Does it matter how I identify my gender and sexuality? This question can spark contentious debate. While reading Unbound: Transgender Men and the Remaking of Identity by Arlene Stein, I began to think more deeply about my lesbian identity. I’ve been contemplating a lot lately about whether I still identify with the label “lesbian.” Am I a lesbian? Am I queer? Am I trans*?

A little background about me… After overcoming years of internalized homophobia from my upbringing in rural South Carolina, I came to terms with my lesbian identity in the fall of 2003, my first-year of college. I was randomly assigned a roommate who strongly identified as a lesbian woman. She came out in high school, despite being raised in a Southern Baptist family in Georgia. She was forced to attend “Love Won Out”—an ex-gay ministry—at her church, while her lesbian friends protested outside. Following high school, she received academic and athletic scholarships to a private Christian college in South Carolina. She left for college with a threat from her family to “not mess up”—i.e. be a lesbian. Her family hoped that the religious environment of the school would stifle her ability to find a partner, as they continued to pray the gay away. Living with her, it only took a little over a month for me to realize that my attraction to women was the thing that made me feel so different growing up in my small town.

While my college roommate and long-time friend remains heavily embedded in the lesbian community, I feel I lost that connection somewhere along the way. Since we dated, her other long-term relationships have been with older women who are well connected in the lesbian scene and what I would call second-wave lesbian feminism. I, on the other hand, ended up dating mainly bisexual women or women who had spent the majority of their lives in relationships with men. I completed my Ph.D. in sociology and started studying trans* men and non-binary identities. And during my graduate education, I began to identity as a genderqueer lesbian. This is confusing to many people, because I no longer identify as a woman, however, I identify as a lesbian. By classic definition, a lesbian is a woman attracted to other women.

I came of age during the shift from the butch/femme lesbian culture to the growing queer movement. Stein explains that in the early 1990s, we start to see the conversation change. The term transgender begins to take the place of transsexual, moving those who dare to challenge the binary gender system from “mentally ill patients” to “empowered people.” I also came of age at the end of the lesbian bar scene. After graduating from undergrad in 2007, I was able to enjoy a few years of finding myself in a couple of the remaining lesbian bars in Columbia, South Carolina. These bars have all since disappeared, much like the butch lesbian. Stein argues the lesbian bar was “driven out by gentrification, the mainstreaming of gay and lesbian culture, and the uncoupling of lesbianism and feminism.” Today, only a few lesbian bars remain in the United States.

After reading Unbound, specifically the chapter entitled, “Last Butch Standing,” I began to wonder where I fit into this generational divide. Stein discusses the disappearance of the lesbian butch. She shares quotes from older butch lesbians lamenting this disappearance. The idea that butch lesbians are all now becoming trans* men seems to be a visceral fear among this earlier generation of lesbians, butch and femme alike. In the 1970s and early 1980s, radical lesbian feminists like Audre Lorde and Monique Wittig reclaimed lesbian as a political statement. They linked their political feminist ideals with their lesbian sexuality. To in any way associate with men in the power structure of the day was to hand over your power. Somewhere along the way, the link between lesbianism and feminism became muddled. Trans* rights and queer movements began to shift. I’m in no way arguing this is a bad shift. Rather, I’m wondering where did the lesbian go during this shift? Stein says, “Butches still exist, of course,” but the disappearance of the lesbian bar makes them hard to find.

Stein poses the question, “Are butches and trans men fundamentally different groups of people?” My research, along with Stein and Henry Rubin supports the idea that many trans* men today would have once identified as butch lesbians, most before they knew being transgender was an option. In Rubin’s 2003 book, Self-Made Men, he argues that the difference between butch lesbians and trans* men is a thin and changing line. And, while I agree with Stein in much of her argument in Unbound, I do not agree that “transgender is the hot new thing—which means that younger people are as likely to question their gender today as their sexuality.” Transgender is in no way new, as Stein clearly shows in her book, and should never be spoken of as a trend. The fact that trans* people now have the right to exist and live as they feel comfortable is testament to the power of social movements, including feminism, gay and lesbian civil rights, queer rights, and trans* rights.

This leads me to today, living in between the generation of radical lesbian feminism/the butch/femme lesbian subculture, shifts in the acknowledgement and acceptance of trans* people, and the queering of the gender binary more generally. Where do I fit in? I really don’t even know what generation I belong to any more. Apparently, millennials no longer like the word “lesbian” or identify with this label. Mary Grace Lewis, recently mourned this fact in her Advocate article, “‘Lesbian’ Isn’t a Dirty Word and More Millennials Need to Use It.” She argues that millennials distancing themselves from the label lesbian is largely due to the poor representation of lesbians in the media. Her argument closely resembles the much more thorough analysis of female masculinity by Jack (then Judith) Halberstam in his 1998 book, Female Masculinity. Halberstam clearly shows how female masculinity has always been discouraged and pushed to the margins. Why has lesbian become a dirty word to younger generations? Millennials question everything and a lot of them are queering most things. Instead of saying “Just use the word,” we have to figure out a way to fix our image problem.

So, here’s what I know: I am not discouraged by the rise of the transgender or queer movements. In fact, I am ecstatic about this! I do not agree with some second-wave feminists who feel the growing number of trans* men seeking transition is a threat against women or feminism. I wholeheartedly believe that trans* women must be welcomed into women’s spaces and feminism with open arms. The idea that some feminists would exclude others—what some have referred to as TERFs or trans exclusionary radical feminists—goes against everything I believe about feminism. Feminists have fought long and hard, and will continue to fight, so that women, and humans, have the right to control their own bodies. That is all that trans* people are asking for. To be pro-choice on abortion but anti-choice against trans* gender affirmation is contradictory and offensive. We have to distance ourselves from TERFs, we have to make the gay and lesbian civil rights movement not just a white and privileged movement, we have to strive for better representation in media, and we have to leave our comfy couches and create lesbian spaces again.

So, how will I choose to identify? For now, I’m choosing lesbian! Lesbian has a powerful history and we stand on the shoulders of butch lesbians before us, like Esther Newton. I’m also choosing genderqueer. I cherish my history as a woman and the history of the women who fought before me so that I have the ability to choose to spend my day writing this essay, rather than cleaning my dirty house. Further, as a genderqueer lesbian, I choose to leave my identity open to adjustment. I may have top-surgery when I can afford it, but that doesn’t make me more or less of a lesbian. I choose to inhabit this liminal space in between woman and man, I choose to be butch, I choose to challenge the gender binary, even though that can be difficult at times.

