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.

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?


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.


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

*Thanks to Philip Cohen for the data.

Girls and women can, for the first time, see a woman on the ballot for President of the United States. This pivotal moment in history is the first time we can analyze the effect a woman at the top of a major U.S. party ticket has on the gender gap in political participation. Historically, men have had higher rates of political participation than women – especially when you consider visible political acts. Will the 2016 General Election change this trend?”

It is difficult for social scientists to compare presidential elections from year-to-year. Unique personalities of candidates and different historical contexts introduce a large amount of “noise” into elections analysis.  Nevertheless, 2016 is an especially poignant year to ask, “What effect does a woman presidential candidate have on the gender gap in political participation?”  In advance of the election, I argue there are two ways (one empirical, one theoretical) we can begin thinking about this question.

Empirically, early data released from the American National Election Study’s (ANES) 2016 Pilot Study gives us some early insights into how men’s and women’s political participation may be different in 2016. In January, the ANES collected data from 1,200 respondents using the YouGov panel to gauge political participation and expected voting behavior leading up to the fall General Election. This early-released data shows differences in women and men’s anticipated formal and informal political participation that contrast with 2012 behavior and prior scholarship.

First, 80% of women in the 2016 ANES Pilot sample expected to vote in November, versus 77% who reported actually voting in November 2012—a 4% increase. We do not see a similar upward trend in expected voting behavior versus actual voting behavior among men. In fact, about 4% fewer men were 75-100% sure they would vote in the 2016 general election than actually voted in 2012.  Will the gender gap between women’s and men’s voting behavior shrink this November?

Source: ANES 2016 Pilot Study. Visualization by Morgan C. Matthews.

In terms of informal forms of political participation, there continue to be gender differences in campaign volunteerism in which men tend to participate more – especially in visible and conflict-oriented settings.  However, there is a relatively small gender gap in visible acts of political engagement, such as displaying campaign “swag” and participating in rallies, which had 5- and 3- percentage point gender differences in participation (respectively) at the time of the survey. If confirmed in future post-election surveys, this would deviate from past research on similar measures. Notably, the early-released empirical data from ANES only gives us a preliminary, non-representative view into the shifting gender gap in political participation.

Source: ANES 2016 Pilot Study. Visualization by Morgan C. Matthews.
Source: ANES 2016 Pilot Study. Visualization by Morgan C. Matthews.

Considering what kinds of social mechanisms might shape changes in political participation, we have to step beyond the numbers a bit. For instance, consider the popular #imwithher campaign. In February, the #imwithher video posted by Lena Dunham featured 17 celebrity women openly supporting Hillary Clinton’s run for president. From Katy Perry’s performances at campaign rallies to Abby Wambach stumping for Hillary at college democrats’ events around the country, Clinton has received a groundswell of public endorsements from high-profile women.

We know that visible members of our pop culture in our reference groups can influence political behavior. In a gender salient context, such as the 2016 general election, visibility of celebrated women in pop culture engaging in politics may have a significant influence on women’s political engagement in particular.  Perhaps, in other words, it is not just seeing a woman on the ballot that could shape levels of political participation and anticipated political behavior on election day.  Maybe seeing public political statements by high profile celebrity women and other celebrated women in our society is shaping increases in women’s participation this election as well.

Whatever the results of the November 8th election, early indicators suggest that this may be a paramount year for reducing the gender gap in political participation.  Political participation not only shapes election outcomes, but also the substantive representation of people in the policy-making process. When more women vote, their collective voice is louder—even when their voices are divided and shouting in different directions.  Whatever happens this November, the data suggests that this election season, women voters are channeling Katy Perry’s anthem, “You’re gonna hear me roar.”



Morgan C. Matthews is a PhD student in the Sociology Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Her research focuses on gender, political participation and representation, and the intersection of work, family, and civic voluntarism.

When I explain my research to people, they often ask: “What is a men’s salon, exactly?”In a fleeting interaction I might simply describe it as a salon dedicated to the primping and preening of men. The high-service men’s salons in my study tout stylish haircuts, fine manicures, exfoliating facials, and meticulous waxing services. But to more accurately explain what a men’s salon is involves understanding that gender is actively produced, not a static characteristic of a person or place.

In my article, “Men Wanted”: Heterosexual Aesthetic Labor in the Masculinization of the Hair Salon, I tackle the organizational efforts that make the salon an “appropriate” place for well-to-do, straight, and often white men. This is significant since the salon is historically associated with women and seems an unlikely place in which men can approximate culturally valorized forms masculinity. One way both salons in my study masculinize the space is by demanding what I call heterosexual aesthetic labor from the mostly women workers. Aesthetic labor highlights the importance of workers’ appearances and use of their body in frontline service work, where employees interact face-to-face with customers. Workers are hired because they embody the aesthetic values of a retail brand, with white, middle-class workers, for example, reflecting the identities of white, middle-class consumers. This assures consumers they are in the “right place” for people like them and is a key mechanism in reproducing social differences and inequalities.

