Mummy, I want to be a housewife

April 26, 1996

Why is it that two decades after the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts many women are still turning their backs on careers and opting to stay at home? Catherine Hakim calls on feminists to get back in touch with the needs of ordinary women and defends a woman's right to be a housewife

It is not often that articles in the British Journal of Sociology are debated with animation on the Jimmy Young show, on the BBC's World at One news programme, on radio phone-in programmes as well as in the press. Yet a debate between social scientists and feminists in the BJS attracted interest not only in Britain but in Australia, New Zealand and in Europe. What happened?

Like most of my colleagues, I always assumed that once sex discrimination barriers came down women would stream into the labour market, choosing paid work and lifelong careers in preference to unpaid domestic work in the home and financial dependence on men. Patriarchal ideology insisting that women were happier at home looking after their families was self-evidently suspect special pleading.

The bar that forced women to resign their jobs on marriage, particularly in the white-collar occupations of teaching and clerical work, had the function of forcing wives to become economically dependent on their husbands. It also reinforced the "normality" of a rigid sexual division of labour in the household, with breadwinning the exclusive responsibility of the husband while care of the home and family was allocated to the wife. It is as well to remember that although the marriage bar was gradually eliminated after the second world war, it did not become illegal until the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act came into force around 20 years ago. Along with others, I wrote about the massive expansion of women's employment in recent decades and expressed surprise at the limited social and economic change that had followed from women's gaining the right to equal opportunities, equal treatment and equal pay in the labour market.

Then the well-rehearsed story began to unravel. First one then another of the facts about women's position fell apart under close examination.

The evidence for many of our conclusions and well-established "facts" about women's work is thin. The postwar expansion of female labour consisted primarily of the substitution of part-time jobs for full-time jobs, suggesting declining work commitment rather than a rise. Part-time workers generally do not have the same work orientations as full-time workers; they are rarely interested in careers and are more satisfied with their jobs.

The lack of childcare services in Britain is not the main barrier to women's employment, as feminists argue. The sex differential in labour mobility and job turnover has remained almost unaltered for the past 20 years. Most important of all, attitudes have changed, but nowhere near as much as we believed. Women's work orientations still differ from men's and their sex-role attitudes continue to have a major impact on employment decisions, especially among the highly qualified.

These unexpected, even unwelcome, findings were reviewed in my article "Five feminist myths about women's employment", in the September 1995 BJS, which went on to ponder why feminist social science had got it so wrong, whether feminists have fallen into the trap of inventing "convenient facts" just as men have done for centuries.

Academic critical response was immediate. Even before my paper was published, a critical comment signed by 11 social scientists was accepted by the BJS editor. A full debate on the "Myths" article was eventually published in the March 1996 issue, with two separate critical comments followed by my response, "The sexual division of labour and women's heterogeneity", which presented further evidence from attitude surveys on men's and women's sex-role attitudes across Europe. I argued that sex differentials in employment experience in Western Europe are nowadays due to personal choice as much as to sex discrimination. Sociologists and economists have overlooked the fact that most women, as well as men, still accept and even prefer differentiated sex roles. The argument is being labelled "preference theory".

Public response was astonishingly vigorous. For two weeks, journalists and their audiences debated whether women did in fact prefer to stay at home or preferred to have paid jobs; whether their preferences were explained entirely by socialisation or by other factors; whether role specialisation in the family was rational and efficient; whether the majority of women differed from men in their attitudes to careers; whether attitudes to the sexual division of labour had stabilised or were still changing in the direction of more egalitarian roles for husband and wife; the reasons for marked social class differences in sex-role attitudes; and the policy implications of women's polarisation into two groups, career-centred and home-centred, with conflicting interests.

One recurrent reaction was that my conclusions were self-evident - so why did feminists not know this? It was put to me that feminists, academics and sociologists were out of touch with the real world, out of touch with the lives of ordinary people. I received a huge mailbag of letters from full-time homemakers thanking me for standing up for the silent majority of housewives and pointing out that they had long felt sidelined and devalued by society, especially by feminists and career women. The fact that I was myself a feminist, an academic and full-time worker somehow made it even more valuable to them that I had "championed the housewife" as someone who had made an equally legitimate and respectable choice of main activity.

