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Reconcilable Differences: What it would take for marriage and feminism to say “I do”

By Janet C. Gornick

June 2002

Delegates to the IUPAP Conference in Paris emphasized many different obstacles to the
progress of women in physics, stemming from their diverse cultures. But one universally held
conviction was that, in order to have both a family and success in physics, one had to marry the
right man. This article, reprinted with permission from The American Prospect (April 8, 2002 issue),
explores the concept of an egalitarian marriage, and what it would take create a society in which
such equal partnerships were common.

Janet C. Gornick is an associate professor of political science at the Graduate Center and
Baruch College at the City University of New York. She and Marcia K. Meyers of the University
of Washington are writing a book on family policy and gender equality that focuses on lessons
from Europe and Canada.


FEMINISTS have long been queasy about marriage, but our queasiness is not about
marriage per se; it concerns the way marriage has been practiced. The religious right
paints feminists as opposed to marriage and all that goes with it: heterosexuality, men, family,
love, caring, and children. Campaigning against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s,
Phyllis Schlafly flatly warned that “feminists hate men, marriage, and children.” Twenty years
later, Pat Robertson advised would-be supporters in a fundraising letter: “The feminist agenda is
not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that
encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children ... and become lesbians.”

Clearly, the right misrepresents feminists’ struggle with marriage, but many moderates and
even some progressives have misunderstood feminist concerns. What have American feminists really
said about marriage? During the first wave of the American women’s movement, which intensified
during the 1840s and culminated with the achievement of suffrage in 1920, feminists battled for egalitarian
marriage as passionately as they fought for voting rights. In 1848 — in the Declaration of Sentiments
adopted at the First Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York — Mary Ann
McClintock and Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote:

The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part
of man toward woman... . He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead. He
has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns... . In the covenant of
marriage, ... the law gives him power to deprive her of her liberty and to administer

For the most part, nineteenth-century feminists did not oppose marriage itself. Rather,
they fought tirelessly for the legal rights of wives, gradually winning statutory reforms that
granted married women property rights.

A second wave of American feminism emerged in the 1960s, catalyzed in part by Betty
Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, which sparked a nationwide soul-search about
the emptiness of housewifery. “It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning,”
Friedan wrote. “As [each suburban housewife] made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched
slip cover materials, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and
Brownies ... she was afraid to ask of herself the silent question — ‘Is this all?’” Friedan’s
book pulled countless wives into the women’s movement and dovetailed with activist efforts
aimed at breaking down employment barriers.

While the legal constraints that galvanized their predecessors a century earlier were mostly
gone, the new women’s liberationists found that marriage, de facto, still served many women
poorly, especially in conjunction with motherhood. Sexual divisions of labor, locked in by the
social norms of marriage, yielded gender inequality both in the labor market and the home,
saddling women with the lion’s share of housework.

Those divisions of labor institutionalized wives’ economic dependence on their husbands; in the worst scenarios, that dependence placed women in outright danger. Furthermore, feminists argued, the centrality of marriage in the dreams and expectations of girls and young women crowded out long-term aspirations
for education, employment, and civic and political engagement. Those were the central feminist concerns
about marriage nearly four decades ago, and they are still the central feminist concerns today.
Pegging feminists as coldhearted haters of heterosexuality, love, care, and commitment has
always been a bum rap. Were marriages between women and men to become truly egalitarian —
especially in economic terms — most contemporary feminists would rejoice. Were same-sex couples
invited to participate, feminism and marriage could announce a full truce.

During the 1990s, a new “marriage war” broke out, one that is now front-page news. This
time, conservatives fired the first shot when they inserted marriage-promotion policies into
welfare reform. Feminists tend to resist these schemes because the assumptions that underlie
them are largely nonsense. Basically, conservatives argue that if low-income women could be persuaded to marry, they would join the ranks of the economically secure. Indeed, that might
be true if poor women in the South Bronx could marry stockbrokers in Westchester. But poor
women’s options are usually much less promising, and ample social-science research confirms that
marriage-promotion policies per se are unlikely to reduce poverty. I leave the critique of marriage
promotion as welfare policy to others in this issue of the Prospect in order to pursue here the
challenge of egalitarian marriage.

