Rumors are circulating that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has plans to euthanize 44,000 wild horses. The rumor is partly true. An advisory board has authorized the BLM to do so; they have yet to make a decision as to whether they will. Even the possibility of such a widespread cull, though, has understandably sparked outrage. Yet the reality of the American mustang is not as simple as the love and admiration for these animals suggests.

Mustangs are powerful symbols of the American West. The modern mustang is the descendant of various breeds of horses worked by everyone from Spanish conquistadors to pioneers in wagon trains into the Western US. Some inevitably escaped over time and formed herds of feral horses. Wild herds in the east were generally either driven west or recaptured over time as the frontier moved ever westward (the wild ponies of Assateague Island off the coast of Virginia being a famous exception). Over time, they became inextricably entwined with perceptions of the West as still wild and free, not yet fully domesticated. The image of a herd of beautiful horses against a gorgeous but austere Western landscape is a striking one, perhaps something like this:


So how do we get from that to these mustangs penned up in a pasture running after a feed truck in Oklahoma (a screenshot from the video below):

2 (1)

It’s a complicated story involving conflicts surrounding federal land management, public attitudes toward mustangs, and unintended consequences of public policies.

Wild horses fall under the purview of the BLM because most live on public range (particularly in Nevada, California, and Idaho, as well as Washington, Wyoming, and other Western states). Mustangs have no natural predators in the West; mountain lions, bears, and wolves kill some horses each year, but their numbers simply aren’t large enough to be a systematic form of population control for wild horse herds, especially given that horses aren’t necessarily their first choice for a meal. So wild horse herds can grow fairly rapidly. Currently the BLM estimates there are about 67,000 wild horses and burros on public land in the West, 40,000 more than the BLM thinks the land can reasonably sustain.

Of course, managing wild horses is one small part of the BLM’s mission. The agency is tasked with balancing various uses of federal lands, including everything from resource extraction (such as mining and logging), recreational uses for the public, grazing range for cattle ranchers, wildlife habitat conservation, preservation of archaeological and historical sites, providing water for irrigation as well as residential use, and many, many more. And many of these uses conflict to some degree. Setting priorities among various potential uses of BLM land has, over time, become a very contentious process, as different groups battle, often through the courts, to have their preferred use of BLM land prioritized over others.

The important point here is that managing wild horse numbers is part, but only a small part, of the BLM’s job. They decide on the carrying capacity of rangeland — that is, how many wild horses it can sustainably handle — by taking into account competing uses, like how many cattle will be allowed on the same land, its use as wildlife habitat, possible logging or mining activities, and so on. And much of the time the BLM concludes that, given their balance of intended uses, there are too many horses.

So what does the BLM do when they’ve decided there are too many horses?

For many years, the BLM simply allowed them to be killed; private citizens had a more or less free pass to kill them. There wasn’t a lot of oversight regarding how many could be killed or the treatment of the horses during the process. Starting in the late 1950s, the BLM began to get negative press, and a movement to protect wild horses emerged. It culminated in the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed in 1971. The law didn’t ban killing wild horses, but it provided some protection for them and required the BLM to ensure humane treatment, guarantee the presence of wild horses on public lands, and encourage other methods of disposing of excess horses.

One such method is making such horses (and burros) available to the general public for adoption. The BLM holds periodic adoption events. However, currently the demand for these animals isn’t nearly large enough to absorb the supply. For instance, in 2010, 9,715 wild horses were removed from public lands, while 2,742 were adopted.

So, there aren’t enough people to adopt them and killing them has become increasingly unpopular. Controlling herd populations through some form of birth control hasn’t been widely implemented and has led to lawsuits. What to do?

One solution was for the federal government to pay private citizens to care for mustangs removed from public lands. Today there are 46,000 wild horses penned up on private lands, fed by feed trucks. Something for which the American taxpayer pays $49 million dollars a year. Holding wild horses has become a business. Here’s a news segment about one of these wild horse operations:

The ranch in video is owned by the Drummond family, a name that might ring a bell if you’re familiar with the incredibly popular website The Pioneer Woman, by Ree Drummond. They are just one of several ranching families in north central Oklahoma that have received contracts to care for wild horses.