For the millennials out there, you do not need to use any word that does not fit you. Lesbian can be a powerful and meaningful identity if you choose it, but if you do not, I accept you as you are. For the older lesbians out there, I respect you and hope that we can create lesbian spaces again. Your guidance and wisdom are needed for the next generation. So, if you’re a rich older lesbian, spend some of that money to create some new lesbian spaces for us! Maybe this time we could have windows? Maybe a nice patio—us butches can help you build it! And if you want to get crazy, us millennials love a good wine list!

_______________________

Baker A. Rogers is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Georgia Southern University. Their research and teaching focus on inequality, specifically examining the intersections of gender, sexuality, and religion. Their work is published in Gender & Society, SexualitiesReview of Religious Research, and Feminist Teacher.

What do Louis Farrakhan, George H. W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Mark Zuckerberg have in common? They are examples of the strange political bedfellows who support separate, publicly funded schools for black boys.

As a public school graduate and one of the few black women faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I know what discrimination in the classroom looks like. So, when I first heard about the effort to establish all-black male schools (ABMSs), I was relieved that school districts were finally listening to anti-racist activists’ assertion that structural racism in schools is unacceptable. In other words, I situated the push to open ABMSs within black people’s well-established understanding of the classroom as a place for resisting racism. To this end, proponents of the forty-plus ABMSs established since 1991 rightly argue that: black urban schools are under-resourced relative to white suburban ones; traditional public schools utilize racist curricula; black students are disciplined more harshly than white students, and black teachers are under-represented in the nation’s schools.

At the same time, the anti-feminist ethos sometimes present in #Black Lives Matter and other expressions of black politics is also evident in conversations about ABMSs. It is unsurprising then that my initial optimism about ABMSs soon turned to concern. I recognized that despite their best intentions, some advocates of ABMSs minimize the degree of black girls’ own oppression in school. Equally disturbing is many ABMS supporters’ assumption that black schoolboys underperform because they are distracted by black girls. This claim reproduces harmful images of black women as “jezebels” who sexually corrupt the men in their midst.

There is much to learn from the movement to open ABMSs. One lesson is that intersectionality – the analytical framework pioneered by black feminists to illuminate how racial, gendered, and other systems of power are mutually reinforcing – can be used to advance multiple political agendas, including anti-feminist ones.  On the one hand, advocates of AMBSs embrace intersectionality when they assume that black boys underachieve not only because they are black in racist schools but also because they are black boys in white, female-dominated classrooms. This intersectional logic highlights black boys’ experience of gender-specific racism or the fact that the nation’s teachers, most of whom are white women, suspend black boys at higher rates than other students, including black girls. On the other hand, numerous advocates of ABMSs assume that black boys underachieve because white women teachers create racist, “feminized” classrooms at odds with these boys’ “naturally” aggressive learning style. This latter intersectional approach obscures research which indicates that biology does not automatically make boys tactile learners and girls oral learners. Most significantly, ignoring these data leads far too many supporters of ABMSs to overlook the needs and aptitudes of black children, like highly verbal black boys, who defy stereotypical gender roles.

So where does the reality that the push for ABMSs resists racial inequality but sometimes relies on gender inequality leave those of us committed to challenging intersecting inequalities in our personal, activist, and/or professional lives? I believe that supporters and critics of AMBSs can form politically progressive coalitions. This might seem like an unrealistic goal given that advocates of ABMSs sometimes reject black feminist criticism of their efforts. Indeed, black feminists who express concerns about these schools have heard that we are “colluding with the enemy” or giving racist whites the opportunity to condemn ABMSs and, in turn, stifle black boys’ academic prospects. It is also true, however, that while many proponents of ABMSs conceptualize black children’s oppression in ways that threaten bridge-building, other advocates recognize that the sometimes sexist and heterosexist rhetoric in favor of these schools harms both black boys and black girls.

Building on this finding requires all participants in the debate about ABMSs to embrace a particular type of educational advocacy – one which recognizes that public schools are key to addressing oppression and that black children are forced to learn in some of the worst public schools. Putting this kind of nuanced advocacy into practice means using accessible, community-based spaces to challenge our assumptions about how and why black children are oppressed in school. It also means defining “good” public schools as those which foster all black children’s capacity for self-determination and self-actualization in the classroom, and beyond.

_________________________

Keisha Lindsay, PhD is an associate professor of gender and women’s studies and political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research and teaching interests include black feminist theories, black masculinities, and gender-based politics in the African diaspora. She is the author of In a Classroom of Their Own: The Intersection of Race and Feminist Politics in All-Black Male Schools (University of Illinois Press 2018).

You don’t know me, but you likely know of me. I’m the female professor who dared to run a self-esteem study requesting photographic evidence confirming correct method and measure of penis size.

Within a week of launch, a website called The College Fix ran a misleading story written by a college freshman describing my study. Oh, and they gave it an inflammatory click-bait headline.

In less than 24 hours, national and international news outlets picked up the story. Most just ran the original story—headline and all—without confirming its claims. One source even added in some new, provocative inaccuracies, claiming I wanted my students to send me “dick pics.” Minimum age to participate was 22 years old, and I did no local or university recruitment. However, even the accurate coverage chose headlines suggesting I wanted “dick pics” “sent” to me; so men across the country sent me selfies via email. (The study requested pictures showing a specific method of measure submitted only through the survey portal.) Other people jumped to assumptions about my motives and purposes without even reading any of my previous work or learning much about the actual study.

As soon as the first story appeared, my inbox overflowed. I fielded 500 emails daily. Most of the emails were supportive and from wanna-be participants. However, many messages were hate mail. Each hater sent multiple emails. The first message came from a Michigan man (he went to my academia.edu page, which provided his location)—he opened his email by calling me a “feral whore.” He sent 30 emails in total, each with similarly abusive language. He called me a “fat pig,” or some variation, in most of those emails. He even claimed that I was “so fat only N—–s would” have sex with me. The racism of misogyny was common.

I reported this hate mail to campus IT Security, who sent me instructions on blocking the emails. This only sent them to junk mail, though, which I had to check regularly for potential participant emails.

Another guy sent 15, very long emails the first day. He denigrated my training—both where I trained and the fact that my degrees are all in different fields (common among sociologists)—and he told me this was a stupid mistake for someone “starting her career.” I’m three years into my assistant professor position.

All of the men who sent abusive emails swore to contact Missouri State University administrators and state legislators to demand they fire me. I’m a sex researcher, and accustomed to upset with my work. However, the level of vitriol from each hater far exceeded my previous experiences.

The phone rang all day. I took it off the hook. Day one there were 19 messages. Most were hang-ups. The rest were either prank calls or abusive in their tone and accusations. One woman left a several minute message letting me know I am “disgusting.”

Although haters were generally unique in their responses, a common frustration among those sending hate was that I am a woman. Many literally wrote, “How dare you, a female professor, run a study like this.” Keep in mind, these pictures were clinical pictures, think medical textbook not titillating Playgirl images. When I responded with, “Why would you feel differently if I were a man?” I got no response. Another shared trait: they were all upset that I would suggest smaller men might feel badly about themselves, and assumed my purpose was to prove that correlation.