Unequal Marriage: The Price Women Pay

Today, a small minority of couples consists of an exclusive male breadwinner and a fulltime
female homemaker; in most marriages, husband and wife are both employed.
However, the labor-force attachment of husbands remains considerably stronger,
especially in families with children; very few men are on a career-sacrificing “daddy
track.” Married mothers often withdraw from paid work when their children are young; many
more work part-time; and a substantial share forgo remunerative jobs that require “24-7” commitment,
nighttime meetings, or travel. Few married fathers make such accommodations
to family. Not surprisingly, despite progress in women’s employment, men remain the primary
breadwinners. As of 1997, among American married couples with children under age six,
fathers took home three times the earnings of mothers. And studies confirm that wives, even
wives employed full-time, still devote substantially more time than their husbands do to unpaid
work — both care-giving and housework.

Certainly, children need and deserve their parents’ time. It’s appropriate that parents weaken
labor-market ties when their children are young. The trouble, however, is that marital divisions of
labor shape up along gender lines, there are hazards associated with being the non-earner
or lower earner, and those hazards are very unequally distributed.

Non-earners (and lower earners) in intact couples lack bargaining power both in the
economy and in the marriage. And the lowerearning partner is financially vulnerable in the
event of marital dissolution, despite divorce and child-support laws intended to protect them. In
addition, weak labor-market ties often mean tenuous civic and political ties, which translate
into compromised power both inside and outside the home. In his 2000 book Bowling Alone, Robert
D. Putnam contradicts the old picture of housewives as pillars of local civil society and links
women’s connections to employment to their participation in public forms of civic engagement.

Another problem: Huge numbers of married women are plain exhausted, battling worse “time
poverty” than their husbands, particularly if they have young children and are also in paid
employment. And where are the fruits of wives’ unpaid work? One place is in their husbands’
wages. A recent study reported in Business Week found that wives’ unpaid work raises married men’s hourly wages by about 12 percent— a “marriage premium” for men that is explained by the“likelihood that wives shoulder household tasks.” Women, meanwhile, suffer reduced earnings, not because of
marriage per se, but owing to the presence of children. And nearly two-thirds of married
women have children. As Ann Crittenden establishes in The Price of Motherhood, because of
their family responsibilities women in effect pay a hefty “mommy tax” on their earnings — a tax not
incurred by their children’s daddies.

In their much-argued-about book The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially, Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher dismiss most of these concerns. Wives, they argue, are simply better off financially because they have access to their husbands’ (increased) income as well as their own (albeit diminished) income; the two together add up to more than she would have had living alone or cohabiting. As for wives’ economic dependency on their husbands, Waite and Gallagher are largely unmoved. (I suspected that when, on page 1, they characterized the women’s movement as
criticizing “marriage per se, which the more flamboyant feminists denounced as, ... worst of
all, ‘tied up with a sense of dependency.’”) For the most part, these writers view the underlying
economic inequality as the result of women’s choices — “married moms earn less because they
choose to work less” — but they don’t seriously consider whether those supposed free choices
are constrained by the absence of good alternatives that is inherent in archaic notions about gender,
inflexible employment practices, and unsupportive public policies. In the end, they argue that making
divorce more difficult and enacting divorce laws that repay women for the sacrificed labor-market
attachment can indemnify wives against any losses that they incur. Fairer divorce laws are fine —
but why wait for marriages to end? For all their advocacy of marriage, Waite and Gallagher leave
untouched the underlying inequities that make marriage costly for so many women.

Toward Egalitarian Marriage

Among feminists, there are two broad views about greater equity within marriage.
“Difference feminists” argue that women’s unique characteristics, such as their stronger ties
to children, should be celebrated and rewarded. From this perspective, gender equity would be
achieved by making parenting a less-unequal sacrifice; essentially, wives would be repaid for
the losses that they incur as individuals.“Sameness feminists,” by contrast, look toward
a greater convergence in gender roles — a rearrangement of marital divisions of labor so
that on average wives and husbands, in Francine Deutsch’s phrase, would “halve it all.”

