Chiung-Tzu Lucetta Tsai

"Feminist Perspectives on Leisure Policies for Women."

The International Journal of Urban Labour and Leisure, 4(1) <>

ISSN: 1465-1270

Keywords: feminism, policy, sexuality, gender, identity


Feminist analysis argues that a ‘common-sense’ approach to define leisure as an opposition to work is far too simplistic and ignores the dimension of gender in social relations. People are ‘gendered’ individuals and the fundamental sexual division between males and females permeates life. Hence, human sexuality is a crucial factor in social relations and, in many studies, is the determinant of opportunities and constraints in leisure. In other words, the inequality brought about by the sexual division of labour is the fundamental ground of the difference of leisure activities for men and for women. 

Most research into leisure reflects men’s experience of leisure forms and activities. Essentially, leisure became defined as non-work, significant only because of its connection with work. At the risk of over-generalisation, life was seen to be readily compartmentalised between work and leisure and men were seen to earn leisure through paid work. Thus, the focus of leisure studies is at present upon the relationship between paid work and leisure.

This article analyses the factors that constrain and confine leisure for women and shows how women’s leisure has been marginalised in a contemporary patriarchal society. Also it attempts to use the perspectives of feminism to look at leisure experiences of women. It focuses on women’s own perceptions and experiences which too often have been ignored in leisure studies. This research deals with leisure policy and provision for women from the perspectives of feminism. Moreover, it tries to come up with new resolutions providing more leisure opportunities for women.

Traditional concepts of leisure have usually considered leisure in terms of three broad categories (Haywood and Henry, 1986):

Feminists have criticised this way of conceptualising leisure for being ‘gender blind’ or lacking gender-sensitivity and for viewing women as deviant cases, or solely as part of the family (Deem, 1986). It is clear that a number of feminists working in the leisure field have argued convincingly that leisure has different meanings for men and for women (Green et al, 1990; Kelly, 1972; Parker, 1983). 

Women are more likely to be regarded as the ‘emotion-providers’ belonging to the private sphere of the household/family, whereas men are viewed as the ‘bread-winners’ occupying the ‘public’ sphere of work, politics and leisure. Such sexual divisions within the social division of labour and social relations have recently been challenged and explored by research into leisure. Within feminist studies, leisure is seen as a site of patriarchy, which may be defined in general as the control of women by men. The dynamic of this control is permanently derived from patriarchal capitalist ideologies.

It has long been noted that men and women engage in different kinds of leisure activities. Men report themselves to be involved in more leisure activities and to participate more frequently than women, especially in those activities which involve leaving the home unaccompanied, and in particular in all forms of sport. The only leisure pursuits for which women regularly and more frequently leave the home alone are bingo, cinema and theatre visits (Woodward, 1985). The crucial factors affecting women’s leisure, including having access to private transport, opportunities to gaining some form of employment to secure an independent source of finance, a fairly high degree of confidence in themselves and determination to do what they want, a sense of a legitimate right to leisure and a network of support which may range from a friend or partner to a whole household or group of people (Deem, 1986).

‘Official’ explanations of women’s low participation rates in activities outside the home have been criticised in terms of women being recreationally ‘disadvantaged’ or ‘socially and geographically deprived’ (Talbot, 1987). The differences between men and women's access, to and experiences of, leisure are both expression of the sexual division of labour in capitalist society generally and a reinforcement of traditional gender stereotypes. Deem (1986) argues that women’s leisure outside the home is often ‘policed’ by the actions of men and their control of public spaces. It manifests itself in women’s well-founded fear of male violence and their consequent curtailing of female activity.

Some constraints such as the fear of being out alone after dark apply to most women, but to few men. The Second British Crime Survey (Jones et al 1986) found that half the women interviewed went out after dark only if accompanied and 40 percent were ‘very worried’ about being raped. Another study done in Sheffield by Green et al (1987) had the same result, showing that over half of the respondents were worried about being out after dark and most of these women saw this as a ‘big problem’ for them. Convenient and safe transport is a vital vehicle enabling women access to the most leisure activities. A whole range of leisure and educational pursuits are facilitated by car ownership. 

To sum, the main constraints which restrict the opportunities of women access to leisure can be conceptually categorised as three fold, namely:

Personal constraints refer to age, lack of time, lack of confidence and mobile capability, whilst role-related constraints refer to familial ideology, and socialisation, and lack of autonomy. Social constraints refer to social regulations, cultural expectations, and patriarchal ideologies.