There is ample data demonstrating that for many men who perceive their penises are small, self-esteem is indeed an issue. How our bodies look and how we see them impacts how we feel about ourselves, and this is an important social and psychological issue. My study could have contributed to this existing body of knowledge that takes men’s bodies and feelings seriously, and it could have perhaps helped to shift methodology for penis size studies. Yet I had to cancel the study a week and a half into recruitment because we live in a world where the idea of a woman looking at “dick pics” is just too upsetting for people to permit. Important work about men and masculinity had to be shut down because of massive media misrepresentation and widespread sexist attitudes. That’s a loss for us all. I’ll go on with other studies. The news cycle will shift. But the hundreds of men who begged me not to close this study are still living with self-esteem issues due to perceived penis size. And no one is talking to them about it.

____________________

Alicia M. Walker, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Sociology at Missouri State University. Her research focuses on intimate sexual relationships, sexual behavior, and sexual identity.

Scholarly publications are not necessarily free from error. Researchers like Mark Regnerus have operational problems that skew their claims. Others publish with typos. And still others make mistakes in translating data to graphs, tables, or other infographics. Peer review can only catch so much, because reviewers don’t often have access to the full data set, at least not when dealing with qualitative data. Or, in the case of Regnerus’ Social Science Research publication, blinded reviewers overlook egregious errors in conceptualization and conflicts of interest in project funding (see here for a nuanced critique).

About a year ago, we both discovered an error in a 1976 research note published in the American Journal of Sociology that resulted in an Erratum in the journal’s May 2018 issue. The error appears in a really interesting article by Sociologist Dwight E. Robinson on shifts in men’s facial hair fashions over the course of 130 years in London. Robinson tracked representations of facial hair as a case study of fashion trends as measurable bits of culture. Comparing shifts in men’s facial hair to shifts in women’s skirt lengths, for example, he made claims that “men are just as subject to fashion’s influence as women” (here: 1133).

In the research note, Robinson calculated the relative frequencies of five different styles of men’s facial hair (clean shaven, moustaches, sideburns, moustache & sideburns, and full beards), and different combinations of these styles, from images published in the Illustrated London News between 1842 and 1972. This project shows dramatic shifts in configurations of men’s facial hair over the period studied, with a spike in different styles at different times but an overall decline in facial hair since the late 1800s. Robinson also reported on this shift in Harvard Business Review a year prior, in an article comparing this trend to still more cultural shifts in fashions.

Plotting his findings allowed Robinson to visualize this shift over time, and visualizations help to more readily appreciate the cyclical nature of cultural shifts in fashion (like changes in the popularity of baby names, for instance). They help make discernible something that might be otherwise difficult to appreciate. Below, we’ve stacked all the relative frequencies in a chart to display this shift (also in Sociology NOW, 3e, Chapter 4). It’s really an incredible change, and such a neat way to talk about shifts in fashion. Some fashions have short cycles (like styles of clothing, for instance), while fashions associated with other things (like popular baby names) have longer cycles. Facial hair fashions, according to Robinson’s research, appear to follow a fashion cycle more similar to baby names than to styles of clothing.

But… in the American Journal of Sociology article, there are a collection of errors in the Appendix table from which we collected these relative frequencies. These errors are reproduced in both the  AJS and Harvard Business Review. Robinson may not have realized these mistakes because he plotted shifts in facial hair styles on separate graphs both publications (see images below).

The graphs are produced from relative frequencies of a raw count of men’s facial hair styles in each year of published issues of the Illustrated London News. When we requested Robinson’s submission files from the American Journal of Sociology to consult when assessing the error, they no longer had them. This would have been in hard copy and that filling system, we were told, did not include his submission materials. We also tried to collect submission files from Harvard Business Review, which no longer has the files. Because of this, the Editorial Board at AJS decided they were unable to correct the errors in an erratum; they did agree to at least publish something stating that errors were indeed made. After all that investigation, we ended up with this Erratum:

This erratum is a bit non-committal. But it was what the journal was willing to print. Don’t get us wrong, these errors don’t have the same policy implications as the egregious Regnerus study that suggests children of gay parents don’t meet markers of success similar to kids’ of straight parents. We do feel, however, that the errors can and should be corrected with the available information.

Robinson’s errors appear to most likely be the result of mistakes make in calculating something simple: relative frequency. Because Robinson included all of the figures in the appendix, he allowed us to calculate these frequencies ourselves for verification. Journals should do this when they can, to make scholarly claims more transparent and to offer other scholars data that could be used in different ways, to perhaps answer different questions. Indeed, more journals are including data files as a part of the available materials for download, now that things are online. Below is the Appendix from the article published in the American Journal of Sociology.

The errors in the table (reproduced in the figures in both publications) are associated with the years: 1844, 1860, 1904, 1916, and 1959. In each case, the relative frequencies are miscalculated in the table.

  • 1844: The relative frequency of clean shaven should be 30%, not 47%.
  • 1860: The relative frequency of beards should be 40%, not 39%.
  • 1904: The relative frequencies of moustaches and beards should both be 34%, not 37% and 32% (respectively).
  • 1916: The relative frequencies of clean shaven and moustaches should be 34% and 65%, not 33% and 64% (respectively).
  • 1959: The relative frequencies of clean shaven and moustaches should be 78% and 22%, not 74% and 21% (respectively).

These errors do affect what the graphs look like. If they were corrected, we would see a slight rise in the popularity of representations of men with mustaches in the late 1950s. Now, is that a significant difference? Not really. Clearly, we went to more trouble here than necessary. But identifying (and correcting) research errors is as important to maintaining scholarly integrity as is conducting meticulous reviews of research before it’s published. Accountability is key to making sure we, as scholars, continue to understand research as a communal process that takes seriously the integrity of research, from the smallest details to the biggest biases.

At Girls Rock Camp, a week-long summer camp for girls and non-binary kids, volunteers plug instruments into amplifiers. Once “plugged in,” campers excitedly ask, “Is my amp on? Can I turn it up? How can I make it louder?” These campers, ages 9 through 17, know how to crank up the volume. They experiment with different sounds— leaning into the microphones, turning-up amp knobs, and yelling call-back chants into an imagined crowd: “Who rocks? GIRLS ROCK! Who rocks? GIRLS ROCK!”

As young people start to discover (and use) their voices, things can get LOUD. Carving out space for femme expression and empowerment, volunteers encourage campers to be unapologetic about their voices and their volume. Crashing cymbals and turned-up amps are the norm—punctuated with shrieks, sharp microphone feedback, and unexpected elbow-slides on the keyboard. There is no template for what we are doing here. Resistance is messy and wild and loud as hell.

