Ann Oakley

If you have not already, you will encounter the works and theories of Ann Oakley throughout your sociological studies. Here, you'll be able to access her sociological profile and see a summary of her most famous theories and sociological perspectives on a variety of social issues.

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Table of contents
    • We will briefly consider who Ann Oakley is, how she developed her career and which sociological topics she wrote on.
    • We will look at Ann Oakley’s gender theory through her publication Sex, Gender and Society (1972).
    • Next, we will consider how Oakley saw the role of housework through her publication The Sociology of Housework (1974).
    • We will then study Ann Oakley's view on family. A final publication we will look at is her 1982 book Conventional Families.
    • Lastly, we will consider Ann Oakley's views on gender socialisation.

    Let's get started!

    Who is Ann Oakley?

    Ann Oakley is a British researcher, writer, and sociologist. She was born in London in 1944 to a social worker mother and social policy theorist father.

    Oakley’s sociological research topics

    Oakley has written about:

    • Childbirth and motherhood

    • The family

    • Feminism

    • Women and housework

    • Relationships between men and women

    • Sex and gender

    • Social science methodology

    She is regarded by many as a liberal feminist sociologist and has contributed significantly to feminist sociology.

    Ann Oakley, multiple colourful plates drying on a dish rack, StudySmarterFig. 1 Oakley frequently wrote about the issue of housework.

    Oakley’s early career and works

    At the age of 18, she went to Oxford University to study Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. At that time, it was not as common to study Sociology as part of the degree; however, she pursued this option in 1964.

    Oakley's contributions to academia

    Oakley displayed interest in feminism from an early stage in her career. In 1969, she did a PhD on women’s attitudes to housework and shortly published her first academic book Sex, Gender and Society in 1972. This publication became a useful tool for developing the academic field of women’s studies, as the term ‘gender’ was introduced not only into academic but everyday life.

    She continued writing about women and housework, subsequently publishing The Sociology of Housework and Housewife in 1974. She studied the importance and prevalence of women’s work in the household, a topic on which there were very few studies at the time.

    Oakley pursued a research role in Bedford College in London University, as it was then known. She studied women’s transitions into motherhood, from which she published two further books. Throughout her career, she researched and wrote about various topics relevant to women and women’s issues, including medical care for mothers; policy, gender, and culture; and masculinity and femininity.

    Oakley's contributions to social policy

    Her work has contributed not only to social sciences but to social policies, and many of her research findings have been used to provide evidence to policy-makers and the public. One such example is her book Experiments in Knowing: Gender and method in the social sciences (2000). This book focuses on the history and use of methodology within the fields of natural and social sciences.

    Alongside her academic research, Oakley has also written fiction books; however, a lot of her career has been defined as a university researcher.

    As of 2022, she is the Professor of Sociology and Social Policy and the UCL Social Research Institute in London, England. She is now a part-time researcher and continues to write.

    Now that we have a brief overview of her career, let’s look at some of her key contributions to sociology.

    Ann Oakley’s gender theory: Sex, Gender and Society (1972)

    Oakley introduced the term ‘sociology of gender’ in her 1972 publication. She distinguishes between the terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’, drawing attention to the social influences of gendered behaviour on men and women. She writes:

    “Sex” refers to the biological division into male and female; “gender” to the parallel and socially unequal division into femininity and masculinity.”

    She refers to the social construction of gender and gender roles that form individual and gender identities. Since then, the term ‘gender’ has been used to denote the ideas and stereotypes of masculinity and femininity not only in private spheres but also on a structural level, such as in institutions and organisations.

    Ann Oakley: The Sociology of Housework (1974)

    This publication explored how far the role of women as housewives was a natural extension of women’s roles as wives and mothers. Oakley wrote about the findings from her 40 interviews with London housewives, where she asked about their experiences.

    She found that the women’s dissatisfaction with their housewife role was higher among those who felt monotony from the role. 80% of the women who answered ‘yes’ to the question about monotony also reported that they felt dissatisfied with housework.

    Other key findings of The Sociology of Housework

    The main finding from the research was that housewives were unhappy with their role. Other findings include:

    • Many women felt lonely and experienced a lack of social interaction with others

    • The phrase ‘being one’s own boss’ was a valued aspect of the housewife role, quoted by nearly half of the sample

    • Housework is the least liked aspect of being a housewife

    • The average working week in the sample was 77 hours

    • Those who had high status jobs before being a housewife were dissatisfied

    Autonomy in the home in The Sociology of Housework

    In the text, Oakley states:

    Housewife’s autonomy is more theoretical than real. Being ‘your own boss’ imposes the obligation to see that the housework gets done. The responsibility for housework is the wife’s alone and the failure to do it may have serious consequences…the wrath of husbands and the ill-health of children.”

