Despite fifty years of significant change in gender relations, social definitions of good parenting remain so deeply gender-based that we still think of mothering and fathering as very different activities, and we continue to valorize white, upper-middle class, heterosexually-partnered mothering and fathering. The gender of our kids also plays a pivotal role in how we parent them, a trap we continue to fall into even though many parents want to loosen gender constraints on their sons and daughters. All these patterns take place in the context of an increasingly privatized family, with each American household expected to do the hard work of raising the next generation with less public support than in the past, and much less than in other affluent industrialized democracies.
Adaptations to pressures from everyday life.
The transition to parenthood still leads to inequality in the division of household labor between mothers and fathers. Women take on more hours of housework and child care as well as coping with the expectations of “intensive motherhood.” Parenthood also heightens the gender wage gap for women, because their earnings are hit by what social scientists call a “motherhood penalty.”
These gender inequalities are not so much the result of choices made based on personal preferences as they are adaptations to pressures from the everyday world and the lack of institutional support for shared care-giving and breadwinning from employers and government. The most economically privileged families can buy themselves out of some of these constraints by outsourcing household labor and child care, often to poorly-paid women of color, sometimes undocumented immigrants. In these privileged families, heterosexual partners lessen gender inequalities by taking advantage of intertwined inequalities of race, class, and gender elsewhere in the population.
Intersections between inequalities of gender, race, and class.
Focusing only on the work-family issues of economically advantaged, heterosexually partnered families leaves out the vast majority of parents, from single parents to LGBTQ parents, from low-income parents to non-residential parents, and from transnational parents to incarcerated parents, all of whom face similar constraints from gender expectations that are compounded by other intersecting inequalities. The inadequate levels of public support available to low-income women raising children on public assistance force them to operate with “both hands tied.” Non-residential fathers in low-income neighborhoods face stereotypes about “dead-beat dads” even as they struggle to “do the best they can.” Incarcerated mothers are vilified with little recognition of the social factors that contribute to their problems and little support offered to help them establish more secure lives for themselves and their children. African-American mothers navigate treacherous terrain as they try to protect their sons from dangerous racist stereotypes about Black masculinity. Immigrant domestic workers try to offer emotional as well as material support to children left behind in their home countries as they care for the children of affluent American families. Meanwhile, diminished public services and a declining safety net leave individual American families “cut adrift” to survive on their own, a trend that burdens families across the economic spectrum but leaves low-income households especially vulnerable, widening inequalities in the educational and enrichment activities to which children have access.
At the same time that these gender and other inequalities shape the work of parents, children’s gender also shapes the way we parent. My research demonstrates that even the many parents who want a less gender-constrained world for their kids often find themselves trapped into reproducing gender patterns in the way they raise their sons and daughters, with particularly limiting expectations placed on sons. At the same time, scholars are beginning to document the paths forged by parents of transgender children, as they follow their children’s lead in new and less constrained directions.
Parents and children in the contemporary United States face a range of limitations, including gender-based expectations, economic inequalities, and other inequities based on race, sexuality, and citizenship status. Individual families need the kind of collective support that can allow us all to contribute to the socially critical work of raising the next generation with fewer constraints. The scholarship reviewed in my Handbook chapter, “Parenting and Gender,” helps chart a path toward that greater public support and more equitable, inclusive possibilities.
Heidi Gansen and Karin A. Martin on September 11, 2018
A briefing paper prepared by Heidi Gansen, Northwestern University, and Karin Martin, University of Michigan for the Council on Contemporary Families’ Gender Matters Online Symposium (.pdf).
Children are gendered by parents before they are born. What does that mean? As soon as parents know if “it’s a boy!” or “it’s a girl!” they start to imagine different children and childhoods. From birth, children are treated differently by gender and learn to “do” their gender from families, peers, school, and media. Parents and families buy different clothes and toys for boys and girls and decorate their rooms differently. Observers ascribe different traits (e.g. tough, brave) to a baby that is assumed to be a boy (even if it’s not) than to a baby perceived to be a girl.
We don’t even know we are doing this.
Things we do not think of as constructing gender differences do, as we write in “Becoming Gendered” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender. For example, preschools are heightened incubators of gender difference. Preschool teachers have differential responses to boys’ and girls’ behaviors, such as permitting informal behaviors for boys (lying down during circle time; loudness) and requiring more formal school behaviors for girls (indoor voices; sitting up straight).
Except when we do.
In some preschools, the curriculum is explicitly gendered. Beginning in preschool, some teachers see instructing children about their gender’s behavioral expectations or responsibilities as an explicit component of their curriculum and teaching practices. In work forthcoming in Sex Roles, Gansen interviewed and observed teachers in three preschools (nine preschool classrooms total). She found that teachers in the three preschools disciplined boys and girls differently and created gendered stories to account for and justify their gendered beliefs, expectations, and disciplinary practices.
For example, in all three preschools that Gansen observed, when girls were not following teacher instructions to clean up, girls were disciplined by having to clean up an area by themselves. In one classroom, if there was nothing left for girls to clean up, teachers would have a child or teacher dump a container of toys on the floor. These dumped-out toys were then the girls’ “responsibility” to clean up on their own. However, in none of the nine classrooms that Gansen observed did teachers discipline boys by having them clean up without assistance from their peers or a teacher. Instead, teachers in these nine classrooms frequently asked other children (almost always girls) to help boys clean up.
