views updated May 08 2018


Housework is the term used to describe the physical and emotional labor performed in the household, generally in the service of family and typically accomplished by women.

History of Housework

Before the Industrial Revolution, economic production was organized in and through homes. All household members, resident servants, and apprentices contributed to the upkeep of the home and to the production of goods that sustained the family. The household served several functions, acting also as educational institution and factory. Within this productive unit, housework contributed to the production of goods for internal use as well as for sale to others.

As the Industrial Revolution altered the economic landscape, productive work moved from homes into factories, and the character of housework changed. Men and unmarried women left home in increasing numbers to work in the waged labor force, while housewives found themselves doing less productive and more family-related labor. This unpaid work, also referred to as social reproduction, included bearing and raising children, as well as preparing other family members for work in the paid labor force by cooking, cleaning, and tending to their physical and emotional needs.

As men began to specialize in paid work, housework became increasingly linked to women. In the early nineteenth century, the ideology of separate spheres, associating men with the (public) workplace and women with the (private) home, became popular. According to this ideology, the home was viewed as pure, serene, and secure, as opposed to the impure, unsympathetic, and uncertain work world. Women, perceived as pious, virtuous, and submissive, became the rightful guardians of the domestic haven, even as their role in productive labor declined. Although more fantasy than reality, particularly in poor and working-class families, the "cult of true womanhood" linked women's "nature" with the performance of family work.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, many chores previously performed in the home had moved into the public sphere. Fabrics, soaps, candles, and other household items formerly manufactured in the household were increasingly factory-made and purchased by women for use in the home. By the late nineteenth century, households that once produced their own goods had begun to consume the products of U.S. industry (Strasser 1982). In the process, women's unpaid housework came to be seen as less important than men's paid labor, which financed this burgeoning household consumerism.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, the declining importance of housework was countered by the rise of home economics, which advocated industrial-like efficiency in running households. Technological developments, including the spread of electricity and running water, encouraged invention of a number of "labor-saving" household appliances, including electric irons and washing machines. However, these appliances actually saved little time because the early twentieth century also saw a substantial increase in standards of household care (Cowan 1983). Since then, continuous innovation in household appliance technology has increased the efficiency of many tasks, but these innovations have also promoted higher standards of cleanliness, hygiene, and fashion, which in turn have encouraged women to perform selected household tasks more frequently (such as bathing, laundry, ironing, vacuuming, and dusting). Newer market-based "conveniences"—such as fast-food restaurants, supermarkets, and Internet shopping—have reduced the time that women spend on housework, but only slightly. In the modern era, labor markets and economic conditions have increased women's paid labor force participation and reduced the time that they have available to perform domestic labor. At the same time, cultural expectations that housework is "women's work" have persisted.

What is Housework?

Housework encompasses different tasks, the amounts and types of which depend on household size, composition, and cultural expectations. If children are present, caring for them is a primary household duty that brings with it a range of other housework tasks. Similarly, caring for aging parents is common and includes supplemental domestic responsibilities. People hire domestic help to do housework or to care for the young or old when they can afford to, but in most homes, the women of the household do these tasks without financial reward. Routine household tasks necessary to sustain individuals and maintain homes include meal preparation and clean-up, house cleaning, grocery shopping, and laundry. These tasks tend to be obligatory, repetitive, and boring, and they have historically been women's responsibility. Occasional tasks that need less frequent attention— gardening and yard care, bill paying, household repairs, and auto maintenance—are typically performed by men and tend to be more time-flexible, discretionary, and enjoyable than routine housework.

Housework Performance

Women in most developed nations still do at least two-thirds of the family's routine housework and take responsibility for monitoring and supervising the work, even when they pay for domestic services or assign tasks to other family members (Coltrane 2000; Thompson and Walker 1989). Moreover, married women and those with children tend to perform an even greater proportion of housework than do single women and those without children. Married women in the United States do about three times as much routine housework as do married men. This pattern is consistent across many countries, with wives doing approximately 70 to 80 percent of the routine housework (Baxter 1997).

International studies of housework show that although women do far more housework than their male partners, their hours of housework are declining, and men are increasing their contributions slightly compared to earlier decades (United Nations 2000). Canadian, Australian, and Swedish men do slightly more housework than U.S. men, while Japanese men do less. Data from seven countries (Australia, France, Japan, Latvia, Netherlands, New Zealand, and Republic of Korea) indicate that in the 1990s women performed more than twice as many hours of housework as men, with men in Korea and Japan reporting the least unpaid labor, and those in Latvia reporting the most. In most countries, women devote well over half of their work time to unpaid labor. Men, in contrast, spend about one-third or less of their work time on unpaid labor. Moreover, when small children are present, unpaid labor increases substantially more for women than for men. Averaging reports from three countries (Australia, the Netherlands, and New Zealand) show an increase in women's unpaid labor of twelve hours per week when children are present, as opposed to an increase of less than two hours per week for men (United Nations 2000).

