Insights and Impact

A Labor of Love? 

From Good Wife to Happy Homemaker to Mom Boss, women have made historic strides—but they still spend 50 minutes more each day cooking, cleaning, and caring for the kids than their male partners


Illustra­tion by
Michael Koelsch

Illustrated, side-by-side images of a housewife and working mother

Sitting before Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, Ray and Anita Judson launch into the same, tired argument about housework.  

Ray returns to the couple’s Bay Area tract home every night wearing the dirty evidence of his job as a forklift operator and cement bag handler. His work is more physically demanding than that of his wife, who performs data entry at a billing agency. Ray outearns Anita, too, bringing in $13.50 an hour to her $8. 

At night, Ray—who considers himself “the man of the house”—retreats to his study to relax and strum his guitar, leaving Anita to clock in for the “second shift,” cooking, cleaning, and caring for Ruby, her 10-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, and Eric, the Judsons’ toddler son. Anita is resentful of her hard-headed husband, Ray is frustrated with his unappreciative wife, and their union, marred by tension, is crumbling. 

The lesson in the story of this troubled couple profiled in Hochschild’s 1989 book, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home? “Hard work” has a multitude of definitions, not all of which include a paycheck.  

“He sees the dust all over him and he feels that’s the hardest job a person can do,” Anita tells Hochschild of her husband. “But he doesn’t think about what I do. I work 24 hours a day! I come home and I work. And there’s the children on top of that! He doesn’t see that.” 

The Judsons are among 50 two-income households that Hochschild interviewed throughout the 1980s for her landmark work. She identified three archetypes for marital roles: traditional, in which the woman “wants to identify with her activities at home”; egalitarian, in which the female partner “wants to identify with the same spheres her husband does, and to have an equal amount of power in the marriage”; and transitional—a blend of the two ideologies.  

While a few of the men and women Hochschild profiled shared egalitarian views—and split the household duties—most couples consisted of an exhausted working wife who navigated the second shift without her husband lifting a finger. In fact, Hochschild found that, on average, women worked an extra month of 24-hour days each year compared to their husbands. “These women talked about sleep the way a hungry person talks about food,” she wrote.  

Thirty years after The Second Shift was published in the wake of the second-wave feminist movement, women have made tremendous strides. They’ve infiltrated every sector of the workforce, claiming 52 percent of professional-level jobs; they earn 60 percent of all undergraduate and master’s degrees; and they split more household and child-rearing duties with their partners than their mothers or grandmothers did.  

Yet, myriad glass ceilings remain intact. While 57 percent of women work outside the home—including 70 percent of mothers with children under 18, a 23 percent jump from 1975—they still take home, on average, 78 cents to every dollar earned by men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And women are still more likely to work more of the second shift than men—labor that, in keeping with centuries of history, remains unpaid, underappreciated, and undervalued.  

Two hundred and fifty years ago, there was a visibility to women’s work in the home. Although the colonial American “good wife” was in many ways subservient to the male head of the household, everyone—even the children—worked, says Kathleen Franz, chair of the National Museum of American History’s (NMAH) Division of Work and Industry and AU historian in residence. “Work is compensated in similar ways, and you’re compensated by your evening meal or the clothes on your back and credit in the local store.”  

The Industrial Revolution, which built steam before the turn of the nineteenth century, saw men abandoning the family farm for factories, mills, and mines, while their wives continued to toil at home—work that, without men’s participation, became invisible. Among white women, the “good wife” gave way to the Victorian “angel in the house.” 

“They’re not supposed to get their hands dirty, so they’re doing work but it’s no longer visible. Or there is somebody enslaved or indentured or paid to be doing that work behind the scenes, and they are probably all women,” says Franz, cocurator of NMAH’s All Work, No Pay: A History of Women’s Invisible Labor, which opened in March. “Especially among a certain class, that hard work of doing laundry, ironing, and sewing becomes invisible.” 

The federal government’s decennial census also reflects a shift in the value placed on women’s unpaid work. In 1870, enumerators were instructed to list a woman’s occupation as “keeping house” if her primary responsibilities included cooking and cleaning for her family or herself. Eighty years later, those who collected census data were told that such activities “do not count as work.”  

Those gender dynamics—women bake the bread and men earn it—remained “entrenched” throughout the early twentieth century, says Kate Haulman, AU history professor and cocurator of All Work, No Pay. And even as female participation in the paid labor force ticked up, from 34 percent in 1950 to 43 percent in 1970 to more than 50 percent a decade later, women were still paid less than their male counterparts. By the mid-’70s, the wage gap stood at about 60 percent of the average man’s salary. 