This popular response validated my conclusion that feminists have so far represented the interests of career-oriented women far better than those of home-centred women. It also validated my conclusion that the female population is polarising into career women and home-centred women, the two groups having different and even conflicting interests. The current orthodoxy is that all women value employment and family equally, juggling the two with difficulty. In fact, this intermediate group of women, whose preferences are ambivalent, is not representative of all women.

The debate is about what women want, as revealed by nationally representative interview surveys - and even whether women have the ability to know what they want. Unfortunately, most surveys, including the British Social Attitude Survey and the linked International Social Survey Programme, which provides comparative social attitude data for the United States, Western Europe and other countries, do not ask women (or men) about personal preferences and choices. The opinion poll tradition leads to a focus on measuring generalised public approval for women's changing role. Public approval for working wives and mothers does imply reduced discrimination against them, both hidden and overt. But such data do not necessarily reflect personal choices.

A major reorientation of social science research is needed, to address motivations, sex-role attitudes, preferences and choices to complement the almost exclusive emphasis on employment behaviour. For example the 1994 Survey of Working Lives, commissioned by a consortium of government departments, did not bother to collect any information on men's and women's motivations or preferences.

Some social scientists would dispute this reorientation of research. The 11 academics who criticised my "Myths" article reiterated the over-socialised view of human beings, arguing that women do not make real choices, that their behaviour and jobs are determined entirely by their childcare and other family responsibilities, by social forces and institutional factors. They rejected any attention to attitudes and values as motivating factors, on the grounds that this was "blaming the victim" - reiterating once again the feminist view of women as universal victims, denying that women are agents in their own lives just as much as men ever are.

A comparative European survey just published by MORI shows how public approval for working wives coexists with women's personal preferences for a homemaker role in Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Spain. When asked about the ideal lifestyle for women generally, two-thirds to four-fifths of women (and men) of working age in all five countries identified some combination of employment and family as the ideal for women. But more than half of all nonworking women do not intend ever to work again themselves (the exception being Germany, due to the inclusion of East Germany) and among women with jobs, half to three-quarters regard the work they do as just a job rather than a long-term career. Across the five countries taken together, only 14 per cent of women regard themselves as having a career, although many more had a job. Most women also admit that they left full-time education without any clear idea about their work objectives. The 1988 ISSP shows that two-thirds of women as well as men in Britain and West Germany agree that being a housewife is just as fulfilling as working for pay. About half of women and men in Britain and two-thirds of women and men in West Germany accept that a husband's job is to earn the money; a wife's job is to care for home and family. One-quarter of women in the two countries even believe the wife "should stay at home", excluding wage work entirely.

It is understandable that female academics regard their own career preferences as "natural" and "typical", but this should not blind us to the reality of alternative preferences, nor should it lead us to treat alternative preferences as irrational, uninformed or worse.

As the debate developed, the objectors changed ground. I was accused of conflating fact and value, of using survey results on women's preferences to support patriarchal arguments that women should stay at home. But all my survey results underline the diversity of women's preferences, most especially in the wealthier western European societies where more people do not have to work from economic necessity. Another argument was that employers will discriminate against female workers who are known not to be career-oriented. On the contrary, these female workers would be more attractive to employers, as they would offer accumulated experience while remaining in the same job grade, allowing more ambitious people a less competitive race for the top jobs. One might well expect employers to be happy to offer differentiated employment benefits to reliable non-career workers.

The final, ridiculous, objection was that to acknowledge the diversity of women's personal preferences undermines equal opportunities and sex discrimination legislation. As Janet Radcliffe Richards argues in The Sceptical Feminist, egalitarian feminism simply seeks justice for women, insisting on the same rights and freedoms as men have and eradicating selection biases in favour of men, whether conscious or implicit. But this does not necessarily mean men and women will make the same choices throughout life - this remains an empirical question, to be established by research rather than by philosophical argument. Social science research has a major role to play. My discovery of the qualitative diversity of women's preferences between employment and family work suggests we should be monitoring change in this area just as carefully as we monitor the rise and fall of employment.

Catherine Hakim is senior research fellow, London School of Economics.

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