In another classroom, the teachers had boys do push-ups when they were physically fighting or being aggressive with their classmates. The teacher would ask the boys involved to take a break, come to the middle of the classroom, and do five push-ups. This teacher held gendered expectations for children’s behavior. She viewed boys as having physical energy they needed to release, and she implemented a gendered disciplinary practice (push-ups) to accommodate what she perceived as a behavioral “need” for preschool-aged boys. By contrast, in all nine classrooms, teachers immediately sent girls to timeout or moved them to a different play activity when they engaged in physical behaviors.
Freeing children from boy vs girl discipline creates stronger individuals.
Beginning in preschool, disciplinary interactions between teachers and students guide the construction of gender difference in young children. Gendered expectations and differential treatment of children at the young ages of three to five years old create and maintain gender inequality by constructing gender differences as natural, normal, and unchangeable. Perhaps if we change our gendered expectations and disciplinary responses to boys’ and girls’ behaviors in various contexts, such as at home and in school, we will open the door for children’s identities to be shaped in more individualized, and less gendered, ways.
CCF’s Online Symposium, Gender Matters, introduces you to some important new work featured in the newly published Handbook of the Sociology of Gender, in which a prestigious roster of contributors examines how gender affects childhood, parenting, work, and sexuality, and comments on the complex interactions between gender relationships, racial inequalities, and globalization. The lead essay in this symposium, by sociologist Barbara Risman, summarizes the extent to which gender continues to influence every aspect of life, despite real progress in breaking down traditional stereotypes and limits. Risman notes the increased normalization of non-binary ways of organizing personal identity and social life and argues — somewhat controversially even in feminist circles — that achieving true equality requires us to move beyond gender.
Changes in gender values and behaviors are not just making it to the mainstream, they are changing the mainstream. Consider this: Among the most popular—and intensively reviewed—Netflix comedy hours currently features Hannah Gadsby. Part of her routine, as described on her widely followed twitter feed, is to eschew “the concept of the gender binary.”
But what does it mean to reject the “gender binary”? And is that even possible? To explain what some gender researchers are arguing, CCF asked several of the contributors to the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender to summarize their current research. Barbara Risman, lead editor of the Handbook, gave an overview of the findings, including the evidence that gender identities and behaviors are not determined by biology, as so many people believe, and that they vary substantially by race, ethnicity, and class.
Feminism is not just a women’s movement. The latest General Social Survey data show that gender equality – at home and at work — is embraced nearly as much by men as by women. In fact, the gap between men’s and women’s attitudes is now the smallest ever recorded.
Millennials are mainly gender libertarians: For the youngest generation of adults, the Millennials, Risman found that independence, autonomy, and self-determination are key features of how they identify themselves—and free will is what they expect for others. This aligns with research highlighted here where only a small fraction of survey respondents rated themselves “highly” gender typical: in other words, a representative sample showed that a gender “binary” (aka people are simply all this kind or all that kind) is not all that common.
But, Risman points out, remnants of the older gender system continue to be reproduced in family rituals, child-raising, educational institutions, public policy, and work. Several contributors to the symposium describe how.
Emily W. Kane, in Parenting and the Gender Trap, reports on how parenting practices create inequalities in wages and housework between mothers and fathers, even those who share breadwinning, and how that imbues children with gendered expectations for their own futures. Immigrant families face added challenges, because many host countries grant one partner a work visa but forbid the other to work. In Housewife Visas and Highly Skilled Immigrant Families in the U.S., Pallavi Banerjee (University of Calgary), explains the hardships that will result from the current administration’s proposal to reinstate the H-4 visa, barring “trailing spouses” of high-skill workers (who come to the U.S. under an H-1B visa) from any kind of employment.
In other cases, immigration policies interact with gender inequalities to create widespread patterns of family separation that result in chains of displaced caregiving. Maria Hwang (Rice University) and Carolyn Choi and Rhacel Parreñas (University of Southern California) note in Separating Migrant Families, as Practiced around the Globe that “family separation is a central feature of international temporary labor migration policies that promote the recruitment of migrant workers but bar them from migrating with their families.” Often, women in third-world countries can support their own children only by migrating abroad to care for other women’s children, requiring female kin and friends at home to try to fill their shoes.
Two other briefs in the Gender Matters Online Symposium focus on hidden bias in the workplace. Indiana University’s Koji Chavez, in Gender, Tech Jobs, and Hidden Biases that Make a Difference, points out that even when tech firms hire equal numbers of males and females, they “tend to hire male engineers more for their perceived technical skills and female engineers more for their perceived ‘people’ skills.” This channels women into a track with fewer pay and promotion possibilities than those available to their male counterparts.
Yet Alison Wynn and Shelley Correll, from Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, report some good news in Combating Gender Bias in Modern Workplaces: “Research consistently shows that unconscious or implicit gender biases systematically hinder women’s advancement in the workplace,” especially when criteria for hiring and advancement are ambiguous or informal. Using a “small wins model” of organizational change, however, they were able to significantly reduce the role of implicit bias in hiring and promotion decisions.
The symposium also includes work on sexuality: Nicholas Velotta and Pepper Schwartz write about The Push and Pull of Sex, Gender, and Aging. Increasingly, women feel entitled to have a romantic and sexual life as they age. Although women face more pressure than men to retain youthful-looking sexiness, often making them feel they must have cosmetic surgery, Velotta and Schwartz point to a growing number of older Hollywood icons who still make it into the “sexy” category as evidence of change. Ironically, however, men as well as women now report pressure to maintain their youthful looks.
“This research is just the tip of a very large iceberg,” says Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families. “CCF has been a focal point for research on the gender revolution, including setbacks and stalls that continue to be evident even in the context of historic change. But as many authors here point out, the advantages and disadvantages that men and women encounter in a gendered world are often modified, and occasionally counteracted, by the dynamics of race, ethnicity, sexuality, and class. Researchers need to explore the contradictions, trade-offs, costs, and benefits of our changing gender order.”
