In their study, Willmott and Young generally found that the symmetrical family was most common in affluent, geographically and socially isolated young couples. For example couples who moved out of Bethnal green and away from family influences were more likely to be in a symmetrical relationship and that conjugal roles would be joint. Willmott and Young put this increase in equality down to significant changes in society in the last 100 years. Firstly a change in women’s position in society, geographical mobility with couples moving away from areas they grew up in, technological advances changing the home and higher standards of life. In the main, these factors are inter-linked and go together to bring husband and wife closer and make the home a better place and housework easier which enables men to do more.
Feminists reject the views of the ‘march of progress’ and Willmott and Young. They say that society and division of labour is still unequal and that we are still in a patriarchal society. Ann Oakley does not agree that the family is now symmetrical. She criticises Willmott and Young’s conclusions as exaggerated. For example in interviews, most husbands reported helping out at least once a week but Oakley argues that this is too general and can include any menial task such as making breakfast just once. Oakley did her research and concluded that although there was evidence of men helping, there was no clue as to a trend towards symmetry. Oakley also found that husbands were more likely to help in childcare than anything else but only certain enjoyable aspects of it. Worryingly, the father’s role was defined by couples as being able to ‘take an interest’ and that a good father would play with the kids in the evenings and ‘take them off her hands’ on a Sunday morning. This meant that mothers lost the rewards of childcare and had time only for more housework. So instead of seeing Willmott and Young’s ‘march of progress’ Oakley sees the housewife role as becoming the dominant role for married women. Even though the 20th century saw an increase in the number of married women at work the housewife is still a primary female role. Working women are also mainly concentrated in low-paid jobs which are an extension of a housewife’s role e.g. nursing and childcare.
Sociologists Duncombe and Marsden agree with the feminist view that the division of labour is unequal and that society is still patriarchal. They interviewed 40 couples who had all been married for at least 15 years and came up with the ‘Triple Shift’ theory. In their interviews, Duncombe and Marsden found that not only do housewives do most of the housework as well as paid work but they also do ‘emotional work’. Emotional work was defined as ‘keeping people happy’ and also making sure everything ‘runs smoothly’. Duncombe and Marsden saw women as learning these types of emotional skills and were sometimes holding relationships and marriages together by doing the emotional work. In most cases, men don’t realise there is a problem. Women felt that they had to maintain happiness and stability in the family on their own and that men did not show their feelings often enough. This all meant that women were therefore doing a ‘triple shift’ and therefore far more work in all areas. So the family in this sense is by no means symmetrical.
Feminist Jan Pahl interviewed 102 couple that had children both alone and at the same time. Her interviews were based mainly on financial issues and her findings back up the views of other feminists such as Ann Oakley. Pahl describes four patterns that depend on the type of bank account held and who had control of it and the money. The most common was husband controlled pooling where the account was shared but the man had control and the woman often had a lower income. The least common was wife-control where the woman had control. Often these families have a low or no income and the woman has responsibility for ‘making ends meet’. Pahl concluded that there was therefore a certain degree of equality in only a quarter of families but in all other cases men had most control. She also found that men were more likely to spend money on them selves and women would sacrifice themselves to provide more for her husband and children. Therefore the family was asymmetrical and conjugal roles were separate.
The British Social Attitudes surveys carried out in 1984, ’91 and ’97 found that there was evidence of equality in the home and that there were increasing numbers of tasks carried out by men and there was more sharing in the home. It also found that women had become more involved in tasks habitually carried out by men such as household repairs. Despite this some chores such as washing and ironing were done by women. Also, the numbers of households in which men are mainly responsible still form a small minority.
However damning or conclusive any study is, it can always be criticised and have flaws. Firstly Ann Oakley’s study was not widespread enough as only 40 people and they were only women. Duncombe and Marsden did the same thing and only used a small sample size but interviewed both partners instead of just women. Pahl’s study was more reliable as she interviewed 102 couples both alone and together but it was too specific and looked only at financial aspects.
The cases both for and against in this argument have weight but also have their weaknesses. Some studies were too exclusive and did not look at their subjects in relation to the rest of society. Therefore on the whole the evidence points to one of two things, either that yes there has been some movement towards equality in recent years with some conjugal roles becoming joint and men doing more work at home or that women are still some distance from the type of equality that men enjoy and they are still forced to take more responsibility for housework and as always have less influence in the family then their husbands. Finally, even where there are signs of equality such as the woman having a good wage and a full time job, changes in the family have been limited and therefore the family is not presently symmetrical.
Here's what a teacher thought of this essay
Overall the essay needs more post-modern evidence and also needs to consider family structure in other societies other than Britain.