Cats and dogs are gendered in contemporary American culture, such that dogs are thought to be the proper pet for men and cats for women (especially lesbians). This, it turns out, is an old stereotype. In fact, cats were a common symbol in suffragette imagery. Cats represented the domestic sphere, and anti-suffrage postcards often used them to reference female activists. The intent was to portray suffragettes as silly, infantile, incompetent, and ill-suited to political engagement.
Cats were also used in anti-suffrage cartoons and postcards that featured the bumbling, emasculated father cruelly left behind to cover his wife’s shirked duties as she so ungracefully abandons the home for the political sphere. Oftentimes, unhappy cats were portrayed in these scenes as symbols of a threatened traditional home in need of woman’s care and attention.
While opposition to the female vote was strong, public sentiment warmed to the suffragettes as police brutality began to push women into a more favorable, if victimized, light.
As suffragettes increasingly found themselves jailed, many resisted unfair or inhumane imprisonment with hunger strikes. In response, jailers would often force-feed female prisoners with steel devices to pry open their mouths and long hoses inserted into their noses and down their throats. This caused severe damage to the women’s faces, mouths, lungs, and stomachs, sometimes causing illness and death.
Not wanting to create a group of martyrs for the suffragist cause, the British government responded by enacting the Prisoner’s Act of 1913 which temporarily freed prisoners to recuperate (or die) at home and then rearrested them when they were well. The intention was to free the government from responsibility of injury and death from force feeding prisoners.
This act became popularly known as the “Cat and Mouse Act,” as the government was seen as toying with their female prey as a cat would a mouse. Suddenly, the cat takes on a decidedly more masculine, “tom cat” persona. The cat now represented the violent realities of women’s struggle for political rights in the male public sphere.
The longevity of the stereotype of cats as feminine and domestic, along with the interesting way that the social constructions flipped, is a great example of how cultural associations are used to create meaning and facilitate or resist social change.
Ms. Wrenn is an instructor of Sociology with Colorado State University, where she is working on her PhD. She is a council member of the American Sociological Association’s Animals & Society section and has published extensively on the non-human animal rights movement.
NPR’s Linda Holmes wrote a great article about the gender dynamics in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and concluded, “…you could argue that Katniss’ conflict between Peeta and Gale is effectively a choice between a traditional Movie Girlfriend and a traditional Movie Boyfriend.” I do love the way Holmes puts this. Gender, it seems, is not what one is, but what one does. Different characteristics we associate with masculinity and femininity are available to everyone, and when Peeta embodies some characteristics we usually see only in women’s roles, Peeta becomes the Movie Girlfriend despite being a boy.
Though I find this compelling, I want to take a moment to focus on the other part of this sentence… the part when Holmes frames Katniss’ relationship to Peeta and Gale as a “conflict between” and a “choice.” I think that, in some ways, the requirement to choose one or the other forces Katniss’ to, not only “choose” a boyfriend, but also to choose gender—for herself.
Depending on whether she’s relating to Peeta or Gale, she is either someone who takes charge, is competent in survival, and protects her partner (traditionally the masculine role) or someone who lets another lead and nurtures instead of protects (the feminine role). As Candace West and Don Zimmerman suggested many years ago in their article “Doing Gender,” we do gender in relationship to other people. It’s a conversation or volley in which we’re expected to play the part to the way others are doing gender.
When Katniss is with Peeta, she does a form of masculinity in relationship and reaction to his behavior and vice versa. Because Peeta “calls out” protection, Katniss steps up. When Gale calls out nurturing, she plays the part. In other words, not only is gender a “doing” rather than a “being,” it is also an interactive process. Because Katniss is in relationship to both Peeta and Gale, and because each embodies and calls out different ways of doing gender, Katniss oscillates between being the “movie boyfriend” sometimes and the “movie girlfriend” other times and, it seems, she’s facile and takes pleasure in doing all of it. If Katniss has to “choose” Peeta or Gale, she will have to give up doing gender in this splendid, and, dare I say, feminist and queer way in order to “fit” into her and her “girlfriend’s” or “boyfriend’s” relationship.
Now imagine a world in which Katniss wouldn’t have to choose.