How and Why Gender Matters In Even More Ways Then You Knew
You cannot pick up a newspaper today without seeing an article about who can use which bathrooms, and the choice of “category X” for Driver’s licenses. Why are young people today so dissatisfied with their gender categories? Are they rejecting the label of male or female? Or are they rejecting the stereotypes that demand boys to be tough and never cry, and girls wear sparkles as they take care of everyone’s feelings? Or are they rejecting the wage gap and sexual harassment? To understand what’s happening, we need to talk about what we mean by the word “gender.” You may think you know, but I am betting you do not know the half of it.
In my new book, Where the Millennials Will Take Us: A New Generation Wrestles with the Gender Structure (Oxford, 2018), I explore the meaning of gender to young people today. In interviews with 116 mostly Chicagoland Millennials, I identify some trends among the generation soon to age into leadership in American society. First, women are never going back to the home. While women’s workplace participation is as high as it has ever been, at the moment, the trend is stalled. But mothers are still far more likely to work for pay then in the past. There is not now, nor has there ever been an opt-out revolution, although sometimes women are pushed out of the labor force but inflexible workplace demands and culture. Almost no one I interviewed, not even the most religious “true believers” think that mothers belong at home with their children. While women may be forced out of the workplace by inflexible policies, American Millennials do not presume motherhood involves leaving the workforce. Second, feminism is no longer just a women’s movement. Among young men, there is a great deal of support for gender equality. In my interviews, there were men who sounded every bit as feminist as any woman, and far more than many women even in this sample of young adults. Both women and men feminist “innovators” expect to change the world by how they live their lives rejecting gender expectations and stereotypes.
I also interviewed some Millennials who rejected not only sexism and gendered expectations, they also reject the gender binary itself. Perhaps there is something new under the sun! These genderqueer respondents do not want to switch their sex category—instead, they reject the belief that they must be gendered at all, even in how they adorn and inhabit their body. Some genderqueer Millennials are quite content to identify as a sex category (e.g. as female) but reject the gender category “woman.” Others don’t use a sex category either. With this new kind of gender fluidity afloat, it makes sense that there are others in this generation who are simply confused. So much has changed, and yet so much has stayed the same. As I have written about elsewhere, what has changed, and remarkably quickly, is the legal status for those who reject categories, with state after state, and now country after country, allowed a neither (or X box) for those whose identity is neither male nor female.
Still, there are some patterns among the chaos of a diverse generation. Nearly all young adults today are libertarian about gender, or at least they claim to be. They refuse to judge people who are different from themselves in terms of gender identity or expectations. Indeed, my colleagues and I have presented survey research that shows most of today’s young adults believe women and men should be equal both inside the home and outside of it. My interviews suggest that while beliefs have changed, there is still much confusion about gender when it comes to live our lives, and what to expect from others. There are shades of grey, beyond 50, when women and men are confused by a changing gender structure. In today’s world everything is in flux. Research on Millennial’s has been contradictory, with some finding that high school seniors today are more conservative about mothers remaining in the workplace while other research – like mine — suggests a generation that takes for granted gender equality as a goal. Will these new trends among Millennials turn the tide and bring us closer to the shore of equality? Is there really change afoot? Or is it the case that the more things seem to change, the more they stay the same. As any social scientist, my answer is, let’s do more research to make gender more visible and find out.
What we know for sure is that our gender structure is changing, unevenly, and without any clear guidelines. We also know that while most Americans think gender is an identity, something deeply felt internally, gender is far more then that. Gender doesn’t begin nor end with individual feelings of authenticity. In our new Handbook of the Sociology of Gender, my co-editors Carissa Froyum and William Scarborough, and the authors of individual chapters, show just how much gender matters for every aspect of our social lives.
Gender matters to individuals, of course. But gender is very much alive in the expectations we have for one another, what it means to be a good mother versus a good father, a girlfriend versus a boyfriend. Gender matters because of all those stereotypes, conscious and not, we all hold. But gender matters beyond even beyond those stereotypes because we have quite literally built those stereotypes into our schools, workplaces, and the economy. And to justify all the inequities involved, we have developed beliefs that explain, and justify sexist institutions. Gender matters not just as identity, or stereotypes, but is also at the core of how our social world is organized. Just like every society has an economic and political structure, so too, every society has a gender structure.
First, for those of you far past college age, let me share some language now widely used on campus. Sex is the (presumably) biological category you were labeled at birth, male or female. The biological categories are not always clear-cut, as some children are born intersex, with internal female organs, but an extended clitoris that appears to be a micro-phallus. Even intersex people (who actually have both male and female body parts) are usually, if mistakenly, labeled male or female at birth. This is a good example of how even our definition of biological facts are shaped by an ideological assumption that there are two and only two possible sex categories. Gender as a social structure includes one’s individual sex category, but is far more than simply that. Gender is also a social construct that is used to display and claim one’s sex category. Few of us actually can judge someone’s sex by inspecting naked bodies, but all of us assess each other’s gender identity during interaction. At the same time, we are all evaluated by how well we ‘do gender.’ Some of us may be in social contexts where we are evaluated more positively if we reject doing gender traditionally, but the expectations remain in both conservative or progressive settings. Whatever our ideologies, we must all adapt to organizations and institutions that are based on the presumption that “ideal” workers should be entirely and uniquely committed to the business at hand, policies that reward the typically male life course, and historically masculine privilege of having a domestic wife. In the next few weeks, I will be writing about concrete examples from everyday life with the authors from the Handbook. Stay tuned…
Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families.