And make no mistake, resistance is important at Girls Rock Camp. The program offers girls and non-binary kids opportunities to engage in self-expression. The camp prides itself on helping girls build self-esteem through music education, collaboration, and performance, as well as through empowerment and social justice workshops. In many ways, Girls Rock Camp is an enclave for social resistance. Campers are encouraged to push back against oppressive gender norms. They are asked to rethink binary assumptions about bodies and gender identities. And volunteers design workshops to teach and promote consent, acknowledge gender and racial privilege, and to challenge oppressive heterosexist systems that maintain inequality.

Girls Rock Camp, Campers Celebrate Their Performance

At Girls Rock Camp, one way campers challenge these systems is by coming together to write original song lyrics and performing these songs live in front of family and friends at a public venue. This can be a challenging exercise. Many of the campers have never written a collaborative piece before camp. This process, however, serves as an opportunity for young artists to address specific concerns in their everyday lives. One band, The Ultra-Violet Vixens, wrote lyrics that exclaim: “Femme isn’t fragile! All your expectations are vile. We won’t listen to what others say; we rock in our very own way!”

Vixens’ message challenges the assumption that femininity is inferior, or less valuable, than masculinity, and they declare that social expectations for girls are indeed “vile.” These lyrics contradict the popular notion that girls are expected to be quiet, weak, or docile. Speaking out against these stereotypes allow campers to constructively push back against oppressive gender norms. Refusing to believe that all girls need to be submissively similar, the band declares that they “rock in their very own way!”

During a House committee hearing in 2017, Representative Maxine Waters famously quipped that she was “reclaiming” her time. As I engage with young folks at Girls Rock Camp, I am reminded that, in many ways, they are reclaiming their voices. Girls are routinely told to sit still, to take up less space than boys, and to be quiet. Here— both on stage and during band practice—girls and non-binary kids are anything but quiet. They are plugged into amps and speakers and microphones—they are going to be heard.

Volunteer Holds Microphone While Camper Rocks

The voices of girls and non-binary kids are amplified through the organizational efforts of Girls Rock Camp, which helps campers learn how they might resist the structural and interpersonal barriers they encounter in their own lives. For both adult volunteers and campers, turning up the volume is a political act. Campers have space to express, loud and clear, that their words matter. Girls Rock Camp serves as a timely reminder that we need to amplify messages of change and resistance, and that young people need to be a part of this conversation. They too want to push back against structures that are designed to usher them off stage.

 

**All photos taken by Mitch Mitchell. Used with permission.

Trisha Crawshaw is a Ph.D. student in Sociology at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Her dissertation research focuses on gender, youth culture, and resistance narratives in the Girls Rock Camp community. This is her third year volunteering with Girls Rock Carbondale, a music education program that promotes self-esteem and expression for young girls and gender queer children throughout Southern Illinois. 

Originally published in the USC Dornsife Gender Studies Program Newsletter, August 24, 2017.

The USC Gender Studies Program mourns the loss of one of our founding colleagues Harry Brod, Professor of Sociology and the Humanities at the University of Northern Iowa, who died on June 16.

After taking his PhD in philosophy at the University of California, San Diego in 1981 Brod joined the faculty at USC where, between 1982 and 1987, he helped to shape The Program for the Study of Women and Men in Society (SWMS, later changed to the Gender Studies Program.) At a time when women’s studies programs were proliferating nationally, Brod’s influence helped to make USC’s SWMS a unique and groundbreaking program, purposefully including “men” in the both the program title and curriculum.

Harry Brod’s local efforts at USC reflected a broader national and international scholarly project that Brod helped to inaugurate: the interdisciplinary field of feminist studies of men and masculinities. Two books edited by Brod were foundational in this effort: The Making of Masculinites (1987) and Theorizing Masculinities (1994). Throughout his career, Harry Brod made important contributions to scholarly thinking on the intersections of masculinities with race and ethnicity, including two books that focused on the experiences of Jewish men—A Mensch Among Men (1988) and Brother Keepers (2010)—and a study of white male anti-racism allies, White Men Challenging Racism (2003). Brod’s most recent book, published in 2012, reflected his longstanding fascination with the historical significance of comic books: Superman Is Jewish?

It is difficult to over-state the importance and depth of Harry Brod’s foundational contributions to men’s engagements with feminism, both academic and movement-based. Brod’s careful and insightful thinking—grounded in his expertise in Hegelian philosophy and in his ethical commitment to feminism and social justice—was expressed in a lifetime of work as a scholar-activist. Brod’s contributions as a public intellectual included many short newsletter or magazine articles, and in recent years, frequent presentations of “Asking For It: The Ethics & Erotics of Sexual Consent,” a lecture now available as an educational film. Brod’s USC friends, colleagues and students were forever touched by the ways that he joined strength of intellect, a passion for social justice and a kind and gentle demeanor. In memory of Brod, the Gender Studies Program made a donation to the Harry Brod Masculinities Studies Collection at St. Norbert College.

— Mike Messner, USC Gender Studies & Sociology Faculty

Originally posted at Democratic Socialists of America

In the 1950s, a collection of sociologists and psychologists (which included, among others, Theodor Adorno) wrote The Authoritarian Personality. They were attempting to theorize the type of personality — a particular psychology — that gave rise to fascism in the 1930s. Among other things, they suggested that the “authoritarian personality” was characterized by a normative belief in absolute obedience to their authority in addition to the practical enactment of that belief through direct and indirect marginalization and suppression of “subordinates.” While Adorno and his colleagues did not consider the gender of this personality, today gender scholars recognize authoritarianism as a particular form of masculinity, and current U.S. president Donald Trump might appear to be a prime illustration of a rigid and inflexible “authoritarian personality.”

Yet Trump’s masculinity avoids a direct comparison to this label precisely because of the fluidity he projects. Indeed, the “authoritarian personality” is overly fixed, immutable, and one dimensional as a psychoanalytical personality type. Sociologists understand identities as more flexible than this. Certain practices of Trump exemplify the fluctuations of masculinity that illustrate this distinction, and the transformations in his masculinity are highly contingent upon context. While this is a common political strategy, Trump’s shifts are important as they enable him to construct a “dominating masculinity” that perpetuates diverse forms of social inequality. Dominating masculinities are those that involve commanding and controlling interactions to exercise power and control over people and events.  These masculinities are most problematic when they also are hegemonic and work to legitimize unequal relations between women and men. Here are a few examples:

First, in his speeches and public statements prior to being elected, Trump bullied and subordinated “other” men by referring to them as “weak,” “low energy,” or as “losers,” or implying they are “inept” or a “wimp.” (“Othering” is a social process whereby certain people are viewed and/or treated as somehow fundamentally different and unequal.) For example, during several Republican presidential debates, Trump consistently labeled Marco Rubio as “little Marco,” described Jeb Bush as “low energy Jeb,” implied that John McCain was a “wimp” because he was captured and tortured during the Vietnam War, and suggested that contemporary military veterans battling PTSD are “inept” because they “can’t handle” the “horror” they observed in combat. In contrast, Trump consistently referred to himself as, for example, strong, a fighter, and as the embodiment of success. In each case, Trump ascribes culturally-defined “inferior” subordinate gender qualities to his opponents while imbuing himself with culturally defined “superior” masculine qualities. This pairing signifies an unequal relationship between masculinities—one both dominating and hegemonic (Trump) and one subordinate (the “other” men).

