An attempt to 'save' the family

Issue 

Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women
By Susan Maushart
Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2001
269 pages, $24.95

REVIEW BY ANGELA LUVERA

Prime Minister John Howard's assertion that the family is the best welfare unit reflects his government's attempt to attack women's rights and take society back to his beloved 1950s, forcing women to do even more unpaid domestic labour. In the face of this, the appearance of Wifework, a book that promises to document "the wifework dilemma and explores its consequences" in a way that women will find "lucid, funny, provocative and inspirational", should be a welcome development. It is not.

Susan Maushart's Wifework has gained wide coverage in the corporate media. It draws on the work of many sociologists to provide a thorough, but bleak, picture of the role of women in heterosexual relationships.

For women, becoming a parent is almost inevitably associated with a steep decline in well-being, measured by a huge range of physical and mental health indicators.

Women constitute half the world's population but do two-thirds of the world's work. In marriage, women do more like three-quarters of it. In Britain, wives do 77% of the cooking, 75% of the cleaning and 66% of the shopping. In the US, women do 70% of unpaid work. Researchers estimate that in the US, women still do about 80% of child care — as much as in the 1960s.

In Australia, men perform on average only 16% of the labour involved in looking after their own children, and about 40% of this time is spent in play or recreation. Australian women in full-time employment still do 76% of child care. Many working women may be spending more time with their children than the stay-at-home women of a generation ago.

Becoming a wife will erode your mental health, reduce your leisure, triple your domestic labour, and increase the odds that you will be physically assaulted or murdered. Married women are twice as likely to get depressed as their husbands, especially if the woman is poorly educated and highly economically dependent.

While the evidence in Wifework shows that women are suffering because of the set-up in marriages, this is where the usefulness of the book ends. Maushart fails to understand why women are oppressed and therefore puts forward false solutions to the inequalities in marriage.

According to Maushart, the cause of women's oppression is that "females give birth and males don't. From this single anatomical acorn has grown the mighty oak of patriarchy: a social structure that systematically privileges males and all things masculine, while controlling and constraining females and all things feminine."

Maushart believes that the feminist movement has dismantled patriarchy throughout the English-speaking world, in "every institution in our society, with one exception, marriage".

"Yes, we are liberated now", Maushart tells us. But just who is "we"? The one in four women who will be sexually assaulted by the age of 18? The 30,000 women outworkers in Australia? Women students today who will be still paying off their HECS debt at 65? The vast majority of women workers in casual un-unionised work? The millions of women with eating disorders?

Capitalism

Apart from denying that sexism exists outside of marriage, Maushart's explanation of why women are oppressed is a biological determinist argument that misses the real causes of sexism.

Having the family as a substitute welfare system means that the capitalist rulers of society do not have to pay for it. It's useful to have this labour marked out for one gender in society, because then ideological campaigns are easier. And convincing women that their place is in the home, that they must put their husbands and children first, that whether they are working or not women must do the house work are all part of this offensive.

This sexist offensive is perpetuated through television, radio, newspapers, the education system and advertising. All aspects of society that rate no mention in Wifework.

According to Maushart, children suffer the most from divorce. "For most children, growing up within even a deeply flawed marriage is preferable to growing up with divorce. And if you don't believe me, I suggest you ask your kids", she writes. According to the authors of Boy Troubles, a study conducted by the Centre for Independent Studies, single motherhood is the greatest cause of boys' social and educational woes.

"Clearly the presence of a protective male partner is invaluable to a female during the acute biological crises of pregnancy, childbirth and lactation", states Maushart. So marriages should stay together for the sake of the children. It does not occur to Maushart that if women with children on welfare are living in poverty, then perhaps the government should provide increased payments, free child care and more funding to public schools, health care and women's shelters.

Such measures would surely have a positive impact upon children with one parent, while giving women choices as to whether or not to stay in unsatisfactory relationships. This is a much more empowering option for women than staying in an unhappy marriage for the children.

Division of labour?

Maushart believes that women should get married if they want children. She claims children are better off with a male and a female parent in the home. Her suggestion to ease the burden of domestic labour, child care and emotional care is to harass husbands into doing more. Maushart focuses on marriage as if the rest of society does not exist. It's just the division of labour within marriage that needs fixing!

This is why Wifework has gotten the publicity it has. It is a book that says, "yep, marriage is tough, but keep going for the sake of the children".

Howard reckons the family is the best welfare system. It is the best welfare system if your priority is making money — women taking the place of the welfare system without pay saves a lot of money for big business and the rich, whose taxes can be slashed with the savings. Wifework in effect supports Howard's point of view: don't get rid of the family, just change the division of labour.

Wifework says that the family is in crisis. In the US, over 50% of marriages end in divorce, in Britain the proportion is slightly less, and in Australia the figure is 43%. It is mostly young people who divorce, usually in the first four years of marriage. Women who earn more than their husbands are more likely to divorce, as are wives who are more educated.

This is why Wifework was written, and why it has been circulated so widely. It is part of the conservative attempts to "save" the family so that it can be used as a welfare system substitute.

We need books that tell what marriage is really like for women. Reading that other women are tired and dissatisfied with marriage would help relieve the alienation that numerous women feel right now. Such books would empower women with the knowledge that it is alright to be fed up with being an unpaid doormat. We need books that share these stories and then give a real analysis of why things are the way they are and what we need to do to change them. Wifework is not one of those books.

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