Even today, being a woman itself is a disadvantage in most contemporary society. As a woman, we are not allowed to "make the first move" on men, or we would have been seen as easy. A single woman with power in a company is likely to be laughed at for being too unfeminine to be liked by any man. A single woman is always pressured to find herself a man and settle down, even if that is not what she wants. It is often assumed that women need to feel secure and a woman who does not marry is deemed to be daring insecurity. However, finding a man and settling down may be the worst decision she will ever make, for it would change her life forever and not necessarily for the better. I will show by describing the life of married women in general that marriage is indeed one of the most oppressive institutions for contemporary women. This may not be true of the life of every married woman, although I believe it does apply to many.
Housework has always been thought of as the work of women for many years now. This is a role assigned to women by society because of their sex. We have from the time of our birth been guided towards roles designated for our particular sexes by parents, teachers, our peers, the media and even the law. It is sometimes held that sex roles are inevitable due to the different psychology of females and males. If such role designation is indeed inevitable, why should we be directed if in the end nature was going to take its own course and set us in our role? Some may argue that because of this psychological difference, members of each sex would be happier and more efficient in the roles designated for them. This theory, however, neglected to look into the possibilities of overlaps. A trade normally associated with women may be found in a man and vice versa. It may be true that men are generally stronger than women, but some women are stronger than some men. Thus it is not true that men always do better at mathematics and science or that women always do better at languages. John Stuart Mill clearly explains how the subjection of women came about in this sentence,
"It arose from the fact that from the very earliest twilight of human society, every woman (owing to the value attached to her by men, combined with her inferiority in muscular strength) was found in a state of bondage to some man." (Feminist Frameworks, 1984)
Thus the subjection of women was not a calculated move towards efficiency or happiness, except towards the happiness of men.
The search for a job is, for a woman, much more difficult than if she were a man. Firstly, women are less likely to have studied science, engineering or computers and thus the type of jobs they are capable of doing are narrowed. And even if a woman applies for a job for which she possesses all the necessary qualifications, if a man with the same qualifications were to apply for the job, chances are that the man would get it. Women who entered paid work are always expected to get married eventually and "settle down". As such, employers tend to be prejudice against employing women workers for the fear of having to take the trouble to re-employ workers when they leave to get married or give birth. The problems or discriminations do not merely end there when a woman finds a job. In many jobs, women still suffer discrimination in terms of wages and promotional opportunities, not to mention sexual harassment in some cases. Thus, a woman in the working world would have to take all these problems in her stride to survive. Alternatively, she could seek refuge in marriage and escape from the harsh conditions of paid employment. However, a woman who does this might just be running into a more lethal trap.
For the single woman, no matter how tough her working life is, whether she did or did not enjoy her job, at least she has the freedom of movement to a certain degree. The housewife, on the other hand, has limited her horizons to that of within the house and the family. Everything a housewife does, she does for her family. A housewife works 7 days per week with no fixed hours, cleaning, cooking, tidying and taking care of children. This, however, is not considered a job and it is not compensated with money, paid leave or holidays. Household work is mainly based on altruism, that is to say that the chores are done willingly even if it doesn't benefit the person who is doing it, namely, the housewife. Housewives do these chores to show their love for their family. Unlike the average everyday worker who can quit his/her job, should a housewife refuses to do household chores, it would seem as if she is refusing her love to her family.
It has been found that full time housewives spend more time on housework than women with paid employment not just on weekdays but on weekends as well. (Working Life, 1990) Housewives do not hold "proper jobs" and as such feel the pressure to spend long hours at housework. This is because it is the efforts and not the results by which they expect to be judged. The work of a housewife is endless. There will always be more food to cook and more mess to clean and often, the housewife tries to engage the help of her family. However, the energy spent trying to get her children to contribute to housework by far exceeds the energy she spends doing the work herself. Thus she finally gives up and does all the housework by herself. This is possibly because more than wanting to spread the physical load, she is merely trying to teach her children not to take her for granted. As for her husband, he may well agree that housework is to be shared, but often, somehow there is always a reason for him not to do it. How often have we heard housewives complain about excuses given by their husbands such as these: -
"I don't mind sharing the housework, but I don't do it very well and we should all do the things we're best at.";
"I hate it more than you, you don't mind it so much"; and
"What great man would have accomplished what he did if he had to do his own housework?". (Feminist Frameworks, 1984)
Because housework carries with it such strong emotional ties, the housewife often feels unappreciated or exploited and treated like a slave if she was not treated with consideration. Advertisements for household products frequently contribute to the "emotionalization" of housework by promising housewives that their family would love them more for buying a certain product. As if a family's love should be bought and not freely given.
