Tuesday, June 26, 2012

You Probably Weren't Born Like This: On Gender Roles and Ecomomics

The following is wide ranging post on gender roles in response to this post and the comments that followed.

“When women are taking on masculine roles (doing, conquering, competing), it’s very difficult to transition into a feminine role (being, nurturing,emotional).”

from a comment by Michelle

This is an artificial divide. It’s difficult to transition because too many of have never bothered to question at depth the gendered roles that are given to us. Too many simply assume that men have little capacity to nurture, for example, or women aren’t really capable of running successful businesses (or being political leaders, or whatever). Even though strides have been made on both ends, it’s really not enough in my opinion.

Men and women can and should learn how to move across the so called masculine and feminine roles. Instead of insisting that we’re born to do and be certain things, why not instead develop an education and community cultural system that emphasizes more fluidity and training around these roles? I’m not just talking about children here, although children tend to learn quicker and easier than adults. While I’m talking about this on a society-level scale, it can – and already is being done on much smaller scales. I’ve personally been a part of programs with kids where skills that once were gendered were taught across the board. Boys who can cook and easily feel empathy grow up to be better partners. As are girls who can fix cars, direct groups, and develop business plans.

We now see amazingly successful women, but we also see a 50% divorce rate and kids being raised in front of the television or by expensive nannies. I’m certainly not into sending women back to their homes, but as women we need to prioritize and realize that we are still the primary emotional care-takers of our husbands and the primary educators of our children.

from the comments of Fusee

As for the point about women feeling pressure to “take care of the emotional needs of boyfriends and husbands, I say this: a lot of men need to grow up emotionally. We need to step up, and stop training each other through hazing and “guy code” mentalities, which reinforce adolescent norms instead of lead to more mature adults. Operating on a more equitable give and take, where supporting and nurturing are shared and coming from love and wanting to, as opposed to duty and/or guilt, should be a base level focus of all partnerships. Single women and men would do well to advocate for this while dating, and married folks with excessive imbalances would do well to reassess.

This is not about pushing for everyone to be exactly the same. Nor is it a suggestion that men and women have no differences. Those are bs extremes that simply allow people to ignore questions about how gender has been socially constructed, and how often roles have been cultivated and socially assigned, as opposed to being a part of one’s biology. What’s amazing to me is how commonplace arguments of biological determinism and essentialism have become these days.

Before the industrial revolution, women in hunter-gatherer societies focused on the “gathering,” which was a round-the-clock process. Likewise, women in agrarian cultures worked tirelessly in order to help to ensure that the family unit had enough to eat and/or trade.

It was only in the past century when men “went off to work” outside of the home that women were supposed to only sit around and play with kids without a vocation of their own. Not that playing with children isn’t a lot of work, but to say that women who work with something other than children are “another man with a vagina” is not only ignorant, but an insult to our hardworking female ancestors — without whom we wouldn’t be here today.

The points Sarah makes are entirely lost on many people because actual history is absent for a good percentage of society. The role of “male breadwinner” and female “housewife”, for example, were created only a few centuries ago, and so if you want to look at the stresses and often conflicting needs in families, that’s a good place to start. Looking at how family structures were forced to adapt in response to male led industrial capitalist development.

Again, I’ll say that unaddressed, pervasive greed, the devaluing of communities and sharing with neighbors, and our collective obsession with being constantly entertained (often at great financial expense) are all major factors in the stresses of modern families. Individual families can make some changes to lessen a fair amount of stress, but of course that takes time, effort, and priority shifting. However, it's really going to take a significant amount of grassroots, collective social change to deal with the rest of that stress. Which is built in to the systems we all rely on.

Along these lines, an excellent documentary to consider is Learning from Ladakh. There’s background info. here, and you can view the video in four sections on YouTube. As you watch this community in the Tibetan plateau rapidly transformed, it's difficult to not question how our own society was built, and how the roles we often take for granted were developed.

“So we often become just another man in a woman’s body, that’s our energy vibe, that’s how we’re acting, like men.” Michelle again.

This experience fits right in with the history I’m speaking about. Although the way I see it, what you say is “acting like men” I argue is acting like men who have conformed to the norms in order to fit in, “succeed,” and survive in many cases. It’s what they learned about “being a man” growing up, as opposed to the biological differences in our bodies. Certainly men and women often nurture, for example, in somewhat different ways, but I’d sure as hell rather celebrate those differences than the essentialist argument that men are X and women are Y and that’s that.

In the end, whatever biological differences are present between men and women, it's really a lot more helpful to question gender roles, become more flexible, and to cultivate skills and abilities across the field of what has been called "masculine" and feminine.


  1. I love discussing gender roles because I've always had such "traditional" (for post industrial white society) experiences with them. My mother stayed home with us kids and my father went to work. Now I stay home with my kids while my partner goes to work. A career outside the home is something I have had before and will have again, but nevertheless my desire to stay home and raise my children is strong right now.

    I believe that society undervalues "women's work". Taking care of children and a home is something unworthy of a modern educated person. I save my family more money with my work at home than I would make working outside the home. Yet I feel like society doesn't consider what I do all day to be work. It's demeaning.

    I don't believe I was genetically predispositioned to care for home and children. I know that I was socialized to be good at these things. I believe that any person who has the means and desire to raise their children full time, regardless of gender should take that opportunity. I also believe these people should not be punished when they chose to re-enter the "offical" workforce.

    So there you go. My life doesn't look feminist, but it is. I agree that big picture social change needs to take place in order for children to get the attention they need, from both their parents.

  2. This discussion really needs to be had over and over again. There is such a pervasive mythology about the male breadwinner and the stay-at-home mom. Even for the past few hundred years, staying at home with children was an upper-class luxury. If I go back through my family history as far as I can, the women always had full-time jobs.

    My mother worked full-time on a farm alongside my dad and then as a teacher, and we never felt that our parents didn't spend enough time with us. You make an excellent point about how much of our lack of time is brought on by what our society values. We didn't have a television growing up, and most of our spare time was spent doing things as a family. Anyone can do this.

    I've been researching a blog post on gender roles and money, and the evidence shows that people can be, and are, pretty flexible where roles are concerned. A lot of what everyone is going on about as "hard-wired" biological imperatives are quite simply well-established cultural norms that have changed many times in history.

  3. Anonymous "I believe that society undervalues "women's work". Taking care of children and a home is something unworthy of a modern educated person." I think this is changing in some quarters, although for mixed motivations. There have been some highly conservative religious movements in recent decades - segments of evangelical Christianity come to mind - that place strong value on child rearing and home tending, but also view women through a 19th century lens at best. The approach you and and your partner are taking is much more liberated in my opinion. Moving between out of the house work and caring for children in a way that supports the needs of everyone, yourself included.

    Christina - ignorance of history, even recent history, is so prevalent amongst Americans. And specifically, the history of regular folks, social movements, how social change actually occurs. Even highly educated people often have little more than a list of Presidents, wars, slogans, and a few major events in their heads. None of which are helpful in understanding any of this stuff.

    I really like that you've gone back through your own family history. That's probably the easiest place people could start to learn from.

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