I am doing the cleaning at home by myself. I am doing more cleaning every week. My dear, what am I doing?

We divide domestic work based on what criteria? Here, the chorus of course replies saying “according to gender” –but beyond that how is this gendered division of labor established in the daily lives of people who live different lives and who has different worldviews, income levels, and opportunities?

The answer provided by Durkheim, the “father” of sociology argues that the gendered division of labor has increased the dependency between men and women, that is, ultimately, it unified the family as an organic whole and ensured its permanence. According to this logic, gendered division of labor is not just a category that defines and explains existing reality, but also a morally positive and desirable phenomenon (Even after 125 years from the time Durkheim published The Division of Labor in Society this logic still seems very familiar to us, doesn’t it? This gives me the chills.) For me, what is interesting here is that Durkheim saw that the family members might not actually want to stay together and therefore a bond which would push (or even force) them to stay together had been formed. By the 1950s, this time Talcott Parsons, the “father” of American sociology, completely ignoring this issue in his theory, which is a variation on Durkheim’s arguments, conceptualized family as a cluster of people organized around harmonious and common interests. According to Parsons, each family member was undertaking the domestic work that would contribute the most to the welfare of the family without any conflict. In short, men were doing what they do best and work in paid jobs to bring home money, and women were doing what they do best and take care of men and children, that is, they were doing the housework.

There are a lot of (wrong) assumptions here. Simply put, the definition of gendered division of labor provided here is not division of housework, but division of paid and unpaid labor by gender. These theories did not capture the experiences of many women even at the time they were developed: women who are from the working class, women who are peasants, women who are not racially privileged…  Women were working in paid jobs both in France in the late 1800s and in America in the 1950s. However, it was of course easy to render non-privileged women invisible. The discussions in the discipline of sociology on the division of housework gained impetus with the entering of white middle-class women in the labor force at increasing rates since the second half of the 1960s and as some women started to become sociologists and develop their own concepts.

My intention here is not to offer a review of the entirety of discussions or particularly feminist theories on domestic work; many other who could undertake this task better than I can have already done that. I just want to write on a number of concepts and approaches (not necessarily feminist) within sociology that have been recently picking my brain during my own introspective adventure.

In short, as the fact that women also work in paid jobs and bring home money sink in the minds of sociologists, the question of why domestic labor has been taken into consideration by women at an unproportionate rate: the limits of functionalism has been reached. In mainstream sociology, where the word feminist rarely finds a place for itself, the order of a accession to the throne was based on the resource/bargain model and exchange theories.

According to the resource/bargain model, married partners engage in a veiled bargain based on the resources they bring into the marriage. The partner who brings in less resources (what is meant by a “resource” here is the wage that is brought home, educational level, professional prestige and status) is in a disadvantaged position in bargaining and has to settle for more housework. According to the exchange theory, the softer model of the resource/bargain model, partners try to contribute to the household at least as much as their partners in order to maintain the marital status; therefore, the less paid partner tries to close the gap by undertaking more housework. In the more aggressive, game theory inspired version of this model, each partner has a “divorce threat threshold” and the financially advantageous partner has a lower threshold. Although the partner who will suffer more financially from the divorce will try to transfer some of the household work to the other person, she/he has to do this without exceeding the threat threshold and thus undertake most of the housework.


Thinking within the reality of gender wage inequality and the political/economic zeitgeist of rising neoliberalism, such statements seemed quite satisfactory. Indeed, there was no problem with this model insofar as it stuck to the assumption that wives would earn less than male partners. However, empirical studies based on these models demonstrate that ALSO in marriages where women earned more money than husbands, women SOMEHOW tended to undertake more housework and care work than men.


At this point, the theory of “gender stereotypes ” came to help. According to this theory, in cases where the female partner earned more than the male partner, the couple experienced an anxiety of deviation from gender norms, and to compensate for this fear, they developed practices –such as women doing more and men doing less housework each and every day– that would enable them to comply with these norms. Empirical studies that tested this theory demonstrated that men who earn less money than their partners and particularly men who do not make any money, performed their masculinity by not doing housework and women who earn more money from their partners did not actually hang on to housework based on an anxiety that their femininity is diminishing. So, it seems that women were responding in a way that supports the resource/bargaining model and men were responding in a way that supports gender stereotypes theory.

Let’s leave aside the pathetic efforts of popular theories (which were as pathetic as the pink –for women– and gray –for men– covers of Elif Şafak’s book Love) trying to explain human and social life with different models for women and men. Let’s also put aside the absurdity of the efforts to fit the relationships and marriages of cis and/or non-heterosexual partners –whose visibility and legal status is gradually increasing– into the stereotypes of “gender” roles that are almost always presumed. Let’s put aside the fact that the issue of violence remains to be completely invisible in this literature. The fact that sociology is increasingly fascinated by “big data” and that the discussions on these models reduce this issue to finding the perfect method that would measure exactly how many minutes each individual devotes to housework; for instance, the fact that some sociologist (with the exception of some sociologists who do comparative work) do not confront the fact that  social policies, the wage labor structure in a given country, access to kindergarten and pre-school education (in short, the institutional pillar of the totality of social, political, and economic relations which we call patriarchy) might have very serious effects on the “choices” of “rational” individual about how to divide their housework. After putting aside so many things and thus making our life easier, let’s ask: what is the missing link in these models?

