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Knowing the Body

2004 Second Web Report

On Serendip

The Second Shift

Sara Ansell

Women have pushed forward in the struggle for equality. Today women are staples in the professional world. More women are attending college than men as proved in recent studies. Women have outnumbered men on college campuses since 1979, and on graduate school campuses since 1984. More American women than men have received bachelor's degrees every year since 1982. Even here on Haverford's campus, the Admissions Office received more applications from women for early decision candidacy than men for the eighth straight year. The wage gap is slowly decreasing and the fight for proper day care services along with insurance coverage for birth control pills are passionate issues for women across America. From the outside, it seems we have come along way. But step closer. Stop looking at the fights we have won and are continuing to fight as measures of our success. Look deeper. Look into the every day life of a working woman today in the United States. What you will find there tells a very different story of a woman's world today.

In 2002 the journal "Sex Roles: A Journal of Research" published a study on women and their roles in the family. The study found that "Seven out of ten married parents believe child care should be shared equally, but two-thirds of the moms said they mainly cared for children....[additionally] women continue to spend about three to seven times as many hours as men on cleaning and laundry tasks." This information does not cease with this study alone. The New York Times recently published an article which also explored the inner workings of an American family. The article quotes its own study: "The average working woman also gets about an hour's less sleep each night than the average stay-at-home mom. And men spend more time than women both at their jobs and on leisure and sports." The results in the New York Times were based on a survey of 21,000 people who were asked to record how they had spent every hour in a single 24-hour period.

Perhaps you are saying to yourself "I already knew this but couldn't prove it." Whether or not you could have guessed this information or have possibly lived to tell your own stories about juggling the responsibilities of family-life and work, the underlying and disturbing question is, how can this be so today? How can it be that modern women who have seemingly come so far in becoming recognized as thriving active members of business, politics, and society in general still be struggling with the same gender roles with which their grandmothers dealt? How is it that women have broken out of many of the confines holding them back from the public sphere, but women are still expected to fulfill traditional roles within the private sector?

The initial answer is that women today can not simply give up their roles of motherhood and wife because they have gained ground outside the home. Household and child care responsibilities still apply to women even if she wakes early to start her 9am job and doesn't return home until 5pm. Yet, this answer is inherently problematic. The responsibilities discussed above should not mean an inequitable amount of time spent on her children and family as compared to her husband. House-hold responsibilities should not result in less sleep than her husband and having less time for leisure. Household and child care responsibilities should not primarily be a woman's duty. Yet why is it that women still fulfill these duties spending twice as much time on them as men?

Primarily, it is society's expectations for women that force them into double duty. Working women are tolerated if not accepted as long as they don't cease to fulfill their primary role: that of being a woman. Women are the nurturing and care-giving sex. Even the term "mothering" applied to the more nurturing women proves this fact. Working men are fulfilling society's expectations by working. Traditionally men are the breadwinners of a household and by working full time; they are being men in society's sense of the word. Yet perhaps the answer lies deeper than this analysis. The answer could possibly lie not in society's expectations, but in women themselves.

The deeply embedded feeling of guilt could be a drive for women today. Women who take on less of the care giving and household running chores feel as if they are forgoing their responsibilities. The Seattle Times article describes this feeling as "the inner mother martyr." An article the Seattle Times ran in 2003 article explains, "Women compare themselves with their mothers, who likely spent more time cooking and cleaning, and feel like they should do more." The feeling of guilt that perhaps holds women back from breaking out of the severely defined gender roles in a household is rooted in more than a feeling of obligation. It is tied to how women define their own womanhood. Women today were implicitly taught that women are to be as their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers were. By eschewing some of the household chores and responsibilities of child care, women are not only letting go of what they see as responsibilities, but their own understanding of what it is to be a good mother and wife, and eventually a woman. In this sense, what a woman perceives she has the right to in the public sector is much more easily molded than a woman's own idea of what she has the right to do or not do within the home. Her own perception of herself is more sensitive and deeply embedded thus more difficult to confront than that of society.
Because the dichotomy exists between women's boundary pushing existence in the public sphere versus the traditional role women still fulfill in the home, what can we, both men and women, do to help alleviate the inequity and confusing position women must grapple with? The first step will be to teach the younger generations that what makes a mother or wife is not the act of cooking dinner or driving to ballet lessons. It is the nurturing and loving relationship formed with her child when they have time together. Splitting the household and childcare duties between two parents will not devalue a woman's relationship with her children and family. Women can dispense love and attention without having to prioritize their time to make up for work the other parent is not doing.

A feminist household should entail that the husband and wife communicate openly about their stress levels and needs. Additionally, women should look into themselves and attempt to answer the question how I can be the best mother/wife yet remain fair to herself and her own needs. Women must begin to look beyond what they have been raised to accept as truth. As women have learned before in past struggles, it is only when women push themselves to be the change they would like to see mirrored that change will occur. By living the change in their private lives, the change will inevitably spill into the public sector. Both the expectations of society in general as well as a woman's own personal expectations will be molded around the new concept of womanhood. Once this new concept is established in the social construct of a more progressive society will our government legislate more feminist understandings of issues such as maternity leave and daycare. Women who are able to answer the question of womanhood in the privacy of their own self will spread this idea to her household. Eventually the private household will become a model for the public sector and eventually, the gradual process of redefining a woman's role will affect the means we organize our own society: laws and legislation. Women must embody the change before society achieves it.


1)U.S. Dept of Education

2) "Striking a balance between mom and dad. Women are overloaded at home so how can couples better achieve the equality they say they want?" The Seattle Times 8 May 2004

3) "Survey Confirms It: Women Outjuggle Men" The New York Times Sept. 15, 2004

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