Women’s Work

The first book assigned to the budding feminist college freshmen in my “Women, Work and Society” seminar was Arlie Hochschild’s The Second Shift. Published in 1989, this groundbreaking sociological study documented that despite increased representation in the workforce and marriage to more progressive partners, women were still doing a disproportionate share of the domestic work. Although their husbands might help with the laundry or assist in meal preparation or clean up, women were carrying the mental and physical burden of meal planning and execution (including grocery shopping), childcare arrangements and transportation, family health care, homework help, enrollment in camps and classes as well as logistical follow-through, house cleaning and maintenance, and laundry. Hence, their second shift.

My initial encounter with Hochschild’s findings was enhanced by our professor, a harried academic in her mid-forties. A working mother herself, she provided the color commentary. Standing in front of us reading portions of the book aloud with real emotion, she braved the impassive disinterest of a group of undergrads who understood little about the realities of a woman in the workforce, let alone the academy, and were distracted instead by their plans for the upcoming night. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Hochschild’s work lingered in my mind and became one lens through which I have come to view my marriage. Let me say here that I am in most important ways half of a truly egalitarian partnership. But as many since Hochschild have documented, even in households led by the most progressive of couples, married women in dual-income, opposite-sex partnerships continue to do more of the domestic work. Given this, it should come as no surprise that when I shared our decision to forgo shopping for a year, my biggest supporters were women.

Our experiment made for interesting dinner conversations, and once the word spread about what we were up to, people wanted to talk. These conversations — especially among married couples — typically began with a diagnosis of which partner was more responsible for the influx of clothes, gear, or housewares. I heard about men with an obscene number of shoes and wives with book buying problems. Despite some initial finger-pointing, most couples came to quick consensus on which of them was more likely to add to the family larder — the buyer owning it gleefully (gluttony being one of the happier sins), the minimalist shaking their head in resignation. In my own brief sociological study of this topic, I’d say the desire to acquire appears to be gender-neutral, affecting both men and women equally.

But once the goods are in the house? Ah, therein lies the difference. As we began to discuss our experiment, a man would often affirm our choice, noting that an exercise like this would be exactly in line with his value system. But not once did I encounter a man who connected with the exercise viscerally the way his female counterpart did. Women immediately, almost instinctively, seemed to understand what I was up to. When I would explain our decision, female listeners would often gasp, turn toward me mouth agape, and nod wide-eyed, hanging on every word. When I referenced the box of empty glass vases that survived two moves without ever having been opened, or redundant purchases of lint rollers (we owned three) or candle snuffers (inexplicably, two), I would get a kind of call-and-response affirmation, a chorus of amens from my sister cleaners and sorters. No more incoming crap? Preach!

Like children’s healthcare or the meal prep documented by Hochschild, the ongoing care of household goods in most American families still falls primarily to women. A slew of recent studies conducted by institutions ranging from the Pew Research Center to the American Time Use Survey confirm and also attempt to explain this phenomenon. First, it is not in our heads. These studies document that not only do women perceive themselves to be doing more of the housework, they are actually doing it. If you’re in the mood for some serious self-pity, ladies, spend a few hours swimming around in this kind of data: according to recent Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, women, on average, do 2.3 hours of housework a day as compared to men’s 1.4 hours. In recent years, more nuanced studies have broken down the notion of “housework” to look closely at its various dimensions: cooking, childcare, and cleaning. And while there have been some important gains made in male participation in childcare and cooking, house cleaning still appears to be left primarily to women.

Here at home, the data resonate. Aside from basic surface cleaning, in my own family and those of many of my friends, it is the female head-of-household who takes on the processing of our things. She is the one who combs through dresser drawers to remove ill-fitting items. She is the one who insists, finally, that a linen closet be cleaned out and threadbare towels thrown away or taken to Goodwill. A fellow mom of three boys sends her brood on an annual weekend camping trip during which she does nothing but stay home and purge old clothes, toys, and books.