To begin with, housework involves not only the physical labor that goes into specific activities, but also the emotional labor. For instance, as Marjorie DeVaut states in her book Feeding the Family, cooking is not an activity that starts the moment you put your kitchen apron on your waist and ends the moment you turn off the stove. It involves many other jobs from thinking about and planning for that night or for the whole week which meals will be done (this includes thinking about who likes which food, remembering the last time when same or similar dishes were done in order not to repeat oneself, and acquiring the necessary ingredients) to gathering the members of the household around the table and encouraging the family conversation during the meal. It is neither possible to measure this process with an answer given to the question “How many minutes did you spend today on cooking” nor accurately translate the burden of having the ultimate responsibility on your shoulders even if someone else does the job that needs to be done.

Secondly, in the models that I discussed above, housework is considered to be a group of activities from which everybody, men and women, escapes, nobody would do if possible and on which everybody comes up with various strategies to delegate it their partners (except the women of the gender stereotype model and those women, as I said above, constitute a type that is not seen in real life). So, is this how we experience housework? According to The Second Shift which was written by Arlie Hochschild, who popularized the idea that housework is women’s “second shift”, housework itself can turn into a matter of strategy between the partners. The argument here is that the exchange which is engaged in the marriage or other relationships has dimensions that cannot be reduced to the income earned or professional status. Hochschild conceptualizes this dimension as the “gratitude economy”. That is, partners contribute to the relationship not only with their wages, but also with the “gifts” they give to each other. A hierarchy of gratitude is formed between the giver and the recipient which necessitates to reciprocate the gift.  The gift here does not have to be a physical object. For instance, being the party responsible for going to the grocery to buy bread can be considered as a gift; and this is exactly what is meant by housework becoming a strategy.

I think that this idea is very ingenious, but it is not adequately emphasized. I understood this concept the best when an example of a couple who are both working white-collar, high-paid jobs and who have children. The woman who is career oriented is very fond of her job and makes more money than her husband. She also does most of the work in the house herself. However, in the interviews she emphasizes over and over again that the division of labor at home is fair and that they share the housework burden “50-50 percent”. From a “gratitude economy” perspective, what makes this woman’s insistence meaningful is that she repeatedly underlines how lucky she is since her husband did not want her to quit her job after the children were born. Her gratitude for not having to quit her job makes it possible for this woman not only to undertake housework without any concerns, but also to whole-heartedly believe that her husband is a very egalitarian man who shares the burden of housework fairly. Convincing ourselves in this way that our unequal relationships are egalitarian is something that we all do or at least witness.

When these two points are considered together, I think that in the context of emotional meanings attributed to housework and the gratitude that is circulated between individuals, housework (or at least some forms of it) can turn into something that one is “happy to do”, that “is relaxing”, “is therapeutic” and “does not feel like work”.

With all these ruminations, I’m not sure what I am actually trying to get at. It is just that these days my mind is always busy with these thoughts. What keeps me thinking about these things and makes me dig out and reread my old notes and books is the situation that I found myself in. Stuck in the US’s immigration bureaucracy, I have not been able to go to work for two months. That is, if I may use the expression that my relatives used to bug me, I sit at home and “eat my husband’s money”. My relationship with housework, which has always been on the verge of an obsession, also gets its share. I am the embodiment of the theory of exchange (that I have smashed above). I have entered into the cycle of “since I do not bring home any money, then I shall do a lot of housework”. I am stuck in this cycle, but my exchange is not reciprocated.  My civil engineer husband (!) spends five and sometimes six days a week at his mountaintop construction site. And I am doing the cleaning at home by myself. I am doing more cleaning every week. My dear, what am I doing?

 A: Look, there is a dish called “dolma”. You stuff the paprikas with rice and meat and then cook it. It tastes really good. Would you like to have some for dinner on Saturday?

J: Ayşe, you are trying to cook only because you are feeling guilty. What about not acting like this?

A: Then, I can bake a tart, maybe.

J: No, there is no need for you to do anything.

A: No, no, tart is fine. I will bake a tart.


The wheels of our household’s tiny economy of gratitude are not turning. The value of that tart I made at the rate of gratitude does not satisfy me. As I wipe the countertops and rub the sinks, concepts and theories run wild in my mind. I do not know what kind of a division of labor we will reinstitute in our house when this exceptional situation in our relationship is over and things get back to their normal course. On what standard of cleanliness will this man who has always kept his desk tidy never swept the floors of his house where he lived alone before marriage and I who always has a messy desk but wiped the floors of my house where I lived alone before marriage agree? Who will make concessions? To what extent these concessions will be determined according to the gratitude account? Will pondering the division of housework also be my work?

How do you divide up housework? Does marriage kill division of labor? What is the currency of your gratitude economy? Let’s meet in the comments section…

The main visual is Vermeer’s Küchenmagd; the in-text visuals are from the House/Hold series of Csilla Klenyánszki.

Translator: İpek Tabur

Proof-reader: Müge Karahan

For the original in Turkish / Yazının Türkçesi için


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