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Taking the Gender Out of Housework

WHEN the first episode of ``Roseanne'' aired last fall, sitcom viewers received a shock. Instead of seeing a pristine, well-ordered house like those in ``The Cosby Show'' and ``Father Knows Best,'' audiences found themselves staring at a real-life domestic mess. Here were cereal boxes and crumbs on the kitchen table, dirty dishes in the sink, clothes and clutter in the living room.

Here, too, was a tired wife bellowing to her husband: ``I put in eight hours a day at the factory, and then I come home and put in another eight hours ... and you don't do NOTHIN'!''

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Roseanne is not alone in her frustration and fatigue. Although most husbands of working women cannot be accused of doing ``nothin''' around the house - many now do a lot - the division of labor in American homes remains far from equal. According to Arlie Hochschild, a sociology professor who spent eight years interviewing 50 working couples about how they shared domestic duties, working wives still do 75 percent of household tasks, on average.

Dr. Hochschild calls these after-work duties the ``second shift.'' So time-consuming are those responsibilities that the women in her study spent an average of an extra month a year in unpaid work at home. They were, she found, ``always exhausted, always rushing.'' They ``talked about sleep the way a hungry person talks about food.'' Worst of all, Hochschild claims, this second shift is ``a very important source of strain in modern marriages.''

Hochschild, who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, presents her findings in ``The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home'' (Viking, $18.95). This long-term, in-depth study of who does what at home offers a sobering reminder that the public image of working women - happy, successful, fulfilled - often stands squarely at odds with the private reality of their overburdened lives.

Only 20 percent of Hochschild's couples shared housework equally. Seventy percent of men did between a third and a half, while 10 percent did less than a third. But even in families where men pitched in regularly, women still did two-thirds of the daily tasks.

``Most women cook dinner and most men change the oil in the family car,'' Hochschild writes. But, she adds, ``dinner needs to be prepared every evening around six o'clock, whereas the car oil needs to be changed every six months, any day around that time, any time that day.''

Women also felt more responsible for the house and children. ``More mothers than fathers worried about the tail on a child's Halloween costume or a birthday present for a school friend. They were more likely to think about their children while at work and to check in by phone with the babysitter.''

In addition, a survey last month by Payment Systems Education Association in Denver reports that 61 percent of women have the primary bill-paying responsibility for the family - the white-collar division of domestic labor. Pass the dishcloth, the dustmop, and the checkbook.

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Housework has long been a favorite subject for humor, as Roseanne can attest. A few years ago the movie ``Mr. Mom'' featured a bumbling househusband who couldn't even figure out how much detergent to put in the washer. Now the comic strip ``Adam'' stars another househusband who spends his days watching TV, learning to make Jell-O, and waiting for his working wife to come home and restore order.

This kind of aw-shucks clumsiness (Hochschild calls it ``cultivated incompetence'') may be amusing on screen and in print. But in reinforcing traditional attitudes that real men don't do housework, it subtly devalues domesticity - ``women's work.''

The time has come, Hochschild asserts, to ``revalue the work of caring for a home.''

When the Senate passed a child care bill last month, it acknowledged a revolution in the workplace. Now there needs to be a similar revolution in the home. But unlike child care, which has become a front-page political debate, house care will almost certainly remain a private discussion, worked out task by task between two people who may have different standards and priorities.

At a time when a majority of women work outside the home, housework needs to be, in Hochschild's term, ``degendered.'' Equal pay for equal work gets lip service, at least, in the workplace. It may be time to recognize the parallel rule - equal work for no pay at home.

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