Image Source: http://www.thesalon1.net/virtual-salon-tour/

When we look at retail organizations and brands, though, we shouldn’t overlook the role of sexuality in aesthetic labor. This is clear in my fieldnotes and interviews with the employees and clients at both salons. These data reveal that the organizations hire heterosexual, feminine looking women to act as identity resources for men’s momentary projections of straight masculinity, which might otherwise come under suspicion at the salon. I show how the organizations I studied hire straight, conventionally feminine women, develop these women’s appearances, and use them to represent the salons’ “brands.” For example, Trish, a 29-year-old massage therapist, and the only queer identifying participant in my study, was acutely aware that the salon employs pretty straight women:

“I don’t know how I got the job. I had longer hair then, that’s probably why. [Tyler, the owner,] didn’t know I was queer then. But he definitely wants to know if they’re cute… Tyler definitely hires pretty girls, for sure. And if you show up without makeup on, he’ll be mad.”

Trish sees herself as having slipped through the cracks of otherwise consistent hiring criteria that conflates long hair and makeup with straight womanhood. These women appear on postcards and in commercials, while the few men who cut hair at these places are absent from marketing efforts.

Unlike sexy women hired at Hooters and who appear on the restaurant’s billboards for hot wings, the women working at my salons serve the corporate function of combatting narrow, culturally entrenched ideas about who goes to high-service salons: women and gay men. And this is indeed work for women, who shoulder the burden of neutralizing the interpersonal effects of institutionalized heterosexual aesthetic labor. In other words, they are each individually responsible for dealing with daily negative outcomes of the salons’ larger sexual cultures.

The salons’ clients pick-up on and exercise their “right” to the women’s bodies and sexualities. Their ogling and flirting creates dilemmas for these workers who then engage professionalizing and essentializing rhetoric to manage this objectification. These dilemmas were often justified with a casual “boys will be boys” attitude that allows interactions with clients to continue uninterrupted. All of this works to commodify the women’s heterosexual identities and the agency they deploy to deflect unwelcome sexual attention while also supporting a masculine brand image and a heteromasculinizing consumer experience.

So, when people ask me what a men’s salon is, I have a lot to say. And most of it is about how hard women are asked to work and what they are required to endure to make salons into spaces straight men might frequent.


*This post was first published on the Gender & Society blog, https://gendersociety.wordpress.com. Barber’s new book, Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry, is available, here

sex rolesThe journal, Sex Roles, is among the most highly ranked and influential journals publishing research on gender in the world.  I recently joined the editorial board and am really honored to evaluate research considered for publication there.  This isn’t a  post about the content of the journal, though; it’s a post about the title.  I want to suggest that we change it.  I recognize what a logistical nightmare this would be for the publisher, Springer, and how much work would need to be done to re-brand the journal.  But, I also think that some of the most cutting edge scholarship going on in gender might never see the journal as an appropriate venue with a dated title that relies on a concept and pays homage to a theory gender sociologists moved away from over three decades ago.

Sex role theory was the first systematic attempt to theorize gender when sociology was dominated by the paradigm of structural functionalism.  But, when we teach undergraduate and graduate students about sex role theory today, we often address the various failings of the theory (and to be clear, there are many).  Sex role theory was really the first systematic attempt to tie the structure of gender identities and what others called personality or “sex temperament” to the structure of society.  This might sound like a small feat today, because it is so taken for granted as a basic assumption behind so much scholarship motivated by this simple premise.  Put another way, sex role theory helped to label something “social” that lacked status as something to be studied by sociologists, at least in the ways sex role theory invited.

Like structural functionalist theory more generally, however, sex role theory was subject to a variety of critiques.  In C.J. Pascoe and my introduction in Exploring Masculinities, we summarize four prevalent critiques of sex role theory.  The theory is tautological, teleological, ahistorical, and fails to account for gender diversity or inequality–damning critiques, to be sure.  I won’t belabor the point.  Rather, I’ll put it this way.  The first time I submitted something to Gender & Society there was a brief caveat in the manuscript submission guidelines that explicitly stated that work relying on sex role theory was not appropriate for publication in the journal.  It’s since been removed–and I’d imagine this was probably done because people no longer submit articles that attempt to use the theory to explain their findings.  But it speaks to the level of agreement about the demise of the framework.

