Stepping into Old Biographies. or Making History Happen?


he woman with the flying hair offers a picture of what it should be like to work and raise a family: busy, active, fun. But the female mannequin in the apron, wide-eyed and still, arms folded, peering outside my neighbor s bay window, a picture of the falsely present mother is often a more real picture of life at home when two-job couples “cut back” at home and diminish their idea about what a child, a marriage, a home really needs. She is my neighbors joke but she also symbolizes a certain emotional reality when men don’t share the second shift.

The woman with the flying hair and the mannequin are re­minders of two sides of this major ongoing revolution in the role of women. As women have been catapulted into the economy, their pocketbooks, their self-respect, their notion of womanhood, and their daily lives have been transformed. The “motor” of this revolution is the changing economy—the decline in the purchas­ing power of the male wage, the decline in “male” blue-collar jobs, and the rise in “female” jobs in the growing service sector. A new gender ideology has become a powerful prod, as well, by creating an egalitarian code of honor and identity for men and women that fits the evolving circumstances.

But the revolution has influenced women faster than it has in­fluenced men. The unevenness of this revolution has thus driven a wedge between such husbands and wives as Evan and Nancy Holt, Nina and Peter Tanagawa, Ray and Anita Judson. Home is far from a “haven in a heartless world,” as Christopher Lasch has noted; home has become the shock absorber of contradictory pressures from the world outside it.

The gender revolution is primarily caused by changes in the economy, but people feel it in marriage. In a parallel way, eco­nomic shifts have been the “motor” of changing relations between blacks and whites. As the number of unskilled jobs declines, as capital moves out of the central cities to suburbs or to cheap labor in Third World countries, blacks and whites are left to compete for the remaining jobs. It is in the back rooms of investment banks, personnel offices, and union halls that the strain between the races might be said to originate. But it is in the school yard, in the prison, on the street that racial tension is actually felt. Just as American blacks have “absorbed” a higher unemployment rate “for whites,” in the same sense, the growing number of working women have absorbed the contradictory demands of family and work “for men,” by working the extra month a year. If blacks have lowered the unemployment rate for whites, women have reduced the family-work conflict for men. But unlike most blacks and whites, men and women live together; the female absorption of a male problem becomes part of marriage, and strains it.

Although most working mothers I talked with did most of the work of the home, they felt more permission to complain about it than did working women fifty years ago. Many of them wanted to share or wanted to believe they already did. A hundred years ago, American women lacked social permission to ask for a mans help in “womens work.” As Gwendolyn Hughes pointed out in 1925, in her book Mothers in Industry, earlier in the century supermom — ing wasn’t a “strategy,” it was a normal way of life. Today women feel they are allowed to ask for help at home; but on the other hand, they still have to ask. A hundred years from now men may presume it s their role to share. Were in the middle of a social rev­olution.

The women I studied usually pursued several strategies over time; first a woman would be a supermom, then cut back her hours at home, which would set off a crisis and lead her either to cut back her hours at work or further limit her work at home. At the time of my first interview, 18 percent of the wives were mar­ried to men who shared the second shift. Most of the rest—52 percent—were not trying to change the division of labor. They were either supermoming, cutting back their hours at work, or cutting back at home. They complained, they joked, they sighed fatalistically; they collected a certain moral credit for doing “so much,” but they didn’t press their husbands to change. Some of these women didn’t want their husbands to share because they didn’t believe it was right (they were traditionalists, like Carmen Delacorte) or because they were making up for having surpassed a certain appropriate “power mark.” By doing more at home, those women, like Nina Tanagawa, were “balancing.” Other women in the study wanted their husbands to share (about half were egali­tarian in ideology)—but they didn’t press for it.

Many women cut back what had to be done at home by re­defining what the house, the marriage and, sometimes, what the child needs. One woman described a fairly common pattern: “I do my half. I do half of his half, and the rest doesn’t get done.” Oth­ers cut back their hours or commitment at work, or sought help from relatives or friends, or older children. These women don’t press their husbands to help more either. Most would have loved more help, but getting help was second on their “wish list” after “want fewer marital tensions.” And other women had other mo­tives for not persuading their husbands to do more. Ann Myerson didn’t want to ask for more help—she wanted to put her hus­band’s job first, because she thought he was smarter and had more to contribute to the world. After a period of disenchantment with her marriage, Jessica Stein didn’t want to ask for help because that would bring her closer to Seth, and would force them to face the estrangement they were tacitly agreeing to ignore.

Some women who didn’t urge their husbands to share at home also didn’t “make room” for his hand at home; they played expert with the baby, the dinner, the social schedule. Something in their tone of voice said, “This is my domain.” They edged their hus­bands out, and then collected credit for “doing it all.”