Under the influences of these constraints, women’s leisure turns out to be marginalised. Research on women and transport also claims that transport disadvantages make a major contribution to limiting women’s opportunities in employment, family and leisure activities (Deem, 1986; Green et al, 1990; Wimbush and Talbot, 1988). In particular, women are also concerned about the danger of using public transport at night. Waiting at bus stops and walking home are especially frightening to women and many take taxis in spite of the cost, to allay these fears. 

One study undertaken by the former Greater London Council Women’s Committee (1985) also shows the impact of age and gender on travel patterns. Over three-quarters of the women over 75 years did some walking each week, but they were much less likely to use other forms of transport such as private cars, British Rail, the Underground or taxis. Shopping was their main purpose in going out, but 40 percent of their journeys were ‘for pleasure’: a lower frequency than for younger women. It is worth noting that feminists have begun to analyse how male social control over women has constrained the where, when, and how of women’s leisure (Woodward et al, 1988). The concept of Respectability is a key element of social control in the construction and representation of women as portrayed within dominant stereotypes. Gendered stereotypes are social constructions closely tied in with the interest of dominant groups.

In terms of social control, one of the major factors which ties women to the home and limits their access to public sphere is their roles as mother. This mystique surrounding women’s domestic role is reinforced by prevailing norms about respectable female behaviour. Images of the ‘normal women’ are contained in the stereotypes which form a major part of ideologies of femininity and are built into both the formation and implementation of social policy and into every day relations between individuals (Hutter and Williams, 1981). The stereotypes of the mother provide the key to understanding the relative immobility of the majority of women so designated.

Traditional female activities that coincide with the role of wife and mother appear to meet with comparatively little resistance from partners, so long as they do not interfere with domestic responsibility. Female leisure is commonly based on the assumption that women’s ‘spare time’ should be filled by learning or elaborating aspects of domestic ideology like ‘homemaking’, the care and nurture of others, ‘good workers’ and improving one’s physical appearance. Furthermore, many women with young children lack the necessary funds to pay for a regular childminder or baby-sitter. Whilst male partners may be asked to look after children on special occasions, Green et al found that there was no real shared responsibility for children, and several women commented on their partners’ unreliability as childminder, which can be a major barrier to their independent leisure away from home.

Studies of mobility patterns reveal similar patterns of gender inequality. Women have less money to spend on travel, and are much more likely to use low-cost but slow means of travel, such as buses and walking, than men. Men are much more likely to make journeys by car; to have access to a car for longer time, especially during the day; and are twice as likely to hold a driving license (Graham 1984).

Green et al’s (1990) ethnographic research on leisure experiences, which was conducted in Sheffield has shown that, because of the general acceptance of traditional divisions of responsibility by the respondents, there was little perception that women might need leisure outside the home to the same degree as men. Thus men’s leisure away from home was accorded high priority, in terms of its precedence over competing activities and spending patterns. On the other hand, women’s leisure was seen as much less important, both by themselves and by their partners. Free time clearly is a key to access to leisure. Recent estimates of the availability of leisure time suggest that, of the 105 waking hours per week generally available to us, a full-time female might expect 31 hours of ‘free time’, and a full - time employed male, 48 hours. A retired man would have the most with 92 hours a week, while a retired woman would have 75 hours (CSO, 1990). The survey conducted by Mason (1987) in relation to long term marriage shows that although most of the women in her sample had worked outside the home, they had spent more time in it than their husbands, had been in control of domestic and household routines and, as a result, had been able to exert a degree of autonomy over the use of time and space within the home.

Based on the typology of constraints of women’s leisure and empirical evidences, it is clear that the differences between men’s and women’s access to and experiences of leisure are both an expression of the sexual division of labour in capitalist society generally, and a reinforcement of traditional gender stereotypes and social process. As a consequence, women’s leisure gradually turns out to be marginalised.

The impact of feminist approaches to leisure studies

It is difficult to grasp the breadth and diversity within feminist studies because feminism is not an academic discipline, but a critical perspective and a political practice, as well as one that is constantly developing. Nevertheless, Feminist approaches to leisure have not just confined themselves to studying women’s leisure or even incorporating gender into their analyses of leisure experiences. Fundamentally, femininity hinges on maternity and domesticity. It interacts with a particular ideology of the family and incorporates an ideology of romantic sexual love. Femininity implies a preoccupation with the private, the personal. 

