When I first got together with the man with whom I shared almost 30 years, I measured the success of our relationship by how much washing up he did and, later, by how many nappies he changed. As a burgeoning feminist, I knew that nothing was more demeaning and diminishing than to live with a man who assumed that his partner was there to service his domestic world.
It seems to me now that there is a danger in telling women that if they lead an unequal lot in marriage, then they are perforce being exploited and oppressed, and are therefore miserable. And this seems to be me the flaw in Susan Maushart's much trumpeted new book, Wifework, published this week.
Susan Maushart has tried marriage twice, but each time it's ended in tears and the divorce courts, so it must have been cathartic to kick back by assembling great swathes of academic data and survey results demonstrating what a grim endurance test, a hotbed of oppression and inequality, marriage is for women even now.
Women do a great deal more childcare, domestic work, emotional giving than men. They are more depressed, and the better they do at work the worse they do in marriage, according to the data Maushart presents. While men, by contrast have higher levels of satisfaction and happiness, enjoy sex more and – perish the thought – sleep later and spend more time watching TV than their downtrodden spouses.
But hang on a minute. This picture of women as innocent ingénues, unaware that lurking in the beau promising to love and cherish as he ties the knot is a rat who will leave them doing 90 per cent of the laundry and 82 per cent of the indoor cleaning, is hardly new. I remember how, back in the early days of the Women's Liberation Movement, we began to analyse the very real structural inequalities in women's lives. History made marriage seem more a necessity than a choice for women, and gave men an unhealthy amount of power and control. Research began to appear, demonstrating how much more work wives contributed to the Kinder and Kuche than men did. We boiled with rage, realising how unquestioningly our chaps assumed that it was fine to indulge in post-prandial digestion, prone on the chaise longue, while we cleared up, washed dishes and so on.
To which Maushart might respond, "plus ca change...". But I actually think a good deal has changed, despite Maushart's findings – and, as any social scientist can tell you, research is often an incomplete science. For example, I see far more men choosing to be with their kids, enjoying sharing the caring, than happened 20 years ago. I see women, too, choosing to be with children rather than work, but seeing it as an option. I see couples doing battle over domestic inequality and finding solutions that bring them together rather than sending the wife into the isolation of dark fury. I see couples where both have ambition and demanding jobs discussing how they deal with childcare and domestic chores as something that is the responsibility of both .
I'm not saying everything is perfect – we're far from that, and anyway marriage and relationships are never going to be easy, with the adjustments, sacrifices and compromises required when two erstwhile separate lives are fused into one. Just as we know there is still far too much physical and mental abuse by husbands of wives. But I am saying that the kinds of inequalities forged in marriages with an unequal power base are changing.
In focusing so absolutely on how women are done down by men in marriage, Maushart has missed the vital, but subtler, exchanges and rewards that can go on in even the most unequal relationships, and that sustain partners at the most fundamental level.
And if we are going to invoke research, there is a good deal that has been done in major published studies by marital researchers such as Janet Reibstein and Judith Wallenstein, demonstrating that spouses in relationships that have endured over decades often choose to put up with, for example, her unequal amounts of domestic labour or the husband being the one who always changes plugs and fixes the leaking roof in winter, because they feel fundamentally cared about and that the relationship feels protective, a private emotional fortress in an uncertain world.
Maushart's book, and her conclusion that women can be happier and have a better life , even as mothers, without the degradations of marriage, is being serialised by a Sunday newspaper presumably because it is seen to contain important truths for our time. But to me it feels like a retrograde manifesto with women as its centrepiece.
I don't believe the research she cites has measured or recognised the importance of the generations of younger women who have been strengthened in many ways by the legacy of feminism, and who are continuing to go into marriage because they see themselves as being able to do it their way.