gender: history

Cross-posted at Jezebel.
American Studies professor Jo B. Paoletti has announced the publication of her book, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America.  I’ve been eagerly anticipating getting my hands on a copy. It was from Paoletti that I learned that the idea that pink was a feminine and blue a masculine color was a relatively new invention in American history (one that even now does not necessarily extend to other countries).  See, for example, this pink 1920s birthday card for a man (with a pre-Nazi swastika too).

The book asks “When did we startdressing girls in pink and boys in blue?”  To answer this question:

She chronicles the decline of the white dress for both boys and girls, the introduction of rompers in the early 20th century, the gendering of pink and blue, the resurgence of unisex fashions, and the origins of today’s highly gender-specific baby and toddler clothing.

In an analysis of baby cards from the 1960s, she notes that many of the cards are gender-neutral and include both pink and blue, but that even the gender-specific cards (this particular baby was a girl) use both colors. These cards, then, reveal that pink and blue had emerged as recognizable baby colors by the 1960s, but the use of blue in the “for girl” cards and the preponderance of gender-neutral cards suggests that the importance of gender differentiation hadn’t taken hold.

She has a large collection of examples.

At her website Paoletti says she has a book planned on “old lady clothes, mother-of-the-bride dresses, cougars and other age-appropriate nonsense.” I can’t wait.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

After the recent scandal over LEGO Friends, I am excited to report that I am in the process of working with a LEGO “fanatic,” David Pickett, on a series of posts about gender and the history of LEGO.  In the meantime, as a teaser, I wanted to offer you two LEGO ads that were from the same campaign as the one making its semi-viral way around the internet (1980-1982).  As with the original, these are evidence that advertising doesn’t have to reproduce the idea of “opposite sexes”:

Thanks to Moose Greebles and his Photostream.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Bo  Novak snapped this photograph of a Bosch ad in a storefront in Bath, U.K.  “125 years of evolution,” but apparently men still haven’t figured out how to use the washing machine.

See also Laundry: Women Have Always Done It.  At our Pinterest page, you can browse all of our examples of gendered housework and childcare.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Earlier this month I read an essay that explained to me why I am not married. These reasons included:

  • I’m a bitch.
  • I’m shallow.
  • I’m a slut.
  • I’m a liar.
  • I’m selfish.
  • I don’t think I’m good enough.

I’m not kidding.

Coincidentally, the Pew Research Center released 2010 data showing that just 51% of all American adults were currently married. This is an all time low, down from 72% in 1960.

Comparing this data with the essay above is a nice illustration of the difference between “normative” and “normal.”  Normal is what is typical in a statistical sense; it is what actually holds.  Normative is what is believed to be good and right in an ideological sense; it is what it is believed does or should hold.

If you go by the essay, written by the thrice married and now single Tracy McMillan, marriage is an ideal state that we all should, or do, desire.  In her reality, if you aren’t married, it’s because you’re doing something wrong.  Marriage is normative.  In actual reality, though, the state of being married is not any more normal than the state of being unmarried.

Only if marriage is normative does the non-normality of marriage become something that needs explaining.  McMillan jumps in with hateful stereotypes, but social science has much better explanations.

  • Low-income women often do not take-for-granted (as many middle class people do) that they can sustain a marriage through tough times.  Accordingly, they wait much longer before marrying once they meet someone they like (as long as 10 years or more), so that they can be as sure as possible about the match.  In other words, they take marriage very seriously and are reticent to just jump right in.  They know they’re “good enough,” Tracy; in fact, they value themselves and their relationships enough to really put them to the test.  (Read Promises I Can Keep for more.)
  • Other women get divorced because men don’t do their fair share.  Unresolved conflicts over childcare and housework are one of the top reasons that couples dissolve.  Women struggle to keep up when they’re working a full time job and doing 2/3rds to 3/4ths of the childcare and housework.  They may not see the data, but they may intuit that single mothers do less housework than married ones (it’s true).  So they divorce their husbands.  They’re not “selfish,” they’re just trying to survive. (Read The Second Shift for more.)
  • Other people aren’t married because they’re in love with someone of the same sex.  They’re not “sluts,” they’re discriminated against.