The latter approach seems more promising. Reliably indemnifying women against losses caused
by their greater role in family care-giving is improbable because it is so easy for husbands, employers,
and even governments to free-ride on women’s unpaid work. And any solution that continues
gendered divisions of labor leaves in place problematic power imbalances, both public and private.

Across Europe, feminists have taken seriously this idea of greater convergence of roles in the
workplace and the home. In her recent book Restructuring Gender Relations and Employment:
The Decline of the Male Breadwinner, British sociologist Rosemary Crompton lays out the
contours of what she calls a “dual-earner/dualcareer” society. This is a society in which women
and men engage symmetrically in market work and in care-giving work — a society that incorporates
time to care for family members. Wives would not simply become “like husbands are now”;
both wives and husbands would end up with substantial time for care-giving at home.

On the whole, what would a shift to genderegalitarian time allocations entail in the United
States? Imagine that mothers and fathers, on average, spend equal time in paid work. The
accompanying table summarizes how much time married mothers and fathers in the United States
spend working for pay each week (parents who are not employed — mostly women — are
included in these averages). The far-right column lists the number of hours that each parent would
work weekly if the couple’s combined hours on the job were shared equally.

This table tells us three noteworthy things about marital arrangements in this country. First,
married mothers’ time in paid work is sensitive to the ages of their children; their hours on the
job rise as their children spend more hours outside the home and need less parental time.
Second, married fathers’ time at work, in contrast, is absolutely constant — perhaps not surprisingly,
given that few are primary caregivers. Third, the average time that married mothers spend in
employment lags behind that of their husbands, and by a considerable margin.

An egalitarian solution would entail both parents working a slightly-shorter-than-standard
workweek and sharing care-giving in the home. In principle this might seem appealing to men,
who often say they are sick of employment pressures, want more balance in their lives, and
hope to be better fathers than their own fathers were. But for this solution to be attractive to
both sexes, workplace practices have to change so that neither spouse suffers a setback as the
result of caring for children. And social policy also has to change — starting with, for example,
the enactment of generous paid family leave for both fathers and mothers.

At present, the idea that men as a group might shift substantial time from paid work to
care-giving is remarkably controversial in the United States. But unless we settle for a society
in which families “outsource” unacceptably high levels of family care-giving, a reduction in men’s
working time is a prerequisite for a shift toward an egalitarian division of labor both at home and
at work. Mainstream advocates of “work/family balance” and “family-friendly programs” rarely
suggest that men lessen their working time. But truly egalitarian marriage rests on such a shift.

This scenario of change raises at least two fundamental issues. Do women and men want
to share earning and caring in a more egalitarian way? And would couples that share and share
alike incur joint costs?

Conservatives — and even many progressives — often argue that wives simply want to be at
home more than their husbands do; some claim intrinsic differences, while others cite the effect
of social norms. There is no question that current work-and-family arrangements reflect
the individual and joint decisions of women and men. But those decisions are made in a world
with gender-specific constraints and opportunities. Given today’s economic and social realities, it’s
impossible to know whether women’s and men’s current choices reflect enduring preferences or
are, instead, accommodations influenced by inflexible working arrangements, limited options
for non-parental child care, and career penalties for allocating time to parenting. The meaningful
question is not “What do women and men want now?” but, rather, “What would they prefer in a
much changed world — one with expectations not based on gender, with flexible employers,
and with supportive policies in place?” The answer to that question is classically counterfactual;
in today’s socially constructed and highly constrained world, it can’t be answered.

