Housework Essay

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Housework refers to all unpaid labor performed to maintain family members and/or a home including cleaning, buying groceries, meal preparation, and laundry. In most studies, housework is defined by its measurement and often excludes childcare, emotion work, and other invisible types of labor. However, sociologists do acknowledge that the construction of housework” as a concept is a historical process and is contingent upon other factors.

During industrialization housework” was seen as separate from work.” With industrial capitalism, the household unit was no longer the source of production and by the nineteenth century a division of labor emerged based on the ideology of separate spheres. These boundaries were institutionalized and gendered, especially for the middle class, resulting in the cult of true womanhood.” This is further reflected in the dominant paradigms in sociology throughout the 1960s to 1980s. Functionalists argued that the family is based on complementary sex roles,” where men are seen as more instrumental and women have an expressive role which makes housework naturally suitable.

New home economics” provides another specialization model that conceptualizes housework as women’s work based on the allocation of time and less investment in human capital in comparison to men.

Empirical research on housework became a topic of sociological study during the 1960s and 1970s. Blood and Wolfe’s (1960) index of housework illustrates that divisions in labor vary based on relative employment. Oakely’s (1974) research on housework was one of the first studies to approach the topic from a woman’s perspective. However, most of this early empirical research was descriptive in nature and did not challenge the assumption that housework is women’s work. This was further complicated by scholarly debates questioning whether housework and women who perform the majority of it produce value and/or surplus value.

By the 1990s, empirical research on housework proliferated along with the development of new theoretical perspectives. Much of the sociological research on housework starts from the assumption that nobody wants to do it, so the division of household labor may reflect power differentials in households or families. As such, research has focused explicitly on explaining the division of household labor and the consequences of this division. Time diaries and survey questions that specifically address housework and qualitative research such as Hochschild and Machung’s The Second Shift (1989) detail the contributions men and women make to household labor.

Housework is fundamental to the well-being of families, the construction of gender, and the reproduction of society. Although fewer women today are full-time homemakers, housework remains women’s responsibility. Women are still more likely to do housework themselves or to hire a domestic worker who is also more likely to be a woman. Modernization and labor-saving devices have had little effect on the structural changes that are needed to elevate housework from its devalued status. Housework is a shared experience of most women and is crucial to a socio-logical analysis of gender inequality.


  1. Blood, R. O., Jr. & Wolfe, D. M. (1960). Husbands & Wives: The Dynamics of Married Living. Free Press, Glencoe, IL.
  2. Oakely, A. (1974) Woman’s Work: The Housewife, Past and Present. Pantheon Books, New York.
  3. Sayer, L. G. (2005) Gender, time and inequality: trends in women’s and men’s paid work, unpaid work and free time. Social Forces 84 (1): 285—303.

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