And, just for the record:

  • I’m not married because I don’t want or need the state’s approval of my relationship and  I certainly don’t want it interfering if we decide to part.
  • I’m not married because the history of marriage is ugly and anti-woman; because I don’t like the common meanings of the words “wife” and “husband”; and because even today, and even among couples that call themselves feminist, gender inequality in relationships is known to increase when a couple moves from cohabitation to marriage (and I don’t think I’m so special that I’ll be the anomaly).
  • I’m not married because I’m opposed to the marriage industrial complex. It’s exploitative, stereotypical, and wasteful.
  • I’m not married because I value the fact that my partner and I decide to be together every day, even though we don’t have to jump through legal hoops to do otherwise.
  • I’m not married because I don’t want to support a discriminatory institution that has and continues to bless some relationships, but not others, out of bigotry.
  • I’m not married because I don’t believe in giving social and economic benefits to some kinds of relationships and not others.  I don’t believe that a state- or church-endorsed heterosexual union between two and only two people is superior to other kinds of relationships.

After reading some of the great comments, I’d like to add that I’m not married because of several points of privilege:

  • I’m not married because I live in a society that allows women to work, keep their paychecks, rent an apartment, and have a bank account.  (And, frankly, I think it’s kind of neat to be in the first generation of American women who can realistically choose not to marry. I like the idea of embracing that.)
  • I’m not married because both my partner and I are lucky enough to have  a stable, full-time job that offers benefits, so we don’t need to get married so that one of us can get the other health insurance or some other benefit.
  • I’m not married because we are both U.S. citizens and don’t have to marry in order to live together.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

The point is that when the normal and the normative don’t align it often leads to social conflict over the meaning of the gap.  Some people, like McMillan, may jump in to tongue-lash the deviants.  Others may revel in defending non-conformity.  In any case, it will be interesting to see how the conversation about marriage continues, especially if, as the trend suggests, married people become a minority in the near future.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

We often think of athletic ability as innate, something people are born with.  In fact, athletic performance is a combination of (at the very least) ability and opportunity.

Case in point: the marathon.

The first Olympic marathon occurred in 1896. A Grecian named Spyridon Louis won that race with a speed of two hours, 58 minutes, and 50 seconds. Women were excluded from formal competition until 1972. Once they were allowed to compete, their time dropped to an equivalent two and a half hours in just five years (source).

Today the men’s record is faster than the women’s record, but by less than 10 minutes… a much smaller difference than the one hour difference that we saw when women were first allowed to compete.  The rate at which they’ve been catching up with men has slowed though. Still, who knows how fast they’d be running if they hadn’t been excluded from competing for the 64 years between 1908 and 1972.  In any case, the quickening of both men’s and women’s times over the years shows just how contingent athletic performance can be.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

In 1922 the American Social Hygiene Association, funded by the American Public Health Service, created a social marketing campaign aimed at American teenagers. While it was predominantly about sexually transmitted infections, it also taught about good health and hygiene in general. And maintaining health, then as now, is not only about health but also about conforming to social norms–especially gender norms.

The posters aimed at boys were titled “Keeping Fit”:

And the girls’ posters were titled “Youth and Life”:

Comparing the boys and girls’ posters, you can see that fitness is not just about physical health; it is also about particular character traits. For boys, those traits are will power, courage, and self-control–traits that are based on a puritan work ethic that we value in a competitive capitalist society.

While courage and endurance were important for both boys and girls, fitness for girls was less about power and self-control, and more about grace, beauty, and friendship.


Paint your cheeks from the inside out. Outdoor exercise, baths, regular meals, and plenty of sleep will help. Most girls could be prettier than they are because most girls could be healthier.