The current editor of Sex Roles, Janice Yoder, is fantastic.  She wrote a really insightful and inspiring essay in her new role as editor in December of 2015–“Sex Roles: An Up-To-Date Gender Journal With An Outdated Name.”  I won’t reiterate all of the great points Yoder addresses there (but you should read them).  What I will say is that she addresses the origins of the journal in the 1970s, as an publication desiring to publish scholarship focusing on “sex roles” as opposed to “biological, dimorphic sex”–an important project.  At the time, sex role theory was in vogue, and it was a concept and theory that had purchase in a variety of disciplines, likely helping initial editors justify the need for a journal in a still-emerging field of study.  The first issue was published in 1975.  Other journals emerged around this time as well, like Feminist Studies (1972) and Signs (1975) for instance.

But a separate collections of journals arrived a bit later like Gender & Society (1987), the Journal of Gender Studies (1991), and a whole collection of journals around the world and in different fields of study.  Sex Roles has consistently been ranked a top 10 journal publishing gender studies research.  Below, I want to compare the journal to the top ranked journal publishing research on gender–currently Gender & Society–to illustrate the impact of Sex Roles.  This is helpful to sociologists, I think, because Gender & Society is the gender journal many use to evaluate other gender journals in this field.  Gender & Society and Sex Roles are both hugely influential in the field (Figure 1).  Both journals have climbed in the rankings recently and have seen their impact grow.  Gender & Society is also a journal with a high citation per article count, and articles published in Sex Roles are not far behind (Figure 2).

Figure 1

Figure 2

Sex Roles, however, has also been published over a longer period of time and publishes more articles over the course of a year.  So, while the average article published in Gender & Society receives more citations than the average article published in Sex Roles, the total number of citations that articles published in Sex Roles receive is roughly 2-3 times the number received by Gender & Society (Figure 3).

Figure 3

All this is to say that there are certainly lots of ways to measure influence.  And by all measures, Sex Roles has a lot.  It matters–and the research published in Sex Roles ends up in a whole lot more reference sections of books and articles than does the work published in Gender & Society.

I think the journal should change the title.  And I realize that I’m not centrally involved in the work that would be required to undertake this task.  But, I’d wager that most of the scholars publishing research in that journal would support the critiques leveled against sex role theory in the 1980s by scholars like Barrie Thorne, Judith Stacey, and Raewyn Connell.  And I think a larger group of scholars would consider Sex Roles as an outlet for their research with a different title.  I realize that the logistics of this are much more complex than simply changing the cover and masthead.  It would involve a campaign on the part of Springer, current and former editors, as well as interdisciplinary collaboration among gender researchers.

After considering the change possible, the very first step would likely be to figure out what the new title of the journal might be.  My vote would be for “Gender Relations,” a concept that comes out of Raewyn Connell’s theory of gender.  Embedded in this concept was a critique of sex role theory and the biological reductionism that Yoder discusses in the essay I mentioned earlier.  On top of this, when we look at the mentions of the concept of “sex roles” in Google ngrams, you can see the decline of use over the years from a high point right around 1980.  Since then, the concept has fallen out of favor–a shift that coincides neatly with the increasing prevalence of “gender relations” (see below).
As I’ve become more familiar with the journal over the past couple years and enjoy the research published there.  I realize that I have little influence and that this blog post is unlikely to initiate this change.  But when I’ve discussed this with other sociologists who study gender, I have yet to get into a conversation with someone who doesn’t have a problem with the title.  Maybe we can do something about it.

I am an abortion provider. I provide abortions because I understand that a woman’s ability to control her life trajectory is intimately tied to her ability to control her fertility. Having worked in rural Africa, I have witnessed firsthand the medical and social consequences of limited access to safe and legal abortion. It is my mission to maintain access to safe and legal abortion in the United States. In the U.S. almost half of all pregnancies are unplanned and about half of unplanned pregnancies will end in abortion. This makes surgical abortion one of the most common procedures performed in the U.S. Do I wish there were fewer unplanned pregnancies and abortions? Of course. But there will always be a need for abortion because contraception fails, pregnancy complications arise, and rape doesn’t just “shut that whole thing down.”

While Roe v. Wade guarantees women’s legal right to abortion, states have the legal authority to restrict and regulate abortion. “TRAP” (Target Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws are state laws that single-out abortion providers and apply burdensome regulations that make it difficult or impossible to provide abortions. TRAP laws have addressed building regulations, staffing requirements, the informed consent process, mandatory waiting periods, whether public funds (such as Medicare or Medicaid) can be used to pay for abortions, and even the surgical technique physicians are allowed to use to perform abortions (see here for a summary of state-by-state laws). Immediately following Roe v. Wade in 1973, states began to regulate abortion provision. But in the last five years the number of restrictions has skyrocketed. From 2011 to 2015, 288 new TRAP laws were enacted.