In addition to the sheer cost involved, paying private citizens to hold wild horses brings a whole new set of controversies, as well as unintended consequences for the region. Federal payments for the wild horse and burro maintenance program are public information. A quick look at the federal contracts database shows that in just the first three financial quarters of 2009, for example, the Drummonds (a large, multi-generational ranching family) received over $1.6 million. Overall, two-thirds of the BLM budget for managing wild horses goes to paying for holding animals that have been removed from public lands, either in short-term situations before adoptions or in long-term contracts like the ones in Oklahoma.

This is very lucrative. Because prices are guaranteed in advance, holding wild horses isn’t as risky as raising cattle. And, if a horse dies, the BLM just gives the rancher a new one. But this income-generating opportunity isn’t available to everyone; generally only the very largest landowners get a chance. From the BLM’s perspective, it’s more efficient to contract with one operation to take 2,000 horses than to contract with 20 separate people to take 100 each. So almost all small and mid-size operations are shut out of the contracts. This has led to an inflow of federal money to operations that were already quite prosperous by local standards. These landowners then have a significant advantage when it comes to trying to buy or lease pastures that become available in the area; other ranchers have almost no chance of competing with the price they can pay. The result is more concentration of land ownership as small and medium-sized ranchers, or those hoping to start up a ranch from scratch, are priced out of the market. In other words, the wild horse holding program contributes to the wealth of the 1%, while everyone else’s economic opportunities are harmed.

This is why the BLM is considering a cull. Not because they love the idea of killing off mustangs, but because they’re caught between a dozen rocks and hard places, trying to figure out how to best manage a very complicated problem, with no resolution in sight.

Revised and updated; originally posted in 2011. Cross-posted at Scientopia and expanded for Contexts.

Gwen Sharp, PhD is a professor of sociology and the Associate Dean of liberal arts and sciences at Nevada State College. 

Why are relations between black America and the police so fraught? I hope that this collection of 50 posts on this topic and the experience of being black in this country will help grow understanding. See, also, the Ferguson syllabus put together by Sociologists for Justice, the Baltimore syllabus, and this summary of the facts by Nicki Lisa Cole.

Race and policing:

Perceptions of black men and boys as inherently criminal:

Proof that Americans have less empathy for black people:

Evidence of the consistent maltreatment, misrepresentation, and oppression of black people in every part of American society:

On violent resistance:

The situation now:

W.E.B. DuBois (1934):

The colored people of America are coming to face the fact quite calmly that most white Americans do not like them, and are planning neither for their survival, nor for their definite future if it involves free, self-assertive modern manhood. This does not mean all Americans. A saving few are worried about the Negro problem; a still larger group are not ill-disposed, but they fear prevailing public opinion. The great mass of Americans are, however, merely representatives of average humanity. They muddle along with their own affairs and scarcely can be expected to take seriously the affairs of strangers or people whom they partly fear and partly despise.

For many years it was the theory of most Negro leaders that this attitude was the insensibility of ignorance and inexperience, that white America did not know of or realize the continuing plight of the Negro.  Accordingly, for the last two decades, we have striven by book and periodical, by speech and appeal, by various dramatic methods of agitation, to put the essential facts before the American people.  Today there can be no doubt that Americans know the facts; and yet they remain for the most part indifferent and unmoved.

– From A Negro Nation Within a Nation

Democratic members of the US House of Representatives sat in on the floor of the House, demanding recorded votes on gun control measures. Rep. John Lewis (Georgia) made the speech that launched the effort, and was framed at the center of most of the photos; after all, he has an unrivaled record for participating in such efforts that dates back to the sit-in movement of 1960.

Click image to watch the video:


They’re grandstanding, hoping to the play to the crowd by violating the norms and rules of the House where, under normal circumstances, a member of the minority party can’t do much on matters of policy. Appealing to the public is their best shot to get a vote, but it’s not a very good one; and it’s extremely unlikely that anything gun control advocates in the House want could win majority support in that body. The members sat on the floor in the well of the House, likely the most comfortable surface Rep. Lewis has ever protested on, without much fear of arrest or violence. The presiding officer, always from the majority party, adjourned the session, turning off CSPAN’s cameras – seeking to deny Democrats the audience they seek. But the protesters are livestreaming on a variety of social media. It’s not quite so easy to control the flow of images and information anymore.

The Democratic revolt in the House is yet another response to the mass shooting in Orlando, which once again reminded Americans – and their representatives – that it’s very easy for dangerous people you don’t like to get powerful weapons. The sit-in is also an attempt to escalate the political conflict and make more of the generally fleeting moment of public attention that follows such a tragedy. We’ve all seen it many times before: a mass shooting captures public attention and sets the agenda, but only briefly, and a familiar political ritual plays out: Advocates of gun control hold vigils and make speeches; advocates of gun rights mostly stay silent on matters of policy, and offer thoughts and prayers for the victims and their families. And the moment passes.