One might suggest that due to modern advancement in technology, the burden of a housewife is lessened. Modern technology indeed made many chores much easier then it was before, however, it was the men who were saved by these technologies while women remained as burdened. For example, with the invention of the washing machine, the effort in washing clothes has been reduced, but the time devoted to washing clothes has increased. Apparently this is due to people having more clothes and washing them more frequently. The iron stove allows more food to be cooked at one time with one fire and thus women tend to cook more food in terms of both variety and quantity. What the iron stove does is save the men from chopping wood for the fire which was previously needed to cook food. In the 1920s, women could do their shopping from home with regular visitations from ice-men, butchers, grocers and greengrocers and they might even order their groceries by mail and have the men or the boys collect them. Today, with the invention of the modern supermarket and the spread of car ownership, women spent more time travelling and shopping in the supermarkets for necessities. It has been estimated that women today spend a full day per week travelling and shopping as compared to less than 2 hours per week women spent in the 1920s. (Working Life, 1990)
In contemporary society where nuclear families prevail, being a housewife means that one is subjected to isolation and as such, loneliness arises. Children spend most of their lives in schools and husbands spend most of theirs at work. With the exclusion of outsiders, this leaves the housewife alone at home, cleaning, cooking and tidying, making sure that her family may return to suitably comfortable home where they would then be served dinner. The housewife's only wish is that her family spends time with her as she is significant only in relation to them. Even then, her family may not provide the source of comfort that she seeks. Germaine Greer vividly describes the life of a typical housewife in her book, The Female Eunuch,
"She struggles to hold her children to her, imposing restrictions, waiting up for them, prying into their affairs. They withdrew more and more into non-communication and thinly veiled contempt. She begs her husband not to go out with the boys, marvels that he can stand in the pouring rain at the football and be too tired to mend the roof or cut the grass on the finest day. She moans more and more that discipline is all left to her, that she's ignorant, that she has given up the best years of her life to a bunch of hooligans....... The best thing that can happen is that she take up again where she left off and go back to work at a job which is only a stop gap when she began it....." (The Female Eunuch, 1971)
Because of the privacy of the nuclear family, domestic violence is often given a free rein as neighbours are reluctant to intervene in a "private family affair". A woman with children is often reluctant to leave the house and her children even when assaulted. As such wife battery is a very common phenomenon and one that is very difficult to control. In Singapore, the law provides only superficial help to battered wives and only when the situation has gone out of hand. A woman may take out an injunction to keep her husband out of the home if she could prove that he was battering her. However, the law in Singapore is such that a husband may be kept out of his home for a maximum of 2 months. The rationale behind this is the assumption that the husband is the breadwinner and the owner of the house and thus should not be kept away from his home for too long. Wife battery occurs in many households in Singapore, but few complaints were ever made. This is because most Asians do not believe in "washing their dirty laundry in public" and would rather suffer in silence.
A survey held in Victoria in 1986 shows that the lack of personal income ranks tops amongst the difficulties experienced as a housewife. This was followed by the lack of status, the lack of leisure and social isolation. (Households Work, 1989) As a full time housewife, a woman has got no money of her own. What she gets depends on the generosity of her husband and frequently, this amount covers only the necessary household expenses. In some cases, husbands give their wives their full pay packet and get an allowance from it. Although this may seem fair and generous from the surface, the amount left with the housewife is usually spent on household expenses while the husband's allowance is for his own personal usage. Another system commonly used is one whereby the housewife is given a household allowance. If the housewife desires anything, she can either save up from the household allowance or ask her husband for more money. In cases where the husband's wage is paid to the bank account, he takes over some of the household expenses like paying utility bills and rent. The housewife would then be given a smaller sum to cover household shopping or the couple may shop together and the groceries would be paid for by the husband. In extreme cases, the housewife may be given only food and shelter and is expected to be content.