Haywood et al (1986) divided feminism into three important perspectives, namely liberal feminism, critical/radical feminism and Marxist feminism. These often reflect different political strategies in dealing with women’s oppression. One way of thinking about the three strands is to see Liberal feminism focusing on women’s oppression, Critical feminism on the exploitation of women’s labour, and Marxist feminism on discrimination. It is useful to deal with the issue of women’s leisure from the perspectives of these three main feminist approaches. 

Liberal feminists argue that the subordination of women is achieved through ideas about domesticity and caring relationships. The ideologies of subordination to men could primarily derive from social norms, cultural expectations, education and the mass media. For example, cultural expectations divide women into two basic stereotypes respectable women who are or will be daughters, wives and mothers on the one hand, and ‘bad or fallen women’ who are beyond the limits of respectability on the other. This dual classification represents the view that women are considered to be either potential housewives and mothers, or sex objects (Woodward et al, 1988). Therefore, women’s access to leisure time is constrained by their everyday commitments - paid employment, childcare, domestic labour, and the care of frail or elderly relatives (Woodward et al, 1988). The unequal distribution of domestic labour within the household has a crucial constraint upon women’s leisure activities.

The main tasks of critical feminism are to rediscover women’s place in, and contribution to, social changes. They define men as oppressors and explore the ways in which men exercise power and control over women’s biological reproductive capacity and the sexuality of their bodies. Critical feminism sees patriarchy as an important constituent of social relations; power and politics are important not only in the public sphere of government and policy making but also in the private sphere within sexual relationships, especially within the family. Women’s proper place has traditionally been seen as the home, with men monopolising the public arena. Strategies of control exerted by male groups in leisure venues are ultimately just one expression of a process of social control which is constructed with reference to dominant forms of masculinity, and ‘acceptable levels of violence’ (Woodward et al, 1988). The distinctive feature of the critical feminist contribution is the endeavour to set the study of leisure firmly in the context of women’s oppression and gender relations and the concern to bring about a positive change in the social position of women. So feminists have not looked merely at what women’s lives are like, but they have also examined the connections between those life-styles and femininity (Deem, 1986). Thus, critical feminists emphasise that the strategy of women’s leisure should get rid of the ‘top down’ approach but rather pursue their leisure opportunities by self-help through their informal networks - female relatives, neighbours and workmates - and formal organisations. This not just reduces the constraints circumscribing them but also makes them ‘safe’ and socially acceptable places for women to spend their leisure.

Where critical feminism focuses on issues of sexual politics and oppression, Marxist feminism highlights the economic exploitation of men and women under capitalism. The sexual division of labour under capitalism means that not only do women biologically reproduce people, they also reproduce the labour power of workers. Relatively recent Marxist feminist analysis have emphasised the wage relationship as the major determinant of leisure in capitalism, leisure being seen as clearly constructed by type and hours of paid work. Whilst men are generally seen to ‘earn’ leisure time through paid work, the amorphous nature of women’s unpaid domestic work as careers makes it hard to identify time that is unambiguously ‘free’ for leisure. It is stressed that the economic subordination of women influences the balance of power within the households of married couples, which has major implications for women’s access to material resources and their level of freedom. The dominance of this primary role of wife and mother means that women do not see domestic responsibilities as work, even though Haywood et al (1995) suggest that women with no paid work spend an average 77 hours a week doing housework. The position of women within the home is much closer to slavery than to normal contracted work in industrialised society. As a result, women have the primary function of servicing men’s sexual and domestic needs, and their domestic labour provides time, space and resources for men, and husbands in particular, to enjoy leisure.

Financially and socially, women are dependent upon institutional structures within marriage, the household and the family, which define women as domestic labourers and careers in the private sphere of paid employment or work (Marsh and Arber 1992). In addition, the state reinforces women’s dependence on men through tax allowances, pension schemes and social welfare policies.

In terms of ‘life cycle’, struggles between women and men over childcare may lessen or disappear in the late middle age, but struggles over housework may continue. Women whose children are grown may regain some of their former freedom for out-of-house or at-home leisure, but are still subject to collective male social control over their freedom to go about in public places without fear of sexual harassment and attack. Women who have returned to employment are likely to have some independent income to spend on leisure but the continuing gap between female wages and male wages and women’s inferior position in the labour market continue to mean that women’s disposable income is almost always less than a man’s and that their equal right to leisure is almost always less than a man’s and that their equal right to leisure is not accepted fully by a male dominated society.