In normal political life, when  everyone isn’t talking about guns all the time, the gun rights side of the debate enjoys a substantial advantage, particularly visible in the National Rifle Association, which deploys more money, more active membership, and calls upon more well-positioned allies than its opponents, who come and  go. Gun control advocates have been “outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, outplanned” (to quote Hamilton).

Since the tragic massacre of school children in Newtown, Connecticut, gun control advocates have been building organizations and  an infrastructure for action. They have been better able to exploit the moment of a massacre, and less willing to allow their opponents to stall until concern passes.

Last week, Senator Chris Murphy, who previously represented Newtown in the House, staged a filibuster of sorts in the Senate, monopolizing the floor while standing, not sitting, and talking about the need for action. In the upper house, a Senator can hold the floor as long as he can stand and talk. Most Democrats, and a couple of Republicans, joined Senator Murphy for part of 15 hours, offering sympathetic questions and taking up some of the talking. The leadership agreed to hold votes on four gun control bills, and Murphy stopped talking. The next day, the Senate rejected all of them.

Movement on policy? Not so much, and not so fast, but all of this sets up further contest in the November elections.

Meanwhile, other advocates are prospecting another strategy that operates with different rules and on an alternative schedule. Parents of some of the massacred students at Sandy Hook Elementary School have filed a product liability suit against Remington Arms, the company the  manufactures and markets the AR-15 Bushmaster, the weapon used in the mass murder. (See Evan Osnos’s report at The New Yorker.) By pursuing their argument about deceptive marketing, they hope to publicize the workings of the arms industry, contributing to a political debate that’s only slowly emerging. America offers many outlets for people to try to organize for change, none of them very easy or fast.

Nothing gun control advocates have tried has affected national policy for more than twenty years. As public concern and political resources grow, however, they keep trying to innovate new approaches, hoping that something works before the next time.

David S. Meyer, PhD, is a professor of sociology and political science at the University of California, Irvine. He blogs at Politics Outdoors, where this post originally appeared, and where he offers comments on contemporary events informed by history and the study of social movements. 

America woke up this weekend to the news of the deadliest civilian mass shooting in the nation’s history. The senseless tragedy will undoubtedly evoke anger, sadness and helplessness.

In the meantime, many will forget to think and talk about Stanford swimmer Brock Turner’s crime and his “summer vacation” jail sentence: three months for the vile sexual assault of an unconscious woman.

As a sociologist, I was struck not by the abrupt shift to a new moral crisis, but by the continuity. Sociologists look for the bigger picture, and in my mind, Mateen’s crime didn’t displace Turner’s. Yet the media simply replaced one outrage with another, moving our attention away from Stanford and toward Orlando, as if these two crimes were unrelated. They’re not.

Status, masculinity and sexual assault

Brock Turner was an all-American boy: a white, Division I swimmer at one of the nation’s top universities. What he did to his victim was arguably all-American, too, confirmed by decades of research tying rape to a sense of male superiority and entitlement.

I study sex on campus, where sexual violence is perpetrated disproportionately by “high-status” men – fraternity men and certain male athletes in particular. These men are more likely than other men to endorse the sexual double standard, believing that they are justified in praising sexually active men, while condemning and even abusing women who are less sexually active.

They are also more likely to promote homophobia, hypermasculinity and male dominance; tolerate violent and sexist jokes; endorse misogynistic attitudes and behaviors; and endorse false beliefs about rape. Accordingly, athletes are responsible for an outsized number of sexual assaults on campus, and women who attend fraternity parties are significantly more likely to be assaulted than those who attend other parties with alcohol and those who don’t go to parties at all.

Status, masculinity and violent homophobia

Omar Mateen’s crime is related to this strand of masculinity. Mateen’s father told the media that his son had previously been angered by the sight of two men kissing, and reports claim that he was a “regular” at the Pulse nightclub and was known to use a gay hookup app.

Anti-gay hate crimes, like violence against women (Mateen also reportedly beat his ex-wife), are tied closely to rigid and hierarchical ideas about masculinity that depend on differentiating “real” men from women as well as gay and bisexual men. Men who experience homoerotic feelings themselves sometimes erupt into especially aggressive homophobia.

