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Honey, I'm home - what's for dinner?

Women got jobs and votes, but they're still holding brooms and diapers

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Susan Maushart's new book, "Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women," charges that the institution of marriage has failed women. Trained as a sociologist, Maushart assembles an overwhelming amount of data documenting how marriage has perpetuated inequities between husband and wife.

In spite of our rhetoric of equality, she claims, the numbers suggest otherwise. Married women perform between two-thirds to three-quarters of household labor - even when they work full time - and these hours do not include time spent with children. When kids enter the picture, wives typically contribute five times as many hours on child-care as their husbands.

Maushart packs her polemic with statistics as disheartening as these and worse, most of them drawn from the recent spate of sociological studies and books that chart the same territory. These numbers aren't new, yet the picture that "Wifework" paints is so grim that I found myself, a 30-something feminist who fancies herself part of an egalitarian marriage, growing more and more alarmed. Are things really this bad? And if so, why haven't they changed?

Maushart doesn't have that much to add to what feminists since Mary Wollstonecraft have been saying. Her spin is to use evolutionary biology to explain the origins of our behavior. Maushart's argument goes something like this: Unlike most animal species, humans have very long cycles of pregnancy, lactation, and child- rearing. Monogamy arose as a way of making sure men stuck around to take care of their more biologically "vulnerable" wives. In return, women offered men "the myriad tasks of physical and emotional nurture" that Maushart terms "wifework." Things changed with the advent of birth control and the two-income family. Women just don't need men in the same way they used to.

The clincher, of course, is that women are still getting married. While their reasons for marrying are undoubtedly as diverse as they've always been, most women today believe that they're freely choosing to be part of an equal partnership. This, according to Maushart, is the problem. For while many men and women profess egalitarian ideals, marriage itself hasn't changed - most of us still conduct our lives according to traditional gender roles, though we individually and collectively deny this fact. Women are still performing wifework, and "paying through the nose for it" - with higher rates of depression, physical assault, nervous breakdowns, loneliness, insomnia, guilt, shame, and low self-esteem than their single counterparts and their husbands.


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