For several years, researchers affiliated with the Council on Contemporary families have been charting the gains and the setbacks experienced by proponents of equal rights for all, irrespective of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation or identity.
From a historical perspective, dramatic progress has been made toward acceptance of interpersonal diversity. Most people now agree in principle that individuals should not be denied rights or recognition on the basis of their gender, race, or sexual identity. But in practice there are also significant fluctuations in attitudes and behaviors. Many people hold contradictory or ambivalent positions about what is appropriate in putting egalitarian principles into practice, which makes them prone to shift their views in response to new political and economic circumstances or how issues are presented to them by contending parties. Furthermore, some arguments for egalitarian reforms that are very powerful when clear-cut legal barriers to equality exist can produce divergent reactions when such barriers are overturned.
Recent polls on same-sex marriage and LGBT rights illustrate this point. The shift from condemnation to acceptance of same-sex marriage has been extraordinarily rapid. In 2004, only 30 percent of Americans supported same-sex marriage. By 2015, when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, support had risen to 55 percent. And in July the Public Religion Research Institute found that an all-time high of 64 percent of Americans supported marriage equality.
But that last poll also revealed a recent decrease in public support for combatting discrimination against same-sex couples in the marketplace. A year ago, 53 percent of Americans said that caterers, bakers, and other wedding-based businesses should be required to serve same-sex couples, whatever their personal religious views. Today just 48 percent endorse that view, even as acceptance of a right to marriage equality has risen. One possibility is that the very arguments used to win support for same-sex marriage now cut two ways. The idea that individuals have a right to control their own bodies and choose their own mates helped garner majority support for contraception and abortion rights and for same-sex marriage. But it can also produce sympathy for people who believe they should not have to enable behaviors of which they disapprove. To win people over on this issue, we need to make a nuanced argument that does not immediately reject as reactionary their respect for others’ individual consciences. For example, if I were a baker, I would refuse to make a cake to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the Ku Klux Klan. How do we explain the difference to the general public?
Or consider the ambiguities and contradictions we find in surveys about the public’s support for gender equality. In 2012, David Cotter, Joan Hermsen, and Reeve Vanneman reviewed all the General Social Survey (GSS) questions about gender attitudes between 1977 and 2010. They found that after strong increases in egalitarian sentiments through the 1980s, support had plateaued and stalled in the 1990s and early 2000s. One explanation, they suggested, might be the emergence of a mindset that supports women’s right to equality in the public sphere but views any continuation of traditional gender arrangements after the establishment of anti-discrimination laws as reflecting women’s distinctive preferences and capacities for homemaking and child raising.
By the time the results of the 2014 GSS were published, the same researchers were able to report a significant rebound in support for gender equality since 2006. But when Cotter and Joanna Pepin looked at the 2014 results of a different survey, which had been tracking the attitudes of high-school seniors over almost exactly the same years as the GSS, they saw a different trend. Between 1976 and 1994, high-school seniors greatly increased their support for gender equality in both the public and the private realm. From 1994 to 2014, they maintained their egalitarian views about women in public life, including an expanded acceptance and approval of working mothers. But during that same period, their endorsement of dual-earner arrangements and equal decision-making in the home dropped significantly, suggesting a revival of traditionalism.
The 2016 GSS — the latest available — seemed to confirm that support for the gender revolution was firmly “back on track” – at least for people aged 18 and up. Indeed, Cotter found that the answers to every question, whether about private family relationships or about the public realm of work and politics, revealed greater endorsement of gender equality than at any time in the survey’s 39 year history.
Sociologists Barbara Risman, Ray Sin, and William Scarborough, in a separate analysis of the GSS, argue that the long-term story is actually quite straightforward. Old school traditionalists have basically abandoned their opposition to equal rights for women in the public sphere but continue to advocate gender-specialized roles at home: “Americans who have a carte-blanche objection to gender equality in both the workplace and the home have become almost extinct.”
Still, we have yet to see what trends will emerge when the 2016 survey of high school seniors is analyzed – or how the views of the high school seniors interviewed in recent years will evolve as they grapple with their own work and family realities.
Meanwhile, there are other confusing discrepancies. In the 2016 GSS, Cotter reports, the gender gap in attitudes about equality had narrowed to its smallest point ever, with most of the change “attributable to men’s catching up with women’s egalitarian attitudes.” Yet according to an August 3, 2018 report by the respected polling group FiveThirtyEight, the gender gap among voters is now larger than it has been in decades – perhaps ever. The gap between women’s preferences for Democrats and men’s preferences for Republicans ranges from 26 to 36 points in several states.
In a future piece I’ll look at research that might explain some of these shifting and occasionally contradictory findings. But my point here is that there is a substantial middle group between people who unequivocally support equal rights under all circumstances and people who unequivocally oppose them. The traditional opposition to gender equality as a matter of patriarchal principle seems to have been largely overturned. However, many people experience specific challenges in their work or family lives that can undermine their egalitarian impulses. Others hold conflicted feelings and competing ideals. It’s important to remember that a large section of the population is “up for grabs,” so to speak. Few are such committed feminists or anti-feminists that they can’t be swayed by personal experience or powerful arguments. We can’t count on those who say they support gender equality to always practice equality, and we should not assume that everyone who is skeptical about egalitarianism is a dyed-in-the-wool sexist. It’s up to us to provide experiences and arguments that help people work through their ambivalence and see the benefits of social equality for men as well as for women — and for society at large.
Stephanie Coontz is the CCF Director of Research and Education and a Professor of History at The Evergreen State College.
Tey Meadow has a new book Trans Kids: Being Gendered in the 21st Century that looks at transgender and gender creative children with supportive parents. I recently had the opportunity to interview Tey about this fascinating new research.
