Do We All Really Value Family and Home Life?

Blonde housewife cleaning furniture in kitchen with detergent
Blonde housewife cleaning furniture in kitchen with detergent

My current research focuses on the role of religion in the construction or maintenance of gender roles in the lives of Latino/a migrants. I ask, for example, whether the process of migration is emancipatory for Latinas, financially or otherwise. Many Latinas who migrate to the US, even if they do so along with their husbands or other family members, must, out of necessity, seek employment to help support their families. Such work takes Latinas outside the home and gives women the opportunity to earn their own incomes.

Pierette Hondagnu-Sotelo has pointed out that, in fact, it is often easier for migrant women to find jobs than migrant men because the job market favors the type of work that Latinas are usually hired to do, such as domestic labor or service industry jobs.

This means that migrant women sometimes become the household breadwinners, a position that could be emancipatory in that women might no longer be beholden to their traditional roles as homemakers and mothers. If women are able to earn higher incomes than men, then men should start to take on more responsibilities around the house performing work that is usually relegated for women.

The Pentecostal women that I have interviewed claim that they are still responsible for performing the type of household work that has traditionally been allocated to women even though they work full-time. These women also claim that their responsibilities are God-ordained. My initial thought was that, in fact, religion (in this case, at least) seems to prevent migrant women from being empowered financially or emancipated from their traditional domestic roles. The Pentecostal denomination to which these women belong, in fact, seems to contribute to the maintenance of the traditional household division of labor.

However, as I think more about this, I am not sure this is a fair assessment of this church. Many of my (white, non-migrant, nonreligious, feminist) friends who live with their male partners or husbands claim that one of their greatest frustrations is that they continue to be responsible for the day-to-day running their households. If these women, who are most aware of the unequal and gendered division of labor within their homes, remain in this position within their households, is it fair for me to insinuate that the migrant women I have spoken with should be empowered by their ability to become earners such that they can ask that men take over household chores? I think not.

Perhaps the most disheartening thing that I have learned from thinking about this is how entrenched our society still is in the assumption that women are responsible for cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the home, even when they work full-time and if they earn more money than their male counterparts.

So what difference does religion make? Latina Pentecostals, as mentioned previously, understand their household duties to be God-ordained. But I don't think religion here should be understood as a coping mechanism or trite justification of the traditional gendered division of labor. Rather, the maintenance of the household and family in this church is valued by both men and women. Because family is so central to this church's values, the care of this family and home is work that might be considered an act of devotion to God. This belief is empowering in that it posits women as uniquely able to fulfill the vision of family life outlined by the church.

Although, for me, this still does not justify maintaining the traditional gendered division of labor, for Latinas or for anyone else, I think this church's valuation of family and home life is something that needs to be given further consideration on a broader scale because these are values that our society claims, also.

Though women in the context of this church may not be "emancipated" in the Western, feminist sense, the work they are doing is acknowledged and sanctified within their church. Many Western, feminists are not even acknowledged for the household work they do. I argue that the current gendered expectations for the contributions of men and women to home and family demonstrate that these are not really valued by our society.

It is unfair that women alone are required to be the ones to manifest the value of family and the centrality of the home, whether this is a national or religious value (and these often overlap), through their domestic labor.

What is most frustrating about this is that we live at a time when awareness about the unfair, gendered division of labor within the household is relatively high. I am unconvinced that family and home life are values here because, if men really shared them, men would contribute more domestically. I think what religion can demonstrate is the centrality of values in the way we choose to live our lives. This is not to say that household work and the value of home and family life should be abandoned. Rather, it is to say that if we are going to claim these things as values, we need to stick by them. If we truly value household stability and what this can contribute to our society, then we need to honor that through contributions by men as well as women.