A second example of Trump’s fluid masculinity applies to the way he has depicted himself as the heroic masculine protector of all Americans. This compassion may appear, at first blush, at odds with the hegemonic masculinity just discussed. For example, in his Republican Convention speech Trump argued that he alone can lead the country back to safety by protecting the American people through the deportation of “dangerous” and “illegal” Mexican and Muslim immigrants and by “sealing the border.” In so doing, Trump implied that Americans are unable to defend themselves — a fact he used to justify his need to “join the political arena.” Trump stated: “I will liberate our citizens from crime and terrorism and lawlessness” by “restoring law and order” throughout the country — “I will fight for you, I will win for you.” Here Trump adopts a position as white masculine protector of Americans against men of color, instructing all US citizens to entrust their lives to him; in return, he offers safety. Trump depicts himself as aggressive, invulnerable, and able to protect while all remaining US citizens are depicted as dependent and uniquely vulnerable. Trump situates himself as analogous to the patriarchal masculine protector toward his wife and other members of the patriarchal household. But simultaneously, Trump presents himself as a compassionate, caring, and kind-hearted benevolent protector, and thereby constructs a hybrid hegemonic masculinity consisting of both masculine and feminine qualities.

Third, in the 2005 interaction between Trump and Billy Bush on the now infamous Access Hollywood tour bus, Trump presumes he is entitled to the bodies of women and (not surprisingly) admits committing sexual assault against women because, according to him, he has the right. He depicts women as collections of body parts and disregards their desires, needs, expressed preferences, and their consent. After the video was aired more women have come forward and accused Trump of sexual harassment and assault. Missed in discussions of this interaction is how that dialogue actually contradicts, and thus reveals, the myth of Trump’s protector hegemonic masculinity. The interaction on the bus demonstrates that Trump is not a “protector” at all; he is a “predator.”

Trump’s many masculinities represent a collection of contradictions. Trump’s heroic protector hegemonic masculinity should have been effectively unmasked, revealing a toxic predatory heteromasculinity. Discussions of this controversy, however, failed to articulate any sign of injury to his campaign because Trump was able to connect with a dominant discourse of masculinity often relied upon to explain all manner of men’s (mis)behavior — it was “locker room talk,” we were told. And the sad fact is, the news cycle moved on.

We argue that Trump has managed such contradictions by mobilizing, in certain contexts, what has elsewhere (and above) been identified as a “dominating masculinity(see here, here and here) — involving commanding and controlling specific interactions and exercising power and control over people and events. This dominating masculinity has thus far centered on six critical features:

  1. Trump operates in ways that cultivate domination over others he works with, in particular rewarding people based on their loyalty to him.
  2. Trump’s dominating masculinity serves the interests of corporations by cutting regulations, lowering corporate taxes, increasing military spending, and engaging in other neoliberal practices, such as attempting to strip away healthcare from 24 million people, defunding public schools, and making massive cuts to social programs that serve poor and working-class people, people of color, and the elderly.
  3. Trump has relied on his dominating masculinity to serve his particular needs as president, such as refusing to release his tax returns and ruling through a functioning kleptocracy (using the office to serve his family’s economic interests).
  4. This masculinity is exemplified through the formulation of a dominating militaristic foreign policy (for example, U.S. airstrikes of civilians in Yemen, Iraq and Syria have increased dramatically under Trump; the MOAB bombing of Afghanistan; threats to North Korea) rather than engaging in serious forms of diplomacy. Trump has formed a global ultraconservative “axis of evil”— whose defining characteristics are kleptocracy and dominating masculinity — with the likes of Putin (Russia), el-Sisi (Egypt), Erdogan (Turkey), Salman (Saudi Arabia), Duterte (Philippines) among others.
  5. So too has this dominating masculinity had additional effects “at home” as Trump prioritizes domestically the repressive arm of the state through white supremacist policies such as rounding-up and deporting immigrants and refugees as well as his anti-Muslim rhetoric and attempted Muslim ban.
  6. Trump’s dominating masculinity attempts to control public discourse through his constant tweets that are aimed at discrediting and subordinating those who disagree with his policies.

Trump’s masculinity is fluid, contradictory, situational, and it demonstrates the diverse and crisscrossing pillars of support that uphold inequalities worldwide. From different types of hegemonic masculinities, to a toxic predatory heteromasculinity, to his dominating masculinity, Trump’s chameleonic display is part of the contemporary landscape of gender, class, race, age and sexuality relations and inequalities. Trump does not construct a consistent form of masculinity. Rather, he oscillates — at least from the evidence we have available to us. And in each case, his oscillations attempt to overcome the specter of femininity — the fear of being the unmasculine man — through the construction of particularized masculinities.

It is through these varying practices that Trump’s masculinity is effective in bolstering specific forms and systems of inequality that have been targeted and publicly challenged in recent history. Durable forms of social inequality achieve resilience by becoming flexible. By virtue of their fluidity of expression and structure, they work to establish new pillars of ideological support, upholding social inequalities as “others” are challenged. As C. J. Pascoe has argued, a dominating masculinity is not unique to Trump or only his supporters; Trump’s opponents rely on it as well (see also sociologist Kristen Barber’s analysis of anti-Trump masculinity tactics).  And it is for these reasons that recognizing Trump’s fluidity of masculinity is more than mere academic observation; it is among the chief mechanisms through which contemporary forms of inequality — from the local to the global — are justified and persist today.

This piece originally appeared on the Ms. Magazine Blog.

Susan, a 53 year old camp director, babysat from the time she was 12 years old. She always assumed she’d have kids one day—but during college, she worked in a department store where watching impatient parents with their children inspired her to radically change the path she’d planned for herself.

Vladimir Pustovit / Creative Commons

“They’d yank them by the arm, pull them around, yell at them, and make them sit down. It just wasn’t right.” Susan took the experience to heart and began to think more deeply about how she could make a positive difference in children’s lives. “I had a lot of experience at being with children at various stages. And I enjoyed it, I loved it, but I said to myself, ‘There are way too many kids out there that don’t have someone to look after them and don’t have someone to be an advocate for them.’ I felt that I could be that person.” She became a teacher and then a camp director and hasn’t looked back since.