What was the most surprising aspect of your ethnographic work? Was there something you reported in the book that you hadn’t expected to find but did?
Two things surprised me about my research. First, there was no hypothesis I could make about what kinds of families would be most likely to support or facilitate gender nonconformity in their kids that held true. Some of the most radically supportive families were deeply religious, or from ultra-conservative, rural areas. And some politically liberal families in major urban centers were among those who struggled the most. The notion that there is any sort of monolithic gender culture in any of these areas is far too simplistic an idea to encapsulate the complex and competing desires and emotions these families experienced.
I was also surprised and heartbroken to learn how vulnerable some families were to violence, harassment and censure, even by the state, for simply allowing their children to be gender nonconforming. I detail a number of these stories in the book. Families with children of color, gay and lesbian-headed families and those with pre-existing relationships of surveillance with the state were the most acutely vulnerable, even in socially liberal areas. I met parents who faced false accusations of sexual or emotional abuse, or temporary custody loss and threats of physical violence; many who were too terrified to participate formally in the research, but desperately wanted other people to know this was happening. While media attention on these topics is on the rise, so too is a pernicious backlash that is worth our attention, as well.
One of the most surprising things for me reading this book was the complicated relationships between the social movement organizations founded by parents to advocate for their children and the LGBTQ social movements run by and for LGBTQ folks. Can you explain that somewhat for our readers?
The contemporary moment for trans children simply would not be possible without the interventions of older LGB-and especially-T activist communities. The adults who pushed for visibility and acceptance at a time when being trans was unthinkable outside of tabloid journalism, who struggled to control the terms of their own engagements with psychologists and physicians, who fought the state for the right to be recognized in their affirmed genders, all of their work set the terms by which parents could recognize children as trans and secure their rights to live openly.
But the political movement around transgender children now is largely a cisgender movement, a vicarious movement of parents and adult allies, who don’t necessarily connect the worlds of these children to the idea of trans that came before. Today’s trans kids will have earlier access to transition than their predecessors, and will, as the reach adulthood, have to decide whether or not their identify with those earlier movements, or whether they want to live outside of them. Some parent I met found the imagery of earlier transgender rights abject, worried that their children would be forced to live marginal lives, or simply felt that the world had changed so much that earlier trans people’s experiences were no longer instructive. Some of these parents chose to limit their children’s access to trans adults, or to carefully curate that access, selecting out the transpeople they felt offered the most assimilable genders for their children to emulate.
I detail this at length in the book and the novel questions it raises for these communities. Trans children whose parents have access to early medical transition will be able to pass unnoticed in most situations and will have greater latitude to disidentify with trans identities and communities. How they negotiate these new questions and options will be fascinating to watch.
What is the most important societal implication of this research project? Are there specific social policies that your evidence about transgender children and their families suggests local or state governments should implement in the near future?
This is a crucial national policy moment for trans kids, as it is for many vulnerable populations. There are republican-sponsored bills in several states that directly target these youth in ways that could be catastrophic. For example, a piece of legislation that was recently introduced in Ohio, would force school teachers and administrators to “out” youth exhibiting gender nonconforming behavior at school to their parents, even if they know that doing so would be harmful to the child. This is an unprecedented intervention into family life that could have devastating consequences for youth with unsupportive parents.
On a smaller level, my work with children and families showed me how deeply concrete policies can shape institutional cultures. Schools with well-articulated expectations for climate, with curricula that incorporate gender diversity (or at the very least don’t exacerbate it), with teacher and administrator populations that are themselves diverse, create the best learning environments for trans and cisgender students alike. Organizations around the country have compiled useful resources for educators who want to bring their schools in line with best practices in this area.
Tey Meadow is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Columbia University. Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families.
Cheating makes us uncomfortable. No one wants to find out they’ve been cheated on. It’s a betrayal that cuts like no other. At the same time, we’re fascinated by reports of the infidelity of others.
In a new study, recently published in Sexuality and Culture, I surveyed more than 1000 people using the website Ashley Madison to find potential affair partners to find out whether their participation in affairs increased their happiness. I wasn’t sure what I’d find. Perhaps cheating makes you unhappier. After all, there is the guilt, the expense, the lying. What I found surprised me.
Participants did report they were happier during their last affair than before it. That wasn’t so surprising. Recall bias may cause us to rewrite history in an effort to justify our choices. More surprising was that participants said their perception of their life satisfaction was higher even after their affair ended than before they cheated.
However, this wasn’t true of everyone. There were specific traits and conditions correlated with participants’ report of increased happiness. If they believed they wanted to remain married, affairs made them happier. If they believed that to stay in their marriage, they needed to have an affair, then their cheating made them happier. In other words, if they were cheating because they believed this was the only way to keep their families together, affairs helped. However, if they wanted to leave their marriages, cheating actually decreased their happiness.
If they reported that their primary reason for seeking out and participating in an affair was to get sexual needs met, affairs made them happier. On the contrary, if they reported that what was missing in their marriages was something emotional—intimacy, emotional support—affairs decreased their happiness. Thus, a sexual deficit may be entirely easier to resolve than an emotional one—at least through cheating. The happier and more fulfilling the primary partnership, the more satisfying the experience of an affair.
People who said they saw their affair partner twice a week or more for sexual encounters were made happier by their affairs than those who saw their partners once a week or less. So, resolving an unmet sexual need through an affair is easier than an emotional one, but it has to be worth it. And apparently the cutoff for “worth it” is twice a week. If you can’t see your affair partner that often, it may not be worth the effort.