An often-raised concern is that there are gains to specialization, so that equal sharing
might lower families’ total earnings. If both spouses, for example, rejected 50-plus-hour-aweek
employment, the couple might be forced to rule out certain highly remunerative occupations
altogether. But this too remains an open question; there is remarkably little empirical research on
the economic impact of divisions of labor shaped by gender. It’s possible, for instance, that having
to fit into gender-role expectations reduces parents’ productivity, and perhaps that of their
children when they reach adulthood. Conversely, some degree of economic loss might be more
than offset by non-monetary benefits — such as distributional justice, for starters. And benefits
from equal sharing might accrue to society more broadly. The rise of egalitarian marriage and the
strengthening of fatherhood could produce healthier children who are enriched by the balance
in their parents’ lives and by more contact with their fathers. It could also help stem ongoing
declines in marriage and childbearing rates and produce more reliable parenting of children
generally. Scholars of the family understand that many women, in particular, forgo family after
assessing the dismal prospects for combining work and family in a satisfying way.

Supportive Public Policy

How might we get from here to there? As European feminists painted portraits of the dualearner/
dual-career society, they also envisioned a change process. Clearly, private changes in gender
relations and shifts in employment practices are part of the story; but the state also plays a
crucial role, both in shaping social policy and regulating labor markets.

Couples’ capacity to choose egalitarian arrangements would be facilitated by a package
of government policies, many of which are in place across the European welfare states [see
“Family-Friendly Europe,” by Karen Christopher, on page 59]. A supportive policy
package would have at least four aims: to enable and support the employment of mothers with
young children; to provide incentives for men to engage in care-giving at home; to support the
development of high-quality reduced-hour work for both mothers and fathers; and to provide
income and tax supports for families that would ease the need to maximize market hours
while providing incentives for more-equal divisions of labor.

First, paid maternity leave and decent child care would go a long way toward supporting the
employment of mothers with young children. Women begin to incur the mommy tax shortly
after they have their first child, especially if they’re not entitled to paid maternity leave —
and most American women are not. All of the Western European nations and many developing
countries grant mothers paid maternity leave financed by social insurance funds. Publicmaternity-
leave schemes have been found to increase mothers’ postnatal employment rates,
increase the probability that mothers return to the same employer, and lessen the wage penalty
associated with time away.

In addition, high-quality, affordable child care enables mothers to work for pay. As with
leave, Americans get incredibly little child-care support from government. In the United States,
about 5 percent of children under age three are in publicly provided or financed child care,
compared with one-quarter in France, one-third in Belgium and Sweden, and fully half in Denmark.
Not surprisingly, in all of those countries, married mothers with young children take
home larger shares of parental earnings than do American mothers.

Second, paid family leave for fathers, especially if designed with incentives so that fathers actually
use the leave, creates a way for men to take off time from employment, temporarily, to provide
care at home. Fathers in several European countries are entitled to paternity leave immediately
following a birth or adoption and, more consequentially, to paid-parental-leave benefits
that can be used throughout the early years of their children’s lives. Furthermore, policy makers
in Europe have learned that parental-leave benefits that can’t be transferred to female partners and that include high wage-replacement rates encourage fathers to take the leave to which they’re entitled.

In addition, several European governments are running public-education campaigns that
urge men to do more at home, either via family leave or more broadly. While the jury is still out
on their effectiveness, even the Swiss government is going this route; an ongoing campaign in
Switzerland — “Fair Play at Home” — is aimed at “nudging married men” to share the work at
home. Despite all the lip service conservatives pay to the value of marriage, American social
policy does almost nothing to encourage fathers in intact families to contribute more at home.

Third, Americans log the longest employment hours in the world. As University of Pennsylvania
sociologist Jerry Jacobs observes, long hours on the job and gender equality work at crosspurposes;
that is especially true in labor markets that lack options for high-quality, reduced-hour
employment. Government policies aimed at shortening standard working time — either
directly or via incentives placed on employers — could go a long way toward enabling men to
spend more time at home. Several of the European welfare states provide models for
working-time regulations designed explicitly to support gender-egalitarian families. Workingtime
policies (such as maximum hours) can shorten overall hours — a number of countries
are aiming to set a new standard of 37.5 hours per week — and “right to time off ” policies
guarantee parents the right to work part-time while their children are young. (The United
States neither limits total hours nor provides rights to time off.)