Developed countries have long used time-use surveys to assess what men and women do on a daily basis, but developing countries are only starting to use such surveys. At least twenty-two countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean have begun work on national time-use surveys since 1995, but results are not yet widely available (United Nations 2000). Thus, few comparisons have been made to less developed countries, though it has been found that three out of five Asian countries have greater rates of sharing housework than does the United States (Sanchez 1994).

Predictors of Men's Sharing

Studies have identified multiple consistent predictors for men's relative share of housework, including employment, ideology, and earnings, and, to a lesser extent, age, marital status, and children. Men share more housework when women are employed more hours, and sometimes when the men themselves are employed fewer hours. When wives earn more income than their husbands, husbands also generally share more housework. Younger and more highly educated women do less housework, while men with more education tend to do more. Women's (and sometimes men's) egalitarian gender attitudes also predict more sharing. Conversely, being married is associated with more housework for women but less for men. Finally, when couples have children, women tend to do substantially more housework, whereas men's housework hours tend to remain about the same or decrease slightly (Coltrane 2000).

Fairness in Housework Allocation

In the United States, both women and men say they should share housework equally when both are employed, but neither evaluates fairness based on an ideal of equal sharing. Only when wives do about twice as much housework as their husbands do they agree that the division of labor is fair (Lennon and Rosenfield 1994). Most women continue to feel responsible for the upkeep of homes and well-being of family members and are thus more likely than men to adjust their work and home schedules to accommodate others. Judging unbalanced divisions of labor as fair is related to cultural ideals of gender that, in turn, are shaped by economic, political, and legal institutions that value men's time over women's.

Children's Housework

Although considered primarily recipients of care, children are also substantial contributors to housework performance, often supplying up to seven hours or more per week of unpaid family work, mostly on routine indoor tasks (Blair 1992). Younger children's housework is less typed by gender than that of adults or teenagers, but as they become teens, they take on more gender-segregated tasks. Adolescent girls do about twice as much household labor as adolescent boys, with girls doing more routine chores like cooking and cleaning, and boys doing occasional outside chores like yard care. This division of adolescent chores socializes young people into accepting marriage and family roles that are bifurcated by gender.

Consequences of an Unbalanced Division of Labor

Many people—especially women—derive satisfaction from doing housework for family members because these activities symbolize love (DeVault 1991). At the same time, because housework continues to be relegated to wives and daughters, it is typically analyzed as part of a larger system of gender inequality. Although they may find some tasks enjoyable, most people do not like housework and, when financially able, most hire others to do the work. Because many hired domestic workers are poor women of color, this system also perpetuates class and race inequalities and socializes privileged children to expect to be waited on by disadvantaged women (Glenn, Chang, and Forcey 1994).

The amount of time that working-class women spend doing paid domestic work detracts from time they might spend with their own families. The time that all women spend doing housework detracts from the amount of time they might otherwise spend in paid labor, thus increasing their financial dependence on husbands and extended kin, and potentially reducing their relative power in society. Moreover, women who spend significant time in both unpaid labor and the paid workforce find themselves shouldering a "second shift" (Hochschild 1989), working in paid employment all day and doing housework and childcare when they come home. Employed wives enjoy less leisure and experience more stress than husbands (Schor 1991). When women bear a disproportionate share of responsibility for housework, their perceptions of fairness and marital satisfaction decline, and depending on gender attitudes and other factors, marital conflict and women's depression increase (Coltrane 2000).

Housework in Diverse Family Types

With the late twentieth century proliferation of diverse family forms, the potential has increased for different divisions of housework. Unmarried cohabiting couples, for instance, have more egalitarian gender attitudes and show more flexibility than married couples in how they divide family labor (Seltzer 2000). Cohabiting women do less housework than married women, and cohabiting men do more than their married counterparts, although cohabiting women continue to do more housework than their male partners. Similarly, attitudes in lesbian and gay couples may be more egalitarian than in most heterosexual couples, but equal sharing is still difficult to attain, and partners with more financial resources in homosexual unions, as in heterosexual ones, tend to perform less routine housework (Carrington 1999). Finally, remarried couples also share more egalitarian attitudes, decisions, and sometimes, chores than do couples in their first marriage, but housework generally continues to be governed by traditional gender roles and remains, essentially, the wife's duty (Coleman, Ganong, and Fine 2000).