Interestingly enough, how much the person loved their spouse had no effect on their happiness with regard to affairs. But if they believed their loved their outside partner, happiness was increased. At first glance, this may seem curious. But if we take a step back, it makes sense. We can get our sexual needs met outside of a marriage, but not with just anyone. And it only makes us happier if we’re not planning to leave the marriage, and we’re getting our emotional needs met in our marriage. So, we can’t just plug-in any warm body for this.
There was also a gender effect. Specifically, being a woman increased happiness through affairs. This could be explained by Dietrich Klusmann’s research showing that over time in long-term monogamous relationships, women’s sexual desire for their partner drops. However, if she takes on a new partner, her sexual desire returns to its high level. In other words, the reason women are made happier by cheating may be a result of what I call the “monogamy malaise” women experience in long-term partnerships.
We cannot take these findings and generalize them. We can’t use this to say, “Everyone should cheat! It makes you happier.” These people aren’t representative of everyone who’s married, or even everyone having affairs. The folks in this study specifically sought out affair partners online through a site geared to that goal. They didn’t meet someone and “fall into” an affair. No one should read this study and think, “I never considered it, but I should have an affair!” However, this does shed light into the motivations and dynamics influencing people seeking affairs, especially women who participate in cheating. More inquiry is warranted into this topic. But the findings certainly challenge traditional views of women and sexual satisfaction.
And yet, why now? Professional women have been in careers for over 50 years. What is new now? A sociological concept of “the economy of gratitude” helps explain these newly vocal demands by today’s mothers. The demands of employed mothers have definitely changed since the 20th Century. Women like me, middle class white baby boomers who fought to join the ranks of the professionally employed, were happy that we had broken into the boys club. We were grateful to be there. As Gloria Steinem so aptly explained, we wanted to be the men we were supposed to marry. We wanted was to influence the world, to make our own way, to be independent. In my generation, we wanted to be someone in our own right, not somebody’s wife, but to be that somebody. To do that, we put up with sexual harassment, lower wages, and the mommy wars. We were breaking new ground for married middle class women, who had been raised to be wives. My parents wanted me to train to be a nurse or a teacher just, as they would say, “in case your husband ever leaves you.” With that kind of parental ambition, I was grateful to have fought to carve out a life that included my work and my family. I felt lucky to have escaped the domestic life my mother and her friends lived.
Today’s young mothers, Millennial women, are not grateful for being allowed to be in their jobs, to be somebody. They take that for granted, thanks to their grandmothers and mothers who fought those battles. In my new book, Where the Millennials Will Take Us: A New Generation Wrestles with the Gender Structure (Oxford, 2018), I interviewed 116 Millennials and nearly all of them, including very conservative “true believers” in gender differences, expected women to spend their adult lives in the labor force, whether or not they were mothers. There is simply no endorsement for the idea that in heterosexual marriage husbands are breadwinners and women wives. And the quantitative data agree. There is almost no one left that doesn’t believe women should have equal rights in the public world of politics and work.
We have no male/female job listings but we still have schools that dismiss small children at 3:00 pm, and workplaces that presume workers are available full-time during the day and 24/7 online, with just a few weeks off per year. Such school hours clearly presume children have one parent (read mother) at home. And workplaces that reward workers who have no competing care-taking demands are affirmative action programs for (usually) white men with wives. The next step in feminism is to create a world where men, as well as women, have moral and practical responsibilities for caring for other people. Perhaps then our society will begin to root out the patriarchy upon which it has been built, and workplaces will begin to realize that all workers also have someone to take care of, if only themselves.
But for now, let’s hear this generation of Millennial women roar. Let’s applaud as they demand our workplaces accommodate women’s role in reproduction, so that infants can breastfeed while their mothers rule the world. But this too is only one more step forward. Let’s hope in the near future their husbands — maybe that’s daydreaming, perhaps instead it will be their sons — will lead the charge for paid parental leave for all Americans, to allow fathers and mothers more time at home with infants, so no one has to bring their baby to the office. Such radical change may just take generations but no one ever promised that the feminist revolution would be easy.
Barbara J. Risman is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is also a Senior Scholar at the Council of Contemporary Families.
Efforts to level the playing field in education typically start at the bottom. They focus on less-privileged students and on figuring out what those students lack that prevents them from getting ahead.
That deficit-based, bottom-up approach is problematic because it ignores how privileged families hoard opportunities for themselves. As I have found in my research, privileged parents teach their children to “be their own advocates” in school. Privileged children learn to ask for resources and support in excess of what is fair or required. They also keep asking until well-meaning teachers give in and grant their requests. As a result, privileged students get the bulk of teachers’ support and attention, even when they are the students who need it the least.
Those patterns were particularly apparent one morning at Maplewood Elementary (all names have been changed), where I spent three years observing and interviewing students, parents, and teachers.
Mr. Cherlin was checking homework on his clipboard. Lucy, a working-class, white student, sat low in her seat. Stopping beside her, Mr. Cherlin glanced at Lucy’s empty desk and asked: “Do you have your homework?” Lucy shook her head, not looking Mr. Cherlin in the eye. Mr. Cherlin sighed, explaining matter-of-factly: “You’ll be coming in for recess since you forgot.” Lucy nodded, slumping lower in her chair. Mr. Cherlin continued around the room, stopping next to Sarah, a middle-class, white student whose desk was also empty. Before Mr. Cherlin could say anything, Sarah launched into a breathless explanation, telling Mr. Cherlin: “I couldn’t do my homework ‘cuz I couldn’t find my journal.” Mr. Cherlin chided Sarah, saying she should have written her journal entry on a piece of paper and put it in her journal when she found it. Sarah nodded, then asked hopefully: “So, do I have to stay in for recess?” Mr. Cherlin thought for a moment and then conceded: “Just get it done tonight and show me tomorrow.” Ultimately, Lucy stayed in for recess, and Sarah did not.
