Division of Household Labor Essay

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Prior to the Industrial Revolution, economic production was organized around the home, and households were relatively self-sufficient. Households were multifunctional, acting, among other things, as eating establishment, educational institution, factory, and infirmary. Everyone belonging to the household, including family members, servants, and apprentices, did their part in the household s productive labor. The word ”housework,” first used in 1841 in England and in 1871 in the USA, would have made little sense prior to that time, since all work was focused in and around the home.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, however, the Industrial Revolution severed the workplace from the place of residence. Coinciding with this process, the ideology of separate spheres emerged, reflecting an increasing tendency for men to seek work in urban factories while women stayed home to look after the family. This ideology defined not only separate spheres, but different personality characteristics and divergent family roles for men and women, as well. In doing so, it naturalized the notion that men, strong and unemotional, should occupy the status of family breadwinner. Conversely, women, frail, pure, and living under the spell of the ”cult of true womanhood, should aspire to nothing more profound than being good wives, mothers, and homemakers.

Thus, as men and single women ventured forth to work in the impersonal factories and workplaces of urban centers, married women, particularly those of the middle classes, stayed home to cook, clean, and raise the children. Production and productive activities moved out of these households into the industrializing workplace. Concurrently, the value and status of men s labor went up, while that of women s household labor went down. Previously an integral part of the home-centered production process, middle-class women found themselves with less ”productive work to do. As a result, their energies became more focused on reproductive work, which included making sure that their husbands and children were clean, well-fed, clothed, and nurtured. Although economic necessity continued to force working-class wives and women of color to seek employment outside of the home, the pattern of separate spheres reflected an ideal that most families desired to emulate. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, as households were increasingly motivated to purchase industrially produced necessities, women also became the family household consumption experts. As such, they orchestrated the family s purchase of food, clothing, soap, candles, and other material necessities that they had once helped produce in the home.

Today, in the USA and much of the industrialized world, household labor continues to be performed mostly by women, with chores themselves also segregated by gender. Women are still doing the majority of ”routine tasks, including cooking and meal preparation, meal clean-up and dish washing, laundry, house cleaning, and grocery shopping. Men, on the other hand, do the occasional chores such as lawn mowing, household repairs, car maintenance, and, less often, bill paying. Characteristically, routine chores tend to be more repetitious, time consuming, time sensitive, and boring than occasional chores, which are less tedious and can usually be completed when convenient. While studies of household labor tend to separately analyze routine and occasional housework, they often omit childcare or, alternatively, include it as a separate category of family work. Nevertheless, the presence of children also substantially increases the amount of routine housework that needs to be done, so the amount of household labor that women perform tends to go up when children are born. Men, on the other hand, spend more time in paid labor when children arrive, but often reduce their household labor participation. Some studies suggest that when men do more childcare, they may also increase their contributions to housework.

International trends largely appear to reflect those occurring in the USA. Women in most developed countries do the majority of the routine housework, although their contributions are declining while those of their male partners are increasing slightly. Japanese wives, for instance, continue to report doing a large majority of housework. On the other hand, wives in many formerly Soviet countries more often report that their husbands share housework equally than do women in the USA. Still, women in most countries devote well over half of their work time to unpaid labor while men devote one-third of their work time or less. The presence of young children increases women s unpaid labor time substantially more than that of men, while, in many countries, women whose education level exceeds that of their husbands do relatively less housework. Moreover, women worldwide are balancing their unpaid family work with increased time spent in the paid labor force, and while men s economic activity rates have decreased in many areas, women s rates have generally increased.


  1. Baxter, J. (1997) Gender equality and participation in housework: a cross-national perspective. Journal of Comparative Family Studies 28: 220—17.
  2. Bianchi, S. M., Milkie, M. A., Sayer, L. C., & Robinson, J. P. (2000) Is anyone doing the housework.? Trends in the gender division of household labor. Social Forces 79: 191—228.

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