Making a difference in children’s lives is what Susan felt destined to do. In addition to working with children in her career, Susan says she’s extremely close to her nieces and nephews. They enjoy weekend visits at her home and she has the financial security to help their parents with expenses. Susan loves giving to them. As she put it, “When they visit me, I take excellent care of them, I lavish them, we have fun, and they have everything they want.”

We know from our interviews with hundreds of childfree women, some of whom appear in Maxine’s forthcoming film, TO KID OR NOT TO KID, that Susan isn’t alone. For these women, being a parent isn’t required for making a positive difference in a child’s life. Non-mothers’ roles as advocates, mentors, and friends to children are well documented. A survey of 1,000 non-mothers inspired by Savvy Auntie Melanie Notkin found that children play an active role in the lives of 80 percent of women who don’t have children of their own. Another study found that it’s common for aunts to spend money on the children in their lives and assist kids’ parents financially. In fact, in 2012 aunts spent an estimated $387 on each child in their lives. Three-quarters of them spent more than $500 per child. Despite aunties’ significant investments in children, and the New York Times’ feature last year on this segment of the market, advertisers have been slow to catch on.

Maxine is trying to rectify this. As a commercial director and filmmaker, she’s made the first Aunty commercial, released on April 17. The advert features Aunties who serve as “other mothers” to their nieces and nephews and celebrates the role of aunts in our community.

We hear proclamations all the time that it takes a village to raise a child and we know from childfree people’s own accounts that they are an important part of that village. As feminist writer Jessica Valenti notes, “ we need to start thinking about raising our children as a community exercise.” Non-parent figures are an essential part of that exercise. Research conducted for Big Brothers Big Sisters of America shows that having caring adults who are not their parents involved in their lives improves kids’ confidence, grades and social skills. Non-parents also provide needed support for parents.

Today, 15 percent of women in the U.S. will reach their 40th birthdays without ever having given birth. While these women may not have given birth, they have given to the children in their lives in significant ways, both emotionally and financially. Childfree Aunties’ contributions should no longer go ignored.

Maxine Trump has directed documentaries for TV networks from Discovery to Sundance and is author of the forthcoming book “Diving Into Documentaries” (Focal Press, 2018). Her previous feature film Musicwood was a New York Times Critics’ Pick. Maxine is in full production on TO KID OR NOT TO KID and is seeking a brand to sponsor her new Aunty commercial.

Amy Blackstone is a co-founder and guest author at Feminist Reflections and a sociology professor at the University of Maine where she studies childlessness and the childfree choice. Her work can be found in academic outlets, in media such as Ms., Broadly, CNN and TIME, and on the blog she co-writes with her husband Lance, we’re {not} having a baby!.

 

I remember, about a decade ago, meeting U.S. scholars at an international conference. In the period of an otherwise nice lunch, one particular colleague – a second wave (cisgender, straight) feminist of color – initiated a conversation on what turned out to be her nephew going through gender reassignment (although she voiced this as her “niece” going through “bodily mutilation”). I remember the challenge of having to articulate a harsh and yet loving criticism of this colleague who I otherwise respected, and still respect today, and my need to understand how, and why, these readings of the flesh took center stage in this colleague’s fears. Having experienced racialized sexualities and racialized gendered readings throughout our lives, she came to the table with preconceived notions about the sanctity of one’s body, and trans* identities and experiences challenged that idea.

About 10 days ago, I recalled that moment when I started reading criticisms of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s recent comments, and various responses from transwomen, among them Laverne Cox. Adichie has clarified her points most recently, where she reiterated the main premise of the separation between trans* and cisgender women – that transwomen have had “male privilege,” inserting, pretty much god-like, that posture on transwomen’s histories (please read this inspiring story on the challenges this poses to cisgender women agreeing with Adichie). This has been the point of contention of much of the public debate. The character of her accusations as transphobic are two-fold. On the one hand, they are politically efficacious for trans communities – a group that should be directly speaking on trans* issues (and not Adichie). Yet, on the other hand, they are a shallow move that avoids addressing the historically charged relationship between feminist thought, sociology, and trans* rights, a move that cannot be brushed away with a mere accusation of transphobia.

My goal is to converse with (cisgender and trans*/transsexual) feminist scholars and activists, and although I center my remarks on the sociological discipline, I want to reach social scientists and non-academics alike. I wish to engage whatever politics we activate when we deploy a monolithic view of feminism, but also, the subsequent attacks and remarks of Adichie as transphobic. To be sure, cisgender (straight and lesbian identified) feminist wars have taken shape for decades: as a case in point, Cherríe Moraga’s work has been critiqued for its posture against transmen (in ways that have been labeled transphobic). True, there is a lot of tension in the sex-gender wars between cisgender feminist activists/scholars, and those of latter waves of feminist thought. But what seems problematic in this case is the focus on Adichie as a target.

It seems so easy, so self-celebratory, to challenge a woman whose engagement with “third-world” postcolonial writing has been exponentially far more advanced than White cisgender feminists in the US, a scholar whose premise has been one of liberation. This, especially when there are feminists with a stronger platform – and many more untapped issues on intersectionality to address – than Adichie. Thus, I remain suspect of the inherent colonial underpinnings of those (White, well intended, trans* and cisgender activists) accusing a Nigerian woman of transphobia, in light of how Nigeria, and other countries in the African continent, are portrayed in terms of their perceived more homophobic/transphobic stands. (How much does that stance caters to USAmericans’ elevated sense of righteousness?) That, too, has to be a point of contention, and one to focus on, and work through, in these discussions.

The context of the interview is often missing from the criticisms. Ironically, and literally a minute before the oft-quoted excerpt, Chimamanda was critiquing the cliquish way (think social movements) in which left-ist groups (say: feminist groups, but let’s extend it to queer groups, anti-racist groups, “radical” groups, etc.) organize, develop a common language, solidify boundaries, and consequently police each other in terms of the maintenance of the most progressive language. She acknowledged it as a genuine attempt to create social justice and change, yes, but with the (often) unintended effect of sustaining their status.

Certainly, sociologists such as Viviane Namaste (in her book, Oversight) have critiqued these in-group linguistic privileged cues/behavior. In the context of gender-neutral language, Namaste problematizes the use of requesting self-pronouns in group setting introductions, when attempting to provide voice to a diverse set of experiences. Namaste critiques these moves for what they do – further alienating trans* and transsexual people by magnifying the White savior (cisgender and straight) complex in the utterance of the “preferred” pronouns. (Really, some do not have preferred, but their own, pronouns, defined by them and articulated in everyday interactions, and not in mere utterances.) To expect many trans (especially non-gender queer transgender and transsexual) people to unequivocally utter their identity – which has been for many a source of stress and an identity in process – and turn it around to make it seem liberating, only benefits the ones evoking its use. Ultimately, is the language we use a tool for freedom, or is language a set of exclusionary layered accounts that, by virtue of its precision, erase and dismiss those who are not “engaged” enough?