What if she could be in a relationship with Peeta and get her needs for being understood, nurtured, and protective while also getting her girl on with Gale? In other words, imagine a world without compulsory monogamy where having two or more boyfriends or girlfriends was possible.
I’m currently working on a book on monogamy and the queer potential for open and polyamorous relationships. I’m writing about the ways in which compulsory monogamy fits nicely into and perpetuates cultural ideas about masculinity and femininity and how different forms of non-monogamy might open up alternative ways of doing, not just relationships, but also gender.
Forcing Katniss to choose is forcing Katniss into monogamy, and as I suggested above, into doing gender to complement her partner. Victoria Robinson points out in her article, “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” that monogamy compels women to invest too much time, energy, and resources into an individual man and limits their autonomy and relationships with others. What Robinson doesn’t talk about is how it also limits women’s range of how they might do gender in relationship to others.
It also limits men’s range of doing gender in relationships. Wouldn’t it be nice if Peeta and Gale never felt the pressure to be something they are not? Imagine how Peeta’s and Gale’s masculinities would have to be reconfigured to accommodate and accept each other?
Elisabeth Sheff, in her groundbreaking research on polyamorous people, found that both women and men in polyamorous relationships say that the men have to rethink their masculinities to be less possessive, women have room to be more assertive about their needs and desires, and men are more accommodating.
What this suggests is that monogamy doesn’t just limit WHO you can do; it also limits WHAT you can do in terms of gender. Might I suggest that Katniss is such a well-rounded woman character precisely because she is polyamorous? She’s not just the phallic girl with the gun… or bow in this case… or the damsel in distress. She’s strong, vulnerable, capable, nurturing, and loyal, and we get to see all of it because she does gender differently with her boyfriends. And therein, I believe, is one way that polyamory has a queer and feminist potential. It can open up the field of doing gender within the context of relationships.
I don’t know how her story ends, but I for one, am hoping that, if there is a happily-ever-after for Katniss, it’s not because girl gets boy; its because girl gets both boys.
I once heard a transgender woman give a talk about the process of socially transitioning to being recognized as a woman. She discussed various decisions she made in taking some final critical steps toward the social identity of woman. She talked at length about her hair. She asked, “What kind of woman am I and how is my haircut going to indicate that?” She talked about being preoccupied with her hair for a long time as she attempted to figure out a cut and style that “felt right.” But what struck me the most was her discussion of carrying a purse.
She said that getting used to carrying a purse everywhere was one of the more challenging elements of the transition. If asked what I thought would be a significant everyday challenge if I were a woman, I don’t think purse would have been high on my list. But, it was high on hers. She discussed remembering to bring it, how to carry it, norms surrounding purse protection in public, but also more intimate details like: what belongs in a purse?
Purses and wallets are gendered spaces. There’s nothing inherent in men’s and women’s constitutions that naturally recommends carrying money and belongings in different containers. Like the use of urinals in men’s restrooms, wallets and purses are a way of producing understandings of gender difference rather than as a natural consequence of differences.
I got the idea for this post after reading Christena Nippert-Eng’s book, Islands of Privacy— a sociological study of privacy in everyday life. One chapter deals specifically with wallets and purses. In it, Nippert-Eng discusses one way she interviewed her participants about privacy. She used participants’ wallets and purses as a means of getting them to think more critically about privacy. Participants were asked to empty the contents of their wallets and purses and to form two piles with the contents: “more private” and “more public.” As they sifted through the contents of their wallets and purses, they talked about why they carried what they carried as well as how and why they thought about it as public or private.
After collecting responses, she documented all of the contents and created categories and distinctions between objects based on how people thought about them as public or private. One question that was clearly related to privacy was whether the objects were personally meaningful to the participant. Invariably, objects defined as more personally meaningful were also considered more private.
Another question that routinely arose as participants made sense of the objects they carry around everyday was how damaging it might be for participants if a specific object was taken. Based on this findings, she creates a useful table delineating participants concerns surrounding and understandings of the objects they carry with them (see left).
Just for clarification, there’s sort of a sliding scale of privacy going from most to least private as one proceeds from the bottom left cell to the top right cell. Thus, items classified by participants in the lower left cell (1) are the most private objects. Here, participants identified things like prescription medications, letters from friends, and a variety of personally meaningful objects that were thought of as completely private and carried only for the self.
