Conjugal Roles In The Family Sociology Assignment

As its name suggests, radical feminism takes a rather different view to the role of women in society. While Marxist feminists see women as essential a tool or instrument of capitalist oppression, radical feminists focus squarely on patriarchy as the instrument of oppression (emasculation) within the home. This perspective is evident in the work of Bryson (1992) who identifies key characteristics of radical feminism:

  1. it’s a theory of and by women, rather than an amendment of predominantly other androcentric theories
  2. it sees the oppression of women by men (patriarchy) as as universal

For Delphy and Leonard (1992) argue it is men rather than capitalism who benefit the most from exploiting women and the family is central in maintaining this structure as:

  1. families are structured; in this structure men dominate while women and children are subordinate (very few families are matriarchal)
  2. as man’s position in the family is the dominant one he tends to make the final decision on family issues
  3. the type of work family members do is determined by gender and marital status
  4.  when women have paid employment outside the home, they still have to undertake household tasks – this is known as the dualburden
  5. while some women have paid employment outside the home while still remaining responsible for the majority of household tasks and care for children – what Duncombe and Marsden (1995) termed the triple-shift

The above points are explored in more detail below:

Domestic labour – Delphy and Leonard recognise men do some housework, the extent of this is rather limited For they show how all the unpaid housework and childcare is done by women. Women also make the largest contribution to family life, while men contribute the least but gain the most!

Supporting their husbands – women carry out housework and caring roles within the family as well as supporting men in their leisure and work activities. They do this directly by helping with administration work if they’re self-employed or indirectly by offering emotional support and guidance if they’re any problems at work. They also help men emotionally in the home by providing ‘trouble free sex’ as ‘men best unwind post-coitally’ while in return Delphy and Leonard point out men make very little contributions to their wife’s well-being.

Duncombe and Marsden discuss how from an early age girls are trained to become emotionally skilled in empathy so they can actively participate in ’emotion work’ – occupations which keep people happy. They also uncovered an emotional vacuum in such heterosexual relationships as they found a significant number of women were dissatisfied by the lack of their partner’s emotional support.

Ann Oakley pointed out in the 1970s that housework is tough, demanding and unrewarding, and men are the ones who gain most from this free labour. Duncombe and Marsden found the housework issue has become exacerbated with married women having to cope with the triple-shift. Having worked all day, they have to come home to address all the emotional work as well as the housework.

Covert and over power between couples

Economic dependency (covert power) – married women become economically dependent on their husbands especially as once children arrive women give up work in order to look after the children and even when mothers do return to work it’s usually part-time rather than full-time employment. This dependency means it is much easier for men to set the agenda over important family decisions.

Male domination (overt power ) – Feminists see the family as male dominated as men are the bread-winners and tend to make all the key financial decisions.  Indeed Dobash and Dobash (1995) found that most domestic violence occurs within marriage. They argue this is due to the institution of marriage gives power to men through their wives dependency on them. Feminists have stressed the significant amount of domestic violence used by men to their own way in the family.

Edgell (1980) found the important family decisions such as financial issues tended to be either made by the husband, while wives were free to make the trivial decisions on their own such as what ‘the evening meal with consist of’ or where ‘they do the weekly shopping’. Jan Phal (1993) research found men tended to control and manage a couple’s money.


  • Functionalists and even the New Right would argue that feminists put too much emphasis on the negative side of family life because it ignores the possibility that women enjoy running the home, raising children and being married
  •  it ignores Wilmot and Young’s ideas on the symmetrical family, and how there’s greater equalities in family life with shared conjugal roles

Return to family overview page

Essay Task – Examine the differences between Marxist, Feminist and Functionalist views of the family. Please note this is an essay which will need to be at least 600 words in length. In your essay you must include all the words listed in this document assignment-words

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In the course of history, society has proven to have had unequal gender roles with a constant segregation in the division of labour. Traditional norms, values as well as the influence of religion have prevented egalitarianism in the family life as well as society. Traditional gender roles consisted of men being the breadwinners and women being the homemakers. Men had the advantage of education, paid work, a voice in society and dominance over their wives.

However, modern family life has demonstrated that we are in a new day and age growing closer to equality. Gender roles have become more officially equal, with men no longer seen as superior to women. The occurrence of changes in laws, including the sex discrimination act, equal pay rights as well as the right to vote has resulted in the majority of the female population in paid work as they feel they will be treated fairly. The feminization of the workplace has directed women into the position of better well payed jobs they wouldn’t otherwise have.

It has also encouraged men to take more responsibility around the house as Gershuny stated that women working full time is leading to a more equal division of labour and has also resulted in women less financially dependent on men. This is a massive improvement in egalitarianism, however women are now expected to take on a dual burden where they take responsibility for the housework and a job, and this suggests that the roles have become more equal in terms of work but not necessarily in family life as women are still taking control of housework.

The division of labour according to Parsons is based on biological differences that results in women naturally taking on the nurturer role and men are taking on the breadwinner role. This therefore suggests that women are capable of taking on the dual burden because of their biological differences with men. Some sociologists agree that women actually take on a triple shift this includes three areas of responsibility, the bulk of domestic work, paid work and emotional support to the rest of the family.

Again, Parsons suggests that the emotional role is not much of a task but a natural characteristic woman have. The commercialization of housework has made it easier for women to complete the domestic work but also to get it done quicker so that they can focus on their careers. Improved technology such as freezers, microwaves and washing machines as well as services such as the NHS and child line has taken the pressure off of women to be the ‘nurturer’ and provide emotional support but has also made housework a lot more practical.

Schor believes that the commercialization of housework has decreased the burden and the death of the housewife role has occurred. However it could be argued that the burden has only really been taken off of middle class families who can afford the new appliances. Social attitudes have changed enormously over the past 50 or more years. Traditional gender roles no longer seem to exist in the wider society. Men and women are portrayed differently to how they were in the 1950’s through the media this has caused for younger boys and girls to see themselves as equal in society.

Magazines are a great example that men are no longer the soldiers and women no longer the happy housewives, at least not the way media has portrayed them. The decline in secularization has also had a great impact on the younger society, religion is no longer reinforcing traditional gender roles as it used to. Many activities that would have been considered as ‘sinful’ 50 years ago such as abortion, is no longer frowned upon. These changes particularly effect the younger generation who are being raised not to sex-type careers, activities etc and to produce an equal society.

This is in accordance with Young and Willmott who believe that these trends are moving from segregated conjugal roles towards joint conjugal roles. This change also proves Young and Willmott’s claims about the symmetrical family being more common among younger couples. Furthermore there has been a crisis in masculinity for many working class men. Mac and Ghaill believe that this is due to the new position of women in the workplace. They believe that the labour market is becoming more feminized and men are lacking the qualifications for employment in other skilled areas.

This has resulted in a loss of self esteem and feeling of dominance that men considered as their identity. In many ways the crisis in masculinity is a big cause of domestic violence and child abuse. On the other hand, postmodernist Beck believes that unemployment in men has enforced them to spend more time on child care and being a father to fulfill their identity. This is positive impact in equality of gender roles with both parents contributing to child care and socialization.

In conclusion, we are working to more of a sense of egalitarianism as technology and advances are made. However this improvement will never truly mean complete equality as Parsons has stated that men and women are different because of biological differences. For the running of society segregated conjugal roles appears more practical and provides children with a sense of stability. Roles of women and men in the workforce is likely to continue improving but what is not definite is the improvement of relationships in family life.

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