hochschild begins by stacking the deck in favor of her heroines. Thus, she describes a putative historical evolution of marriages from traditional, through transitional, and eventually to egalitarian. As with Karl Marx, this evolution is assumed to be inevitable. Traditional marriages are therefore described as doomed to be succeeded by those of the egalitarian variety, with the transitional sort representing a temporary resting spot.
Although this sequence may sound comfortably democratic, it is not democratic in the sense with which most Americans are familiar. For Hochschild, an egalitarian marriage is one in which the differences between the genders have been virtually eliminated. As do many feminists, she seems to assume that any disparities in the ways that men and women operate are the artificial consequence of historic masculine advantages. Once women take their rightful place both at home and work these will fade away.
For instance, Hochschild gets upset when men interact with children differently than their wives. She wants fathers to be as nurturing as their spouses. Right from infancy, she expects her male subjects to be as tender-hearted as her female ones. If they play rough with their children, or prefer to interact with the older ones, this is dismissed as unacceptable. They too must be feminized in their contribution to childrearing.
Hochschild seems to imagine that underlying gender abilities and inclinations are identical. She also seems secure in the belief that any difference between what men and women contribute to the family must of necessity be inequitable. That what husbands and wives add to the mix might be complementary never occurs to her. That their separate inputs might add up to a whole that is greater than its individual parts is beyond her ken.
In fact, a large body of research indicates that men and women differ in a whole range of abilities and attitudes. Men, for example, are much more inclined to roughhouse with their children than women. They are also more likely to enforce stricter behavioral standards. This, however, is not to say that the emotional support most mothers furnish is less important. To the contrary, it is crucial that children receive both.
Hochschild, however, is fond of citing the “stalled” revolution. She knows full well that most men have resisted participating in the sorts of relationships she favors. She also knows that many women conspire to keep traditional customs in place. Nevertheless she is convinced this is a temporary condition. Women may be moving more quickly toward her ideal, but she is convinced that both sexes will eventually get there.
Evidently Hochschild believes that a cultural lag is responsible for the slowness with which her aspirations have been adopted. Men have simply experienced difficulty in surmounting the lifestyles they find comfortable. That their resistance might have biological components is ruled out of bounds from the start. Similarly, that her objectives might owe more to her own moral attitudes than evolving social institutions is likewise ignored on nonscientific grounds.
The Second Shift is a must read for those interested in gender relationships, but not because it adumbrates an inevitable future. The real reason for its importance is that it documents a critical moment in the redefinition of gender roles. Dr. Hochschild has been a central player in this negotiation. What she says about social transitions may have more to do with her hopes than reality, nonetheless it helps us understand what people have thought while embroiled in what is undoubtedly a major transformation in the nature of marriage.
Finally, if we are to understand where modern marriages are headed, we must see the larger picture. As W.I. Thomas wrote, that which people consider real is real in its consequences. The same applies to the arguments people use when involved in changing social customs. These too may be mistaken, but they are not without very real influence.
Melvyn L. Fein. Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology
Kennesaw State University