“We cannot prove a causation, but it certainly seems like there’s a correlation between the persistence of unpaid and underpaid domestic work and women being paid less out in the world,” Haulman says. “We’re still at 80 cents on the dollar for women compared to men, and it goes back to the nineteenth century, to the idea of a household wage. Employers would pay men with the idea that ‘this covers everybody’ and your wife, the woman of the house, does not ‘work’—which was fiction.”  

International events like Women’s Day Off in 1975—in which 90 percent of Icelandic women performed neither paid work nor housework for a day to demonstrate their economic and social impact—and the World Conference on Women, held every five years from 1975 to 1995, brought greater attention to women’s inequality. The Marxist feminist movement Wages for Housework emerged in the 1970s with the goal of compensating women for domestic labor and closing the wage gap outside the home.  

“But then it just didn’t really go anywhere,” Franz says.  

The National Committee on Pay Equity (NCPE) began observing Equal Pay Day in 1996 to call attention to gender-based wage inequality. Its date shifts annually; April 2 this year, according to NCPE, marked how far into 2019 the average woman needed to work to match men’s 2018 earnings.  

Decades later, household labor remains unpaid and, perhaps just as important, uncounted by major economic indicators. Economists focus heavily on the analysis and measurement of a nation’s gross domestic product—the total of goods and services produced in a year.  

But by excluding unpaid labor, including care work, policymakers fail to grasp its impact on children and the elderly, and other factors like women’s well-being and labor force participation rate.  

“The way we collect [GDP] is still very inadequate,” says Maria Floro, AU economics professor and codirector of the Program on Gender Analysis in Economics. “The housecleaning, the meals, caring for young children—those have not been included, and that’s an important economic contribution and important for reproducing society. We all went to college carrying human capital—we didn’t drop from heaven. We were nurtured in that first 18 years of our lives by somebody else, and so what we have been analyzing is a very partial aspect of the economy.” 

The United Nations took a step toward recognizing housework in 2015, measuring the “proportion of time spent on unpaid domestic and care work, by sex, age, and location” as part of its Sustainable Development Goals. Data from 90 countries included in the UN’s most recent progress report last year revealed a vast disparity in how that work is allocated, indicating, from 2000 to 2016, women “spent roughly three times as many hours in unpaid domestic and care work as men.”  

The gap isn’t nearly as pronounced in the United States—where, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women spend 135 minutes per day on household activities, compared to 85 minutes for men. However, the disparity is still noticeable, especially among less affluent women who lack affordable childcare, job security, and benefits.  

A 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that among two-income couples, men were more likely than women to say they share childcare and household responsibilities equally, even when the data doesn’t support their claims. And a 2018 Center for American Progress analysis of American Time Use Survey data revealed that from 2011 to 2016, working mothers with a child under age six spent more time on combined paid work, unpaid household labor, and family care each day (14.2 hours) than their male partners (13.5).  

Why do these inequalities persist in a society in which dual employment among married couples was nearly 49 percent in 2018? Outdated gender roles reinforced over centuries, for one.  

“It’s also our unwillingness as a culture, as a nation, to ask, ‘Why?’ and not give in to it being naturalized,” Franz says. “A lot of people participate in maintaining that mythos that women love doing this.” 

Or, that men simply can’t or won’t pick up the slack. A 2015 New York Times article suggested that sociologists like Paula England had it right when they claimed that the gender revolution of the last several decades has been largely one-sided. As women have assumed careers and roles traditionally held by men, there has not been a similar migration of men into positions historically occupied by women.  

Reflecting on two decades of progress in the 2012 edition of The Second Shift, Hochschild says that, of all the goals of the women’s movement, one—women expressing their talents, empowering themselves, and demanding equality—has been embraced by society, while another—sharing the duties of care and elevating their value—has been cast aside. In many ways, in the absence of government-subsidized care programs or a more flexible work culture, care remains a hand-me-down job, from men to women, and from higher-income women to lower-income women. Or, if it’s shared more equally, it’s done so by two overworked partners.  

“I just think it was a wrong turn, and in the way the second shift popped up and feminism popped up as a social movement, we could have a time social movement, where we value time, family, and community as part of the balance we’re going for,” Hochschild told American in May. “I think it could catch on.” 

