A Call to Civil Society warns that the institutions most critical to democratic society are in decline. "What ails our democracy is not simply the loss of certain organizational forms, but also the loss of certain organizing ideals - moral ideals that authorize our civic creed, but do not derive from it. At the end of this century, our most important challenge is to strengthen the moral habits and ways of living that make democracy possible." I suggest that American institutions have traditionally been organized around gender and that the loss of this organizing principle explains many of the trends discussed in the report. Specifically, the continued centrality of gender in marriage - and its growing irrelevance everywhere else - helps explain many contemporary family problems. The solution is to restore marriage to a privileged status from which both spouses gain regardless of gender.
The family trends we are now seeing reflect a conflict between the ideals central to marriage and those that define almost all other institutions. Growing numbers of Americans reject the idea that adults should be treated differently based on their gender. But it is difficult to create a new model of marriage based on such a premise. For many people, assumptions about gender equality conflict with the reality of their marriages. It may hardly matter if one is male or female in college, on the job, at church, in the voting booth, or almost anywhere else in public. But it surely matters in marriage. The family, in short, is still organized around gender while virtually nothing else is. Alternatively, marriage has not been redefined to accommodate the changes in male-female relations that have occurred elsewhere. This, I believe, is the driving force behind many of the problematic trends identified in A Call to Civil Society.
Stable marriages are forged of extensive dependencies. Yet trends toward gender equality and independence have made the traditional basis of economic dependency in marriage increasingly problematic. The challenge is to reinvent marriage as an institution based on dependency that is not automatically related to gender. Both partners, that is, must gain significantly from their union, and both must face high exit costs for ending it.
Despite dramatic changes in law and public policy that have erased (or minimized) distinctions between men and women, married life has changed more slowly and subtly. In the last four decades, the percentage of married women in the paid labor force increased from 32 percent to 59 percent, and the number of hours that wives commit to paid labor increased apace. While men do not appear to be doing much more housework today than they did two decades ago, women are doing less in response to their commitments to paid labor. Women did 2.5 times as much household labor as their husbands in 1975. By 1987, the ratio was 1.9. Wives' share of total (reported) household income increased marginally, from 35 percent in 1975-1980 to 38 percent in 1986-1991. In such small ways, husbands and wives are increasingly similar. Still, marriages are hardly genderless arrangements. My research for Marriage in Men's Lives showed that most marriages in America resemble a traditional model, with husbands as heads of households, and wives who do most housework and child care. Given the pace at which gender distinctions have been, or are being, eliminated from laws, work, school, religion, politics, and other institutions, the family appears to be curiously out of step.
One reason gender is still a central motif in marriage is because masculinity (and possibly, femininity) are defined by, and displayed in marriage. As the title of Sara Berk's book proclaimed, the family is The Gender Factory. Consider the consequences of unemployment for husbands. If spouses were economically rational, then the unemployed (or lower-paid) partner would assume responsibility for housework. Sociologist Julie Brines found just the opposite. After a few months of unemployment, husbands actually reduced their housework efforts. The reason is that housework is much more than an economic matter. It is also symbolic. "Men's" work means providing for the family and being a "breadwinner," whereas "women's" work means caring for the home and children. Such assumptions are part of our cultural beliefs. Doing housework, earning a living, providing for the family, and caring for children are ways of demonstrating masculinity or femininity. When wives are economically dependent on their husbands, doing housework is consistent with traditional assumptions about marriage. Such women conform to cultural understandings about what it means to be a wife, or a woman. However, a dependent husband departs from customary assumptions about marriage and men. Were he to respond by doing more housework, his deviance would be even greater. Marriage is still the venue in which masculinity and femininity are displayed.
The husband and wife who construct a new model of marriage that doesn't include gender as a primary organizing principle will face challenges. The husband who decides to be the primary child-care provider or the wife who elects to be the sole wage earner will find these unusual marital roles difficult but not impossible to sustain. Relationships with parents may be awkward. Friends may struggle to understand the arrangement if it differs from their own. Employers may also find such an arrangement difficult to understand and accept. Yet as difficult as it may be to forge a new model of marriage, it seems certain that some change is necessary if marriage is to endure.
The title of Goldscheider and Waite's recent book asks a stark question: New Families, or No Families? In "new" families, husbands and wives will share family economic responsibilities and domestic tasks equitably. The alternative, …