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Erika Gleisner

Revolutionary Narratives – Narrating Revolution:
Revolutions in the Daily Lives of Ordinary People

I dare to say that there has been a quiet – and sometimes not so quiet – revolution regarding women’s and men’s position, function, understanding within the public and private sphere throughout the last sixty years.

Not only do women partake in the labour market, thanks to WWII, liberal feminism etc, they even go for higher and top positions and (try to) manage the household and childcare at the same time. In general, both men and women desire a successful work-life balance where both partners work an equal share in the domestic labour. Studies have shown that the behaviour is rather the contrary. The division of domestic labour is still gendered, i.e. women do the household management, although the macro-structures have changed.

Research has identified different household management strategies which are connected to various structural factors, e.g. educational level, type of job, identity/role, policy etc – to mention but a few. I decided to have a look at the link to identity/role. Thus concepts like masculinity/femininity, parenthood, motherhood/fatherhood, provider/worker identity, husband/wife and power have to be considered here.

When I worked with extracts from narrative interviews I detected traces of a past and contemporary revolution as well as a language of a desired revolution. My interests are to find out what types of revolutions exist, (how) are they dealt with and expressed.

Besides Gill’s (1998) The Third Job. Employed Couples’ management of household work contradictions. and Hochschild’s (1997) The Time Bind. When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work. as well as Gatrell’s (2005) hard labour. the sociology of parenthood. I also rely on another two sources: Hyman, J., Scholarios, D. and Baldry C. (2005) Getting on or getting by?Employee flexibility and coping strategies for home and work. and Windebank, J. (2001) Dual-Earner Couples in Britain and France: Gender Divisions of Domestic Labour and Parenting Work in Different Welfare States. from which I took the various interview extracts.

I applied grounded theory (cf. Strauss/ Corbin 1990) and conversation analysis (cf. Sacks 1979) for analysing those interview extracts. When I read those extracts I established two kinds of categories or ‘types’ and subtypes for revolution. One is connected to time, that is past and desired revolution and the other is linked with specific topics, which are division of domestic labour/ men’s, women’s tasks; masculinity, fatherhood and power; and work place, importance of work and external forces.

Categories/ ‘Types’ Past revolution Desired revolution
Division of domestic labour/
men’s and women’s tasks
From: non-co-operation/
To: personal revolution
From: public
To: ‘real’ help
From: negative revolution/
To: positive,
personal rev.
Change of attitude
Work place
Importance of work
External forces
From: negative personal
To: positive personal rev.
From: organisation culture
To: significant others

Due to lack of space I will only outline the first category/ type with its subtypes. That revolution is an instrument of social change (Bennet, Grossberg and Morris 2005) is especially visible in the first category: division of domestic labour/ men’s and women’s tasks. I could detect the following ‘types’ of past revolution regarding this issue (also shows continuum):

Non-co-operation/ acceptance and personal non-revolutionary

resistance co-operation narrative

The Wills’ exemplify the non-co-operation/ resistance type. Especially Mr Wills’ narrative is characterised by comparative narration, i.e. ‘those days’ versus ‘now’ and polarised language, like ‘we’ versus ‘them’. “I give in, anything for a quiet life. Those days are gone when we used to drive them to the fields and work all day and then they come home and cook a meal ... and now they say clean this, do this, do that.” (1998: 77) “Mrs. Wills: I do better now, but I used to scream and plead and fall apart. I used to get very annoyed if things weren’t done when I asked someone to do them. I used to get mad, I used to say I am wasting energy. Mr. Wills: No chance of sitting and watching TV, no not with that madam over there giving-off orders.” (1998: 163) Mr Wills’ problem with his provider identity is expressed very clearly as well as a power struggle: “Mrs. Wills: I used to think it was right for a man ... for all those years ... to ... to earn the living ... but now ... well. Mr. Wills: I always thought it was wife’s place to provide for everything (laughs) Mrs. Wills: Well, I prefer to be a man myself ... so what about you?” (1998: 132) Note Mrs Wills’ preference of ‘being a man herself’. These are signs of a problematic womanhood – note the pauses - and the notion of independence.

Accepting the ‘division of domestic labour revolution’, i.e. the husband has set duties in the household and fulfills them, and co-operating with the wife is ‘lived’ in the Jennings family: Mrs. Jenning: Although Gary makes himself available it’s now that he will recognise the ‘gaps’. I think he wasn’t able to see gaps or recognise mess particularly. Mr. Jennings: We don’t want to contradict your responsibilities (laughs) (1998: 172) - Mind you there is the question of change of attitude – and the Richards: Mrs. Richards: Andrew really knows bathrooms, and toilets are his responsibility and he won’t do them every Sunday morning. Mr. Richards: I do them on needs basis, my eyesight is not so good (jokes) and she tends to see the dirt first. Mrs. Richards: And sighting that I have learned not to nag about it, because his attitude to nagging is ‘oh well do it yourself’ and I ‘keep my peace’ and pretend I haven’t noticed. (1998: 154) Both are very conscious of this revolution.

“When I first married Deb, she was very shy. After two years, she’d figured out that I wanted to go have fun, that I was just going to be miserable working a double and coming home to housework. So I’d go to the bar and hang out. Our third year of marriage, I was a real drinker, even at work. It was all new to me, the two kids cramped into a little apartment. After work, I just didn’t want to go back home, so I’d go party, and I got involved with the wrong guys. I’d go to strip joints like Belini’s or the Bulldog Grill. I’d come home and she’d been with the kids all day without break. I really was to blame. But somehow, she stuck through all that. I said to myself, this has to be the right woman to put up with this. She never once threatened me, though she did pack my bags once.” (1997: 182) Mario describes his own personal revolution. He uses a narrative of his misdoing to describe his ‘revolutionary’ process.

