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  • The gender role structure called the “separate spheres” lasted barely a century—and we shouldn't seek to restore it. Tweet This
  • The stall in the gender revolution is not inevitable, and finishing the revolution would not be bad for the family. Tweet This

For the past twenty years, many have concluded that the gender revolution that was breaking down the separate spheres of breadwinning and caregiving has stalled in the United States. After decades of rising, both women’s labor force participation and men’s contributions to housework were flat or declining. Americans seem caught in a place where women who want a family have to take on a “second shift”—a life of full-time work together with major responsibilities for housework and childcare—while men try desperately to maintain their primary economic responsibilities in an increasingly fragile job market, even if it means that they cannot spend the time with their kids that they increasingly feel they should.

Is it true? Is the gender revolution firmly stalled or at least delayed? It’s too soon to be sure, but a broader view suggests that this stall is not inevitable. But to see and understand this broader view, we need to step back and see how the world of separate spheres arose, how long it lasted, and how fundamentally it is being eroded.

The “separate spheres” are quite new, but old enough to seem eternal

The gender role structure called the “separate spheres” lasted barely 100 years; it does not go back to the Stone Age (of the Flintstones) and is certainly not biblical. It emerged with industrialization in the mid-nineteenth century, before which most couples worked side by side, mostly on farms. Their relationship was not in any way equal—as women’s frequent childbearing and weaker bodies gave men the upper hand, which of course was reinforced in law and custom—but they worked in the same “sphere,” as it were.

Industrialization brought new jobs that took men away from the farm and home, jobs that paid a little better and normally more reliably. It reached its peak in the mid-twentieth century, a point when most men could get jobs easily and earn much more than their fathers. All but very poor women seemed to have accepted a domestic role; between their husbands’ good jobs and the early baby boom, there seemed to be little reason for them to work outside the home. By the 1950s and early 1960s, a family in which the husband worked and the wife stayed home was considered the ideal—the healthiest by psychologists, the most stable by sociologists, and the most efficient by economists. But just as these theorists were celebrating the male breadwinner/female caregiver couple, women began to undermine the separate spheres by taking on paid employment. What happened?

Many things, of course, “happened”; too many to point to one or the other. Most fundamentally, the demographic transition gave women longer lives and fewer children, so that a full-time domestic life no longer made sense: they could help their families more by taking on paid work than making more soup. The continued growth in divorce rates, further, made staying at home more risky. The great increase in education, particularly for women, made not working more costly in terms of earnings foregone, and the work experience women gained while unmarried was increasingly in jobs that were relatively flexible and yes, lucrative. And by this period, housewives simply had much less to do than men did: In the 1960s, both employed and non-employed women rapidly decreased the amount of time they spent on housework. They had time to work for pay. And of course, modern contraceptives and legal abortion allowed women to control their bodies, so that they could have babies and care for small children when it was less disruptive to their studies or early work experience.

Despite all these changes, mothers remain less likely to work overall, and more likely to work part-time, than fathers. Between lacking access to paid parental leave and subsidized child care, many women find it difficult to keep their jobs following the birth of a child. Employed mothers, meanwhile, may work fewer hours than they want to because they are still responsible for the bulk of childcare and household chores—more on which below.

Why the gender revolution stalled out

In the first years after women entered the public sphere, men’s roles did not really need to change and hence, did not. The declining amount of time women spent on housework meant they could work outside the home during the day and still manage the household in the evenings.

A more serious impediment was that men were far less prepared to break the separate spheres in their turn than women were. Women increasingly expected to work at least until they got married, encouraging them to obtain more education to get a better job. Men, on the other hand, were socialized to avoid the tasks of the private sphere. As fathers’ chores in the household economy withered, so did those of sons. Even as school hours and years became fairly parallel for boys and girls, children’s housework hours differed sharply by sex.

Perhaps the chief problem is that tasks in the domestic sphere are of low status, because they are unpaid (or outsourced to poorly paid women), with none of the perquisites of many jobs in the public sphere (e.g., salaries, regular hours, vacations, raises). Naturally, that made household work much less attractive to men than jobs outside the home were to women.

Nevertheless, men have begun to share family tasks. In the 1960s, American men were spending less than 30 percent of the time women spent on housework and childcare. That figure increased slowly in the 1970s, and rapidly in the 1980s, until it reached nearly 60 percent in the late 1980s, largely as a result of women devoting less time to housework and both parents spending more time on child care.1

There have been numerous explanations for why men and women’s family responsibilities remain unequal. Some, for instance, see the home as a “gender factory” and romantic union formation as a “game.” Gender factory theory proposes that a traditional pattern of housework emerges even in dual-career couples, because women compensate for their deviant behavior in the public sphere by doing more housework, and because men resist. The game theoretic analysis suggests that so long as there are many domestically oriented women available, men with wives asking them to participate in household tasks can threaten to leave for a partner with no such demands. However, as gender roles change and the proportion of women working increases, the “gender factory” will increasingly produce more egalitarian displays (men who cook!) and the game will be over.

The case for completing the revolution

Many people celebrate the fact that the breakdown of the separate spheres has slowed since the late 1990s. They see women dropping out of high-powered jobs in business and law when they have children as good for the kids, and perhaps a reflection of fundamental sex differences. But is the gender revolution truly bad for the family? In previous years, employed and educated women were less likely to marry, less likely to have kids, and more likely to divorce. These days, college-educated women are actually more likely to marry, and less likely to divorce, than less educated ones, and women’s earnings provide important resources to support their families. And when men are more involved with their homes and families, couples are less likely to separate and more likely to have more children.2

The question, then, is how to meet the needs of men and women to both be involved in family life and achieve satisfying roles in the workplace. First and foremost, Congress should provide all parents with paid family leave and the right to work part-time, and from home, while their children are young, with job guarantees. This would enable more parents to spend time at home with their children in the children’s first few years of life, a period when research on the costs and benefits of day care suggests that the costs might outweigh the benefits. The future of our economy is already one of fewer jobs as more become automated, and opportunities to work from home are already multiplying for both men and women. We also need to provide high-quality, subsidized pre-school for children ages two to five, much as we try to provide high-quality, free public education for older kids, so that their parents can afford to work, confident that their children are in good hands. Only if society increases its investment in young children can we hope to move the gender revolution toward completion and see stronger families.

Frances Kobrin Goldscheider is University Professor of Sociology, emerita, at Brown University and College Park Professor of Family Science at the University of Maryland.  Her studies include analyses of trends in living alone among the elderly, leaving and returning home among young adults, entry into unions, men’s, women’s, and children’s roles in the household division of labor, and new forms of fatherhood, including single, absent, and household (step). 

1. Aguiar, M., and Hurst, E. (2009). A summary of trends in American time allocation: 1965-2005Social Indicators Research 93(1): 57-64.

2. Goldscheider, F., Bernhardt, E., and Lappegård, T. (2015). The gender revolution: A theoretical framework for understanding changing family and demographic behaviorPopulation and Development Review 41(2): 207-239.