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CAMPBELL Beatrix

Beatrix Campbell is a writer, broadcaster and social commentator.  Her new book is the End of Equality.

Kathy Gyngell is wrong.  Her account of my interview with Jenni Murray about my new book is just wrong.  She claims I said that men’s housework has risen only by a minute over three decades. Ludicrous, she said. Indeed. What I actually said was:

  • The amount of housework contributed by men has increased by a rate of about one minute per day per year across three decades;
  • The amount of child care performed by men – when they’re not cleaning the car or watching the football – has increased by about 10 minutes a day in the last three decades.

Gyngell wasn’t listening. I was trying to say that men’s contribution to housework and to care has increased palpably but pitifully little. Perhaps she is unfamiliar with the vast archive of research on everyday life contained in Time Use surveys that I’ve cited. Here is what international experts at Oxford University, in their research based on around half a million diaries from 20 countries since the 1960s, tell us:

Minutes spent daily on domestic work:

1960s                          2000s

UK
Men                 90 minutes                 148
Women            369                             274

US
Men                105                              173
Women           361                              272

Norway
Men                125                              173
Women           367                              276

The Oxford experts note, however, that the pace of change is slowing  –  men’s contribution to housework shows signs of ‘levelling off or declining.’ We can infer, then, that across half a century, men’s contribution to housework has risen by about one hour – or a rate of a minute per day per year.

Time use research tells us what parents do and with whom. There has been some change, but not much; men spend ‘comparatively little time overall on routine domestic work, much less on child care, and concentrate their domestic time mainly on less routine types of chores, such as DIY.’

In other words, what men and women do in the home remains stiffly gendered. We might have expected that – it probably conforms to our shared common sense.

But the shock to our sensibilities comes with child care. We want to believe that men are no longer merely providers, visitors to the world of women and children, but participating parents; we believe that men and women these days expect to co-operate in the work of care.

The statistics tell a different story: men do more. But not much more.

Men and child care

UK                                  US                             Norway

1970s:             10                                   11                              13
2000s              17                                   23                              22
Women and child care

UK                                  US                            Norway

1970s              26                                   48                              47
2000s              42                                   52                              55

And, contrary to the myth rehearsed by Gyngell and others, that women have fled the hearth and abandoned their children to an empty fridge and the X-box, mothers’ contribution to child care has increased by more than men’s. As Jonathan Gershuny puts it, this is a way of not talking about the problem.

According to Time Use surveys, full-time employed mothers actually spend more time caring for and interacting with their children than in the purportedly golden era of patriarchal family life in the 1950s when mothers were supposed to stay at home and fathers were expected to provide rather than actually parent.

Now, of course, women provide as well as parent. Men do more, a little more, but even then the sexual division of labour remains robustly gendered: Time Use studies consistently show that women do the majority of the routine domestic work that mantains everyday life, whilst men do ‘masculine’ non-routine tasks.

And men’s domestic contribution actually diminishes with marriage and parenthood. When children arrive, women’s housework contribution rises, men’s falls and the “sexual division of labour becomes more traditional”. (Katrina Boyes’ research on Sweden reveals that among two parent, high workload households, women “end up performing four-fifths of housework”.

Family life is not fragmenting. Gyngell’s primitive polarization of the ‘autonomous family’ versus ‘the state’ is irrelevant, and masks what needs to be revealed. Families are not and never have been autonomous – domestic life is intensely regulated, from marriage and sex, to incomes, vaccination, the construction of dwellings, children’s education, who may use violence and when. Or as a friend of mine commented, “it is called civilisation actually”.

Something is certainly going on – but not what Gyngell thinks it is. There are great debates among specialists researching Time Use diaries about how much change is real change, about whether the important changes of the past half century are settling into a new sexual division of labour or whether the trajectory toward convergence will continue, slowly but steadily.

Some commentators, Gyngell among them, are interested in a different story – not whether, as Jill Kirby puts it, we can achieve the ‘presence and commitment of both parents’. That can’t by achieved Gyngell’s model of parenting: that only ensures fathers’ absence. Gyngells and Kirby reckon that children are being ‘nationalised’, as if they were being kidnapped into  a kind of Pyongyang gulag: infants stolen by ‘the  state’ and warehoused in hangars where they are alienated from their mute parents. Where is this happening, and what is this malign state – do they mean Sure Start?

Gyngell’s animus is, of course, with the state. If care and wellbeing were the objective then she might have to turn her gaze toward the nordic social democracies or ‘social capitalist’ Europe, typically Germany, Holland and France; we would have much to learn from those countries where care in all categories – for the young and the old – is resourced, not devolved to a devalued woman working in solitary confinement.

No, her anti-statism bleeds all over the evidence. It isn’t women in general, or feminism in particular, that denigrates the domestic domain or the work of care – on the contrary, there is a vast archive of feminist work and commitment to the importance of domestic work and care. But, like most women, feminism seeks an alternative to Gyngell’s redundant schism between ‘dependence on the state and dependence on the family’; it seeks ways of organizing the labours of love so that they are not wrenched from women but shared and valued.

Nor is it feminism that has harvested what she regards as the dystopian decline of Britain.  Inequality in Britain has risen every single year since 1981. Disinvestment and de-industrialisation of large swaths of Britain inaugurated in 1979 and rehearsed by every successive government, has produced an indebted and – for a quarter of our children – impoverished society.

In my new book, I argue that it is the neoliberal neopatriarchal strategy, so audaciously launched by Margaret Thatcher, that wracked Britain, not feminists –  Kathy Gyngell accords us too much power.

26 comments for: Beatrix Campbell: Kathy Gyngell is wrong about men, housework, childcare – and social change

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