Negotiating Equality in Domestic Partnerships

In his classic study of marriage, Dempsey shows the level of work required to negotiate power and inequality within heterosexual relationships. While both men and women noted that marriage has some specific advantages for men and women, overall, the participants noted that men’s power was more overt when it came to doing unpaid work, personal autonomy, and how they managed their leisure time outside the home. Different patterns emerge in studies of homosexual couples.

"Even if a wife can get a husband to the negotiating table, achieving change in key facets of marital relationships will often prove very difficult. Both partners have important resources that can deliver power but, up to this point in time, males are far more advantaged than females structurally and ideologically." - Ken Dempsey.
Ken Dempsey on gender inequality in heterosexual marriage

Dempsey found that both men and women said they supported equality, but when it came to doing housework and bargaining day-to-day work in the family, men were less willing to compromise. Women were at least twice as likely as men to say their spouse offered inadequate emotional support, including less communication, not spending enough time together, being preoccupied with work and outside interests, and lacking initiative in organising joint activities.

Dempsey argued that while much of feminist efforts focused on changing women’s consciousness, the modern challenge was not convincing men and women about equality. Generally, in Western contexts, men and women will support this ideal in principle. The challenge for men was to develop a “moral commitment” to putting equality into action, especially in emotional and domestic labour.

Negotiating work and family amongst lesbian couples

Gillian Dunne has conducted various studies on women, with a special focus on lesbian experiences. Her collective research shows that up until 2000, much of the feminist literature had ignored the work experiences of lesbians. Dunne’s data show that lesbian women grow up with the expectation of being self-sufficient. This bucks against Western society’s expectations of heterosexual women, who are expected to eventually become dependent on a man. Instead, the women in Dunne’s studies feel that they have the support of their partner, but none of the restrictions they see in heterosexual couples.

There are differences in the work experiences of lesbians based around class:

“The economic dimension of moving beyond heterosexuality poses particular problems for women from working-class backgrounds or those who are educationally disadvantaged. Rather than following their peers into traditional low-paid female work, many respondents who had entered male dominated craft occupations, or returned to education on ‘coming out’, spoke of the practicalities of sexuality influencing that decision.”

Dunne finds that couples who had children generally agreed to change their work commitments and accept lower pay while their children were young so that they could balance family life and work. Not all lesbian couples experience complete egalitarianism, but when things become unfair, they are more willing to discuss and work through conflict relative to the problems that women experience in heterosexual couples.

The issue with equality, Dunne argues, is with the way in which society conceives of “work” for men and women. Male success in Western society is measured against paid work. This comes at the expense of time spent doing domestic work, leisure with their partner, emotional support and fatherhood. Women’s success is measured in the opposite way: in providing care in the domestic sphere. As lesbian couples are freed from this dichotomy, this enables them to better negotiate work and family life.

Photo credits:

John Morton via Flickr. Adapted by Zuleyka Zevallos.
Barry Pousman via Flickr. Adapted by Zuleyka Zevallos