The last type within the past revolution regarding the division of domestic labour is the ‘non-revolution narrative’ as applied by the Fergusons. They speak as if there hasn’t been a revolution regarding the division of domestic labour but according to their narrative the revolution has taken place only one generation before. They manifest/ strengthen this past revolution by their actions. “Mr. Ferguson: Anita works Monday to Friday and I will vacuum the house and dust the house and do the bathroom so that’s done. My father did it so why shouldn’t I do it. So it wasn’t something that we sat down and said: ‘Well you do this and I do that’. It happened. Mrs. Ferguson: It just happened. So now we rarely highlight, each knows what to do.” (1998: 133) I dare to say that there might have been a ‘hidden’ revolution which is indicated by “So now ...”.

The desired revolution is divided into one in the public and one in the private sphere:

Public Private

public changes of shared involvement ‘real help’

acknowledgment attitude responsibilities

“Mrs. Broom: I think child-rearing is an emotionally and physically demanding job and I don’t think that’s even acknowledged ... in a way I found I might be at work ... and give myself a change from here. By having a bit of work there I am earning my own income that gives me a bit of confidence and pride that I work. Sometimes going and working there can be easier than working here all day.” (1998: 87) Mrs Broom shows what kind of impact the lack of public acknowledgement has on her life. The acknowledgment she seeks is in paid work and taking the consequences into the extreme: paid work is easier than domestic labour and maybe home becomes work and vice versa.

The men and women in those interviews also ask for a change of attitude regarding traditional division of domestic labour by significant others. For instance, “Mrs. Broom: There are women who don’t like men doing the housework. When they walk in and Ken is doing the washing up you can see that they are a bit threatened. Like nothing is said up front but you know they are saying ‘I don’t look after him’. And if the house is in a mess then the women as well as men would judge that it is the woman who can’t hold it together. Mr. Broom: When we both come home from work and the lounge is a mess and the dining room is a mess it doesn’t occur to me how the house is but Marian is more aware of that than me. I realised why it was because when people turned up and the things are messy then any criticism that comes back it is of Marian.” (1998: 174) Another example is given by Jack: “My partners were very traditional, they felt that the woman should have to give up her job to look after the child ... they would say, ‘well, shouldn’t your wife look after your children?’” (2005: 139)

The desired revolution for an equal share of the division of domestic labour is expressed in asking for shared responsibilities. Mrs Turnbull put it rather plainly “Some of us still have to know where the butter is in the fridge ... time and time you are opening the fridge and saying where the butter is ... bend down and look ... .” (1998: 76) Or as another woman said “I seem to do most of the washing up and the ironing, all these household chores ... It is certainly difficult even if you consider yourself quite liberated. I think the onus is always back on the women [sic] if the man isn’t going to do it then the women is going to do it. The bucks stop here if you like.” (2005: 717)

The subtype is asking for involvement. “Mr. Harris: I left it to Susan because she is at home. Mrs. Harris: It is more or less if you want to go back, you look for it. To you it didn’t even bother ... when I said to you the other day ... well help me ... like you didn’t even comment ... you only said I don’t know of any body ... so I investigated it. Mr. Harris: Well I don’t have the time ... no way I would have picked and it would have been right.” (1998: 91) How strong the desire is can be seen in the usage of ‘bother’, ‘comment’, ‘only’. The excuse of not having the time is not accepted.

Throughout most of the interview extracts the issue of getting ‘real help’ was visible – note that I only present the women’s point of view here. The women asked for more than ‘helping out’: a help which is constant over time and includes an ‘overall’ help, i.e. not only the nice things. Thus the word ‘help’ should be replaced with work. “My husband’s a great help watching our baby. But as far as doing housework or even taking the baby when I’m at home, no. [...] My husband and I have been through this over and over again. Even if he would just pick up from the kitchen table and stack the dishes for me, that would make a big difference. He does nothing. On his weekends off, I have to provide a sitter for the baby so he can go fishing. When I have a day off, I have the baby all day long without a break. He’ll help out if I’m not here, but the minute I am, all the work at home is mine.” (1997: 38) Or: “My husband helps me out when I cannot manage everything and that’s how it is.” (2001: 280); “He doesn’t mind doing set things like the washing-up or giving Dee his bottle. He’ll just get up and do it. But its the other things – like making sure that everything is clean – he doesn’t think. So I spend the weekend working and he’ll be messing around and doing the nice things, like playing with Dee.” (2001: 280)

I hope to have shown that those narratives are (also) about revolutions in the daily lives of ordinary people - and that the qualitative methods provide us with some insights into so-called macro topics on a micro level.


Bennet, T.; Grossberg, L. and Morris, M. (eds.) (2005) New Key Words. A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Malden, Oxford, Carlton: Blackwell Publishing.
Gill, G. K. (1998) The Third Job. Employed couples’ management of household work contradictions. Aldershot, Brookfield USA, Singapore, Sydney: Ashgate.
Glaser, B. G. and Strauss, A. L. (1998) Grounded theory: Strategien qualitativer Forschung. Bern: Huber.
Hochschild, A. R. (1997) The Time Bind. When Work becomes Home and Home becomes Work. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Hyman, J., Scholarios, D. and Baldry C. (2005) Getting on or getting by? Employee flexibility and coping strategies for home and work. In: Work, employment and society. Vol. 19 (4): 705-725. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: SAGE Publications.
Sacks, H. (1992) Lectures on Conversation. Vol. 1 and 2. Edited by Gail Jefferson. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Windebank, J. (2001) Dual-Earner Couples in Britain and France: Gender Divisions of Domestic Labour and Parenting Work in Different Welfare States. In: Work, employment and society. Vol. 15 (2): 269-290. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: SAGE Publications.