Before my husband, Andrew, and I got married, he was in a book club made up mostly of progressive men. In one meeting, after reading about the disproportionate work women do in taking care of children and elderly parents, all the men strongly agreed how horrific it is that the United States lacked paid maternity leave and adequate equal pay legislation.
But when Andrew asked these left-leaning men how many would be willing to have a spouse who didn’t do the majority of domestic and care work, a silence came over the room.
There is a big difference between believing in equality and being willing to live it — especially for men.
A new study, relying on data spanning four decades, shows that while we should be mostly optimistic about how Americans’ attitudes on gender are progressing — there is broad support for equality between men and women — there is still a major gap in how people reconcile their political beliefs with their private lives.
Twenty-five percent of the people surveyed said that while women and men should be equal in the public sphere, they believed women should do the majority of domestic work and childcare. This lines up with the progress gap American women face in the domestic sphere; we’ve made inroads in almost every area but our own homes.
Sexist beliefs about innate ability, even when they come from otherwise progressive men, are a cop-out masquerading as an ideological position.
While this is a tremendous number of people admitting something quite troubling about women, work, and power, it’s unlikely that they see it as sexist.
“You can believe men and women have truly different natural tendencies and skills, that women are better nurturers and caretakers, and still believe women should have equal rights in the labor force,” Barbara Risman, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois and one of the paper’s co-authors, told the New York Times.
Indeed, while only a very small percentage of Americans think women should not be equal, according to Pew, plenty still ascribe to retrograde ideas about biological differences between the sexes. While women tend to think that differences between men and women are based on societal expectations, men are more likely to believe in a “natural” difference. (Republicans are also much more likely to believe this than Democrats.)
Let’s be clear: Sexist beliefs about innate ability, even when they come from otherwise progressive men, are a cop-out masquerading as an ideological position. They’re a convenient excuse made for men who want to seem “woke” while maintaining personal power in their relationships.
It’s no longer socially acceptable to believe that women are somehow less than — especially not during a time when feminism is wielding so much cultural power. But arguing that women are just naturally better at caretaking or domestic work has become a clever way to shirk living up to progressive values while claiming you are simply complimenting women on their stellar ironing skills.
One way to combat this line of thinking is to highlight how fully capable men are in the private sphere. It is true that American culture relishes in portraying men as dolts when it comes to parenting and cleaning, and it’s an unfair stereotype.
But for women to make real progress in and out of their homes, men must give something up: the backwards dream of holding onto their feminist bona fides while seeking out female partners willing to limit their own aspirations to the home.
Men cannot claim to be allies to women in this moment while insisting that we’re best suited to fold their laundry and change diapers — though I’m sure no man would ever put it quite that bluntly. Despite Donald Trump, Brett Kavanaugh, and the men of #MeToo, we are in the midst of making real change. But it has to start at home.