Privileged students like Sarah (i.e., those with college-educated, professional parents) asked teachers to check their answers on tests. They asked for extensions on assignments. They asked for exemptions from snack policies and playground rules. They asked teachers not to punish them when they ran in the hallways or forgot their homework at home. Privileged students like Sarah also challenged teachers’ authority. Rather than sit patiently with their hands raised, they called out, got up from their seats, and even interrupted with questions. When teachers tried to deny their requests, privileged students kept asking until teachers said “yes,” instead.
If self-advocacy—or what I call negotiating advantages—helps students succeed, is it really a problem? And couldn’t we just teach less-privileged students to advocate for themselves? I would argue that, yes, negotiated advantages are a problem, and no, teaching less-privileged students to negotiate advantages is not the best way to reduce inequalities in school.
First, negotiated advantages reinforce the notion that rules don’t apply to the privileged. School discipline disproportionately affects poor and minority students. Starting as early as preschool, those students receive harsher and more frequent punishments from teachers. Those punishments undermine the success of less-privileged students and create a “school-to-prison pipeline.” It is easy to assume from those disparities that privileged students are just better behaved. What I found, however, was that privileged and less-privileged students both broke school rules—where they differed was in how they responded when they got caught. Less-privileged students accepted the consequences. Privileged students negotiated their way out of punishment, instead.
Second, negotiated advantages are problematic because they are unfair to teachers and other students. Teachers are already burdened by soaring class sizes, scarce resources, and stacks of material to cover. Allowing students to negotiate advantages wastes time and resources. It also ensures that teachers’ support disproportionately benefits students who demand it—and not necessarily students who need it most.
Third, negotiated advantages are problematic because less-privileged students cannot use them to get ahead. In the classrooms I observed, students’ success in negotiating was directly linked to their (and their parents’) privilege. Teachers relied on privileged parents. Through their donations and volunteer efforts, privileged parents supported arts programs, after-school sports, classroom technology, library renovations, and field trips. Privileged parents also advocated for teachers when politicians threatened to cut benefits or teacher pay. For teachers, saying “no” to privileged students meant jeopardizing that support.
Few people today call a doctor when they feel a bout of nostalgia coming on. But for 200 years, nostalgia was considered a dangerous disease that could trigger delusions, despair, and even death. A 17th-century Swiss physician coined the word to describe the debilitating algos (pain) felt by people who had left their nostos (native home). In the U.S. during the Civil War, Union Army doctors reported 5,000 serious cases of nostalgia, leading to 74 deaths. In Europe, physicians anxiously debated how to treat home-sickness and contain its spread.
Alarm waned toward the end of the 19th century, as experts came to believe that “modern industry” and “rapid communications” were making people more open to change and hence more resistant to the disease. And by the 20th century, researchers had begun to recognize a milder form of nostalgia that is actually quite healthy: a longing to reproduce a feeling once experienced with friends or family, rather than to literally return to another place or time. This kind of nostalgia makes people feel warmer themselves and act more warmly toward others, including strangers.
In recent decades, however, we have seen a revival of the more pernicious form of nostalgia, what we might call past-sickness. This is the longing to reproduce an idealized piece of history. When people are collectively nostalgic about their past experiences as members of a group or as inhabitants of an era, rather than individually nostalgic for their personal experiences, they start to identify more intensely with their own group and to judge members of other groups more negatively. They become less optimistic about their ability to forge new connections — and more hostile to people perceived as outsiders. When such nostalgia gets politicized, it can lead to delusions about a mythical, magical Golden Age of the homeland, supposedly ruined by interlopers.
Collective nostalgia invariably involves a denial of the racial, ethnic, and family diversity of the past, as well as its social injustices, creating romanticized myths that are easily refuted by anyone willing to confront historical realities. But the cure to the pathologies of past-sickness does not lie in the equally romanticized vision of modernization and innovation we have been offered for the last 40 years — something that might be called future nostalgia, or modernization-sickness.
For much of the 20th century, it was possible to argue that the inequities of life stemmed from the incomplete expansion of technology, industry, and the market, and would be resolved by further modernization. But for several decades it’s been clear that the gains of modernization for some have produced substantial losses for others. While the innovations of the past 40 years have opened more opportunities for professionals and affluent entrepreneurs than they have closed off, that’s not the case for many working-class, small-town, and rural men and women. The failure of policy makers and opinion leaders to acknowledge their losses has left the pain of the “losers” to curdle into a toxic mix of nationalism, racism, and conspiracy theories across Europe and the U.S.
Despite institutionalized discrimination, working-class Americans of all races made significant economic progress in the 35 years following World War II. While it’s true that white male workers were given preference over minorities and women in hiring and pay, most of the gains made by white working-class men in that era came not from their advantages over minorities but from their greater bargaining power vis-à-vis employers. The greater prevalence and power of unions was a huge factor, and although minority and female workers were only gradually admitted to those, strong unions tend to pull up wages in other sectors of the economy and act as a counterweight to business influence over government policy.
In that environment, labor took home a much larger share of economic growth than it does today. From 1947 to the start of the 1970s, every successive cohort of young men earned, on average, three times as much in constant dollars as their fathers had at the same age. And in every single economic expansion in those same years, 70% to 80% of the income growth went to the bottom 90% of the population. Economic disparities between big urban centers, small towns, and rural areas steadily narrowed.
