Are men chauvinist pigs?

I’m starting research for a new book about marriage and family. I’ll be writing here about my research, so you’ll start to see a lot more posts on marriage. In fact, I’ve created an entire new category, “marriage,” to distinguish these research-oriented posts. I created the category so I can easily find all my writing on the subject, but you can use it too: if you find you’re getting sick of posts about marriage, just click on the “General” category in the sidebar, and you’ll get all of my posts except the ones about marriage.

The question of the day: are men pigs for wanting their wives to do all the housework, laundry, shopping, taking care of kids, shopping, etc.? Stephanie Coontz, writing in her book The Way We Really Are says no:

Research shows that men are happiest in a relationship when they don’t have to do much housework and yet meals get made, clothes get ironed, and the house looks good. This doesn’t mean they are chauvinist pigs. Who wouldn’t be happier under those conditions? (19)

Of course, in the most basic sense, Coontz is right. But how come most women don’t expect men to do all the housework? Isn’t it piggish to expect others to do something we’re not willing to do ourselves? Coontz says it’s all about “situated social power”:

Various groups in society have unequal access to economic resources, political power, social status, and these social differences limit how fair or equal a personal relationship between two individuals from different groups can really be. Such social imbalances affect personal behavior regardless of sincere intentions of both parties to “not let it make a difference” (15).

Since men have more situated social power, women feel obligated to do the grunt work in a household, for fear that their husbands will leave them. Furthermore, women are the traditional rulers of the household, so they treat men as inferior when it comes to household tasks, especially caring for infant children. Women themselves play a role in perpetuating male chauvinism.

My problem with this analysis, which seems to me to be mostly on the mark, is that even men who are aware of this dynamic fall into the same trap. Why can’t they, with their larger share of social power, demand a more substantive role, especially when it comes to child rearing? Why do they allow women to hoard the larger share of their childrens’ affection? Coontz would say that it’s because the women don’t allow it, and they are the ones with more situated social power when it comes to child rearing. Coontz is probably right, but I’d take this analysis one step further: the “liberated” men who recognize that women traditionally are excluded from power actually exacerbate the problem by overcompensating. They defer to women, especially when it comes to household tasks: precisely the area they need to be more assertive if they are to create a more equal environment. The result is the “second shift” for women, a situation where even in “egalitarian,” dual-career marriages, the women typically end up doing most of the housework, taking over almost the entire “second shift” themselves. The liberated man’s “good intentions” can lead to unhealthy families, to depression, to divorce.

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3 Responses to Are men chauvinist pigs?

  1. Katie Richmond says:

    Dave,

    I find your question of the day an interesting one: “are men pigs for wanting their wives to do all the housework, laundry, shopping, taking care of kids, shopping, etc.?” This has been on my mind because of a recent, related argument I had with my not-so-wicked step-mother, an ardent feminist. Perhaps your question here is a little too categorical; not all men who want those things are pigs (but some surely are!) and some who do not demand those things most definitely *are* pigs. Also, I think that you must qualify this as relating to marriage in North American culture. The idea is a good point of departure for other questions relevant to marriage:

    Can a relationship be considered egalitarian where the responsibilities for home maintenance and childrearing are divided into different but equally important duties? (or must all duties be divided exactly in order to maintain equality?)

    To what extent do a man and a woman to discuss their expectations of the division of labor/child care before entering into marriage—and reject potential partners whose expectations are incompatible, in spite of sexual attraction? More importantly, to what extent are those expectations fluid and negotiable throughout the course of the marriage?

    I think that many go into marriage accepting only partially the advice proffered by Benjamin Franklin: “Keep your eyes wide open before marriage and half shut after.” Having one’s eyes open means that you have selected an emotionally mature mate who shares the same goals and values, and with whom you have not only candidly discussed your expectations, but observed in action—in both the best and worst circumstances. When one is circumspect in choosing a spouse, it is easier to negotiate the snags and disagreements that invariably come, to wink on minor imperfections while discussing real issues without being petty, judgmental or selfish. Expectations in marriage are fluid because people change. That doesn’t mean that a marriage has to fail, as long as the changing expectations are regularly communicated, re-negotiated; the marriage has to stay dynamic in order to grow along with the two individuals. Never does this become clearer than when you bring children into the equation!

    Well, I’d better climb off my soapbox and call it a night . . .

    Before I go, let me congratulate you on a thoughtful and interesting site, Dave. I’ve enjoyed seeing the highlights of what you’ve been up to over the past 20 years. In a burst of nostalgia (no doubt a side effect of the massive doses of Nyquil I’m taking to fight off a cold), I googled your name and lo and behold your CV popped up, which led to Word Munger, and so on. I’m so glad to see that you are happily married with a lovely family.

    Best,
    Katie (Roberts) Richmond

  2. Dave says:

    Hello, Katie!

    It’s great to hear from you after all these years! I’ll send you a separate e-mail to catch up, but I wanted to respond to your comment here.

    (Note to other readers: Katie was the most beautiful girl I ever dated. I haven’t heard from her since high school.)

    (Note to the other girls I’ve dated: Sorry, but it’s true. You were beautiful, too, in your own way, just not as beautiful as Katie!)

    (Note to my wife: You weren’t technically a “girl” when we started dating, right?)

    I agree, household (or other) duties don’t need to be shared 50-50 in order to have an egalitarian marriage. However, statistically, most marriages — even those with “enlightened” husbands — tend to lapse into a situation where the woman ends up doing much more of the housework. I don’t think in most cases this was a conscious division of labor — especially in cases where both spouses hold full-time jobs.

    Even when spouses strive for an egalitarian marriage, I think it’s an elusive goal, for reasons I’ll be getting into in some later posts on the subject.

    Great to hear from you, Katie. Look for my e-mail soon!

    Dave

  3. Katie Richmond says:

    I was cruising around the web yesterday doing research for my husband’s book (about pregnancy from a guy’s point of view). I ran across a site that immediately made me think of this thread: http://www.nomarriage.com. One of my searches yeilded a hit from an article on this site about how statistics have shown that about 30% of the time, a man is not the father of the children that he thinks are his own. My curiosity was piqued and so I had to check out the rest of the site.

    In order to avoid being prejudicial (ha), I will merely state that this site purports a radically different view of marriage than what you have described. Check it out.

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