Ann Oakley’s (1974) pioneering study of housework, or rather of housewives, is the best-known example of a feminist sociologist opening up a new topic. When Ann Oakley (1974) set out to study housework, as work, in 1968 her topic was seen as ‘odd’. That research, on 40 London housewives with small children, became a pioneering classic. Two findings were strikingly novel in the early seventies. First, the hours spent. On average, housework took women 77 hours a week, far longer than most paid employment. Second, the class difference. The working-class woman liked the role and disliked the tasks, the middle class hated the label but did not mind the chores. They had far better working conditions (central heating, unlimited hot water on tap, fitted carpets, washing machines, freezers and vacuum cleaners) and got pleasure from interacting with their small children. The working-class woman lacked good working conditions, and faced conflicts between their childcare and the housework. For example, if washing has to be carried down several flights of stairs to the pavement before being done in a laundrette, manipulating the pram and the toddler and the washing is hard work. Reading to a toddler while the washing is in your own machine in your own kitchen is not ‘the same’ experience. Since Oakley’s original study, research has diversified, so that both men and women are studied, as are households early in their life cycle and those of the elderly, families where there are two wage earners or none, with and without children, and so on.
After Oakley’s pioneering books other feminist sociologists conducted research on the work done inside families and households, and so, too, did scholars not particularly interested in feminism. The methods of data collection have diversified, and research has been done on men, on adolescents, on children and on the elderly to see how domestic work is done. Because Oakley opened up a new topic, we now have evidence about how the domestic work is, or is not, being or not being redistributed or mechanised. Some recent studies, outlined below, show how the original achievement of Oakley has been routinised in sociology.
Sullivan (1997) collected time diaries from both partners in 408 couples. These data enable us to see not only which sex does which task, but which tasks are done together and which alone. These data come from the large Social Change and Economic Life Initiative (SCELI) study in six cities in Scotland and England, not just London. Men’s domestic work is mainly gardening and DIY, women’s is mainly cooking and cleaning. Women frequently report doing more than one task at once: ‘washing-up while at the same time operating the washing machine and keeping an eye on the children’ (ibid.: 231). It appears that domestic tasks are still gendered, and that women are more likely to be doing several at once. Valentine (1999) reports a survey by a major supermarket chain which got 43,000 respondents. Women did the bulk of the shopping in 62 per cent of the households, and the cooking in 75 per cent of them. In the households of these respondents the traditional division of labour was more prevalent in the working-class households than the middle-class, (or was reported as more traditional). Baxter and Western comment that:
Most research still shows a clear division of labour within the household with men participating mainly in outdoor work and women taking primary responsibility for childcare and indoor activities such as cooking, cleaning and laundry… Moreover wives spend over twice as much time on domestic work as their husbands. (1998: 101)
The body of data now available on housework is a definite achievement of feminist sociology.
Janet Finch opened up the field of research on caring when she conducted a study of mothers using pre-school playgroups (Finch, 1984) and when she edited the landmark volume on women as carers with Dulcie Groves (Finch and Groves, 1983). In that book nine women and one man reported studies of women’s caring work for the chronic sick, the disabled, and the elderly. There is evidence that women continue to provide domestic care for able-bodied adult children long after they could share the work. 20 years ago I argued that when women continued to perform domestic duties for relatives (such as adult sons), it served partly as a hedge against loneliness: as an insurance policy (Delamont, 1980: 218-21). By providing domestic services women ensure that they are not lonely: the child who comes home with a load of laundry has come home. Research on such apparently mundane issues as housework, cooking and money is illuminating about the ‘big’ topics of power, gender and identity. Women’s continuing performance
of domestic work for children, men and elderly relatives is a striking continuity in modern Britain. Underneath the talk about families and their changing place in Britain, the work goes on, women feel that shopping, cooking, cleaning, childcare, elder care and even family happiness are their responsibility. If women are not shouldering the bulk of the physical and emotional labour, they feel guilt so they continue to perform the bulk of the cooking, cleaning, shopping, clothes maintenance and childcare. The research on divorce, and on new families after divorce (e. g. Burgoyne and Clark, 1983) shows how divorcees, and those who establish new families after divorces, have to renegotiate the division of physical and emotional labour, with added burdens of guilt (Finch and Mason, 1990).
