In recent years there has been a steady stream of books complaining about women not succeeding in the workplace because they are asked to do too much at home and—spoiler alert—if America were only more like Scandinavia everything would be much better. Books like Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte and Opting Back In by Pamela Stone and Meg Lovejoy or most recently Ambitious Like a Mother by Lara Bazelon. Even plenty of books that are not about the uneven distribution of labor in the home make passing reference to the difficulties faced by working women who are asked not only do to more of the housework and child care but also have the emotional burden of having to keep track of everyone's schedules and whether the family is about to run out of toothpaste or Cheerios. Heck, there are shelves full of fiction that detail these problems. Allison Pearson's I Don't Know How She Does It could really be the title of dozens of novels and movies on this topic.
Adding anything new to this literature is a tough hurdle in 2022. And, if anything, writing such a book has become more complicated. In an era when Supreme Court nominees can't define what a woman is, how does one write a book about how women are getting the short end of the stick?
So Kate Mangino has her work cut out for her. And either despite or because of the fact that she is a "gender expert who works with international organizations to promote gender equality and social change," her new book, Equal Partners, is deeply nonsensical.
At the beginning of Equal Partners, Mangino tells us she does "not believe in the gender binary, and I prefer to use language that includes all gender identities. … As much as possible I refrain from talking about what women do and what men do, and I choose to use the terms Female Role and Male Role."
Mangino notes that women, especially after a certain age, earn much less than their male counterparts. Meanwhile they are doing 65 percent of the work at home. And that doesn't include the "cognitive labor," for which the "laborer earns no money and is rarely rewarded." Later in the book, though, Mangino cites approvingly the words of fathers who share more of the housework and child care. And you know what they say? "You have to think about your self-worth versus the money that you make. It's different. There is value in taking care of your kids and not chasing a career. I am still providing for my family." So when men—or people who identify as men?—say that child care and housework are important that's okay, but when women do it, it's demeaning.
It's not just a strange double standard that is applied. One of the first couples Mangino describes is Frida and Miriam, two lesbians who disagree about how to share the cooking and cleaning. Miriam has a more demanding job outside the house. Frida has taken on most of the cooking and cleaning. In the days before Miriam's parents came to visit, Frida spent a lot of time making an elaborate dinner, including a tiramisu, which Miriam thought was unnecessary. They got into a big fight that night because Miriam wasn't being very helpful and went to bed.
Mangino tells us that Frida and Miriam are actually a "composite of many couples." She explains she has "personified Frida and Miriam as women. They could just as easily be two men, a different-sex couple, or a queer couple. The sex of these two characters is less important than the roles they play in their relationship." So two women have divided up their household responsibilities unevenly and now they are angry at each other. Remind me: Why should we care?
Because, Mangino tells us: "Gender inequality is not a women's issue. It is a human rights issue that is a social construct: an historic imbalance of power between men and women." Does that clear it up? Didn't think so.
For a book that seems unable to clearly diagnose the problem, it sure does offer a lot of solutions. For instance, readers might wonder "what is the non-breastfeeding parent going to do during breastfeeding hours?" Mangino shares the strategy of one of her colleagues. "He never sleeps while I feed the baby. He also got up, even in the middle of the night. He'd pick up around the house or bring me a cup of tea or a snack. Sometimes he would just rub my shoulders or sit next to me."
I'm trying to imagine a scenario under which this arrangement seems practical, in which both the mother and father (excuse me, breastfeeder and non-breastfeeder) can be up half the night with an infant. Does either of them work outside the house? Are they independently wealthy? There obviously aren't any other kids around who need attention during the day. What is the point of having two sleep-deprived parents?
It is this kind of impracticality that characterizes the book Equal Partners and the concept of "equal partners." There is a reason that couples don't divide their responsibilities inside and outside the home 50-50. In fact there are a bunch of reasons. First, it creates more work. Mothers and fathers could switch off bringing kids to doctor and dentist appointments, but at some point someone needs to be the emergency contact and keep track of all of the insurance claims and medication instructions. And they could divide all the cognitive labor of scheduling what the family is having for dinner each night. And they often do. The issue for Mangino is that it's not divided evenly.
The problem with her approach is most obvious when she gives readers advice on choosing an "equal partner." She wants women or "the Female Role" to ask, "Are you willing to sacrifice for me in the same way that I am willing to sacrifice for you?" The problem is that people, no matter their gender, have different priorities and are likely to consider different things to be a "sacrifice." There are many women who think staying home with young children while someone else is responsible for earning the bulk of the household income is a privilege. And many men who would consider taking years off from their careers to be a sacrifice. Sure, there are some who might think the opposite, but in poll after poll women are the ones who prefer working part-time when their kids are young.
When husbands make a sacrifice, Mangino also suggests, we should be wary of offering them too much credit. Doing so constitutes "himpathy." When Mangino's husband was willing to forgo a career opportunity so that she could take one, she says, "I was far more comfortable in the 'giving' role than the 'taking' role." I know self-care is a big thing right now, but relationship advice that tells people to have less empathy when their partner makes a sacrifice seems fundamentally unsound.
Again, if same-sex couples and different-sex couples and cisgender and transgender couples all divide work unevenly according to Mangino, what difference does it make? If we are not trying to solve some structurally unfair, discriminatory practice, why is this a public policy question at all?
Mangino offers up one final incorrect answer to show that her suggestions are beneficial. "Research … says that couples who have equal marriages tend to argue less, have lower divorce rates, and even better sex lives." There is exactly one footnote to support this claim, and it's to an Atlantic article that does not even mention frequency of arguments, sex, or divorce.
Meanwhile, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that a 50-50 division of household labor is not the way to marital bliss. As one 2012 study on "men's participation in core (traditionally female) and non-core (traditionally male) household tasks and sexual frequency" found: "Both husbands and wives in couples with more traditional housework arrangements report higher sexual frequency."
None of this evidence will stop Mangino's crusade. Or those of her many predecessors. Perhaps the news that anyone can be a woman—or in the recent words of singer Macy Gray, that being a woman is a "vibe"—will bring to a faster end the absurd campaign that sexual inequality is at the root of all of society's problems. But don't hold your breath. Mangino advises readers to "come back to Equal Partners in about 18 months." Leaving aside the chutzpah of an author telling you to reread their book when you get to the last page, I think Mangino might want to be careful. By that point her progressive colleagues may decide her work is retrograde or, fingers crossed, readers will come to their senses.
Equal Partners: Improving Gender Equality at Home
by Kate Mangino
St. Martin's Press, 344 pp., $29.99
Naomi Schaefer Riley, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Independent Women's Forum, is the author of No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.
Published under: Book reviews