Further, labor-market regulations throughout the European Union protect workers who work
less than full-time by requiring employers to provide equal pay and prorated benefits. So in a
more egalitarian world, each spouse might log hours in paid work that fall into a new range —
more than standard part-time hours but fewer than standard full-time hours. Public policies
can encourage the growth of reduced-hour employment and shore up its rewards.

Finally, income supports and tax reforms would help. Some form of universal child
benefit, via transfers or refundable tax credits, could replace some or all of the earnings that
couples might sacrifice if husbands lessen their time in employment and wives’ increases don’t
make up the difference. For low-income couples, in particular, cash benefits could relax the necessity
to maximize (his) hours in the labor market, no matter how high the personal cost. (Among
married couples, average gender differences in employment hours are approximately the same
at every point on the income spectrum.) Compared with nearly every country in Europe,
the United States spends very little on public income supports for couples with children, even
including the Earned Income Tax Credit. And a shift to purely individual-income taxation would
encourage a more equal sharing of employment by couples. Joint taxation increases the de facto
marginal tax rate on the first dollar earned by the “secondary earner” and that sets up a
disincentive for wives’ labor-force participation. Individual-income taxation has been implemented
in several countries in Europe; it is a major factor underlying Sweden’s high female-employment
rate. In contrast, the U.S. tax code imposes the same income-tax burden on one- and two-earner
couples. Given that employment has fixed costs, this formula disadvantages two-earner couples.

From a policy perspective, it would be hard for the United States to do less to encourage and
enable economic gender equality in marriage. Across Europe, extensive public provisions
support gender equality within couples, and many of these policies were implemented exactly
for that reason. These policies are influential; they are part of the reason that wives and husbands
in several European welfare states share employment time and earnings more equally than we do
in the United States.

Feminist Marriage: Political Prospects

These are conservative times in the United States, especially at the federal level. It is unlikely
that new social-policy offerings along these lines will be enacted any time soon. Yet the current
battle over marriage and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, silly as it is, could provide
feminists and progressives a window of opportunity if it forces us to clarify our position on marriage
and to organize our interests vis-à-vis the family, the workplace, and the state. Feminists should
staunchly resist getting cornered into opposing marriage wholesale and, instead, focus on
articulating and challenging the ways in which marriage has institutionalized inequality.

And what of the possibility for common ground between feminists and the conservatives
who now hold the upper hand on the policy front? It seems that there is one serious stumbling
block, but also considerable good news. In addition to pressing marriage on low-income
women, conservatives have devoted much energy in recent years to homophobic legislation aimed
at preempting gay and lesbian marriage. Conservatives argue that allowing same-sex
marriage would devalue marriage among straights. That logic escapes many feminists. The
National Organization for Women, the leading U.S. women’s organization, has endorsed samesex
marriage and resolved to fight all legislation prohibiting it, on the grounds that such laws are
discriminatory. For many feminists, an enthusiastic endorsement of marriage hinges on the support
of same-sex marriage — in my view, rightly so. The truth is that feminists and conservatives
surely will not agree on this any time soon.

The good news is that a policy package that would support gender equality in marriage —
expanded child care, paid family leave (especially for fathers), and a shift to individual-income
taxation — actually has a lot in it for conservatives. These policies support the employment of
women (including low-income women), strengthen fathers’ ties to their children, and
could raise marriage rates — all elements of the current conservative agenda. The problem is that
most conservatives will resist expanding social policy outlays and granting women the freedom
to choose nontraditional roles.

Feminists could hasten public support for gender-egalitarian marriage by clarifying, for
conservatives and progressives alike, that feminists do not hate marriage per se and never
have. In 1871, Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote:“Conservatism cries out we are going to destroy
the family. Timid reformers answer, the ... equality of woman will not change it. They are both
wrong. It will entirely revolutionize it.” Stanton was right. Truly egalitarian marriage will be revolutionary
— and when it’s achieved, feminists will celebrate.


For a copy of The American Prospect’s special issue on Marriage and Family, send $1.95 to TAP, 5 Broad St., Boston, MA 02109.

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