Women's Leisure Lifestyles

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The word "leisure" conjures up different images for different people: warm breezes, iced tea, and a comfortable chair; an exhausting yet exhilarating game of basketball; a stiff drink at the pub; an afternoon at the park with children. Leisure indicates both the freedom to do something and the freedom to do nothing, and it is an aspect of life that Americans have fought to attain and still fight to defend. For women, however, leisure is complicated by their many roles and responsibilities, their lack of access to aspects of the public sphere, and their very sense of an inherent right to leisure time and leisure activities.

Americans have long considered leisure the complement to the paid workday. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, industrial workers countered employers' fears of working-class idleness and "Sunday neurosis" with demands for free time. The movement to secure an eight-hour day for workers offered, as its most compelling slogan, "Eight Hours for Work, Eight Hours for Rest, and Eight Hours for What We Will." Originally hyphenated as the "week-end," days free from work became institutionalized as the weekend, a portion of the week that stands on its own and stands for freedom from paid employment.

Employers eager to maintain a cooperative workforce were not alone in their fears of working-class leisure time and leisure activities. Social reformers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also considered too much unchecked free time on the part of workers a threat to the social order. Alarmed at the link between leisure time, alcohol consumption, prostitution, and other vices, social reformers sought to influence workers in this unregulated arena of daily life. In envisioning and creating alternatives, however, they faced cultural and economic resistance. The notion of time free to do "what we will" signified workers' objections to having that time and activity, or the funds they used to support their leisure, defined by outsiders. Class differences between workers and reformers meant that the groups approached leisure time differently: For workers leisure signified an opportunity to socialize, escape from the pressures of daily life, and diffuse tensions. Wishful reformers had the added expectation that leisure activities signified edification and, for immigrants, Americanization.

Women as a Complicated Category

From the start, women's participation in leisure proved problematic. If paid employment served as the counterpoint to leisure, women's lives did not readily fit into the discussion. Women's double day of paid work and unpaid work applied in the nineteenth century as it applies in the early 2000s. For those unmarried women who worked in industrial settings, leisure time was compromised by the expectation, for many, that they would turn their wages over to their families. For their married counterparts in factories, a second shift rather than free time awaited them at the end of the paid workday. The constraints on women's and girls' access to leisure included housework, an inequitable division of labor in the home, and fragmented days and tasks. For women outside the sphere of paid work, the varied demands of their days proved no less onerous. The demand for "eight hours for what we will," available to men at least in terms of public discourse, proved quite difficult for women.

In addition to the demands of the family, women historically have had less access than men to the public realm. The term "streetwalker," an antiquated but revealing description of a prostitute, illustrates the social difficulty of any woman claiming a place in the public realm in general, on the street in particular. Many leisure activities developed among workers and by social reformers necessitated that access and, as a result, deliberately or inadvertently discouraged women's participation. Organized sporting events and clubs, in addition to many hobbies, developed largely as masculine activities. Socially constructed "women's space" encouraged women to form particular and gendered maps of access to public areas; the parallel geography of leisure steered women toward activities that held home-based leisure over public leisure. Home-based leisure, then as in the early 2000s, did not require funds for transportation, travel on the streets at night, or complete freedom from the demands of the home. It also kept intact socially acceptable but discriminatory definitions of womanhood.

Women's multiple responsibilities and limited access to the public sphere, along with other social and economic constraints, compromised women's very sense of their right to leisure time and leisure-based activities. Few women truly felt free to do something not related to meeting the needs of others; fewer still felt free simply to do nothing. Women's sense of entitlement in relation to leisure has been low and continues to serve as a significant deterrent to women's participation in organized and unorganized leisure activities. As a result, women often pursued leisure activities only in combination with other, family-based work. Historically they have talked with friends while watching children; in the early 2000s they might have ironed clothes while watching television. Additionally, leisure pursuits, like other elements of life, demonstrate power dynamics within families; witness the late-twentieth-century debate about who controls the television remote control. Other terms of contemporary usage, like "holiday," "vacation," and "retirement," prove equally problematic when considering women's lives and the around-the-clock demands placed on them, even in the seemingly leisure-producing arenas of life.

Women's Leisure Activities: A Historical Snapshot

Early social reformers concerned with leisure did not ignore girls and women altogether. They recognized, particularly at the turn of the twentieth century, that girls as well as boys needed recreation, and they attempted to carve out a public space for girls. The Playground Association, formed in 1906, built playgrounds to provide that leisure-time space. The reformers found, however, that other factors compounded the problem of access. Many girls, exhausted by their family responsibilities, had little interest in activities that required energy. Additionally, girls' clothing restrained rather than promoted the free use of their bodies in play. Cultural fears about girls and competition, in addition to a growing awareness of and anxieties about female sexuality, led to the development of activities that relegated women to single-sex, more passive leisure pursuits. During the Great Depression, that emphasis changed again, as reformers feared that too much single-sex activity on the part of girls and women, like the depression itself, threatened to empower females and make males redundant.