As the sociologist Michael Kimmel has argued, while we talk ad infinitum about guns, mental illness and, in this case, Islamic identity, we miss the strongest unifying factor: these mass murderers are men, almost to the last one. In his book Guyland,” Kimmel argues that as many boys grow into men, “they learn that they are entitled to feel like a real man, and that they have the right to annihilate anyone who challenges that sense of entitlement.”

He means “annihilate” literally.

We now know that many boys who descend on their schools with guns are motivated by fears that they are perceived as homosexual and that attacking suspected or known homosexuals is a way for boys to demonstrate heterosexuality to their peers.

It makes sense to me, as a woman, that men would fear gay men because such men threaten to put other men under the same sexually objectifying, predatory, always potentially threatening gaze that most women learn to live with as a matter of course. Being looked at by a gay man threatens to turn any man into a figurative woman: subordinate, weak, penetrable. That can be threatening enough to a man invested in masculinity, but discovering that he enjoys being the object of other men’s desires – being put in the position of a woman – could stoke both internalized and externalized homophobia even further.

Meanwhile, gay men, by their very existence, challenge male dominance by undermining the link between maleness and the sexual domination of women. It’s possible that Mateen, enraged by his inability to stop men from kissing in public and struggling with self-hatred, took it upon himself to annihilate the people who dared pierce the illusion that manhood and the righteous sexual domination of women naturally go hand-in-hand.

The common denominator

Mass shootings, frighteningly, appear to have become a part of our American cultural vernacular, a shared way for certain men to protest threats to their entitlement and defend the hierarchy their identities depend on. As the sociologists Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober wrote last year for the website Feminist Reflections:

This type of rampage violence happens more in the United States of America than anywhere else… Gun control is a significant part of the problem. But, gun control is only a partial explanation for mass shootings in the United States. Mass shootings are also almost universally committed by men. So, this is not just an American problem; it’s a problem related to American masculinity and to the ways American men use guns.

Some members of the media and candidates for higher office will focus exclusively on Mateen’s Afghan parents. But he – just like Brock Turner – was born, raised and made a man right here in America. While it appears that he had (possibly aspirational) links to ISIS, it in no way undermines his American-ness. This was terrorism, yes, but it was domestic terrorism: of, by and aimed at Americans.

I don’t want to force us all to keep Turner in the news (though I imagine that he and his father are breathing a perverse sigh of relief right now). I want to remind us to keep the generalities in mind even as we mourn the particulars.

Sociologists are pattern seekers. This problem is bigger than Brock Turner and Omar Mateen. It’s Kevin James Loibl, who sought out and killed the singer Christina Grimmie the night before the massacre at Pulse. It’s James Wesley Howell, who was caught with explosives on his way to the Los Angeles Pride Parade later that morning. It’s the grotesque list of men who used guns to defend their sense of superiority that I collected and documented last summer.

The problem is men’s investment in masculinity itself. It offers rewards only because at least some people agree that it makes a person better than someone else. That sense of superiority is, arguably, why men like Turner feel entitled to violating an unconscious woman’s body and why ones like Mateen will defend it with murderous rampages, even if it means destroying themselves in the process. And unless something changes, there will be another sickening crisis to turn to, and another sinking sense of familiarity.

Cross-posted at The Conversation, New Republic, Special Broadcasting Company (SBS)United Press InternationalNewsweek Japan (in Japanese), and Femidea (in Korean).

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.

Jane Mayer’s recent book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right is a powerful account of how the Right influences public opinion via a network of think-tanks, lobbyists and other forms of direct and indirect funding in the guise of objectivity, but which in fact support right-wing values.

As someone with an interest in masculinity, one name that jumped out of Mayer’s book at me was Harvey Mansfield, a Harvard professor of government and author of Manliness published in 2006 by Yale University Press. Mansfield’s book is a lament to the loss of manliness in contemporary society (a state of being he traces back to the ancient Greeks and follows through to Rick in Casablanca), which is being eradicated by a “gender neutral” ideology. In short, Manliness is a manifesto for normative masculinity.

It always seemed curious to me why Manliness was ever taken seriously by such a prestigious publisher as Yale University Press when its argument was so outdated relative to most academic discourse on masculinity, combined with the fact that Mansfield had little research track record in the subject. Mayer’s book offers two facts that can be speculatively connected to address this curiosity.

