© 2009 F. Roger Devlin. This page © 2009 WTM Enterprises.
All rights reserved.


Home economics


Practical consequences of domestic androgyny and role reversal;
What is to be done?



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Feminists by preference focus on workplace issues, since their envy is directed at the primary male provider role. But they also have a program for revolutionizing our domestic lives: they call it "sharing the housework."

That may not sound particularly alarming to those still unaware that Spain has already passed a law providing for the arrest of men who fail to do half the housework. Similar moves are afoot in Germany. One wonders what action the international sisterhood will suggest against the men now opting for bachelorhood: conscripting them to serve as butlers for lesbians, perhaps?

Long before resorting to coercion, however, feminists made a pitch for androgyny in the home. It was aimed at both men and women. The principal bait to women involved a promised 50 percent reduction in their housework — undoubtedly appealing on a first hearing. But men, too, were offered rosy prospects: having to bring home only half the bacon, and getting more time with their children. What sort of unfeeling beast could object to a proposal that would allow him to be a better father?

As today's resort to police-state measures makes clear, however, things have not quite worked out as we were led to expect. What went wrong?

One way to find out might be to study actual families that operate on feminist principles. The difficulty seems to lie in locating any. One researcher succeeded in finding a man who did half the infant care — an academic with an ideological commitment to feminism:

[She] found that he came up with "tricks" for getting through extended contact with his son [such as] "toys and events which kept the baby distracted, and thus decreased the father's level of attention." The father told about trying "to get things done." He couldn't stand the crying and fussing. Sometimes he would "go pound his fist in the wall." [16]
Even when "nontraditional" families turn up, they often do not stick around long enough to be studied. One group of researchers "found on follow-up, just two years later, that only one-quarter of [the families] were maintaining their nontraditional ways."

The reality seems to be that families sometimes resort to androgyny or outright role reversal under conditions of stress (e.g., loss of the father's job or the prolonged illness of the mother), or occasionally as a direct result of ideological commitment, but that they show a strong tendency to return to natural norms over time.

Accepting that natural and permanent sex roles exist, be it noted, need not imply that a father must never feed the baby even if the mother is in a coma. Sex roles have never been quite as carved in stone as feminists sometimes like to make out, and part of the advantage of family life over celibacy is the flexibility it permits in meeting unforeseen challenges.

Feminist observer Janet Steil found, however, that "couples will go to great lengths to conceal a high-earning wife's income to protect the husband's status as primary provider." [17] There is a sound reason for that: overt, prolonged role reversal is fatal to marriage. Researcher Liz Gallese thought she had finally found an example of a happy role-reversal marriage: the wife's career was more successful than the husband's, so he began looking after their child to let her focus on work (the economically rational thing to do). The woman seemed proud of her accomplishments and happy with the arrangement; and Gallese must have thought she had a bestseller on her hands. The reality came to light only when she began speaking to the husband. It turns out that the couple had entirely ceased having sexual relations. Armed with that new information, Gallese began probing more deeply into the wife's sentiments. The woman eventually admitted she wanted another child, but — not by her husband.

"I absolutely refuse to sleep with that man," she declared; "I'll never have sex with him again." Instead, she was now flirting with other successful businessmen. She did not divorce her husband, however; he was still too useful as a nanny for the child. [18] Such would appear to be the thanks men can expect for accommodating their wife's career and "sharing the housework."

Since empirical research into androgynous marriage and parenting is limited by a relative scarcity of material for study, let us try a second approach. I suggest that the futility of the feminist "share the housework" project might be clarified by means of the economist's concept of a demand schedule. Everyone values certain things more highly than others, and men and women tend to put the goods they desire in a different order of priority. One unusually perceptive woman has written: "When I want my husband to do 'his half' of household chores, what I really want is for him to do half of everything on my list of important things. But he has his own list." [19]

For example, some men will contentedly allow dirty dishes to pile up into the sink for days but insist that the yard must look like the putting greens at Augusta. From that alone it should be obvious why the feminist proposal of a "fifty–fifty" marriage is a recipe for endless strife. The traditional model based on sexual complementarity, on the other hand, is a 100–100 arrangement, in which both spouses fulfill their distinct roles to the best of their ability. Complementarity obviates conflict.

You cannot find out what people want by asking them, because their answers do not reflect the trade-offs necessary to get what they say they want. Many wives will answer "yes" if a feminist asks: "Would you like your husband to do half the housework?" But that only means they would like it ceteris paribus: if all other conditions were held constant. The feminist's inquiry should be: "Would you like your husband to turn down promotions and cut back on his working hours in order to do half the housework?" Wives do not commonly want to sacrifice any of their husband's income or professional prospects even if the gain in housework would be sufficient to get them featured in Better Homes and Gardens.