On the surface, these laws sound great. Who doesn’t want abortion to be safe? However, abortion is already extremely safe and these laws do nothing to protect women. There is no evidence to support the claim that TRAP laws improve the safety of abortion. Multiple legislators have been pleased to admit that passage of TRAP laws would be a means to the end of abortion in their states; revealing their true motives. What proponents of TRAP laws don’t understand (or maybe they do?) is that TRAP laws actually hurt women and their families.

Clinics close because they can’t afford to adapt to ever-changing facility regulations. Physicians are afraid to provide abortion care because of the stigma and violence associated with doing so. Many states require multiple clinic visits to obtain an abortion. Women have to travel increasing distances to find an abortion provider. All of this burdens women and their families in the form of increased procedure cost, transportation, lost wages, and childcare expenses, to name a few. It also leads to increased gestational age at the time of abortion. First trimester abortion is incredibly safe—much safer than pregnancy and childbirth. The risks associated with abortion, though, increase with increasing gestational age.

Recent data from Texas provides evidence of the harmful effects of TRAP laws. Texas House Bill 2 (H.B.2), required hospital admitting privileges for physicians performing abortions, set strict facility guidelines, required specific surgical practices for medical abortions, and banned most abortions after 20-weeks of gestation. When abortion clinics closed as a result of H.B.2, the number of self-induced and late abortions increased (see here and here). Other women were unable to obtain abortions, forcing them to carry unwanted pregnancies to term. Late abortion, illegal abortion, self-induced abortion, and unwanted childbearing are associated with women’s increased morbidity and mortality when compared to early, accessible, and legal abortion. TRAP laws are a form of state-imposed gender-based structural violence.

rate of abortion laws

In the Supreme Court case Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the physician admitting privilege and surgical facility requirements of H.B.2 were challenged. The petitioners, a group of Texas abortion providers, argued that H.B.2 created an undue burden on the right of women to obtain abortion. The defendants argued that the bill was necessary to protect women’s health. Justice Ginsberg got to the heart of the issue when she said “Don’t we know…that the focus must be on the ones who are burdened?” She pointed to the fact that TRAP laws disproportionately affect women already marginalized by their gender, financial resources, geography, and other factors that limit access to healthcare. They institutionalize oppression thinly veiled as the paternalistic desire to protect women from their own decisions about their reproductive lives.

brant quoteWith a 5-3 vote, SCOTUS ruled that H.B.2 created an undue burden for the women of Texas. And the female justices played a major role in shaping the course of the oral arguments on the case. Justice Bryer wrote the majority opinion, stating that the requirements of H.B.2 “vastly increase the obstacles confronting women seeking abortions in Texas without providing any benefit to women’s health.” TRAP laws in other states are likely to be challenged as a result of the SCOTUS decision, with defendants having to demonstrate they benefit rather than create burdens on women’s health. TRAP laws, which have been one of the most successful methods of regulating women’s reproductive choices in the last decade, may be on unstable ground. This is a momentous victory for reproductive rights.


Brant_headshotAshley Brant, DO, MPH is an obstetrician-gynecologist and abortion provider. She completed her residency at Baystate Medical Center in western Massachusetts. Her research focuses on contraceptive access and medical education. She currently practices in Washington, DC.


Originally posted at Inequality by (Interior) Design.

We’ve read some of the tributes to the feminist sociological genius of Joan Acker.  And much of that work has celebrated one specific application of her work.  For instance, Tristan posted last week on Acker’s most cited article—“Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations” (1990)—which examined the ways that gender is so embedded in the structure of organizations that we often fail to appreciate just how much it shapes our lives, experiences, and opportunities.  But, this specific piece of her scholarship was actually her applied work. It was an application of a theoretical turn she was suggesting all sociologists of gender follow.  And we did.  Acker was involved in an incredibly important theoretical debate that helped shape the feminist sociology we practice today.