Mansfield is cited in Dark Money as being one of numerous professors who received funding from the Olin Foundation, a trust established to promote freemarket ideology and other conservative ideas on America’s campuses. Mayer does not state that Manliness was funded by the Olin Foundation, but later she quotes Steve Wasserman of Yale University Press, who noted how the Right saw the value of funding books, whereas the philanthropic Left did not assign the same value.

In general, funding, either in full or in part, can make a substantial difference to the economic viability of a book for a publisher. In normal circumstances this is called a “subvention,” and while many believe this to be a sign of vanity publishing, it is a reality of academic publishing. Academic books in some circumstances (and in particular, some subjects), can be fully funded, which can only have a positive influence on whether or not the book sees the light of day.

But what of it? What does it really matter if a book peddling antiquated ideas about masculinity is published? First, anything published by Yale University Press is going to be taken seriously. Further still, the support network around Mansfield and his ideas made sure that his book received more media attention than most other books on the subject that were of greater merit. Second, if we look at Google search trends we can see some interesting changes, keeping in mind that correlation does not (necessarily) imply causation. Consider the following chart that looks at the popularity of the term “masculinity” relative to “manliness”:


In 2005 there was a high usage of the term “masculinity” and very little usage of the term “manliness.” In 2006 there was a massive spike in the term “manliness” which immediately matches that of “masculinity.” 2006 was the year of publication of Mansfield’s Manliness. Certainly, that spike of activity swiftly drops off, but it slowly builds again until around 2011 when manliness again surpasses masculinity and this remained the case until very recently.

It is reasonable to assume that the 2006 spike in search activity using “manliness” was down to Mansfield’s book. It is less reasonable to say that the slow increase in the use of the term was discussion of Mansfield’s book, but it may well have planted a seed that might not otherwise have grown.

Do not make the mistake of thinking these are different but value-free words for describing the same thing. In general, people who use the term “manliness” are referring to a fixed and essentialist idea of sex and gender (usually glossing over the distinction between the two), whereas the use of the term “masculinity” accommodates a critique as well as celebration of normative masculinity.

And do not make the mistake of thinking this is just about sex and gender. In his book The Political Mind, George Lakoff shows how manliness (which he describes as the “strict father model”) is one of the most basic metaphors we use for constructing national identity. Lakoff actually cites Mansfield’s Manliness as being written to cement the conservative strict father model in order to consolidate conservative political power.

Locating the strict father model as one of the core metaphors of the political mind adds further understanding to how masculinity has played out in the 2016 presidential campaign. Numerous articles on this subject are chronicled at the excellent Presidential Gender Watch project which mostly argue how Trump has appealed to a specific model of masculinity in his speeches. Yes, these speeches reveal an unsavory streak of misogyny in Trump, and yes, they reveal him to be capitalizing upon a perceived crisis of masculinity, particularly among the working class. However, an explicit appeal to masculinity also mobilizes that strict father model, which enables Trump to draw on the traditional conservative base even as he critiques it.

It is also worth considering how these deep metaphors play out in the Democratic imagination. Opposite the strict father model of the conservatives, Lakoff identifies the “nurturing parent model” of the progressives. According to Lakoff, Democrats should appeal to the nurturing parent metaphor at all times. However, one could argue that despite Clinton’s playing the “woman card” her style is more that of the strict father than the nurturing parent, again appealing to that traditional conservative base. So who is the nurturing parent? As Obama quipped in his final correspondents’ dinner speech about Malia wanting to go to Burning Man, “Bernie might have let her go. Not us.”

Joseph Gelfer, PhD is a researcher of men and masculinities. He is the editor of Masculinities in a Global Era and 2012: Decoding the Countercultural Apocalypse.

TSP_Assigned_pbk_978-0-393-28445-4Assigned: Life with Gender is a new anthology featuring blog posts by a wide range of sociologists writing at The Society Pages and elsewhere. To celebrate, we’re re-posting four of the essays as this month’s “flashback Fridays.” Enjoy! And to learn more about this anthology, a companion to Wade and Ferree’s Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, please click here.


Is the “Mrs. Degree” Dead?, by Laura Hamilton, PhD

In 1998 I was a first-year student at DePauw University, a small liberal arts college in Indiana. A floor-mate of mine, with whom I hung out occasionally, told me over lunch that she was at college primarily to find a “good husband.” I nearly choked on my sandwich. I had assumed that the notion of the “Mrs. Degree” was a relic of my parents’ era—if not my grandparents’. Surely it had gone the way of the home economics major and women’s dormitory curfews.

