Why Taking On Sexist Roles Can Actually Improve Your Relationship
Go ahead – let your man take out the trash.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve known I was a bad feminist.
Growing up, I was one of those little girls who loved to play with dolls, clean my room, and help my mom in the kitchen. When we had “center time” in preschool – the part of the day when you get to choose your favorite activity – I always raced to the playhouse area to put on an apron and tend to the babydolls. By the time I was 10, I had perfected my cookie-baking technique and spent the holidays whipping up dozens of different types of cookies to bring to parties and potlucks.
At the same time, I felt like a traitor to my gender. This was back in the days when women wore power suits with boxy shoulder pads and read Ms. Magazine. We weren’t supposed to admit we liked babies and cooking; if you were a feminist, you were supposed to disavow all things domestic. Gloria Steinem, I felt sure, would be ashamed of me. When Hillary Clinton famously dissed cookie-baking 1992 (“I suppose I could have stayed home, baked cookies and had teas,” she said in defense of her choice to continue her career rather than quit to support her husband’s presidential campaign) I took it personally.
It’s not that I didn’t want to have a career, be paid the same as men, make my own choices about what to do with my life, or do important work in the world. It’s just that liked taking care of people and enjoyed housework. I still do. I’m never happier than when I’m bustling around the house, folding laundry and making beds while something simmers on the stove. Let me rock a baby to sleep on top of all that, and I’m in heaven. Let someone else take out the trash, change the oil in the car, and do the yardwork (in this imaginary world, I have a car and a yard).
Tell us how you really feel
Here’s the thing: as much as we talk about how important it is for men to do their share of the housework and for couples to have an equal division of labor, it seems that a lot of people feel the same way I do, deep down. We might get mad about women being expected to do the dishes, but a recent study found that most Americans think that married couples should divide up tasks according to gender.
The study, conducted in 2015 by Indiana University doctoral student Natasha Quadlin, looked at Americans’ attitudes toward housework and childcare, and how income and gender roles shaped these beliefs. More than 1,000 adults responded to questions about how married couples should divide household labor; Quadlin and her team found that gender had the biggest impact on how respondents thought chores and childcare should be handled.
“Nearly three quarters of our respondents thought that the female partners in heterosexual couples should be responsible for cooking, doing laundry, cleaning the house, and buying groceries. In addition, nearly 90 percent of our respondents thought that heterosexual men should be responsible for automobile maintenance and outdoor chores,” Quadlin reported.
And it didn’t even matter who made more money, or whether they enjoyed doing housework. “Regardless of the partner’s relative income or gendered hobbies and interests, our respondents gravitated toward the person’s sex instead. Even if women have higher earnings than their husbands, they are expected to come home and perform a second shift of chores and childcare.”
Happy wife, happy life?
A 2012 study published by the American Psychological Review argued that in marriages where men perform traditionally “feminine” tasks like childcare, laundry, and dishes, the couple’s sex life suffers.
“Both husbands and wives in couples with more traditional housework arrangements report higher sexual frequency, suggesting the importance of gender display rather than marital exchange for sex between heterosexual married partners,” the study concludes.
But is this really true? University of Alberta professor Matt Johnson didn’t buy it. He did his own study, analyzing data from 1,338 German couples, and found that, on the contrary, couples in which the men did do housework had more and better sex. And an April 2014 study published in the journal Sex Roles showed that when household chores weren’t divided equally, women were less satisfied with their marriages.
However, this dissatisfaction was tied to expectations: women were unhappy in their relationships only if they felt the chores should be split more equally. If they were happy with the division of labor, whether or not it was technically considered equal, they tended to be happy with their relationships. The study’s authors concluded that a relationship’s happiness isn’t so much about men doing their share of the housework, but about whether expectations are met.
“Determining who does what in the home is a complex negotiation that reflects underlying power dynamics in the household,” writes Indiana University’s Natasha Quadlin. It could be that the success of this negotiation, and the related power dynamics, are the real key to marital happiness – not who loads the dishwasher.
The key to keeping it hot
We might like to believe we’re enlightened and progressive enough that our biology doesn’t dictate who we’re attracted to. But in reality, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Women are drawn to men with strong jawlines and deep voices – characteristics indicating high testosterone. Men are attracted to women with small waists and wide hips, the markers of fertility. Science has even found that who we’re attracted to – and who is attracted to us – is tied in with our menstrual cycles.
So why fight nature? If you don’t want to deal with the garbage and the auto maintenance, go ahead and let your man handle it. And if you’re a girly-girl like me and love nothing more than rocking babies to sleep, cooking up a storm and making your home lovely, do it without guilt. Embrace those sexist roles to your heart’s content; it could actually benefit your relationship, and your sex life too. (Although what’s the difference, really? A relationship without a hot sex life isn’t much of a relationship.)
The key is knowing what you want, and making sure your partner is down with it. If either of you is seething with resentment over the division of labor, no one is going to be having hot sex, and your relationship will suffer. Don’t be afraid to conform to gender roles, or to flip them on their heads, if that’s what works for you. When Hillary Clinton made that cookie-baking comment, she wasn’t knocking domesticity. Here’s the rest of the quote: “The work that I have done as a professional, a public advocate, has been…to assure that women can make the choices, whether it’s full-time career, full-time motherhood or some combination.”
Feminism is all about having the freedom to live the life you want to live. I just wish I’d understood that a little sooner.
Images via tumblr and wifflegif
Comment: What is the division of labor like between you and your partner?
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Elizabeth lives in Brooklyn with two daughters, occasional mice and innumerable to-do lists. She runs a nine-minute mile, bakes a mean chocolate chip cookie, and can always be persuaded to sing at a karaoke bar. Follow her on Twitter.