Beyond Adichie’s interview, but including it, we also fail to account for the imagery, and imaginaries, we (in US society) hold of trans people (this includes the reaction cisgender feminist women – including Adichie – often have of transwomen). In the US, most USAmericans are still more exposed to Caitlyn Jenner as a trans figure, and not so much to people like actress Laverne Cox, writer Janet Mock, or Jennicet Gutiérrez, the trans Latina activist who challenged Obama to free those undocumented immigrants in detention centers at the cusp of same sex marriage becoming legal nation-wide. (The fact that I find myself in need to add qualifiers for each of them may signal that they are not yet recognized in many places outside of these cliquish groups.) Transgender imaginaries dominate certain narratives, and Jenner’s centrality in the “reality” TV shows signals a protagonism in the US’ mainstream imagery of transwomen.

This take on transwomen’s histories, however, may also speak to the US’ obsession with power through masculinity. That tired old narrative – that Jenner renounced masculinity (after being recognized as an incredibly talented male athlete) – is still, for most USAmericans, a “shocking” narrative. Overall, such readings reveal how we conceive of power, how much we cling to it, and how little do we think of the non-masculine (or give it space, for that matter) in the world.

As another case in point, Joanne Meyerowitz documented the “former GI turned beauty queen” 1950s “bombshell transformation” – about Christine Jorgensen – in her incredibly resourceful book How Sex Changed. (Cox references Jorgensen in her tweets by mentioning the lack of recognition of transwomen, except in the “macho guy becomes a woman” pre-fixed recipe framework.) There, the focus on masculinity – a conflation of maleness and masculinity, really – is an example of the type of obsession with maleness, masculinity, and other axes of power that are often not interrogated when studied from some humanities and fields in the social sciences, and automatically plopped as a convenient narrative to explain away the “outliers.” We should know better. But masculinity serves as a way to continue to leave un-interrogated some of our assumptions.

In Adichie’s brief exchange, the interviewer set her question up in ways that seemed leading. In that context – when receiving a question that suggests transwomen always already enter feminist spaces through a history of male privilege – there is already little to salvage. I do think that language betrays us, and sometimes we fail to see something, or act right then and there. Adichie could have restated the question, rethought her assumptions, critiqued the premise of the query. That she did not is precisely what we should be considering an opportunity rather than a chastising imperative to discipline her – or those who do not see things the way “we” do. As it turns out, she continues to defend this narrative over and again. A cisgender-driven feminist thought that is perhaps engrained in Adichie should not result in judgment, but the starting point of action and conversation, en route to coalitional work. We must challenge these tired old arguments with counter arguments. Some of us do it from an academic platform, though that is not the only (or even main or “best”) way to do so. In my own research on masculinity and transmen, it was clear how, as one interviewee noted, “I had no past as a man, but I had no future (as a woman).” Others noted how, even as they faced life as men in the world, and seemed to benefit from male privilege, a sudden bodily exposure—be it a car accident, a medical test at an OBGYN office, or in potential erotic/sexual encounters—immediately removed this so-called privilege. Yes – Adichie, and others, should not fall on the “male privilege” trap. But we can explain, and elaborate on, why these are fallacies that need rethinking.

Sociologists too have lived with a fascination with gender deviance, understanding social norms through categorical gender lenses, and using excess to illustrate the rules of its ordering. (Perhaps as sociologists we need to challenge our simplest use of socialization altogether.) Privilege and power do not operate in simple binaries and opposites—we do know this from feminist thought—but to name biological circumstances (XY or XX chromosomes, external genitalia) as social is to reinstate sex circumstances as gender fixed criteria in our histories (with no room for variation or degrees). The humanities and social sciences of our times should move beyond the notion that transwomen are biologically male, and trans* activists are pushing us to see how damaging this is (and doing so through coalitional efforts). Thankfully, yet painfully, through her comments on being policed because of her femininity, Laverne Cox is really moving forward the discussion Adichie began. Cox did so by invoking a simple element: that her perceived deficit in the accomplishment of masculinity was indeed the fact of her femaleness (not just her femininity) and an “unknown” (if not unspoken) gender identity. That uncovers a previous social scientific approach to difference that challenged, and simultaneously reified, sex/gender.

We must challenge feminism in transformative ways, so that transwomen’s womanhood is no longer addressed through discourses of male privilege. However, that does not require forcing cisgender feminists to equate transwomen’s experiences with cisgender women’s experiences. What is damaging is not just the erasure of trans experience and identities as women, if they so wish to see themselves as (some trans* people do not abide nor work within that binary), but the homogeneous articulation of a single womanhood, which feminist thought has constantly refuted. To say ‘trans women are trans women’ is noting women with a particular life experience, and that can be, without the automatic mainstream-feminist compulsory answer that falls back on the tired “male privilege” narrative. In thinking intersectionally, one should be disturbed not so much because of the separate articulation of transwomen from (but also as) women; but the overgeneralization of that statement and what it erases – Jenner, Cox, Mock, Gutiérrez, and others have infinitely distinct experiences based on class and immigration and race and ethnicity and education and age and body type/size and ability, to name but a few markers.

Because of Adichie’s intent to see transwomen as non-universally women, I still believe Adichie’s feminism is intersectional. It may not be my cup of tea, and yes, I will continue to resist that narrative. But that should not reduce her history of intersectional work to ashes because of a single criticism. We must also be critical of the uses and abuses of the terms and their reach—here, I am reminded of the impossibility of intersectionality in Jane Ward’s Respectably Queer (in this case, in three sites that used sexuality as the basic premise to show the ways in which race/class/gender could not be addressed in tandem). And I see a chance, an opportunity, to build, not to shut down. What remains for us is the harder work of communicating across differences, which is not so shallow. It requires commitment, but also, an understanding of these feminist postures. Yet, I agree, it certainly does not require their endorsement.

I am not suggesting that we should not hold our activists, scholars, heroines or public intellectuals to task – not at all.  What I am suggesting is that we do not disavow them because they’ve taken a historically narrow position, given their own social location and experience. What I am suggesting is that we take a stand (especially those of us, non-trans scholars) to challenge, as in my opening vignette, both the assumptions about second wave feminism as the uncritical read of trans* lived experience. Laverne Cox’s tweets (which can be read in their totality here) were filled with an intent to engage, to communicate and challenge, and to not alienate Adichie as a feminist cisgender woman – and by extent, feminist cisgender women. I sure hope those of us, trans* and not trans-identified alike, can at least follow in Cox’s footsteps.

