A Conversation Regarding Women’s Unpaid Household Labor: A Critique of the New York Times

By Katie Swartwood
Katie is a second year student in the Women’s History Graduate Program

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an article on the stress gap between working men and women. Even if men and women share equal responsibility on the job, women continue to be more stressed due to the amount of unpaid labor they are forced to bare. The New York Times concluded that housework and emotional labor are the main contributors to women’s stress. In the end, they offer three tips for “How Women Can Push Back.” These include self-care, knowing your triggers, and seeking validation. While all of these suggestions can be important for women’s mental and physical health, they’re not exactly what I would describe as pushing back.

Although, they do note that women’s household work can be more laborious than outside work, and that women can do up to three times the amount of unpaid labor as men, they compress women’s resources for pushing back against this sexism in one small section. Under the subheading “Seeking Validation,” the article advises women working outside the house to have a discussion with their partners in order to develop equal household work. However, this one sentence telling women to have a conversation with her partner ignores the sexist double standard for women that has been deeply imbedded within the fiber of American History, one that still clearly exists today.

For millenniums, women’s unpaid labor has allowed not only the family to prosper, but society as a whole. Historically, women have cooked the daily meals, routinely scrubbed the house clean, and educated children on morality, religion, speaking, writing, maths, etc. In some cases, women have even ruled in place of their male children if they were too young to take the throne. Women’s underappreciated and undervalued labor has allowed for their husbands and sons to cultivate successful lives, businesses, governments, and more. Failure to acknowledge the historical significance of women’s unpaid labor diminishes how vital it has been and continues to be.

So by the New York Times reducing the importance of this shared household labor to “seeking validation,” they are ignoring just how much work women have managed over the years. Additionally, they are establishing the idea that creating a fair and equal household falls under a woman’s need to be reassured even as they handle massive amounts of unrewarded labor. In this way, the New York Times fails to see the role that society and men play in diminishing the value of women’s domestic labor. Even more worrisome is the fact that women often do not realize the weight of their extra labor that others rely on because they view it as their responsibility. As a wife, as a mother, they often see it as their duty to wake up before the entire household to pack their families lunches and to get the kids ready for school. They stay up late to clean up the dinner they made, to clean up the house, and prepare the kids for work. And when they do all this work, there isn’t always appreciation because it’s expected that women will take a more active role in these duties.

So what about men? We praise them when they step in to make dinner that night, or decide to take the family out to dinner. We congratulate women whose husbands offer to “babysit” the kids for a night. A man “helping out” with his kids doesn’t deserve accolade when women have been the unsung heroes for far too long. This is not to say that some husband’s don’t pull their weight around the house or that women are wrong for finding value in being primary domestic worker in her household. Feminism is about having the opportunity to choose. What I am saying is that women should understand that just because they are wives and mothers does not mean that they need to place too much responsibility upon themselves because society and religion have historically placed it there. Men are no longer the only outside workers in their household, thus women should not be the only partner laboring within it. And if a man does help, he should not receive any more praise than a woman gives herself or others give her.

Should women be having open and conscious conversations with their partners about sharing household duties? Yes! But it’s also important that men be more open to beginning these conversations as well. The New York Times places the responsibility of these conversations on women, once again adding to her stress. Instead of advising women to notice stress markers and contemplating ways to solve them, men should be able to recognize the unfair standard in the household and offer solution for their partners, so that they can share the burden. It is not always women’s job to solve problems, instead men should stand up against outdated gender expectations and their own ignorance so that they can begin to support the women in their lives in a fair and equal manner.

 

See the New York Times article here: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/14/smarter-living/stress-gap-women-men.html

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