Marriages in Contemporary Britain are seen as becoming increasingly symmetrical, where both partners work and decisions are shared. However, while some consider this arrangement to be an equal conjugal relationship, others would describe marriage as still being a ‘patriarchal institution’: controlled by the husband, who is superior to the wife.
The traditional view was that husbands, as breadwinners, would be focused on their careers and providing for the family while his wife would be responsible only for his general welfare, their children and their home. However, as the majority of women are now employed, modern marriage is portrayed as being egalitarian with husbands, referred to as ‘new men’, becoming more involved in family life to support their wives and household tasks being fairly divided. This essay aims to outline the accuracy of this portrayal, how symmetrical marriages are and whether they have remained a patriarchal institution.
In 1973 Young and Willmott claimed that the division of labour within the home was becoming less segregated. This means that household tasks would be shared out more equally and that the roles of the husband and wife would be more integrated. There are various explanations for this, including women being less financially dependent upon their husbands due to employment; improved rights of women and their status in society and better standards of living encouraging men to spend more time in the home with their families.
Research proves that men do more domestic work now than previously, namely Gershunny and Laurie’s study which showed that hubands have taken on more domestic labour now women work. However, while men do more domestic work than before, they still do significantly less than women, with men spending less than half the time compared to that of women on household tasks per day according to one survey. Another survey found that women in paid work spent 21 hours a week on housework, while men spent only 12. Furthermore, 92% of women do housework everyday, compared with only 77% of men.
A survey by Lydia Morris claimed that if the wife was employed and the husband not, he would do less housework in order to protect his masculinity. This shows that men still view housework as being feminine, and that husbands and wives still do have those traditionally separate roles. In society men are expected to be masculine, and there is, to a degree, a stigma attached to doing household tasks such as cleaning or caring for children as he feels that she has delegated a job which is her responsibility, and accepting this task is seen as being under his wife’s control, and therefore inferior. While men feel this way, marriage will never be egalitarian.
Furthermore, Bittmann and Pixley state than inequality in the division of labour is a major cause of divorce today. Liberal Feminist Jennifer Somerville states that men will only carry out household tasks when ‘asked, cajoled or bullied’, and as a result women feel disappointed in men as they are no longer prepared to accept a non-egalitarian marriage and ‘either leave them, or ask them to go’. This is strong evidence that marriage has remained a patriarchal institution, as men have resisted change and equality in their marriage by refusing to share household responsibilities fairly.
Dobash and Dobash state that, ‘The domination and control of husbands over wives is historically and socially constructed’, meaning that social expectations have resulted in males fighting to retain their superiority. In severe cases this has resulted in domestic violence, which accounts for approximately a quarter of all violent crime. According to Dobash and Dobash, marriage justifies domestic violence by giving men power over their wives, and was often caused by actions the huband perceived as being a threat to his superiority, such as the wife cooking his meal incorrectly.
However, 75% of marriages are requested by women, showing that they have become more independent with more freedom within society. Stereotypes and the pressure to conform to social expectations has meant that husbands are reluctant to share the division of labour equally, and due to different pressures and external influences such as the media, wives no longer accept this. Employed wives resent the dual burden of labour, creating friction and this results in high divorce rates.
However, a survey by Man-Yee Kan at Oxford University in 2001 showed that relationships where both partners held university degrees were likely to be more equal than less qualified couples. As education continues to improve and the majority of young people go into further and higher education, it is hopeful that egalitarian marriages, or close to, will become more common.
Within society, great progress has been made regarding the rights and status of women and family life is slowly beginning to reflect this. Conversely, the traditional conjugal roles are so ingrained within society it is difficult to reform them and become truly egalitarian. Ultimately women are primarily responsible for the home and the family as a whole, not the husband, and even when both employed his ‘career’ is given greater priority than her ‘job’.
Despite significant progress, a complete reform has not yet taken place rendering marriage still a patriarchal institution, although this may change when society develops further and people are educated to a higher level.