In light of both economic and emotional security, the potential costs of challenging the social norms which shape conventional attitudes towards family life and gender-appropriate behaviour are too greet for most women. In pursuit of independent leisure outside home, women usually have to negotiate with their male partners. Nevertheless, family and couple-based leisure or organising leisure activities and outing with a male partner and children are perceived by most women as part of their role as wives and mothers.

To begin with, feminist analysis argues that the general model of leisure provision for women ignores the dimension of gender in social relations. Under the ideology of patriarchy, the fundamental sexual division between males and females permeates life and living. Hence, human sexually is crucial, the determinant of opportunities and constraints in leisure (Haywood, 1994). 

Secondly, within the above model, whereas men occupy the ‘public’ sphere of work and leisure, women are most likely to be in the ‘private’ sphere of housework. This sexual division contributes to the formation of the concept of the ‘dual-labour market’. Men are to be found in the primary forms of labour which offers full-time contracts, pension, job security and promotion, whilst women are in secondary labour market which usually offers inferior conditions in every aspect. Thus, it is clear and expected that women’s position of exploitation both at home and at work carry clear restrictions on women’s leisure as they often lack time, transport and income to engage in leisure (Haywood, 1994).

Thirdly, in the patriarchal society, leisure forms revolve around sexuality and women’s sexuality is defined by men and, at worst, is treated as a commodity to be consumed by men. The reinforcement of the image the sexual division of leisure provides must have important effects on the attitudes of both providers and consumers.

Fourthly, focus on the criticisms and implications of feminist theorists on women’s place has not just had tremendous impacts on leisure policies but also shown that it is legitimised and necessary for the state to design the right policy and provide adequate leisure provisions for women.

The gender-sensitive leisure policies and provisions for women

The conventional wisdom in the policies and provision of leisure services for women is embodied in the phrase ‘getting more women into’ leisure - a phrase which implies that it is women who must change their behaviour rather than the providers critically analysing what is provided in the light of women’s needs and wants. The emphasis in creating an advantaged environment for women’s leisure is important, not only because of its impact on men and the way in which patriarchal relations of power work, but also because it would actually encourage women not only to be able to use their leisure but also see that they have a right to such leisure all the time.

With regard to creating an advantageous environment for women’s leisure, the most important and first step is to promote greater autonomy and power for women within relationships and in the wider society, so that discriminatory attitudes and behaviour become anachronistic and socially unacceptable. Policy-makers within leisure and recreation may need to take into account the effects of such inequality, in relation to the pricing and time-tabling of their facilities, the development of women-only sessions, and the introduction of a much wider scale of transportation to and from leisure venues (Woodward et al, 1988).

Secondly, mobility is an essential element of the advantaged environment of women’s leisure. As mentioned earlier, mobility advantage makes a contribution to further women’s opportunities in leisure activities and employment. Good reliable public transport and particularly forms of night transport which women would feel safe using are a major part of making women’s community leisure possible.

Thirdly, providing the supportive machinery of domestic labour with family is a useful way to promote more opportunities for women to participate in the leisure activities they like. Thus, provision of childcare facilities for both under five and school age children after school and in holidays can free mothers from at least part of their obligation towards children so that they can enjoy their own leisure without spoiling their children’s leisure.

Fourthly, eradicating the ideology of patriarchy that is mainly an original source of inequality, discrimination, sexual division of domestic labour and sexual harassment is a fundamental means to prevent women’s leisure from marginalisation and inequality. The effective and substantial way to achieve the end is to disseminate and cultivate the ideas of equal sexuality and equal opportunity in leisure activities, employment and domestic labour through education institutions and mass media, etc.

There is a crucial difference between leisure provision for men and women, in that most of the decisions about provision for women are made by men. So not only does leisure provision reflect commercial and also ‘public-provision’ ideologies about the place and the function of leisure in peoples’ lives’; it also reflects patriarchal ideologies about the role of women, what it is appropriate for them to do and where it is appropriate for them to go, and the provision itself is frequently based on stereotyped notions of femininity. The stereotypes tend to classify women into either young sex-objects who need wine bars, or mother who requires sewing classes and romance (Shaw, 1994). Even though women are able to overcome the personal constraints, role expectations and structural elements of the social filter, they may be barred access to leisure places by the ‘gatekeepers’. Gatekeepers of leisure institutions could be regarded as a ‘watchdog’ of male ideologies and interests supported by patriarchal society.