From the above, one may think that the problems of housewives may be solved by acquiring paid employment. It may solve the problems of isolation and lack of personal income, but it doesn't make marriage any easier for a woman. One would expect that housework be shared equally if both husband and wife were in paid employment. However, a recent study conducted in the United States show that in households where both husband and wife are in paid employment, men spend about eleven hours a week while women still spend about thirty five hours a week on housework. (The Double Life of the Family, 1997) Women are pressured into being model housewives and mothers by society. The idea drummed into these women was that to show their love for their families, they had to perform their given "duties" as wife and mother. If the house was messy, or if the child was unruly, society blames not the father, but the mother of the child. The usual explanation for keeping a woman at home is that a child needs around the clock access to his/her mother so that he/she may grow up with a decent personality. There is in fact, no scientific evidence that children with mothers who are in paid employment suffer from personality disorders. As for housework, why should the woman be blamed for a mess created by someone else? The "duties" society imposes on women causes them to feel guilt and resentment towards themselves when the house or their children are neglected. Thus, women who work away from home are burdened with a double load of household chores and their paid employment.
Just because a woman is earning her own money doesn't necessary mean that she is at liberty to spend it as and when she likes. In cases where couples pool their resources, often the decision making power on how to spend it lies with the major contributor. This would most likely be the husband, as women are often paid less than men. Where couples do not pool their resources, often the husband's pay is used on what is deemed "necessary expenditures" while the wife's pay is spent on things thought of as "extras". This reinforces the ideology of breadwinner and dependent, even though the wife is not fully dependent on her husband. In fact, women's wage often makes a difference between subsistence and poverty to the family.
With all that a housewife has to put up with, she still gets no recognition from the government. Often, we are told that a nation's wealth is in its children, but the creators of such "wealth" is given no economic recognition in their work to bring up the children.
Housewives are seen as welfare cases not workers. What women do as housewives, even though it involves a lot of time and hard work, are seen as non-productive as money does not exchange hands. The United Nations System of National Accounts (UNSNA) excludes household activities as outside of its production boundary and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) concludes that housewives are not active labourers. (Counting for Nothing, 1993) Anyone who has ever had a mother knows that housewives are not idle creatures sitting in the lap of luxury at home. That the ILO should not deem housewives as labourers is an irony in itself, for the work of a housewife never ends. The national accounting system is important to the country because it plays an essential part in the policy making of the country. The fact that household activities are not taken into account by such a system implies that housewives are not taken into consideration in the country's policy making.
Women are indeed an underprivileged species in most societies. The difference between the contemporary society and those of past eras is that now, most men actually take the trouble to conceal sexism. Women in the past were told that their place was in the home. The contemporary society doesn't tell you that, it assumes you know. A woman is mainly responsible for the cleanliness of the house and the well being of the children. Whether she works 8 hours a day in paid employment is of no consideration, the house and the children are her duties. For a housewife, her primary joy in life would be to serve her family. From when her children were young, she takes care of them and makes sure that the house is comfortable enough for her husband to retire to. For the majority of her life, she spends bringing up her children, disciplining them, teaching them and feeding them. When her children are old enough to leave home, she might still have to cook and clean for her husband. From the time she actually "retires" to the time of her death, how many years would be left for her to actually enjoy? And what does the housewife gain from all her work? Not money, not fame, sometimes not even appreciation and definitely no recognition from the government. To eliminate oppression in marriage, people's mentality towards women in general would have to be changed. To do this would not be an easy task, but much change has taken place since the formation of the first feminist group. Perhaps in future, true sexual equality might actually exist.
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