If Only My 8-year-old Liked To Read Sociology

by The New Republic Staff, The New Republic Staff | August 31, 2007

Via Matthew Yglesias and Jessica Valenti, there's a new study out about whether the division of household labor is more equal in co-habiting (i.e., nonmarried) couples than married ones. Yesterday, I got my hands on the study (subscriber-only link here) and, since then, I have given it a quick read. Actually, a very quick read ? but more on that in a second. The main finding, perhaps not surprisingly, is that men and women who simply live together divide labor more equally than those who are married. In other words, guys living with their girlfriends are more likely to do dishes, wash clothes, clean the bathroom, etc., than guys who are married. This prompted Jessica, who is also the author of a new (and well-received) book called Full Frontal Feminism, to wonder whether she should just avoid getting married. Matthew, in response, wondered whether the cause-and-effect was really so clear here. In other words, does marriage convince couples to adopt more traditional divisions of labor, with men doing more work outside the home and women doing more work inside? Or is there some self-selection bias here? Maybe more traditional couples are, on the whole, more likely to get married in the first place, while less traditional couples ? the ones more likely to flout those old roles ? are more likely to live together outside of marriage. The answer seems to be ... well, I'm not exactly sure. On the one hand, if I've read the paper correctly, then the researchers were able to test attitudes about gender equality ? i.e., ask respondents about whether they thought men and women should do equal housework, etc. They were then able to control for this and compare the two types of couples, so that they could discern whether men who said it's important for guys to do their share were less likely to actually do their share if they happened to be married. And, sure enough, they were. That suggests the institution of marriage per se really does have some traditionalizing influence. That also seems to be the conclusion of Stephanie Coontz, who teaches at Evergreen State College and has written several books on the subject. In a USA Today article about the study, Coontz says,

The very word 'marriage' is so deeply associated with the idea that it involves men having to do less housework. Even the most untraditional couple will fall into it after marriage, unless they are very conscious of it. They judge themselves against this centuries-old standard of what a wife does, which they didn't have to do when they were just living together.
But wait a minute. Reading further through the Journal of Family Issues paper, I see the researchers themselves urge caution: "when it comes to the issue of causality-whether cohabitors are more egalitarian because they are cohabiting-the data here cannot provide a clear-cut answer." I'll try to contact the study authors in the next few days, to get the full story. I would have spent more time trying to figure it out myself, but, as it happens, here in Michigan school doesn't start for another week. So I spent most of yesterday with my two sons, in between doing laundry and cleaning the kitchen. All of which is a way of saying that, even though women still do a wildly disproportionate share of child-rearing housework in America, some of us are trying to fix that. --Jonathan Cohn

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