Other items were still considered private, but “less private” than objects in cell 1 because they were shared selectively. Consider cell 2. While credit cards, bank cards, memberships, credit cards and money were all classified as “private,” individual’s also thought of them as “more public” than object in cell 1 because they were required to share these objects with institutions throughout their lives.
Similarly, some objects were thought of as “private,” but were also carried to share with certain others, such as photographs of children (cell 4). Finally, items classified in the top right cell (3) are the most public objects in wallets and purses—carried for the self and, potentially, “anyone” else. Items here include things like tissues, lip balm, money classified as “extra,” gum, breath mints, etc.
Objects from most of the cells exist in both wallets and purses, but not all of them. The contents of cell 3 (containing the “most public” objects in wallets and purses) are inequitably distributed between wallets and purses. As Nippert-Eng writes, “This is the one category of objects that is overwhelmingly absent for participants who carry only wallets, yet universally present for those who carry purses” (here: 130). She also found that some of her participants only carried objects all fitting the same cell in the above table. These participants — universally “wallet carriers” in her sample — carry only objects necessary for institutional transactions (cell 2).
This is, I believe, a wonderful analysis of one of the more subtle ways in which gender is accomplished in daily life. Certain objects are simply more likely to be carried in purses. Interestingly, this class of “feminine” objects are also objects that play a critical role in social interactions. Indeed, many of us are able to travel without these objects because we can “count on” purse-carriers as having them. Things like packs of gum, tissues, breath mints and more might seem like inconsequential objects. But, they play a crucial role in social interactions, and many of us count on purse-carriers to provide us with these objects when we are “in need.” It’s an aspect of care work by which some (those carrying purses) care for others (those without purses). And if they’re any good at it, the caring goes virtually unacknowledged, though potentially highly acknowledged when these objects are absent in purses. Children routinely ask their mothers for objects they presume they’ll be carrying in their purses. Indeed, these objects may be carried in anticipation of such requests. It’s a small aspect of doing gender, but a significant element of social interactions and life.
When I was learning about interviewing and ethnography, I was told to always carry a pack of gum, a pack of cigarettes (something “lite”), and a lighter. My professor told me, “It opens people up. It’s a small gesture that comforts people–puts them at ease.” These are the ways you might want people to feel if you’re asking them to “open up” for you. I still remember my first foray into “the field.” I bought my gum and cigarettes (objects I don’t typically carry) and the first thought I had was, “Where the heck am I going to keep these things?” What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was asking an intensely gendered question.
As far back as the 1970s, family researchers began noticing that… [b]oys from broken homes were more likely than their peers to get suspended and arrested… And justice experts have long known that juvenile facilities and adult jails overflow with sons from broken families. Liberals often assume that these kinds of social problems result from our stingy support system for single mothers and their children. But the link between criminality and fatherlessness holds even in countries with lavish social welfare systems.
Ah, the link between criminality and fatherlessness again. So ingrained is the assumption that crime rates always go up that conservatives making this argument do not even see the need to account for the incredible, world-historical drop in violence that has accompanied the collapse of the nuclear family. I know Kay Hymowitz knows this, because we’ve argued about it before. But if her editors and readers don’t, why should she make a big deal out of it?
I’m not arguing about whether boys living without fathers are more likely to commit crimes. I’m just saying that this is very unlikely to be the major cause of male juvenile violent crime if the trends can move so drastically in opposite directions at the same time. These aren’t little fluctuations. Even if you leave out the late-80s-early-90s spike in crime, arrests fell about 40% from 1980 to 2010 while father-absent boys increased almost 50%.
If you are going to argue for a strong association — which Hymowitz does — and use words like “tide,” you should at least acknowledge that the problem you are trumpeting is getting better while the cause you are bemoaning is getting worse.
by Jennifer Hickes Lundquist PhD and Eiko Strader, Sep 13, 2013, at 12:00 pm
Excess under age-60 female mortality in less developed countries is estimated to add up to 3.9 million missing women worldwide (World Bank, 2011). A large proportion of this is due to sex-selective abortion practices. The practice occurs most commonly among poorer families in societies where boy children are given greater economic and social status than girl children. In such a context, the transition to smaller families can lead parents to choose boys over girls. Notably, female fetuses are most likely to be aborted when the first child born is a girl.
