Indiana Wife’s ‘Housework Strike’: Maybe It’s Husbands Who Should Strike

By Dianna Thompson and Glenn Sacks

Kathy Thompson of Albany, Indiana made national and international news with her "housework strike" against her husband Gary earlier this month. Since Gary reportedly works six or seven days a week and also claims to "cook quite a bit," it’s unclear how valid Kathy’s complaint is. What is clear, however, is that studies have repeatedly shown that, when one considers both the work done on the job and the work done in the home, American husbands contribute as much work to their households as their wives do.

According to a survey released earlier this year by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR), the world’s largest academic survey and research organization, women do an average of 11 more hours of housework per week than men. Compensating for this, however, is the study’s less-publicized finding that the average man spends 14 hours a week more on the job than the average woman. In fact, studies conducted by the ISR and others have found that rough equality between the workloads shouldered by men and women has existed for at least four decades.

The origin of the lazy husband myth lies in part in UC Berkeley professor Arlie Hochschild’s best-selling 1989 book The Second Shift, in which she claimed that "women work an extra month of 24 hour days each year." Just as the media has rushed to publicize Thompson’s housework "strike," Hochschild’s factoid was repeated uncritically (and unmercifully) by major media.

Yet Hochschild’s conclusions were deeply flawed. As gender issues author Warren Farrell notes, Hochschild unfairly compared the housework burdens of full-time employed males with those of part-time employed females. In addition, while she claimed to be writing about contemporary society, she used data on male housework from studies done in the pre-feminist era, before most women worked outside of the home. Also, she defined "housework" to include chores usually done by women, ignoring many of the household tasks generally done by men.

Echoing Hochschild, Gloria Steinem says that in today’s economy, because both couples work, men have one job and women have two. However, the average full-time employed man works eight hours a week more than the average full-time employed woman, women are four times as likely as men to work part-time, and women are much more likely than men to be full-time homemakers. It is only natural that housework burdens reflect men’s and women’s unequal employment contributions.

In addition, both the ISR survey and The Second Shift count only hours worked, without noting the special contributions of men who do dangerous and physically demanding work. The workforces employed in what US Department of Labor lists as the nation’s 25 most dangerous jobs are all at least 90% male. While housework may seem like drudgery compared to middle-class, white collar jobs, it certainly doesn’t when compared to most blue collar work.

Also, while homemaking can be dull, it comes with several advantages. For one, people are usually much happier at home and in casual dress (and perhaps talking on the phone or watching TV while they work), than they are in a supervised and regimented work environment. Homemakers also benefit from a flexible schedule. Most importantly, being at home usually means being able to spend time with one’s children.

Men like Gary Thompson are victims of a doublebind. If they are talented cooks or doting caretakers of children but are unable to provide for their families, they are not respected as husbands or as men. Yet when they work long hours to fulfill the principal breadwinner role that they are still expected to perform, they are blamed for not contributing enough at home.

Ken, a project manager for a San Diego-based computer company, believes that the contributions of male breadwinners like himself are unfairly ignored. He says:

"The weight of supporting our family falls on my shoulders. I work 10 or 12 hour days, so of course I don’t do as much housework as my wife does. But she benefits greatly from having time with the kids while they’re young, whereas I struggle every day just to get home in time to read them a bedtime story. The time I’ve missed with my children is something I’ll never get back. Maybe I’m the one who should go on strike."