    From this quote, Oakley maintains that within the home, women have some autonomy and control; however, real power rests with the man, in terms of the fear of domestic violence towards women.

    Dual burden in The Sociology of Housework

    She argued that although women now make up an important part of the workforce, housework has largely remained gendered. Housework and childcare were still primarily the woman’s job, which mean they had a dual burden of not only paid work but work at home.

    As such, Oakley criticised Wilmott and Young’s idea of a symmetrical family (1973). This idea argued that in modern times, both men and women split their chores and tasks equally – bearing ‘symmetrical’ roles. The following quote from the same text speaks on this topic:

    Despite a reduction of gender differences in the occupational world in recent years, one occupational role remains entirely feminine: the role of housewife. No law bans men from this occupation, but the weight of economic, social and psychological pressures is against their entry to it. The equation of femaleness with housewifery is basic to the structure of modern society.”

    Ann Oakley's view on family: Conventional Families (1982)

    Ann Oakley had a critical view on the role of the family in society and social life, specifically for women. In particular, she focused on the ‘conventional family’, namely the nuclear family, and studied its impact on society and individuals.

    Oakley's definition of a conventional family was:

    ... Nuclear families composed of legally married couples, voluntarily choosing parenthood of one or more children.”

    Some of her research investigated where the idea of the nuclear family as the ‘normal’ family structure came from.

    She argued that the expectation to live in this family structure was a form of social control, as people found it difficult to live alternative lifestyles. It was expected for people, especially women, to marry and have children as it was what everyone did.

    However, even in the early 1980s, people were challenging the notion of the conventional family and seeking arrangements that worked for them. It was seen by some as a stereotype and old-fashioned way of living.

    Ann Oakley, gender reveal smoke bomb, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Oakley claimed that children are socialised into rigid gender identities.

    Ann Oakley on gender socialisation

    In her 1982 research, Oakley focused on gender stereotypes and their impact on girls and boys. She found that parents push their children towards gender-appropriate toys. Common examples are pink toys for girls and blue toys for boys, or dolls for girls and action figures for boys.

    Oakley labelled this term as ‘canalisation’ to signify the narrow channelling of young children to gender stereotypes. She also stated that gender socialisation happens through verbal interactions by parents. For example, boys are told that they are ‘brave’, whilst girls are told that they are ‘pretty’.

    Through gender socialisation, gender identity is shaped and formed before children even enter school. It is reinforced through the division of labour at home, such as when young girls begin to help with housework, but their brothers are allowed to play. The process of gender socialisation serves the interests of patriarchy and has negative impacts on women’s lives.

    Ann Oakley - Key takeaways

    • Ann Oakley is a British researcher, writer, and sociologist. She has made significant contributions to sociology, in particular, feminist sociology.
    • She has written about many topics, including women and housework, the family, feminism, and sex and gender.
    • Oakley distinguished between the concepts of sex and gender, which helped develop how the term 'gender' is used in everyday life.
    • In The Sociology of Housework (1974), Oakley found that many women found housework monotonous. She states that women have a dual burden of paid work and housework.
    • Oakley also wrote about the impact of gender socialisation on girls and boys, which she claims maintains the interests of patriarchy.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Ann Oakley

    What type of feminist is Ann Oakley?

    Ann Oakley is a liberal feminist sociologist.

    What does Ann Oakley believe?

    Among other things, Ann Oakley believes that gender socialisation maintains the interests of patriarchy, as gender stereotypes work against women.

    Why is Ann Oakley important to sociology?

    Ann Oakley is important to sociology because she has made major contributions to the field of feminism and women’s studies, which were not common topics of study.

    What did Ann Oakley argue?

    Ann Oakley argued against the unequal division of housework and sought to improve the position of housewives.

    What did Ann Oakley say about gender?

    Ann Oakley claimed that ‘gender’ is a social construction and different from ‘sex’. She stated in her book Sex, Gender and Society (1972):

    “”Sex” refers to the biological division into male and female; “gender” to the parallel and socially unequal division into femininity and masculinity.”

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