Conjugal roles



Oakley - before industrialisation, women played an important and complimentary role to men. In 1841-1914, the women's place became in the home. 

Hall - women in middle-class families could work.

Land- the family wage was accepted as a way of keeping the family stable.

Dunne - 37 cohabiting lesbian couples were studied and it was discovered there were no set roles for each person - fair share was taken. 

Dobash & Dobash- women were not likely to report cases of domestic violence out of fear. Shows patriarchal fear still exists in a marriage.

1 of 11

Young & Willmott

Completed a study in Bethnal Green in the 1950s on working class families where it was discovered men were the breadwinners and the female of the house was the person who engaged in emotional work. Men were not involved in the domestic side of the household, spending leisure time with their work friends. Female relatives helped each other out.

Division of labour was symmetrical in the 70s. 72% of males did the housework alongside their wives.Husbands and wives enjoyed leisure time together. Housewife job is a social construct - it is not natural. 

Reasons for the rise

  • social changes in the 20th century
  • labour saving devices
  • better housing
  • women in employment

Oakley criticises this as they took one domestic task a week as symmetrical - women may have still carried the majority of the burden. 

2 of 11

Inequalities within conjugal roles

Housework and childcare

Oakley - women still undertake the majority of the household tasks despite Young & Willmott's study. 

Hours worked

Gershuny - Majority of women who engage in paid work are also the member of the household to deal with the domestic tasks. This is known as the dual burden. Men don't have to deal with the dual burden as they simply focus on the paid work and don't engage in domestic tasks - inequality.

Inequality of power

Lukes - Wives possess no ideological power. Women will have no say in the important decisions made in the family unit - all down to the husband. Husbands will set the agenda for marital debate whereas the female will simply adhere to what her husband wants. 

3 of 11

Inequalities with conjugal roles x2

Inequality of money management

If a female has joint control over money, it is because the budget is tight and cuts must be made to allow financial issues to be resolved - females will go without luxuries to provide necessities. 

When there is more money to fund both the husband and the wife, there tends to be less inequality as they can afford luxuries for them both but this still tends to be male-controlled.

Edgell - men tend to make the big decisions about money whereas the female will make decisions about things like food shopping.

Inequality of invisible and emotional work

Duncombe and Marsden - emotional work is a type of invisible work. Women are naturally trained to be empathetic and therefore they understand emotional needs better than men. Creates yet another job for women. Invisible work such as finding out a time to prepare the tea that suits everyone also exists.

4 of 11

Move towards equality

Young & Willmott - March of Progress view on the family

Gershuny - working women tend to do less housework - tasks are shared but still divided e.g men complete DIY tasks whilst women cook. There is a trend towards equality between couples as shown by the increase in women in paid employment. 

Commercialisation of housework- Silver & Schol - believe housework is now commercialised as goods and services are created to allow women to spend less time in the kitchen. As women also work, they can afford these items. 

Criticisms - 

Dunne - division of labour will continue due to deeply rooted 'gender scripts' - Gender scripts only exist with heterosexual couples. 

Duncombe & Marsden - women are expected to do a triple shift including emotional work. 

Pahl & Vogler - found pooling (joint bank accounts) were more common with couples who were both in full-time jobs but men still managed to make more of the decisions. 

5 of 11

Functionalists - domestic division of labour

Parsons - identifies two conjugal roles within the family - 

expressive role of the homemaker

instrumental role of the breadwinner

Argues the gender division of labour is functional to the family - believes the division of labour is biologically based with women being naturally suited to the role of nurturing, the men the role of providing.

New Right theorists would agree with functionalists that the female's biologically innate instincts are to provide for the family with the expressive role. 


Feminists would argue the family actually creates these roles for the female as the homemaker is not a natural role given that it is not found in all societies and oppresses women. 

6 of 11


Reject the March of Progress view. Family is patriarchal with male domination. 

Housewife role - Oakley argues that the housewife role is the primary role for women. It is the result of industrialisation and before then, females and males were similar in the household. 

Women excluded from the workforce - confined to the home. Men became the sole breadwinners and the primary source of income that feminists were forced to rely upon.

the housewife role is socially constructed - it is not natural as it is not found in all societies. 

Oakley found no evidence of symmetry within the nuclear family and disputes Willmott & Young's research into the March of Progress view as 72% of males could have washed the dishes once a week and still had their household classed as symmetrical. 

Boulton - we need to see who is responsible for tasks, not just who performs them. Wife is seen to be responsible for the children's welfare whereas the men just help. Less than 1/5 husbands take part in major childcare.

7 of 11

Domestic violence

British Crime Survey - domestic violence counts for 1/6 of all crimes.

Around 6.6 million domestic assaults per year

Mirlees Black - most victims are women. 99% of all incidents against women are committed by men.

Nearly 1/4 women have been assaulted by a partner with 1/8 suffering repeatedly.

Dobash & Dobash - women's refuge centres in Scotland used police and court records to find violence against women tended to occur when a husband saw a challenge to his authority.

Coleman - women were more likely to have experienced 'intimate violence' across all four types of abuse.

Yearnshine - average woman will suffer 35 attacks before reporting the incidents to the police.

Cheal - police less willing to get involved as the family is a private sphere and is a good thing that agencies should not get involved in. Individuals are free agents so it is assumed that a woman is free to leave domestic abuse.

8 of 11

Rad fem view of domestic violence

Firestone & Millet - D&D research shows evidence of patriarchal family structure.

Family is the main source of female oppression.

Domestic violence is a way of exerting power.

9 of 11


Robertson Elliot - rejects radical ideas of patriarchy in the family as not all men are aggressive or dominant.

Radical feminists fail to explain child abuse in a marriage - how is this patriarchal?

Mirlees Black - 1/7 men are likely to experience domestic violence. 1/20 repeatedly so.

  • children and young people are also at risk
  • lower social classes
  • rented accommodation
  • drug users/high alcohol consumption
10 of 11

Domestic violence, inequality & stress

Wilkinson -

Inequality means some families have fewer resources than others

Those on low income/living in crowded areas are more likely to experience higher levels of stress.

This means they will be more likely to lash out and have their partner become a victim of domestic abuse.

11 of 11


No comments have yet been made

Similar Sociology resources:

See all Sociology resources »See all Families and households resources »