The table below shows the countries with the most skewed ratios at birth in the world. While there is naturally a slightly higher sex ratio of boys to girls — between 1.04-1.06 — ratios above that are considered to be altered by technology due to gender preferences for boy children.
The reason we find this newest 2013 data of particular interest is that, despite the popular Western focus on Asia, the practice occurs in more European countries. Perhaps most striking is the central European country that ranks at the top of the list—Liechtenstein. This strikes us as odd, given that Liechtenstein has never made this list in the past. Perhaps this is a data collection error (in very small populations, as also in Curacao, the results can be skewed). But we are surprised that no journalists have picked up on the fact that the worst offending son-preference country in the world is now, allegedly, a European country. We contacted the CIA to ask them about this possible data anomaly but have not yet heard back.*
On the other hand, if the Liechtenstein data is accurate, this would be a very interesting story indeed, especially since Liechtenstein has the most restrictive laws against abortion in Europe. A quick scan of gender equity policies in Liechtenstein shows that women there were not legalized to vote until 1984, indicating that it is not the most gender egalitarian of European countries.
In any case, whether Liechtenstein’s inclusion in this disreputable list is a data error or not, the other European countries on the list are legitimate. They have been high for many years, and a recent report on Armenia, for example, documents longstanding norms in gender preference. The disproportionate focus on birth sex ratios in China and India no doubt reflects their status as the #1 and #2 most populous countries, which means a much greater overall impact in sheer numbers. Nevertheless, our point stands. Why has the disproportionate inclusion of non-Asian countries on the above-list gone virtually unmentioned by journalists?
Do Developed Western Countries Prefer Boys?
Americans often think of parental sex preference as a thing of the past, or a problem in developing countries. After all, the U.S. sex ratio at birth falls in the normal range, at 1.05. This is in spite of the curious American cottage industry in sex-identification home use kits, such as the Intelligender, the GenderMaker and the Gender Mentor.
In surveys, American parents report an ideal of two children and equal preference for boys and girls. However, American gender preferences manifest themselves in more sneaky ways. A 2011 Gallup poll showed that, if they were only able to have one child, the highest preference was for a boy. These results are little changed from the same Gallup question asked of Americans in 1941.
To return to a point made in an earlier post on skewed sex ratios, Americans may not be so different, after all, in their gender preferences from the countries in the above table. The crucial difference, she noted, is that some Asian countries are more enabled to act on their boy preference than others.It appears we should now be including some European countries in that “enabled” group as well.
* Neither the United Nations, Population Reference Bureau, nor the World Bank have published 2013 statistics yet for comparison to the CIA data.
Jennifer Lundquist is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst who specializes in stratification and social demography. Eiko Strader is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst who studies inequality in labor markets and the welfare state.
If you take a close look at the stick figures in your life, you’ll notice that the “generic” stick figure is actually a great example of the way many of our societies center the male (as in, it’s generic insofar as the male is the generic human and women are, well, women). That’s why the bathroom symbol for “men’s” is the same one you see virtually everywhere representing “person.” Unless, of course, children or cleaning are involved and then they weirdly sprout skirts.
Today our Facebook friend Tamar G. sent us one we couldn’t resist sharing. It’s a playground sign from Goettigen, Germany featuring an adult and child. As is common, the adult has been carefully altered to be identifiable as female because the sign is in reference to caretaking kids. Someone in Goettigen found this as annoying as we do, however, and scribbled upon the sign: “Daddy, I also want to wear a skirt.” What a fabulous way to fight back against rigid gender rules.
Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
Look at this cute ad from the 1950s. Mom is so satisfied as she watches her three children husband and two kids discover the Swift’s Premium bacon she just cooked up. We should wax nostalgic because that kind of feminine domesticity and helpless husbandry just isn’t expected in marriage any more. Right?
Wrong! Enjoy this dizzying ad from Maple Leaf in which a woman finally gets her three children husband and two kids to be decent human beings by feeding them, you guessed it, bacon:
Thanks to Tom Megginson, The Ethical Adman, for both of these examples and the title of this post.
Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.