At the time of my first interview, about a third of women were in the course of pressing their husbands to do more. But another third of the women I talked to had at some point already pushed their husbands to share, and didn’t get very far. Some, like Adri­enne Sherman and Nancy Holt, tried active renegotiation—hold­ing long discussions, making lists and schedules, saying they cant go on like this. Or they tried passive renegotiation—they played dumb, got sick, or indirectly induced their husbands to do more at home.

For their part, 20 percent of the men felt they should share the responsibility and work at home (egalitarian ideology), and 80 percent did not (traditional or transitional ideology). Men whose wives pressed them to do more often resisted by a strategy of “needs reduction”; they claimed they didn’t need the bed made, didn’t need a cooked meal, or didn’t need a vacation planned. In­deed, some men seemed to covertly compete with their wives over who could care the least about how the house looked, how the meal tasted, what the guests would think. Other men denied the fact they didn’t share by not acknowledging the extra kinds of work their wives did. Some men made alternative offerings to the home. Peter Tanagawa offered his wife great emotional support for her career instead of more help at home. Seth Stein offered his wife the money and status of his career instead of help at home. Others made furniture, or built additions on the house their wives could have done without. These were strategies of substitution.

Some men covertly referred their wives to “all the sacrifices” to their manhood they had already suffered—compared to other men, present and past. They made their wives feel “luckier than other women.” Unconsciously, they made a gift out of not being as patriarchal as they could be. And men obscured their strategies by explaining that they were not “brought up” to do the work at home.

If there is one truth that emerges from all the others, it is that the most important injury to women who work the double day is not the fact they work too long or get too tired. That is only the obvious and tangible cost. The deeper problem such women face is that they can not afford the luxury of unambivalent love for their husbands. Like Nancy Holt, many women carry into their marriage the distasteful and unwieldy burden of resenting their husbands. Like some hazardous waste produced by a harmful sys­tem, this powerful resentment is hard to dispose of.

When women repress their resentment, many, like Nancy Holt, also pay a certain cost in self-knowledge. The mental tricks that kept Nancy Holt from blowing up at Evan or sinking into de­pression were also the mental tricks that prevented her from ad­mitting her real feelings and understanding the ultimate causes for them. Her psychological “maintenance program”—a program that kept her comparing herself to other women and not to Evan, readjusting correlations she made between love and respect, re­spect and actions, and reminding herself that she was “lucky” and “equal anyway”—all these habits of thought smoothed the way for a grand rationalization. They softened both sides of a strong contradiction—between her ardent desire for an equal marriage and all that prevented her from having it. They blinded her to what she really felt about her life.

Some women didn’t want their husbands to share the second shift and didn’t resent their not sharing. But they seemed to pay another emotional price—a devaluation of themselves or their daughters as females. Ann Myerson managed the home because she wanted to protect her husband’s time so that he could make his “greater contribution” at work. She felt hers was the “less im­portant” work. Despite herself, she also regretted having daugh­ters, because they too would grow up managing the house in order to protect the greater work contributions of their husbands. However driven, however brilliant, Ann felt, girls could never en­joy the privilege of smooth, unambivalent devotion to work which in our society is the work that is most highly rewarded. Instead of seeing a problem in the system of rewards or the arrangement be­tween the sexes, Ann felt it was too bad she didn’t have boys who could “cash in” on it. In this Ann articulated a contradiction I be­lieve every woman faces: women end up doing the second shift when the second shift is secondary. The more important cost to women is not that they work the extra month a year; it is that so­ciety devalues the work of the home and sees women as inferior because they do devalued work.

Devalued as the work of rearing children is, it is probably one of the most humanly rewarding occupations. In appreciating the toll of living in a stalled revolution, then, we should count as part of that cost the missing connections between Seth Stein, Evan Holt, and their children. Resentful of Seths long absences, his older son sullenly withdrew and at bedtime the younger one dashed around frantically. Drawing the one out and calming the other down became one more hassle at the end of Seths long day. He is missing the feelings his children would feel toward him if they didn’t resent his absence; Seth is missing the tangles and the arguments that ultimately remind a parent that they matter to a child. But he is also missing the cuddles, the talks about what holds the clouds up, and why people get sad.

Although fathers pay most of this particular emotional cost, in a different way many mothers do too. As the main managers of the second shift, women become the “heavies,” the “time and mo­tion” persons of the family-and-work speed-up. They hurry chil­dren through their daily rounds—“Hurry up and eat. . . .” “Hurry and get into your pajamas. .. .”—and thus often become the tar­gets of children’s aggression.

Updated: 11.11.2015 — 12:58