Future of Housework

Women do most of the unpaid labor around the world, although their housework hours have declined, and their husbands' proportionate contributions have increased. Women still bear a double burden of work inside and outside the home. To ease this burden, families with adequate incomes are increasingly purchasing goods and services. Families with wives employed full-time are more likely to eat at restaurants, and employed wives are more likely than nonemployed wives to purchase cleaning services (Oropesa 1993). Women's labor force participation may be fueling an expanded global service economy, but workers in service positions are relatively disadvantaged themselves and are typically forced to accept minimum wage jobs and to forego providing direct daily care to their own children and families. Patterns of housework allocation are thus linked to patterns of gender, class, and race stratification in the larger society (Coltrane and Collins 2001). Ultimately, relieving the negative consequences of unbalanced divisions of housework for women will require men to assume equal responsibility in the home, as women assume equal responsibility for earning income.

See also:Caregiving: Informal; Childcare; Computers and Family; Division of Labor; Dual-Earner Families; Equity; Family Roles; Food; Home; Home Economics; Housing; Industrialization; Retirement; Time Use; Work and Family


baxter, j. (1997). "gender equality and participation inhousework: a cross-national perspective." journal of comparative family studies 28:220–247.

blair, s. l. (1992). "children's participation in householdlabor: child socialization versus the need for household labor." journal of youth and adolescence 21:241–258.

carrington, c. (1999). no place like home: relationships and family life among lesbians and gay men. chicago: university of chicago press.

coleman, m.; ganong, l.; and fine, m. (2000). "reinvestigating remarriage: another decade of progress." journal of marriage and the family 62:1288–1307.

coltrane, s. (2000). "research on household labor: modeling and measuring the social embeddedness of routine family work." journal of marriage and the family 62:1208–1233.

coltrane, s., and collins, r. (2001). sociology of marriage and the family: gender, love, and property. belmont, ca: wadsworth.

cowan, r. s. (1983). more work for mother. new york:basicbooks.

devault, m. l. (1991). feeding the family: the social organization of caring as gendered work. chicago: university of chicago press.

glenn, e. n.; chang, g.; and forcey, l. r. (1994). mothering: ideology, experience, and agency. new york: routledge.

hochschild, a. r. the second shift: working parents and the revolution at home. new york: viking.

lennon, m. c., and rosenfield, s. (1994). "relative fairness and the division of housework: the importance of options." american journal of sociology 100:506–531.

oropesa, r. s. (1993). "using the service economy to relieve the double burden." journal of family issues 14:438–473.

sanchez, l. (1994). "material resources, family structureresources, and husband's housework participation: a cross-national comparison." journal of family issues 15:379–402.

schor, j. b. (1991). the overworked american: the unexpected decline of leisure. new york: basicbooks.

seltzer, j. a. (2000). "families formed outside of marriage." journal of marriage and the family 62:1247–1268.

strasser, s. (1982). never done: a history of americanhousework. new york: pantheon books.

united nations. (2000). the world's women 2000:trends and statistics. new york: united nations publications.

michele adams

scott coltrane


views updated Jun 08 2018



Laundry Day. The average American farm wifes week began with Blue Monday, the traditional laundry day in most regions. She began her day by hauling many buckets of water from the outdoor pump or well into the kitchen. Next, she had to start a fire in the stove and boil the water in large pots. It took about fifty gallons of water (weighing four hundred pounds) for one load. Sheets and underwear had to be cooked and scrubbed with rough lye-based soaps until they came clean. Then came

rinsing, bluing (adding a faint blue dye to the rinse water to make the linens look whiter), starching, wringing water out of the heavy wet laundry, and finally spreading linens on the grass so that the sun could bleach them or hanging them on the clothesline with the rest of the wet laundry. Repeating this process several times until all the wash was done, a woman typically spent all day at this backbreaking task. Nothing was ever wasted; women poured their used laundry water on their rosebushes or vegetable patches. The first washing machines, which became available after the Civil War, provided some help with scrubbing, but the housewife had to turn a hand crank to work the agitator instead.

Ironing. Tuesday brought another difficult chore: ironing. The heavy cast irons (some of them filled with live coals) had to be heated in the stove. A woman had to be very careful pressing shirts, ruffled dresses, and tablecloths lest she burn holes into them.

