What Do Women Want?

May 21, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Brad Wilcox thinks he knows what makes a woman happy in her marriage — a helpful husband. He also thinks that progressives are wrong to assume that conservative ideology —  religious and political — tells men not to be helpful. His New York Times op-ed  on Sunday has the defensive title, “Religious Dads Can Put Kids to Bed, Too.” As Wilcox puts it, “Both feminism and faith give family men a clear code: They are supposed to play a big role in their kids’ lives.”

Wilcox likes religion, especially Christianity, and he likes conservatism, so he is happy to report that in his survey of wives, religious conservatives are the most likely to say that the quality of their marriage is “above average.” Score one for conservatives, or as Wilcox calls them “traditional.”

(Click for a larger view.)

But among the non-religious, women in marriages with traditional gender roles are much less likely to be happy, and by a lot (33% vs. 55% for secular women). How to explain these unhappy conservative women?  Wilcox has a hunch. It’s the men they married.

We also suspect that these groups are less likely to have husbands who have made the transition to the “new father” ideal that’s gained currency in modern America — and they’re not happy with their partner’s disengagement.

Yet even though traditional husbands have become more evolved as fathers, there’s one area where they may differ from progressive dads — housework. The progressive egalitarian man doesn’t just take care of the kids; he also does housework, an activity Wilcox does not mention at all. I downloaded the pdf of his report (linked to in the online version of the NYT piece) and searched for “housework,” “cleaning,” and “cooking.” Nothing.

The conservative/religious dad may be involved with the kids, but the marriage is hardly egalitarian. Wilcox’s epitome of the traditional wife is Anna, a stay-at-home mom he interviewed for a book on marriage.

I feel so blessed to have Greg as a husband. His involvement as a father and leadership in the family only adds to my level of happiness.”

Father, breadwinner, leader. From his niche in TV history, Ward Cleaver smiles approvingly.

As for those women married to traditional but non-religious husbands, they may be less happy for another reason, says Wilcox. They don’t have a church.

We suspect that part of their relative unhappiness, compared with religiously conservative women, is that they don’t enjoy the social, emotional and practical support for family life provided by a church, mosque or synagogue.

Note that even Wilcox won’t say that the benefits of religion have anything to do with belief, faith, prayer or anything else explicitly religious. What nonreligious “traditional” wives aren’t getting is “support for family life.”

I confess that I don’t know much about what churches, mosques, and synagogues provide in the way of support for family life.  Wilcox doesn’t mention anything specific. His phrase “we suspect,” here and in the previous quote, is another way of saying, “We have no evidence for this but we hope it’s true.” So I’ll offer my own guess.

I suspect that for the woman in the traditional gender-role-segregated marriage, church makes a difference because it offers her escape from the home.  Her family roles — wife, mother, housekeeper — are solo numbers, performed in isolation and with little moment-to-moment confirmation from others that she is performing these roles and performing them well.  But at church she finds others who will give that confirmation — the “social, emotional support for family life” Wilcox may be referring to.  But church also offers her other roles — friend or member of some church subgroup or committee — that take her outside of the house. “Traditional” women who do not belong to a church get miss out on the support for their housewifely roles; nor are they valued in non-housewife roles. That lack of validation is a likely source of unhappiness.

Since the 1950s, sociologists have worried about women in traditional marriages, isolated their homes all day, while their breadwinner/leader husbands are in constant interaction with a variety of other people in the world of work. Betty Draper in the first season of Mad Men is an extreme if fictional example. I’m sure she has her counterparts in far less wealthy households. I just can’t think of an example right now. What church provides is not so much support for those isolated roles but friendship, even community.

At least, that’s what I suspect.

No comments: