Honey, I'm home - what's for dinner?

Women got jobs and votes, but they're still holding brooms and diapers

Susan Maushart's new book, "Wifework: What Marriage Really Means for Women," charges that the institution of marriage has failed women. Trained as a sociologist, Maushart assembles an overwhelming amount of data documenting how marriage has perpetuated inequities between husband and wife.

In spite of our rhetoric of equality, she claims, the numbers suggest otherwise. Married women perform between two-thirds to three-quarters of household labor - even when they work full time - and these hours do not include time spent with children. When kids enter the picture, wives typically contribute five times as many hours on child-care as their husbands.

Maushart packs her polemic with statistics as disheartening as these and worse, most of them drawn from the recent spate of sociological studies and books that chart the same territory. These numbers aren't new, yet the picture that "Wifework" paints is so grim that I found myself, a 30-something feminist who fancies herself part of an egalitarian marriage, growing more and more alarmed. Are things really this bad? And if so, why haven't they changed?

Maushart doesn't have that much to add to what feminists since Mary Wollstonecraft have been saying. Her spin is to use evolutionary biology to explain the origins of our behavior. Maushart's argument goes something like this: Unlike most animal species, humans have very long cycles of pregnancy, lactation, and child- rearing. Monogamy arose as a way of making sure men stuck around to take care of their more biologically "vulnerable" wives. In return, women offered men "the myriad tasks of physical and emotional nurture" that Maushart terms "wifework." Things changed with the advent of birth control and the two-income family. Women just don't need men in the same way they used to.

The clincher, of course, is that women are still getting married. While their reasons for marrying are undoubtedly as diverse as they've always been, most women today believe that they're freely choosing to be part of an equal partnership. This, according to Maushart, is the problem. For while many men and women profess egalitarian ideals, marriage itself hasn't changed - most of us still conduct our lives according to traditional gender roles, though we individually and collectively deny this fact. Women are still performing wifework, and "paying through the nose for it" - with higher rates of depression, physical assault, nervous breakdowns, loneliness, insomnia, guilt, shame, and low self-esteem than their single counterparts and their husbands.

At moments like this, Maushart seems ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater. But not quite. Because it's not just men who benefit from marriage: Children do, too. Maushart, the author of a book on motherhood and a mother of three, draws from sociological studies and personal experience when she comments that "the truly awful news of the post no-fault divorce era - and it is news we have tried our damnedest to deny - is that marriage is good for kids." She seems disheartened by this news, perhaps because she can offer few alternatives.

Yet in spite of her vehemence in pounding home marriage's injustices, much of "Wifework" left me cold. Maushart's decision to include personal anecdotes about her own two failed marriages made me further distrust the intensity of her polemic. The problem lies not in the decision to include personal material but rather in her failure to stay in control of her own voice. Righteous anger too easily slips into what reads as bitterness and sour grapes.

Maushart further undermines her authority with a tendency to make sweeping and unfounded generalizations, such as her statement that happy marriages must be the result of two people dedicated to "lying, obfuscation and fantasy." Her reductionist portrayal of men as cretins is even more insulting. While the numbers clearly show that most men need to shoulder equal responsibility for housework and child-care, many husbands (like their wives) are struggling to redefine their role in a society still functioning as if someone stays at home.

For all the effort Maushart spent dredging up the awful statistics that fill her book, she could have talked to at least one so-called happily married couple to get their version. Rather than repeat the familiar attack on patriarchal institutions, why not look at how some couples might be transforming marriage into a partnership that reflects both of their lives?

Anyone who wants a more perceptive examination of the complexities of marriage should turn to other authors - for starters, Marilyn Yalom's cultural history "A History of the Wife," Lynn Darling's essay "For Better and Worse," Marianne Moore's poem "Marriage," and Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina." For while the numbers show that we're not yet where we should be, they don't tell the whole story.

• Heather Hewitt is a freelance writer in New York City.

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