Organized clubs became one of the most significant leisure developments for girls and women. The Girl Scouts, the most famous of these organizations, was founded in the early twentieth century to provide outdoor experiences, foster self-improvement, and encourage homemaking-related activities. The group followed the lead of the Boy Scouts, mixing domestic concerns with an outdoor, military-minded regimen of activities. The idea of strengthening girls' bodies and minds threatened some Americans, but the group earned the regard of the nation with its emphasis on patriotic duty during World War I. As Laureen Tedesco argues, the motto "Be Prepared" suggested that girls had something for which to be prepared. Interestingly, the mixing of domestic and professional concerns, nature study and nurture preparedness, made the Scouts a source of empowerment for many girls.

At the same time as the Girl Scouts and other similar organizations recruited girls and women into club life, the commercial leisure pursuits of dance halls, amusement parks, and cinemas lured girls into other definitions of having fun. Kathy Peiss and others have demonstrated that for many girls and young women, leisure time meant time to learn the rules and responsibilities of heterosexuality. Working-class and middle-class women alike learned to solicit the male gaze and gain popularity through fashion sense, stylish hairdos, and the use of cosmetics. The flapper, popular through the 1920s, mediated her life and leisure through movie stars, dancing, and general media awareness. These commercialized leisure pursuits caused conflicts between youth and their parents. Vicki Ruiz's study of Mexican American women from 1920–1950 illustrates how one ethnic group attempted, by institutionalizing the use of chaperones for young women, to offer resistance to the highly American and rapidly commercial elements of leisure activity.

For some women in the early twentieth century, leisure activity held an added component: politics. A study of African American female tobacco workers in the southern United States reveals that they used their leisure time to build solidarity in their communities so they could resist oppression. Leisure, in fact, provided both evidence of their subordination and a site for resistance. Tobacco employers did not feel any obligation to provide black workers with leisure time or activities—although they did provide these spaces for white workers—to dissipate unrest and cultivate loyalty. African American women recognized the injustice and transformed their scant leisure time into activities for building unity and fomenting change.

The feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s provided more leisure activities and an enhanced sense of entitlement to girls and women. Policy makers came to recognize the need to change recreation to reflect more adequately girls' and women's interests and needs, and issues like sexual harassment and public safety have come to be included in analyses of leisure. Title IX, which formalized an approach to creating equity in the world of sports, has had an enormous impact on girls' access to sports in school settings and, as a result, professional settings as well. Contemporary questions include the impact of technology on girls' and women's leisure activities, as girls compete with boys in and for cyberspace, and economic and other interests make the future of Title IX and other feminist initiatives less secure.

Different Women, Different Uses of Leisure

As the examples of Mexican American and African American women suggest, women access and experience leisure differently based on race, ethnicity, social class, age, family status, sexual orientation, and other elements of identity. Women with dependent children are the least likely to be involved in community-based leisure activities, for example, although women over forty, with or without children, are most likely to take part in voluntary organizations. The more roles women hold, the less likely they are to find or make the time to engage in leisure pursuits. Lesbians, even those in family roles, may provide models of leisure activity for heterosexuals; research reveals that they engage in fewer predetermined roles in relation to leisure, they believe leisure for all leads to better family interactions, and they respect the need for their partners' as well as their own separate leisure time and activities. Leisure activity among older women has been linked positively to mental health. Social class, of course, plays a role in leisure, as women with more disposable income may also have increased access to transportation, leisure-related clothing and accessories, and safe spaces in which to play, relax, and gather.


As we move into the twenty-first century, women are engaging in an enormous range of leisure activities, from the active to the passive, the expensive to the free, the individual to the group, the competitive to the cooperative, the ephemeral to the educational. Because of their many differences, women do not share life experiences in as many ways as once thought. They may, however, share unequal access to leisure across class, racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, parenting, and regional lines. Leisure activities that replicate negative social notions of womanhood can actually disempower women further. One study, for example, demonstrated that women who increased their involvement in aerobics experienced also an increased dissatisfaction with their bodies. The realities of violence and fear of violence in public space mean that women and men continue to navigate different maps of leisure. Women have not yet adequately countered the seeming contradiction between providing for others and taking care of themselves.

Recent research reveals, however, that leisure may serve as a source of improving women's lives by empowering them. One study of women with physical disabilities found that leisure was a means by which these women could come to terms with their differences and feel empowered. Another study suggests that sports affirm women's fantasies of power and empower them to act in beneficial ways in their lives. Yet another study suggests that women who spend leisure time with other women may engage in socially subversive talk or activity that opens up new spaces in women's sense of self and others. Among the most significant issues related to leisure is stress; women and men alike feel compelled to work more and engage in leisure time less. Activities previously considered leisure activities can come to feel like additional demands on precious time. New developments in technology, in addition to evolving definitions of womanhood, may open opportunities for women. In any case, leisure, like other elements of life, is likely to remain contested, socially constructed, and, not incidentally, gendered.

See also: Beauty Culture; Civic Clubs, Women; Fashion; Home Decoration; Men's Leisure Lifestyles


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Jennifer Scanlon

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Women's Leisure Lifestyles

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Women's Leisure Lifestyles