The XX Factor

Americans: Pro-Paychecks, Anti-Dirty Houses

Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress have released a report about women and work that manages both to be interesting and not at all surprising. The report perfectly captures Americans’ contradictory attitudes about women working: We’re fans of the money women bring in, but we don’t show a strong willingness to make the necessary adjustments at home so that women’s unpaid labor isn’t as necessary. Women make up half the workforce, and mothers represent two-thirds of breadwinners, but women are still doing most of the housework. Changing that and making women’s lives easier means rethinking gender roles in profound ways, and Americans don’t seem quite ready to do that yet.

The report really captures the way Americans quickly embrace progress after it occurs, but hesitate when it comes to embracing scary new kinds of progress. That 75 percent of Americans feel positively about women’s contributions to the economy demonstrates merely that 75 percent of Americans can absorb reality and draw conclusions about the obvious. I’m mostly alarmed about the other 25 percent. Who are these people? Do one in four Americans really not believe that a woman’s money spends as good as a man’s, or that women are as likely to be competent at their jobs? I have to assume that these are the same 25 percent of Americans who are out of touch with reality in general, the people who would vote for Bush again if they had a chance.

Women who want some relief from the second shift-the feminist term for all the unpaid work like housework and child care that still falls primarily on women’s shoulders-will find this report a bit of a downer. Americans embraced women drawing paychecks because we had to; we needed the money. But even though moms across the nation are exhausted, relieving their burden would require men to pick up dishrags of their own free will more often, and so far there’s no reason to think that will happen spontaneously. After all, while 55 percent of women claimed that women do most of the housework even when they had full-time jobs, only 28 percent of men agreed. The likeliest explanation for this disparity is men simply can’t/won’t see all the work that women do that makes their lives easier.

Instead, the standards of cleanliness for two-parent families have slipped, and the country at large fantasizes not about men doing more work, but about having a June Cleaver pop in to take care of it all. That’s why 75 percent of Americans can support women working, while 65 percent can claim that the decreasing number of children who have a stay-at-home mother has been an overall negative for family life. In a nation where women don’t have enough time and men don’t have enough will, of course we’re all going to end up fantasizing about having a fleet of undemanding housework fairies who can get all that work done for free.