The female head-of-household also typically thinks about where and how to store everything, both temporarily and in the longer-term; as women, we are in charge of all putting-away. I can’t tell you the number of moms I know who have tried the experiment of leaving something — say a sleeping bag — in the same space on the floor in which it was dropped in a fit of post-sleepover exhaustion. The results of this silent standoff are almost always the same; it will eventually be the mother who removes the item and returns it to its rightful place. But it doesn’t feel great to put away dirty things. So it is that she ends up cleaning the dust from the blades of the little oscillating fan, before stashing it in the basement for its winter sojourn.

Sociologists have inquired as to why this gender gap around the cleaning and care of our things stubbornly persists. The primary culprit appears to be societal expectations. In one study, participants were shown a picture of a living room and were informed of the gender of the person living there. When shown a clean room and told that it belonged to a woman, participants were more likely to say it could be cleaner, and she would probably be uncomfortable having visitors over. When shown a picture of a messy room and told that it belonged to a man, participants conjectured that he would probably be just fine having people over. Spaces occupied by men are allowed to be messy. When a woman is present, they are not.

Societal expectations are a tricky thing to address. They are deeply psychologically ingrained. They elude policy solutions. The horizon for change is far off. Many of these articles conclude with the recommendation that we model different behavior for our children, suggesting that for my generation, all is already lost. Jessica Grose, in writing on this topic for The New Republic in 2013, offers that one immediate strategy might be for women to lower their “filth threshold.” But this, she notes, is difficult to do, especially when there are children in the picture. “Did I really need to clean up the house for my father-in-law?” she asks. “Would he have cared if there were a few glasses sitting out on the kitchen table? Probably not. But it’s harder to stomach this fix once you have children, when the threat of a Fisher-Price plastic hellscape is perpetually around the corner.”

If women are the ones who clean, sort, store, and discard, the great irony is that before all that, we consume. According to recent data from [Forbes], “If the consumer economy had a sex, it would be female.” Women drive 70-80% of all consumer purchases which means “that even when a woman isn’t paying for something herself, she is often the influence or veto vote behind someone else’s purchase.” As those tasked with keeping tabs on the household goods, we are the ones most likely to identify, and therefore fill, perceived gaps. We are the ones who notice when the sleeves on our child’s raincoat are heading way north of their wrists, and the first to know when the rice cooker breaks. This is the way that, 70-80% of the time, women become the gatekeeper for the material goods that enter our homes.

“... there are days,” writes poet Mary Oliver, “I wish I owned nothing.” This, I understand. As the female head of our household, I can see now that our year of no buying was my attempt to launch myself from this hamster wheel of consumption and care, to stop working my second shift. If I couldn’t change what society expected of me, or what I therefore expected of myself, I could at least control how much I felt responsible for. Sure, we still had lots of stuff to manage, but the fact that we were not adding to that amount relieved a great deal of stress. Stress, I should add, that had been almost entirely self-imposed. No one else in my family cared too much about whether or not the sleeping bag ever made it back into its sack and into the closet. But I did. I did because, while I don’t like mess in our common space, I also knew that in a week’s time someone was going to come looking for the sleeping bag, and it would help if I knew exactly where to find it.

And here we arrive at the other, understudied, culprit — not so much societal expectations as interpersonal ones. In my house, I am the primary custodian of the things we own, and I mean this in both senses of the word. I am the caretaker; the one who knows an item’s status, whereabouts, and quantity. And as with anything that is in my custody — children, dog, tortoise, tea-kettle — I am constantly attending to its overall well-being. I am also my family’s custodian in the other sense, the janitorial one. For a host of complicated reasons that I am not sure any of us in my family understand, could easily articulate, or have actively chosen, I am the person charged with cleaning and maintaining the space in which all of us and our possessions exist. Extend the logic of either one of these roles to the thousands of objects in our home, and you will understand why I wanted less. Why I wanted, at least for a little while, to clock out.

Excerpted from More or Less: Essays From a Year of No Buying (copyright © 2022) by Susannah Q. Pratt. Used with permission of EastOver Press. All rights reserved.

As the female head of our household, I can see now that our year of no buying was my attempt to launch myself from this hamster wheel of consumption and care, to stop working my second shift.