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Salvador Vidal-Ortiz (Ph.D.) is associate professor in the sociology department at American University (AU), in Washington, DC. He coedited The Sexuality of Migration: Border Crossings and Mexican Immigrant Men (NYU Press, 2009) and Queer Brown Voices: Personal Narratives of Latina/o LGBT Activism (University of Texas Press, 2015). Aside from his Fulbright-based research on forced migration/internal displacement and LGBT Colombians, he is now engaged in a new project, with Juliana Martínez, also from AU, on “Transgendering Human Rights: Lessons from Latin America.” He was an inaugural editorial board member of Duke’s newest journal TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly.

The situation. Americans are delaying and foregoing marriage in larger numbers than they used to.  In 1980, about 5% of 40-year-old women with only a high school education or less had never been married.  Almost 9% of 40-year-old women with at least a BA had never married.  And these numbers have been rising for all of these groups, some more than others.  It’s all the more interesting because, in this same time period, marriage has become legally accessible to more individuals.  But, by 2013, the proportions of 40-year-old women who had never married exploded (see graph below*).  There are a variety of reasons that account for this shift.  At a basic level, women are getting more education and have more life options than they did 30+ years ago.  But are heterosexual women foregoing marriage altogether, or are they still waiting for “Mr. Right”?  And if they’re waiting, are there enough Mr. Rights to go around?

never-married-women-by-education-1980-2013

The man question. With the rise of women’s options not to marry, no wonder questioning men’s status as “marriage material” is pervasive in popular culture.  This “man question” is so accepted that further elaboration is not typically required when suggesting an individual man fails to pass muster.  But, sociologists take the idea seriously. We have examined three decades of research to demonstrate the rise of the man question—and the ways it relates both to rising gender equality and economic inequality.

Marriageability = jobs? In the late 1980s, sociologist William Julius Wilson sought to give the phenomenon a social scientific name and a more precise and measurable quality. Wilson studied poor and working-class communities and discovered that inner-city joblessness among lower-income black men was resulting in a dilemma for inner-city lower-income black women: a growing shortage of men who might qualify as marriageable. Since the majority of marriages and relationships in the U.S. (both then and now) are between people with similar class and racial backgrounds, this extended the gap even further.

Wilson defined men’s “marriageability” in terms of economic stability. Employment was key, in his view, to men’s suitability as marital partners. Changes in the economy in the prior several decades had produced ripple effects that left fewer men in this group able to find gainful employment. And these problems still exist.  Using education as a proxy for class status, lower-income heterosexual women still face a pool of marriageable men that is too small for them to all find husbands.  In fact, the data above suggest that it may very well be a problem that has gotten worse, particularly for Black Americans.  In recent times, we have seen returns to higher education for Black women increase at a modest rate, while Black college educated men’s returns have actually declined.  And the lack of employment for those without a college degree—which is hard to obtain for both Black men and women—has become more difficult for Black men.  This means fewer and fewer men match women in terms of education, jobs, and other social class characteristics.

But who is thinking about men as more than a pay check? Wilson’s suggestion that too many lower-class men are not really marriage material because of the job market produced a stream of research on how lower-income women are navigating this challenging terrain. In the 1990s, the use of economic stability as the primary measure of “marriageability” received little push-back from other scholars.  Few scholars, for instance, have sought to examine men’s marriageability outside of lower-income groups. And from the graph above, you can see that less educated women’s rates of never marrying have increased much more than more educated women’s.  But, are middle- and upper-class women measuring men by the same yardstick?  And if so, how do they measure up?

We examined over thirty years of research from 1984 – 2015.  Our overview confirmed that “marriageability” research that emphasizes men’s value as a paycheck focuses exclusively on lower income groups of women and neglects the ways that women across the class divide may struggle finding “marriageable” men, but perhaps for different reasons.  Our overview confirmed that “marriageability” research neglects a consideration of more complex measures than economic stability and is limited to research examining the lower-class. We suggest that scholars begin to ask about men’s “marriageability” across the class divide.

If it is about jobs, why are middle class men subject to the marriageable man question? Existing research suggests that the yardsticks for working class and middle class men are distinct—but maybe not in the way you’d expect.  Our review of the research shows that while lower-income men often fail to measure up as a result of joblessness, substance abuse, and incarceration (all issues which negatively impact their employment), middle- and upper-class men able to find employment are not always understood as marriageable.  Data from online dating sites like OkCupid.com illustrate this issue, too. In online dating profiles, straight men are much more likely than straight women to list words associated with jobs and professions (assuming these are the qualities women are looking for).  But, as studies of middle- and upper-class women show, that just isn’t enough. These women’s understandings of what qualifies as a “marriageable” man goes beyond a paycheck—it has to do with relationship quality and equality as well.

Meanwhile, women’s expectations for their relationships have transformed across the class divide.  Women want more out of marriage.  Many still want the economic security associated with marital households, though women today may not need to lean on this security as much as they did thirty years ago.  But, they also want a set of intangibles that is much more related to the quality of the relationship than the individual qualities any given man might possess.  High quality relationships provide economic support, but they also come with emotional support, shared commitments to household labor, childcare, and more.  They want a partner in every sense of the word. And within this transformation, men of different class backgrounds are failing to prove themselves “marriageable”—but not necessarily for the same reasons.

For instance, research shows that in the face of economic constraints that make the breadwinner model unattainable to many working-class and poor fathers, they are redefining this role to prioritize what they can and do bring to the table—a more involved form of parenthood. Ironically, this kind of relational fathering sounds like what many middle- and upper-class women with children or desiring children say they want more of from their partners. Middle- and upper-class fathers, however, end up prioritizing the paycheck and minimizing parenting involvement due primarily to workplace policies and constraints. Many lower-income men fail by the old metric—income.  But research suggests that in some ways, they fulfill many women’s desires for egalitarian relationships.  Conversely, middle- and upper-income men are more likely to qualify as “marriageable” by the old metric (income), but fail by new egalitarian standards for relationships—relationships both women and men claim to desire.

Men’s “marriageability” is best understood, we find, in the context of two trends: increasing expectations of gender equality among both women and men and growing economic inequality and insecurity.  Research shows that these twin trends make egalitarian relationships and marriages available to relatively few.  Wilson used income as synonymous with marriageability; a steady and reliable paycheck was all men needed.  But, marriageability is more complex than that.  Today, income is more of a baseline expectation for consideration.  And research suggests that some men may be prizing these qualities in themselves to the detriment of things that women might actually want from them.

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Thanks to Virginia Rutter for advanced comments on this draft (a while ago).

*Thanks to Philip Cohen for the data.