Photo via clemsonunivlibrary flickr creative commons

Years later, I — along with my co-director, Elizabeth A. Armstrong — would embark on a five year ethnographic and longitudinal study of a dormitory floor of women at a public flagship in the Midwest. As part of my dissertation, I also interviewed the women’s parents. What I found brought me back to my first year of college. A subset of parents wanted their daughters to be “cookie-baking moms”—not successful lawyers, doctors, or businesswomen. They espoused gender complementarity—a cultural model of how women should achieve economic security that relied on a co-constructed pairing of traditional femininity and masculinity. That is, men were to be economic providers and women supportive homemakers. This was a revised “Mrs.” Degree, in the sense that marriage during college, or even right after, was not desirable. College women were to build the traits and social networks that would hopefully land them a successful husband eventually, but it was assumed best to wait until men had proven themselves in the labor market before entering a marriage.

This was not the only cultural model to which women on the floor were exposed. In fact, those coming in primed for complementarity were in the minority. However, as I show in my article, “The Revised MRS: Gender Complementarity at College,” far more women left college leaning toward gender complementarity than their previous gender socialization suggested. Something was happening on the college campus — where women were, ironically, out-achieving men — that shifted them toward performing an affluent, white, and heterosexual femininity, marked by an emphasis on appearance, accommodation to men, and a bubbly personality.

I argue that gender complementarity is not just a characteristic of individual women, but is actually encouraged by the institutional and interactional features of the typical, four-year, public state school. Midwest U, like other schools of its kind, builds a social and academic infrastructure well-suited to high-paying, out-of-state students interested in partying. The predominately white Greek system — a historically gender-, class-, and racially-segregated institution — enjoys prominence on campus. An array of “easy” majors, geared toward characteristics developed outside of the classroom, allow women to leverage personality, looks, and social skills in the academic sphere. These supports make it possible for peer cultures in which gender complementarity is paramount to thrive. Women who want to belong and make friends find it hard — if not impossible — to avoid the influence of the dominant social scene on campus, located in fraternities and Greek-oriented bars.

This structure of campus life is not incidental. In recent years, cuts to state and federal support for higher education have led mid-tier public institutions like Midwest U to cater to the socially-oriented and out-of-state students who arrive with gender complementarity interests. These class-based processes have implications for the type of social and academic climate that all students find upon arriving at Midwest University.

The problem is, however, that most women need to accrue the skills and credentials that translate into a solid career. An institution supporting gender complementarity does them a serious disservice — potentially contributing to gendered differences in pay after college. The situation is particularly problematic for students not from the richest of families: Affluent women espousing complementarity form the type of networks that give them reasonable hope of rescue by a high-credentialed spouse, and heavy parental support means that they can afford to be in big cities where they mix and mingle with the “right” men. Women from less affluent backgrounds lack these resources, and are often reliant on their own human capital to make it after college.

The gradual shift from higher education as a public good — funded heavily by the state — to a private commodity — for sale to the highest bidder — has significantly stalled not only progress toward class equality, but certain forms of gender equality as well. Change is going to require unlinking the solvency of organizations like Midwest U from the interests of those can afford, and thus demand, an exclusionary and highly gendered social experience.

Laura T. Hamilton, PhD is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Merced. Her recently published article, “The Revised MRS: Gender Complementarity at College,” appears in the April 2014 issue of Gender & Society; this post originally appeared at their blog. She is the author of Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matter’s for College Women’s Success and, with Elizabeth Armstrong, Paying for the Party: How Colleges Maintain Inequality.

“[A]n analysis of traffic can enrich sociological theory.” (Schmidt-Relenberg, 1968: 121)

Almost everywhere we go is a “gendered space.” Although men and women both go to grocery stores, different days of the week and times of the day are associated with different gender compositions of shoppers. Most of our jobs are gendered spaces. In fact, Census data show that roughly 30% of the 66,000,000 women in the U.S. labor force occupy only 10 of the 503 listed occupations on the U.S. Census. You’d probably be able to guess what some of these jobs are just as easily as you might be able to guess some of the very few Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs. Sociologists refer to this phenomenon as occupational segregation, and it’s nothing new. Recently, I did read about a gender segregated space that is new (at least to me): traffic.