“Patriarchy” is a concept that is less used today in feminist social science than it was in the late-1970s and 1980s.  The term has a slippery and imprecise feel, but this wasn’t always the case. There were incredibly nuanced debates about patriarchy as a social structure or as one part of “dual systems” (capitalism + patriarchy) and exactly what this meant and involved theoretically. Today, we examine “gender.”  Indeed, the chief sociological publication is entitled Gender & Society, not Patriarchy & SocietyAcker - The Problem with PatriarchyBut in the 1970s and 1980s, patriarchy was employed theoretically much more often.  Feminist scholars identified patriarchy to focus the critique of existing theoretical work that offered problematic explanations of the subordination of women.  As Acker put it in “The Problem with Patriarchy,” a short article published in Sociology in 1989: “Existing theory attributed women’s domination by men either to nature or social necessity rather than to social structural processes, unequal power, or exploitation” (1989a: 235). The concept of patriarchy offered a focus for this critique.

Joan Acker was among a group of scholars concerned about the limitations of this focus; in particular, patriarchy was criticized for being a universal, trans-historical, and trans-cultural phenomenon—“women were everywhere oppressed by men in more or less the same ways” (1989a: 235).  Concluding that patriarchy could not be turned into a generally useful analytical concept, Acker proposed that feminist social science move in a different direction—a route that was eventually largely accepted and taken up.  It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Acker was among a small group of feminist scholars who shifted the conversation in an entire field.  We’ve been relying on their suggestion ever since.

Bridges and Messerschmidt quoteAcker’s short 6-page article was published in the same journal that had published Raewyn Connell’s article, “Theorizing Gender” (1985), which spelled out her initial delineation of the problems with sex role theory and what she labeled “categoricalism.” Connell was also concerned with how feminist theories of patriarchy failed to differentiate among the categories of “women” and “men”—that is, femininities and masculinities. Judith Stacey and Barrie Thorne’s “The Missing Feminist Revolution in Sociology” (in Social Problems) was published that year as well (1985), specifically criticizing sociology for solely including gender as a variable but not as a theoretical construct. Acker (1989a) explained why feminist social scientists ought to follow this trend and shift their focus from patriarchy to gender relations and the construction of gender in social life.  As Acker wrote, “From asking about how the subordination of women is produced, maintained, and changed we move to questions about how gender is involved in processes and structures that previously have been conceived as having nothing to do with gender” (1989a: 238).  And in another piece published in the same year—“Making Gender Visible” (1989b) in the anthology, Feminism and Sociological Theory—Acker argued for a paradigm shift that would place gender more centrally in understanding social relations as a whole. Acker suggested a feminist theoretical framework that was able to conceptualize how all social relations are gendered—how “gender shapes and is implicated in all kinds of social phenomena” (1989b: 77). Today, this might read as a subtle shift.  But it was monumental when Acker proposed it and it helped open the door too much of what we recognize as feminist sociology today.

Acker published what became her most well-known article—“Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies”—in Gender & Society (1990) as an illustration of what the type of work she was proposing would look like.  She was concerned with attempts that simply tacked patriarchy onto existing theories which had been casually treated as though they were gender-neutral.  She explained in detail how this assumption is problematic and limits our ability to understand “how deeply patriarchal modes are embedded in our theorizing” (1989: 239).  And Acker illustrated this potential in her theorizing about gender in organizations.  But her suggestion went far beyond organizational life.

And by all measures, we took up Acker’s suggestion:  “Gender,” “gender relations,” and “gender inequality” are now the central foci of sociological theory and research on gender.  But Acker also concluded her short 1989 article with a warning.  She wrote,

[T]here is a danger in abandoning the project of patriarchy.  In the move to gender, the connections between urgent political issues and theoretical analysis, which made the development of feminist thought possible, may be weakened.  Gender lacks the critical-political sharpness of patriarchy and may be more easily assimilated and coopted than patriarchy. (1989a: 239-240)

Certainly, Acker’s concern leads us to honestly ask: Will shifting the theoretical conversation from patriarchy to gender eventually result in simply a cursory consideration of gendered structured inequality? Will the shift to gender actually loosen our connections with conceptualizations of gendered power? We don’t think so but one way to commemorate the legacy of Joan Acker is to both celebrate gender diversity while simultaneously visualizing and practicing gender equality.  This means continuing to recognize that inequality is perpetuated by the very organization of society, the structure of social institutions, and the historical contexts which give rise to each.

Acker, Joan. 1989a. “The Problem with Patriarchy.” Sociology 23(2): 235-240.
Acker, Joan. 1989b. “Making Gender Visible.” Pp. 65-81 in Wallace, P.A., Ed., Sociological Theory and Feminism. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Acker, Joan. 1990. “Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations.” Gender & Society 4(2): 139-158.
Connell, Raewyn. 1985. “Theorising Gender.” Sociology 19(2): 260-272.
Stacey, Judith and Barrie Thorne. 1985. “The Missing Feminist Revolution in Sociology.” Social Problems 32(4): 301-316.