Copy the pose but not the shoes. Correct posture gives attractive figure, straight back, freedom of action for heart and lungs, good muscle tone. Stand tall — chest up, not out — toes straight forward when walking or standing. A well-poised body develops self-respect, and wins the regard of others.

Men were taught how to grow up to be honorable husbands and fathers, while women were taught how to grow up to be good wives and mothers.

For boys:


The youth who achieves self-control can go joyfully and clean into marriage with the one girl he is willing to wait for, and become a husband and father without the danger of causing suffering to wife and child.

For girls:


A woman physician who is also a mother. The girl of today will be the woman of tomorrow. She will need brains, vitality, and sound training, if she is to take her place in the world as a mother and a useful citizen.

It may be tempting to think that we know more now than we did back then and that with progress we make fewer mistakes today than they did in the past. However, controversy surrounding many health topics such as obesity, circumcision, and the way we screen, treat, and fundraise for breast cancer should tell you that we still have many assumptions behind our health recommendations that are based on ideology.

The posters are held at the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota Libraries


Christina Barmon is a doctoral student at Georgia State University studying sociology and gerontology.

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The vintage clipping below is a political advertisement from 1915 opposing women’s suffrage in Massachusetts. It claims that most women in the state do not want the vote, so if voting men gave women suffrage, they would be doing so against their will.  This, they claim, would be undemocratic.   This sounds ironic, but it makes sense in a world where men were suppose to be women’s political representatives.

The ad then goes on to try to demonize those women who do want the right to vote by associating them with other groups widely stigmatized at that time: feminists, of course, but also socialists, Mormons, and members of the I.W.W. The acronym stands for Industrial Workers of the World, an organization founded in 1905 as an alternative to the American Federation of Labor, reportedly consisting of anarchists, socialists, and union members (wiki).

Women in Massachusetts would be granted the right to vote on this day, August 18th, five years later, not by the residents of the state, but by Federal decree.

Via BoingBoing.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Changes in language seem to just happen. Nobody sets out to introduce a change, but suddenly people are saying “groovy” or “my bad.” And then they’re not. Even written language changes, though the evolution is slower.

Last weekend, I saw this sign at a goat farm on Long Island.

WER’E ??

I used to care about the apostrophe, but after years of reading student papers about “different society’s,” I have long accepted that the tide is against me. The apostrophe today is where spelling was a few hundred years ago – you can pretty much make up your own rules.

Sometimes the rule is fairly clear: use an apostrophe in plurals when leaving it out makes the word look like a different word rather than a plural form of the original. Change the “y” in “society” to “ies” and it looks too different. “Of all the cafe’s, I like the one with lime martini’s.” The “correct” version is cafes and martinis. but I think they take a nanosecond or two longer to mentally process.

Or these

Technically, it should be “ON DVDS.” But DVDS looks like it’s some government agency (I gotta go down to the DVDS tomorrow) or maybe a disease.

It’s not always easy to figure out what rule or logic the writer is following. The little apostrophe seems to be plunked in almost at random. Not random, really. It’s usually before an “s.” But why does Old Navy say, “Nobody get’s hurt”?

There’s a prescriptivist Website,, that collects these (that’s where I found the DVDS and Old Navy pictures). They’re fighting a losing battle.

Technology matters – I guess that’s the sociological point here. The invention of print and then the widespread dissemination of identical texts herded us towards standardization. Printers became a separate professional group (not part of the church or state), and most of them were in the same place (London). They had a stranglehold on published spelling.

For the last few decades, anyone could be a printer. The page you are now reading might harbor countless errors in punctuation and spelling (though spell-checkers greatly reduce misspellings), but it looks just as good as an online article in the Times, and it’s published in a similar way to potentially as many readers. And now there’s texting. It’s already pushing upper case letters off the screen, and the apostrophe forecast doesn’t look so good either. But what will still be interesting is not the missing apostrophe but the apostrophe added where, by traditional rules, it doesn’t belong.

I still can’t figure out WER’E.