The demand schedule also explains why women will always have something to complain about. They complain "at the margin," as economists say, that they do not have the next item down on their demand schedule. They tacitly assume they should be able to get this item without giving up anything they already have. In other words, they have difficulty thinking in terms of trade-offs. An understanding of this may be of some comfort to harried husbands perplexed by their inability to make their wife happy.

Some women, for instance, are wont to complain that their work-obsessed husband does not pay enough attention to them. That does not mean their complaints would cease if he cut back on work and earnings to be with them more; it means only that they would switch to complaining about the material sacrifices that this change in behavior would necessitate. The husband in such a case must do what he knows is in his family's long-term best interest. He cannot permit an attention-seeking woman to come between him and his work in a vain attempt to remove all discontent from her life. Similarly, men are within their rights to tell their wife that keeping house is primarily a woman's responsibility: a husband is a provider and protector, not a butler.

On the other hand, there are also some misguided men today who press their wife to stay in the workforce because they do not like to have the second family income cut off. These men are not ideologically feminist; they just do not want to give up the extra vacations or fancy televisions that their wife's income makes possible. For reasons explained above, this is a devil's bargain; instead, men should be acting to shore up their own role.


How, concretely, can men do that? I believe two policy goals are fundamental: one for the home and one for the workplace.

The linchpin of our family policy objectives must be the reestablishment of presumptive custody of children by their father. Women who wish to abandon their husband must forfeit their parental prerogatives and all claim to spousal support. That means dismantling the entire divorce industry. I have discussed these matters elsewhere. [20]

Second, and in connection with the subject of the present essay, men must reestablish their rightful position in the world of work: I propose the slogan "Take Back the Day." This will require an end to antidiscrimination law as it relates to the sexes.

In part, the purpose of men's reestablishing themselves as breadwinners is simply to enable them to support children, of course. But it may also be necessary to make them attractive enough to women that they can start a family. We need to reestablish a "masculine mystique" in the mind of young women, teaching them once again that they are insufficient unto themselves and stand in need of a man. That is rarely obvious to a modern young woman with a well-paying job and no children. But plenty of evidence concerning fatherless homes indicates that men are as necessary to women as ever over the course of a lifetime. Men, too, need to understand that they have an essential role to play in the home — that the purposes of the family cannot be properly carried out in their absence.

A return to freedom of association, including the legalization of "discrimination," would benefit the world of work itself as well as home life. Men share thought and behavior patterns that permit more effective cooperation in an all-male setting than in mixed groups. And feminism has created a "hostile working environment" for men in most industries. Plenty of men would be eager to work for firms that formally barred women, far more than would presently be willing to say so out loud. Under a regime of free competition, all-male companies might quickly rout their "gender-equitable" competitors from the field. I suspect a lot of feminists are perfectly aware of this.

These recommendations are not primarily motivated by material considerations. I cannot guarantee the reader that implementing such proposals would raise the value of his stock portfolio. But my position is that the economy exists for the family and not the family for the economy. Family scholar Allan Carlson likes to note that during the postwar economic boom the traditional expression "childless marriage" began to be displaced by a new coinage: "child-free marriage." When a society values home entertainment systems more than children, something has gone terribly wrong.

The current mentality is not without historical precedent. Polybius notes the following of Hellenistic-era Boeotia:

Childless men, when they died, did not leave their property to their nearest heirs, as had formerly been the custom there, but disposed of it for purposes of junketing and banqueting and made it the common property of their friends. Even many who had families distributed the greater part of their fortune among their clubs, so that there were many Boeotians who had more feasts to attend each month than there were days in it. [21]
The wealth that corrupted ancient Boeotia would, of course, seem insupportable poverty to today's Americans.

Would Americans be able to accept a lower standard of living as a means to restoring the natural family? Probably not, but fortunately it does not matter what we can accept. Our long-postponed day of financial reckoning appears finally to be at hand, and it may well turn out to be something we should not wish away. When ordinary people are brought to understand that the State is unable to ensure their material well-being, children will again be perceived as long-term assets: necessary replacements for the Social Security swindle and state-seized or inflation-eroded private pension funds rather than obstacles to greater consumption. Amid the collapse of political finance, we may be able to regain a sense of the timeless purpose of labor and wealth. Our children may learn to find the satisfaction in the simple daily fact of family survival that we were unable to find in all our economic overreaching.

April 8, 2009

This posting concludes Dr. Devlin's series.

Back to sections 9 and 10.
To the beginning.

© 2009 F. Roger Devlin. This page © 2009 WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

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