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I'm a Feminist But I Do All the Housework: What's Up With That?

By and large, women do far more housework than men and are better at it. It's creating a dirty situation.
 
 
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By and large, women do far more housework than men and are better at it, and it’s creating a dirty situation.

I call myself a feminist, but I do almost all of the housework. Though I don’t have a cleaning fetish or anything, I like it when my toilet doesn’t frighten surprise guests, my underwear is clean, and my fridge isn’t full of moldy vegetables.

I know I’m supposed to get over that, but thousands of years of history make it pretty hard. And I can’t blame the sensitive, decent progressive men I know for those years of history, either, or where it’s left us. But the disparity still causes a mess that needs cleaning up.

There are millions of men who are dazzlingly good at dirty work, of course. And scores of relationships where men and women equitably share those tasks that, while not glamorous, enable everyone in the household able to be glamorous.

But anyway you measure it, statistically speaking, women do about twice as much housework as men, even in relationships where the woman works outside of the home and the man doesn’t.

The disparity might be fine if women benefited from it more than men. Or if, somehow, reclaiming cleaning as important women’s work (without getting anything in return) advanced feminism. But in both cases, the opposite is true.

Men benefit from relationships more than women, according to Michael Kimmel, author of Guyland, and professor of sociology at SUNY Stony Brook, because the current distribution of domestic labor means that when men marry, they tend to gain a chef and a laundress, among other things. Married men are happier, live longer, have lower rates of illness, and are less likely to be treated by a therapist than their unmarried brothers, but married women have lower rates of happiness than unmarried women, and more likely to need medical treatments and therapy.

Recent research is also suggesting that men are happier than women right now, and I think housework is a key reason. Some articles about the current gap between men’s and women’s happiness, like Maureen Dowd’s piece this week, point out “while women still do more cooking, cleaning and child-caring, the trend lines are moving toward more parity, which should make them less stressed.” But in most cases, there still isn’t parity, so the “second shift,” does put more of a burden on women, and does result in lower happiness levels.

And when there is a disparity in work, it doesn’t just impact the individuals’ happiness, but the health of their relationship. No matter what the cultural reasons behind it, when one person spends more time on mutually beneficial tasks than the other, it’s as if the first person is saying, yeah I’m happy to spend some of my non-paid-work hours – ones that could be spent in bed, or with friends, or drunk, whatever – on making your life better, but you don’t think it’s worth spending non-work hours on me in return. And those kinds of numbers start to add up to serious problems.

I know it’s not that simple. Not only have I and many women I know grown up, encouraged to think that cleanliness is next to goodness, but many men I know have grown up thinking the opposite. They’re cleaning-averse. Cleaning, some male friends have told me, is like giving in to the Man. It’s sacrificing your individuality and free time, to adulthood and to social pressure. It’s boring and even emasculating. You don’t see icons of masculinity like Donald Draper, on Mad Men, or James Bond, doing the dishes. But it’s not all fun for me either.

 
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