Indoor and Outdoor Chores. Early before sunrise, every day of the week, the wife was the first to rise in order to start breakfast, which consisted of freshly baked biscuits, fried eggs and bacon, sliced meats, and cooked oatmeal or grits. As the day progressed, she had to feed the chickens, rabbits, and geese; she had to remember to clean out coops and hutches, milk the cows, gather eggs, and tend her vegetable garden. She also had to churn butter and do a great deal of bakingmost nineteenth-century Americans distrusted store-bought bread. The next chore was to prepare an enormous midday meal for all the workers and family; then washing the dishes, which meant hauling more water from outside and heating it. Then, perhaps with the help of her daughters, the woman began to clean the house, making beds, shaking out rugs, and scrubbing floors. Besides tending livestock, and depending upon the time of year, she also had to schedule canning, preserving, sewing, doing for a sick neighbor or an elderly relative, and completing whatever seasonal tasks lay in store. This would include helping with the butchering, salting or smoking meats, cutting out shirts for the menfolk, and helping with the harvests or the cornhusking. Meanwhile, she also had to watch over her numerous children and try to teach them their tasks. In the evening she cooked another meal (the supper), did the dishes again, and then sat down to do a little sewing, while her children read aloud what they had learned in school that day. Long before nine in the evening, she put out her lamps and fell exhausted into bed. Sunday was a day of rest for most, but women still had to do the cooking and dishes for Sunday dinner. This life was backbreakingday after day of long, hard labor for women. But neighborly women also helped each other out; if someone was sick, people attended each others needs. No woman ever made a quilt by herself, and friends found ways to make work light by sharing conversation, advice, and even songs over needlework.


Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life: 1790-1840 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988);

Susan Strasser, Never Done: A History of American Housework (New York: Pantheon, 1982);

Daniel E. Sutherland, The Expansion of Everyday Life: 1860-1876 (New York: Harper &c Row, 1989).


views updated Jun 11 2018

housework, sociology of housework Until relatively recently, sociologists studied women as paid employees outside the home, or as wives and mothers—but did not consider unpaid domestic labour (the various tasks of cleaning, cooking, and so forth, associated with child-care and maintaining the household) as a job analogous to any other kind of work. It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that systematic research was undertaken which applied to domestic labour the analytical tools of the sociology of industry and work. An early example is Helene Z. Lopata's Occupation: Housework (1971).

Studies such as Ann Oakley's The Sociology of Housework (1974) have since raised questions about housewives' satisfaction and dissatisfaction with the various domestic tasks; routines for maintaining standards of cleanliness and order; the self-image of women who did this sort of work; the monotony, fragmentation, and pace of activity during the day (work conditions); social interaction among housewives; self-reward (job satisfaction) in housework; and social-class differences and similarities in all of these. Typically, a majority of respondents in these studies are found to be dissatisfied with housework, which is the aspect of being a housewife which is most disliked. Housewives tend to have a long working week, to perceive their role as having low social prestige, and to feel particularly dissatisfied with it when they have experienced work satisfaction in a previous (paid) job. On the other hand, according to Oakley at least, these predominantly negative feelings about housework (low job satisfaction) contrast with a typically positive orientation to (or high identification with) the housewife role itself. This apparent paradox arises because ‘women locate their orientation to the housewife role within the context of a general view of masculine and feminine roles, according to which the place of each sex is clearly and differently defined’, and within which the equation of femininity with housewifery is axiomatic. See also DOMESTIC DIVISION OF LABOUR.


views updated May 17 2018

house·keep·ing / ˈhousˌkēping/ • n. 1. the management of household affairs. ∎  money set aside or given for such a purpose: writing barely pays my part of the housekeeping. ∎ a department within a hotel or other residential facility that oversees the cleaning of rooms and the provision of necessities such as towels and glassware: you'll never have to nag housekeeping for a set of dry towels.2. operations such as record-keeping or maintenance in an organization or a computer that make work possible but do not directly constitute its performance. ∎ Biol. the regulation of metabolic functions that are common to all cells: [as adj.] housekeeping genes. • adj. (of cabins, cottages, or other rental properties) having basic facilities such as a stove and refrigerator: completely equipped housekeeping cabins.


views updated May 21 2018

Housekeeping ★★★ 1987 (PG)

A quiet but bizarre comedy by Forsyth (his first American film). A pair of orphaned sisters are cared for by their newly arrived eccentric, free-spirited aunt in a small and small-minded community in Oregon in the 1950s. Conventional townspeople attempt to intervene, but the sisters' relationship with their offbeat aunt has become strong enough to withstand the coercion of the townspeople. May move too slowly for some viewers. Based on novel by Marilynne Robinson. 117m/C VHS . Christine Lahti, Sarah Walker, Andrea Burchill; D: Bill Forsyth; W: Bill Forsyth; C: Michael Coulter; M: Michael Gibbs.


views updated May 11 2018

housekeeping Actions performed within a program or system in order to maintain internal orderliness rather than to address the externally imposed requirements. For example, the housekeeping of a program often includes memory management.


views updated May 14 2018

house·work / ˈhousˌwərk/ • n. regular work done in housekeeping, such as cleaning, shopping, and cooking.