As Long as Our Policies Toward Families Suck, Women Will Bear The Domestic Burden

My mom came of age as a feminist in the late 70s, and man, did it show.

She didn’t believe in women taking a man’s name upon marriage. She gifted my two sisters and I a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves for Christmas when I was fourteen (and I’ve been having stunning orgasms ever since, so thanks, mom!). And she believed stubbornly, resolutely, in women’s ability to have a career and a family. When she told us of the dreams she’d had as a young woman, she liked to quote this 1980 perfume commercial—she could “bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan.”

Which is why a recent report from the Council on Contemporary Families would depress her to no end. Written up in an New York Times op-ed, the reports follow decades of data on young Americans’ views toward gender roles. They suggest that actually, since the early nineties, young Americans’ notions of gender roles within the family may have become more conservative.

According to the research, while in 1994, only 42% of high school seniors said the best family arrangement was a male working outside and a woman worked in the home, by 2014, 58% of high school seniors said they preferred that arrangement.

This trend was particularly noticeable among young men. While in 1994, 83% of young men disagreed with the idea that the best family arrangement consisted of a man who worked outside the home and a woman who worked within it, by 2014 only 55% of men rejected this idea. In the same time period, women’s agreement with the statement fell from only 85% to 72%.

There are a lot of potential explanations for this: Backlash against women’s gains in the political and economic realm. Rabid campaigning from conservative groups.

But in her New York Times op-ed, Council on Contemporary Families Director of Research Stephanie Coontz suggests one more: The lack of affirmative family support policies in the United States. While young people a generation ago were heady with the dream of domestic and public equality, Coontz argues, today’s young people have seen that without material and social support for family, dreams of gender equality might remain just that.

In contrast, Coontz points out that in Europe, where comprehensive pro-family policies include paid parental leave, socialized medical care, and adequate childcare options, public acceptance of nontraditional familial gender roles has continued to rise.

Which makes sense. Ideology doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and without concrete material support for workers and caretakers of all genders, there’s no possibility of reaching an equitable division of labor within the home or without.

And we know the women most harmed by the atrocious lack of social support in the United States aren’t the women “making the bacon and frying it up in a pan” in the corporate or professional world, like my own mother—they’re the women whose poverty and racial marginality mean they have rarely had the option of working only in the home. And while women with privileges like wealth and whiteness can lean in to working double shifts at the office and in the home, paying nannies and maids to take care of the details, most women simply cannot.

This is why feminism can’t be a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps ideology, can’t focus on the willpower or accomplishments of individual women alone. We don’t face individual struggles.

So let’s retire the image of the woman who can bring home bacon, cook it in a pan, and make sure the men around her feel acceptably masculine in the process. Instead, let’s commit to a collective struggle for the policies that will actually enable gender equality in people’s real lives—policies like paid family leave, universal healthcare, universal education, a living wage, and universal childcare.

We can keep Our Bodies, Ourselves, though; some things (uh…the clitoris) are classics for a reason. Thanks, mom.

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing her masters.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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