Crompton (2000) has developed the research on caring in studies of how employment and caring are interrelated in contemporary Europe. Her quotes from women in France, Norway and Britain show doctors and bankers planning their work lives in ways that help them deal with guilt. The same issues of responsibility and guilt predominating in women’s lives show well in the research on caring. There is a clear relationship between gender and caring. While elderly and disabled married women may get care from husbands (Arber and Ginn, 1995; Taraborrelli, 1993), the vast majority of carers are female, and bear the double burden of the physical labour and the guilt. The caring that starts with motherhood extends far into the future, while the duties of being a daughter loom on the horizon. Dilemmas regarding caring are a regular feature of the problem pages of the women’s magazines:
My sister looks after our elderly father. I couldn’t have him myself as I live in a small flat and work full-time. She has a big house, works parttime and is better off than me. Recently, she asked if I’d take Dad so she could have a break. Although I wanted to help, it came at a very bad time, so I suggested a few alternative dates and even offered to pay for Dad to go into respite care, but my sister’s taken the huff and won’t speak to me. Help! (Woman, 9 August 1999)
The ways in which caregiving has been explored are a second achievement of feminist sociology. So too is the third theme, money.
Jan Pahl (1990) pioneered research into the ways money was used by British households, based on interviews with 100 couples. Her original study found four different ways in which couples organised their money: a typology expanded to six styles in her later work. Subsequently Vogler and Pahl (1994) interviewed 1,200 couples in six different towns. In this project they distinguished between strategic control and the day-today management of money. The poorer households, where money
management is an endless struggle, a chore, and a burden, more usually have everyday money management in the hands of women. Wealthier households, where money can be used for fun, more frequently have male money management. The six different ways of organising money management commonly found in Britain are: Female whole wage, male whole wage, housekeeping allowance, pooling with female management, pooling with male management, and pooling with joint management. Some 2 per cent of couples keep their money entirely separate, and this is an unexplored ‘system’.
The female whole wage system was a feature of working-class families in areas of heavy industry such as mining or steel manufacture. A good husband, a respectable man, handed his unopened wage packet to his wife, who gave him back ‘pocket money’ and then ran the household finances. The male whole wage system keeps all the money in the man’s hands. He pays all bills, and takes the wife to the shops where he pays for the goods. She has no money, unless she earns some or collects the child benefit. The housekeeping allowance system involves the man giving the woman a fixed amount of ‘housekeeping’ which she is to use for specified purposes. Women in such households may not know what the man earns, and the ‘housekeeping’ may not be related in any clear way to the costs of what it is meant to cover. The pooling systems involve all sources of incoming money being brought together (into one bank account, or one teapot), and then dispersed. There can be female, male or joint control over spending from the joint pool.
Pahl had become interested in money management after a study of domestic violence victims who had fled to a refuge. Her informants included women whose husbands earned large wage packets, but spent most of their earnings on drink, gambling or hobbies, leaving the children hungry and ill-clad. She then investigated in her study of 100 couples how non-violent households organised money. In the Vogler and Pahl (1994) study the more egalitarian systems – pooling systems – were associated with women in full-time work, and better educated men (with A levels or above) who held non-traditional views about gender. Men with fewer qualifications and traditional ideas about male and female roles were more likely to impose a housekeeping allowance system. However, the system men grew up with also effects the one they operate: that is, if a man’s father used the housekeeping allowance, he is likely to do so too. The housekeeping system is closely associated with an ideology of a male breadwinner. Women who feel they lack control over money are likely to value earning some ‘of their own’ highly when they take paid employment, because they can spend it without feeling they need to ask permission. Vogler (1998) argued that the ways in which money is organised set the agenda for talk about family finance. For example, if the household works on a ‘housekeeping allowance’
system, discussion will be about the size of that allowance, not about the proportion of the man’s wage that he keeps for himself. Burgoyne and Morison (1997) build on that work in a study of money management in second marriages. In these 20 couples, there was a much higher incidence of separate, independently managed money than in any studies of first marriages. Pahl (2000) has more recently explored how the use of credit cards is or is not changing patterns of money management inside households.
This area of research, opened up by a feminist sociologist, provides a platform from which the assumptions of the welfare state, of financial institutions, and of government about how money is spent can be subject to feminist scrutiny. The research done since 1980 on this topic is a definite achievement for feminist sociology, as is that on the fourth theme: violence.