Since the late 1970s, a very different set of trends has prevailed. Between 1980 and 2007, even before the Great Recession hit, the median real earnings of men age 25 to 34 with a high school diploma declined by 28%. Since 1980 every cohort of young men has earned less, on average, than their fathers did at the same age. Meanwhile, in periods of economic expansion the top 10% of earners have taken 95% or more of income growth. Similar increases in inequality have occurred in Europe and elsewhere. A new Oxfam study reports that the richest 1% of the world cornered 82% of the wealth created in 2017.
The reaction of the “creative classes” to these trends has been cavalier to say the least. Despite the clear signs of working-class distress in the 1980s and early 1990s, most pundits insisted that the real story of the era was “the explosion” of new and ever-cheaper consumer conveniences produced by technological advances and globalization. Economist Robert Samuelson dismissed worries about job losses and wage cuts as “alarmist hype” that had American families “feeling bad about doing well.” Conservative columnist George Will speculated that modern affluence had produced so much “leisure, abundance, and security” that our brains, which evolved to deal with constant hazards, had gotten “bored.” Even the socially conscious Microsoft founder Bill Gates was complacent: “Entire professions and industries will fade. But new ones will flourish….The net result is that more gets done, raising the standard of living in the long run.”
During the Great Recession, pundits briefly discovered that “average” increases in income often mask serious inequalities, but that went out the window as soon as the economy started growing again. Last fall the chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley brushed aside worries about job losses due to automation, arguing that “when new technology destroys, it leaves behind a layer of ash in which new jobs grow.” This January, after yet another year of global job gains without wage gains, a writer in Bloomberg News breezily announced that “brisk growth that’s not shared by all is better than no growth at all.” Besides, “there’s basically no country in the world where the consumer is not doing well,” added Bart van Ark, chief economist at The Conference Board.
As for the people who actually provide those affordable consumer goods and services? In the U.S., the “recovery” exacerbated the 40-year rise in economic inequality and insecurity. A survey of the job and business gains in the U.S. between 2011 and 2015 found that most were confined to the wealthiest 20% of zip codes in the country. The bottom 60% of zip codes together got just one in four of the new jobs created in those years. And the 20% of zip codes that were most distressed before the recession continued to lose jobs and businesses throughout the “recovery.” In 2007 the bottom 90% of the population held 28.6% of America’s total wealth. As of 2016, that had fallen to 22.8%.
Despite futurist predictions that the information revolution would lead to the “death of distance,” a few coastal enclaves and political or technical centers have continued to garner a disproportionate share of resources, reversing the 40 years of economic convergence among regions that occurred after 1940. The average per capita income advantage of Washington, DC and New York City over the rest of the country doubled between 1980 and 2013. Average airfares per mile to “loser” regions are now often nearly twice as high as to the “winners,” while many towns have lost rail service altogether.
Like nostalgia epidemics of the past, our recent outbreak was triggered by an understandable sense of loss and disorientation. But there’s an interesting difference between past and present in the groups most vulnerable to the disease. From the 17th to the 19th century, pathological nostalgia was seen most often among people who moved away from the communities in which they had been raised — often bettering themselves materially but feeling lost and isolated in their new surroundings. Today the upwardly and geographically mobile have easy access to new technologies, professional networks, and flexible work and consumption techniques that allow them to navigate unfamiliar territory and make themselves at home wherever they go.
Those same innovations, however, have marginalized individuals whose identity, security, and livelihood depend on their familiarity with a particular place and set of skills, and their placement within long-standing personal networks that involve relations of mutual dependence and reciprocity. These include industrial workers who get jobs at a local factory because a relative puts in a good word with the foreman; farmers, feed suppliers, and farm equipment mechanics who rely on clients or employees who are also neighbors; and local businesses that depend on personal connections with their customers.
Today the most debilitating nostalgia is found among those who cannot or do not want to move — and should not have to — but see the traditional sources of security that their native land, or nostos, once provided being dismantled or relocated, while their habits, skills, and social relationships are devalued. Instead of leaving their homes behind, they feel left behind in their homes.
As always, working-class African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans suffer disproportionately from job losses, wage cuts, and increased volatility. Zip codes where most residents are racial or ethnic minorities are twice as likely as predominantly white zip codes to be in economic distress. Still, whites account for a significant portion — 44% — of the more than 52 million Americans in the most distressed communities. This shared exclusion from the rewards of modernization ought to be a source of solidarity, not division, but division is what happens when one group romanticizes where we’ve come from and another romanticizes where we’re going, instead of carefully examining the gains, losses, and hard trade-offs of the here-and-now.
To cure this outbreak of past-sickness, the winners in this system must stop pretending that the answer is more of the same, with a little more diversity at the top. To make modernization work for all, we must take a more critical look at how we measure economic and technological progress. Self-driving cars and delivery drones may save some people time and money, but they take away other people’s livelihoods. To stem the contagion of pathological nostalgia, we need to inoculate ourselves with a dose of the healthy nostalgia that spurs us to integrate the best values and ideas of the past into the improvements and advances we promote.
One of those values is the traditional democratic belief that the people who grow our food, make our coffee, fix our cars, educate our children, nurse our sick, and pick up our garbage are at least as essential to a healthy society as the people who invent new algorithms for stock trading, social media, and marketing. They deserve to live in thriving communities, send their kids to good schools, earn a living wage, and get home in time to enjoy dinner with whomever they count as family.
Stephanie Coontz is the CCF Director of Research and Education and a Professor of History at The Evergreen State College.
About Council on Contemporary Families
The Council on Contemporary Families is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best-practice findings about American families. CCF seeks to enhance the national understanding of how and why families are changing, what needs and challenges they face, and how these needs can best be met.