The current provision of policies and structures are so entrenched and institutionalised that making changes is tantamount to revolution. To change such provision to make ‘special’ provision for women is thus inevitably to change the status quo, and changes to existing practices are seen as a threat by the groups in power or those who currently benefit (Talbot, 1987). Furthermore, as discussed earlier, the gender-based inequalities and marginalisation of women’s leisure found by feminist research reflect that the policies and provisions of leisure for women should be improved to meet women’s needs and furthermore the opportunities for them to access to leisure.

Therefore, as Deem (1986) claims, it is not sufficient to recognise women as a client group or as a ‘target’ for increasing participation; nor should the new policy be thought up and administered by men. Instead, leisure provision must be motivated by what women want, and must be planned and implemented by them. She also suggests that women could be encouraged to take up activities hitherto mostly male-dominated. Leisure provision locations could include places women already use - health centres and shopping centres. Furthermore, leisure could be made available in single sex groups, as women may feel safer, less threatened and more able to be themselves rather than conforming to male expectations or being ridiculed if they do not. Talbot (1987) has a similar idea, proposing that strategies of alternative forms of leisure activity and procedures in conscious rejection of male-defined norms and values should be devised as a reaction against the male domination of leisure activities.

It is worth stressing that the legal protection of single-sex clubs and organisations is not always to the detriment of women and girls. It is equally legal for clubs to set up and maintain an all-female membership and such groups provide important leisure opportunities for many women. Legal precedents in other countries do seem to indicate that when single-sex organisations lose their legal protection there has been a vital reduction in the number of women in positions of responsibility and executive power. Essentially, this sort of legal protection for women, which has admitted women on unequal conditions of membership, forces such organisations to grant women full membership rather than ‘associate’ membership with only limited membership privileges and rights (Talbot, 1987).

Leisure could be made available in single sex groups where required; the need of women to be able to relax in single sex environments is as important as their need to have some autonomous forms of political organisation, although neither of these need preclude other mixed forms.


This article not only concentrated on how dominant ideologies of gender difference inform both private and public behaviour but also revealed consequent inequalities in women’s and men’s leisure opportunities. The concept of social control linked to patriarchal power systems is adopted as an important way of exploring and explaining how these inequalities are sustained.

Marginisation and inequality have become the best description of women’s leisure within patriarchal power, just like the term ‘feminisation of poverty’ is used to portray what women live in the masculine domain. Moreover, it analyses three types of constraints restricting women’s access to resourcefulness of leisure activities. These restrictions of opportunities can obtain the answer from the theoretical perspectives as well as empirical evidences. Once the restraints have been eradicated, it will be an advantaged environment conductive to the rise of participation rate of women’s leisure activities.

The feminist approach provides studies of women’s leisure with a useful and reflexive perspective to find out ‘what’s going on’ within the social contexts. These make contributions to the design of future leisure policies because it is believed that policies that ignore the different life experience of men and women may continue in willfully blind adherence to normal practices. Furthermore, in terms of leisure provisions, it is suggested that promoting single-sex organisations or women-only leisure institutions may make women feel much safer and more assessable to leisure activities.

To eliminate the tendency of marginalisation and inequality of women’s leisure, in terms of leisure provision and policy, it is emphasised that both creating an advantaged environment for women’s leisure but also improving leisure provisions for women to meet women’s real need, are the important measures in the future.

To sum, for women to be free to enjoy leisure, they need some of the conditions which characterise men’s lives. They need time, freedom form domestic chores, and paid employment, an absence of maternal responsibilities, sexual freedom, confidence, and cultural competence to engage in existing and new leisure forms.

It is understood that patriarchal power has influenced women’s leisure. It is clear that unequal sexual division of domestic labour, the low status of women in society are some factors that suppress women and restricted their participation in leisure. Despite decades of “progress”, males still have access to more opportunities and greater public resources are available for their leisure pursuits. Leisure perpetuates the patriarchal system by powerfully reinforcing the division of sex. Leisure is still perceived to be a male domain, hence, it prevents girls and women from taking part. The lower rate of leisure participation among women when compared to men confirms that leisure is another area in which women are prejudiced and marginalised. If men can overcome their deep-rooted prejudices, then some headway can be made in meeting the needs of girls and women in leisure activity.


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Chiung-Tzu Lucetta Tsai is currently a research student with the department of leisure management at De Montfort University in Bedford, England.

Address for Correspondence: De Montfort University –Bedford, 37, Lansdowne Rd, Bedford (Staff) MK40 2BZ, UK

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