Photo from kkanous flickr creative commons

When I picture traffic in my head, I think of grumpy men driving to jobs they hate, but this is misleading. Women actually make up the vast majority of congestion on the roads. One way of looking at this is to argue that women are causing more congestion on our roads. But another way to talk about this issue (and the way to talk about this issue that is consistent with actual research) is to say that women endure more congestion on the roads.

Women were actually the first market for household automobiles in the U.S. Men generally traveled to work by public transportation. Cars sold to households were marketed to women for daily errands. This is why, for instance, early automobiles had fancy radiator caps with things like wings, angels and goddesses on them. These were thought to appeal to women’s more fanciful desires.

Traffic increased a great deal when women moved into the labor force. But this is not exactly what accounts for the gender gap. In the 1950s, car trips that were work-related accounted for about 40% of all car use. Today that number is less than 16%. The vast majority of car trips are made for various errands: taking children to school, picking up groceries, eating out, going to or from day care, shopping, and more shopping.  And it’s women who are making most of these trips. It’s a less acknowledged portion of the “second shift” which typically highlights women’s disproportionate contribution to the division of labor inside the household even when they are working outside of the household as well.

Traffic research has shown that women are more than two times more likely than men to be taking someone else where they need to go when driving.  Men are  more likely to be driving themselves somewhere.  Women are also much more likely to string other errands onto the trips in which they are driving themselves somewhere (like stopping at the grocery store on the drive home, going to day care on the way to work, etc.). Traffic experts call this “trip chaining,” but the rest of us call it multi-tasking. What’s more, we also know that women, on average, leave just a bit later than men do for work, and as a result, are much more likely to be making those longer (and more involved) trips right in the middle of peak hours for traffic.

Who knew? It’s an under-acknowledged gendered space that deserves more attention (at least from sociologists). Traffic is awful, and if we count up all that extra time and add it to the second shift calculations made by Arlie Hochschild, I think we have a new form of inequality to complain about.

Tristan Bridges, PhD is a sociologist at the College at Brockport (SUNY). With CJ Pascoe, he is the editor of Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Continuity and Change. He blogs at Inequality by (Interior) Design, where this post originally appeared. You can follow Dr. Bridges on Twitter.

Many hope that Misty Copeland is ushering in a new era for ballet. She is the first female African American ballet dancer to have the role of Principal Dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. She has literally changed the face of the dance.

Race is a central and important part of her story, but in A Ballerina’s Tale, the documentary featuring her career, she describes herself as defying not just one, but three ideas about what ballerinas are supposed to look like: “I’m black,” she says, and also: “I have a large chest, I’m muscular.”

In fact, asked to envision a prima ballerina, writes commentator Shane Jewel, what comes to most of our minds is probably a “perilously thin, desperately beautiful, gracefully elongated girl who is… pale as the driven snow.” White, yes, but also flat-chested and without obvious muscularity.

It feels like a timeless archetype — at least as timeless as ballet itself, which dates back to the 15th century — but it’s not. In fact, the idea that ballerinas should be painfully thin is a new development, absorbing only a fraction of ballet’s history, as can clearly be seen in this historical slideshow.

It started in the 1960s — barely more than 50 years ago — in response to the preferences of the influential choreographer George Balanchine. Elizabeth Kiem, the author of Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy, calls him “the most influential figure in 20th century dance,” ballet and beyond. He co-founded the first major ballet school in America, made dozens of dancers famous, and choreographed more than 400 performances. And he liked his ballerinas wispy: “Tall and slender,” Kiem writes, “to the point of alarm.” It is called, amongst those in that world, the “Balanchine body.”


We’re right to view Copeland’s rise with awe, gratitude, and hope, but it’s also interesting to note that two of the the ceilings she’s breaking (by being a ballerina with breasts and muscles) have only recently been installed. It reminds me how quickly a newly introduced expectation can feel timeless; how strongly it can ossify into something that seems inevitable; how easily we accept that what we see in front of us is universal.

In The Social Construction of Reality, the sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann explain how rapidly social inventions “harden” and “thicken.” Whoever initiates can see it for what it is — something they created — but to whoever comes next it simply seems like reality. What to Balanchine was “I will do it this way” became to his successors “This is how things are done.” And “a world so regarded,” Berger and Luckmann write, “attains a firmness in consciousness; it becomes real in an ever more massive way, and it can no longer be changed so readily.”

Exactly because the social construction of reality can be so real, even though it was merely invented, Copeland’s three glass ceilings are all equally impressive, even if only one is truly historic.

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.