In the Pew study, a majority of working parents said it was “difficult” for them to balance work and family obligations—a sentiment expressed more often by women (60 percent) than men (52 percent).  

Today’s typical married couple is quite different from Ray and Anita Judson. Second shift responsibilities are more evenly distributed—although they remain unequally so—and husbands are generally more supportive of their wives’ careers and aspirations. In general, more couples are on the same page, but, like Ray and Anita, they remain in search of a better solution.   

“The difference in the 1980s was women had changed faster than the workplaces they went out into and the men they came home to. I think that’s no longer the case,” Hochschild says. “I think men have changed, too, and caught up, but I think it’s more often there’s a husband and wife who agree on the kind of life they want and are up against a workplace that doesn’t fit either of them.” 

Clockwise from left: NMAH's All Work, No Pay exhibit; a half-apron worn by a 1950s housewife; assorted buttons from the 1970s Wages for Housework movement; Mother’s Helper, a 1968 board game from Milton Bradley 

All work, no pay

Chronology is often a historian’s greatest storytelling tool. In weaving together centuries of history, curators can either demonstrate change over time, or—in the case of women’s unpaid domestic labor—show unsettling continuity.  

When AU history professor Kate Haulman and Kathleen Franz, chair of the National Museum of American History’s (NMAH) Division of Work and Industry and AU historian in residence, first brainstormed ideas for an exhibit on women and labor to cocurate at the Smithsonian, they opted not to tell the familiar story of Rosie the Riveter or present a deep dive on the emergence of women in wage labor. Instead, they wanted to shed light on a history of invisibility. 

All Work, No Pay: A History of Women’s Invisible Labor opened in March as a first-floor case display at NMAH as part of the Smithsonian’s Women’s History Initiative. Through clothing and accessories, the exhibit chronicles women’s housework and child-rearing duties from 1790 to the present.  

Women donning utilitarian housedresses in the eighteenth century, Nelly Don frocks during the Great Depression, and yoga pants today may have experienced very different Americas—but they have shared the burden of unpaid household responsibilities. Haulman and Franz told many of their stories by mining NMAH’s collection for wardrobe items, many of which had never seen the light of day, Haulman says. 

The NMAH costume collection boasts about 40,000 items, from skirts and aprons to shoes, eyeglasses, and underwear. Choosing the right pieces took months.  

At NMAH, there are two ways to track objects: cards and digital records. Card catalogs—sorted by object type, donor, and item number—line a 10-to-12-foot wall in a locked room in the costume collection, with drawers stacked from below a curator’s waist to the ceiling. The cards record an item’s provenance, while the digital record pinpoints its location.  

Haulman and Franz cross-referenced the two to generate a master list of possibilities for the exhibit. But it’s the wardrobe pieces—many of which are stored in metal drawers and acid-free boxes in a cold, dark, fourth-floor room—that “will tell you stories” that neither the catalog cards nor the digital records can, says Nancy Davis, NMAH curator emeritus. A stain on an apron might reveal where a woman rested her hand as she cooked. The way a dress is frayed hints at how its owner wore it.  

“What we wanted to see was the enduring nature of work over time,” Franz says. “Many of these garments are easy to get in and out of. They have big pockets so you can carry things, they don’t show much dirt, and they don’t show much wear. We were trying to find those similarities across centuries—and we [also] found a few surprises.” 

A pair of little boy’s pants made from sugar sacks showcases the skill and resourcefulness of a poor mid-nineteenth-century housewife. A late-nineteenth-century tatted and crocheted skirt, featuring an image of a woman rejecting a man’s proposal (“Needles and pins, needles and pins, when we get married, our trouble begins”), offers a glimpse of a first-wave feminist’s wit. 

A conservator examined each item to determine its fitness for display. The group selected several sets of garments to ensure that the older, more delicate and light-sensitive pieces could be rotated throughout the year. From there, Haulman and Franz worked with designers, collection managers, and conservators to install the exhibit.  

All Work, No Pay begins with a sign that reads “Your mother doesn’t work here” and concludes with a graphic illustrating the wage gap—with women earning 78 cents for every dollar that a man makes, according to 2013 Census Bureau data. Franz and Haulman hope that, somewhere in between, the exhibit sparks conversations among museumgoers.   

“We’ve just normalized and naturalized [housework as a woman’s responsibility], but why? It doesn’t necessarily have to be that way,” Haulman says. “This conversation about housework as work is not new among academic historians, but it might be a newer conversation for the public.”