Canadian Journal of Sociology Online March - April 2000

click on ISBN to order book through Indigo

Anthony McMahon.
Taking Care of Men: Sexual Politics in the Public Mind
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 232 pp. $59.95 US cloth (0521582040) $19.95 US paper (0521588200)

Anthony McMahon’s Taking Care of Men is an important book. Focussing on domestic labour, it assesses what is known about the actual divisions of labour between cohabiting spouses and how they are (or are not) changing as women are increasingly in the paid labour force. Reviewing material primarily from Australia, Britain and the USA (with an occasional nod to Canadian work), it argues that despite social science and popular media claims of increasing equality, men actually resist taking on more domestic work. The book’s main focus is on “how we think and talk about this – the public conversations about the issues.” Its method is a critique of ideology – “a critique of the way thought masks and thus protects the interests of the powerful” (203). It argues that “the rhetoric manages quite well to depoliticise the issues and is thus complicit in the maintenance of male privilege” (5). As he notes in his conclusion: “After 20 or more years of being ‘on the agenda’, the sexual-political issue of the division of domestic labour is still largely a matter for private struggle and private despair” (206). He invites us to make it a public political issue instead.

McMahon’s book is significant in at least three distinct ways. He documents critical problems with a major body of social science research, showing how it ends up supporting popular ideological perspectives instead of realising the implications of its own data. He poses a serious challenge to contemporary post-structuralist critiques of materialist feminism, by showing how certain glib postmodern approaches have both misrepresented materialist feminism and have contributed to tendencies that obscure the way men’s power works to subordinate women in families. Finally, he reasserts the need for studies of a number of related topics that are currently unpopular - gendered divisions of household labour, critiques of ideology, and sexual-political economy.

McMahon begins by showing that as women’s attachment to the paid labour force is increasingly similar to men’s, social scientists and popular media assume that the double burden imposed on women by paid employment and primary responsibility for domestic labour will readily be alleviated by men’s increasing participation in domestic labour. Through a careful and systematic investigation of contemporary discourses about men and change he shows how a range of social science theories and popular media discussions repeatedly discuss changes in the sexual division of labour in optimistic terms that claim men are changing and that promise happiness for women and men through marriage. However, hundreds of studies from a variety of countries over more than thirty years have shown that women still do the bulk of domestic labour, regardless of their involvement in paid employment. McMahon analyses this material to show that both scholarly and media accounts of these findings present “an optimist view of movement toward gender equality” (66), insist that men did little or no domestic labour in the past, look for and overemphasise exceptions, and claim such exceptions indicate a coming trend.

He offers a careful reinterpretation of these studies, arguing that “the principal tendency of the social conversation about men and change take care of men’s interests” (203). He shows that claims about how little men used to do misrepresent the historical record. In contrast to the prevailing interpretations, McMahon shows that “there are no significant cross-cultural or cross-class differences in men’s performance of domestic labour” (13). Instead, “the main influence on the amount of men’s domestic work is the presence or absence of a wife” (15) as men who do the most domestic labour live alone; men do less domestic labour if they live with women, and even less if they are married, regardless of their partners’ employment status. Women cope with the double day, not because men are doing more but because women decrease the amount of work they do and rely on other women, either unpaid exchanges with female friends and relatives (especially mothers and daughters) or paid female domestic help. In contrast to prevailing claims, men do relatively little work at home, what they do is typically the more pleasant tasks such as playing with children, and men in general exercise considerable choice about what, if anything, they do. He concludes that “men, on the whole (an important qualification), perceive that their interests are best served by maintaining the sexual division of domestic work, and use considerable resources to defend it” (31).

I found McMahon’s critique of social science research most disturbing. He provides a compelling critique of the way most researchers and popular media have managed to make their optimistic accounts of a move toward gender equality so plausible. He shows how social scientists have seriously misinterpreted their own data, suggesting:“it may well be that practices which are not really novel have become visible simply because they fit a contemporary agenda” (71). He shows how the preoccupation with gendered divisions of labour diverts attention away from other, often more significant, but not as popular changes such as “increases in...paid services and unpaid help from others” (73), or that more women are taking sole or primary responsibility for child care and support by rejecting marriage. The core of the book examines different discourses ranging from popular fathers’ advice literature or advertising’s “New Man” to feminist object-relations psychology. In each case, the combination of starting assumptions, unasked questions and rhetorical devices creates a discourse of optimism that promises happiness in marriage and denies that men are resistant to change because it is not in their interests.

Central to his argument is his commitment to feminist materialism, particularly the work of Christine Delphy and Diana Leonard. He compares their approach and its conclusions with other feminist approaches, arguing that developments in the 1980s, particularly post-structuralism, led to key analysts abandoning theorising about household economies, replacing it instead with theorising about a symbolic order: “a retreat from the possibility of a materialist analysis in terms of men’s interests” (163). While I am persuaded by his general critique, I regret that he did not investigate other materialist feminist approaches to domestic labour. There is, for example, a well-developed tradition of Canadian socialist feminism, both academic and activist, that has analysed domestic labour from a materialist perspective different from Delphy’s and Leonard’s. While his argument points out some of the problems inherent in post-structuralist rejections of materialism, I wish he had developed further his analysis of feminist political economy and materialism. Perhaps too, I regret the way Canadian work is so rarely taken up outside Canada.

McMahon recognises throughout that his ideas are unpopular; he gives plenty of evidence that his arguments invite hostility and resistance. Few researchers will be comfortable with the claim that our work too often reflects popular ideas rather than realising the implications of our findings. Studies of family and gender relations have proved resistant to analysis about men’s interests in maintaining inequality while post-structuralist and post-modern preoccupations with subjectivity and differences among women have directed attention away from men’s domination and women’s subordination. Historical materialism is widely seen as an irrelevant hang-over from modernist metanarratives. McMahon challenges us to revisit these topics. He deserves recognition for his courage in taking up this important topic and for the intellectual rigour with which he does so. It will be a measure of the validity of his arguments if this significant book is ignored. I hope it isn’t.

Meg Luxton
Social Science and Women's Studies
York University
March-April 2000
© CJS Online