Gender and marital power: Explaining the division of labor, perceived equity, and distress among two-earner couples

Date of Completion

January 1998


Home Economics|Psychology, Social|Sociology, Individual and Family Studies




This dissertation examines the contribution of gendered equity theory and marital power to understanding variations in the division of labor, perceived equity and distress among two-earner couples. It looks at the multidimensional, relational nature of power and incorporates values and meanings in the standard models of time availability, relative resources and gender attitudes predicting the division of labor. Gender theory emphasizes power and meanings in models predicting husbands' and wives' perceptions of inequity. The relative contributions of comparisons, values and justifications, the key components of gendered equity theory, are assessed. Finally, all of the measures are combined in a full model testing the relationship of power, gender and equity to psychological distress using structural equation models.^ The findings of this study suggest support for the gendered equity model of the processes by which perceived inequity is and is not related to distress among two earner spouses. First, values and meanings explain as much of the variance in the division of domestic labor as time availability and relative resources combined. Second, perceived inequity is less important for distress than a sense of empowerment in the relationship and empathy from the spouse. For many wives, the interdependence of paid and domestic work contributes to less perceived inequity, but more distress from other sources. Because husbands can separate feelings of inequity and empathy from their spouses, they are better able to manage both paid and domestic work. Assumptions regarding husband responsibility for breadwinning increases husbands' sense of injustice and symptoms of distress. Wives' feelings of responsibility for homemaking create barriers to husbands' domestic work, and increase wives' feelings of injustice and distress associated with increased paid work. Contrary to expectations, relative marital power has limited importance for couples' distress. In addition, the relationship between perceived inequity and distress is spurious. Other factors in two earner marriages, such as values, attitudes and feelings are more important. The gendered nature of homemaking and breadwinning, the assumption of the appropriate gender for each type of work, shapes both values and feelings about these activities and the resulting division of labor. ^