Category Archives: Gender and Health

Work-Life Balance: A Historical Perspective

Frederick Cooper

Over the last three decades, Work-Life Balance has entered comprehensively into the language that men and women in western societies use to frame their experiences of work, family and leisure. For a term with such widespread currency and no immediate medical connotations, it remains steeped in psychiatric anxieties. A clinical acceptance of lifestyle balance as a means of maintaining happiness – and imbalance as a route to illness – has placed serious psychological consequences just below the surface of one of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century’s more pervasive buzz-words.

This is an example of the power that mental health expertise has to shape the behaviour of individuals who might never come into contact with psychiatric services. Across the last century, groups such as overworked and unemployed men whose relationship with work has been interpreted as falling into one particular extreme have been increasingly described as putting themselves at risk of varying types of distress and disorder. As modern critics of work-life balance have argued, drawing on the initiatives of feminist scholars over the last seventy years, the picture for women has usually been far more complicated. In workplaces still dominated by sexist practices, women work harder and longer, returning home to perform unpaid and unrecognised labour which facilitates male leisure at the expense of personal wellbeing.

My research explores the emergence of balance between work and home as a blueprint for women’s psychological health. When British doctors and feminists began to advocate a dual role in the years following the Second World War, many of them envisioned a temporary period of social and psychological dislocation in which women would learn to reconcile their new responsibilities with traditional expectations. A meeting held in 1956 by the Medical Women’s International Association (MWIA) concluded the following:

“The problem [of women’s adaptation to new roles] was part of an evolutionary process which, like all others, was bound to claim its victims. It was the task of medicine to try to minimise any harmful effects of such developments.” – (British Medical Journal, Dec. 1st, 1956).

In 2015, medicine is still attempting to minimise their harmful effects. For the MWIA, the recognition that social change had its own casualties was by no means condemnatory. These debates took place in a context where sociologists and physicians were finding new ways of speaking about the adverse effects of domesticity upon the female psyche. As Jean Mingay put it in a lecture to the Old Girl’s Union of Bradford Grammar School in 1953, “the possible conflicts between philosophy and apron-strings are surely less deadly than the bondage of apron-strings alone.” Many women were rejecting the devil they knew, and they were framing their decisions and experiences in explicitly psychological terms.

The writers in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s who were re-imagining women’s position in society represented their vision as ethical and natural, a common-sense solution requiring the dispelling of the conservative ideologies which had hitherto consigned women to domestic life. The ideas that they set out, however, were the product of a series of intellectual and practical collisions and compromises.

As a number of historians have observed, an intensification of psychological theories about maternal deprivation and child development during the same period leant scientific validity to full-time motherhood. Looking beyond the home for personal fulfilment, according to this framework, deprived the next generation of the attention they needed to form healthy personalities. Feminists such as Viola Klein, making extensive use of medical concerns about the frustration and loneliness of mothers, were able to subvert this narrative. Unhappy housewives, they argued, posed a far greater threat to child health than the women whose additional responsibilities took them away from the family but stabilised or improved their mood.

Similarly, ideas about the effect of working women on men’s mental health began to shift. An approach to marital relationships which located disharmony, neurosis and divorce in the deficit between adolescent expectations and the lived experience of marriage emphasised the potential for psychological emasculation in any challenge to male breadwinning. Pro-employment theorists set out to defuse this anxiety, telling husbands that women who worked made healthier wives with better-rounded personalities.

Although they were able to shift conceptions of ideal female lifestyle away from a sexual division of labour and towards a model which seemed to emulate the male experience, post-war writers were weaving gendered inequalities into the structure of the new orthodoxy. Contesting the association between work and disordered marriage and motherhood, they were unable to overturn the assumption that these were the criteria through which women’s health would be measured and valued. Parallel arguments, conversely, emphasised the benefits of family life for male productivity:

“The husbands who are most successful are those who achieve a personally satisfying balance between home and work. And in achieving this balance managers’ wives are of the very greatest importance.” – (Family Doctor, Housewife Special Issue, 1961).

Female imbalance – or, perhaps, overbalance – has been written directly into male success and fulfilment. This fundamental division has not been profoundly altered by women’s exodus into the workplace over the previous century. Although the current project is still taking shape, drawing focus towards the generative cultural, political and medical tensions which formed and shaped conceptions of balanced lifestyles may be able to aid an understanding of their enduring contradictions.