It is hard to imagine that only several decades ago, many women in the United States did not work outside the home. If they did work, their income was a supplement to the household, not the primary share. In fact, in 1960, census reports found that mothers were the primary breadwinner in only 11% of households. A new Pew Research Center study shows us how much times have changed. Not only are women working and making more money than ever before in history, the Pew Center is now reporting that mothers bring in the primary income for 40% of U.S. households. This is a dramatic shift in the politics of gender, work, and family in a relatively short amount of time.
Yet, not all women benefit equally. It turns out that there are two types of breadwinning mothers: married women who out earn their husbands and single mothers who are the only source of income for the family. The married women constitute 37% of the breadwinning mothers. They are well educated, better paid, older, and disproportionately white. The single mothers constitute the majority of breadwinning mothers, or 67%. They are less educated, poorer, younger, and usually women of color. more...
Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, has created quite the buzz in the media, drawing accolades and criticism from widespread analysts, academics, feminists, business people, journalists, etc. Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, contends that the norms of femininity prevent women from gaining success in the workplace. While insufficient work and family policies are obstacles for women, one major, often overlooked, barrier is the rigid boundaries of masculinity and femininity, which hinder men’s participation in family and relationships and women’s drive in the workplace. Sandberg encourages women to “lean in” to their own success, to work hard and to defy the norms that hold them back.
While some praise Sandberg’s strong business sense and work ethic, others criticize her claim that women are their own biggest obstacles to success in the workplace. As a sociologist and a feminist, I am skeptical about her assertion that women hinder their own progress. In addition to a cultural shift in ideas about women’s leadership and business skills, we need stronger work and family policies. However, I am intrigued by her claim that cultural norms about masculinity and femininity are a major part of individual work and family issues. This seems like an obvious claim, yet a hard problem to solve. How do we change cultural ideas about what men and women can and should achieve in the workplace and in the home? more...
A recent article in Marie Claire magazine caught my eye. The title asks, “Are girlfriends the new husbands?” As the article explains, young adult women are increasingly turning to best friends for the kind of support that one might expect only from a romantic partner. As they choose to remain single later into life, women’s best friends become intimate partners (though not sexual ones). Cohabitation, “family” vacations, even some type of co-parenting between best friends is becoming more common. I should note, the article doesn’t discuss race, sexuality, class or any of the other intersecting social categories that affect women’s lives, so we cannot make sweeping generalizations, but among an abstract category of 20- to 30-something year old women, the nature of friendship appears to be changing. And I’d like to argue that this change is a good one. more...
This week, Stephanie Coontz contributed an opinion piece to the New York Times in honor of the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s, The Feminine Mystique. Coontz’s article, entitled “Why Gender Equality Stalled,” explores some of the structural and economic reasons hindering equality between men and women. The attitudes and beliefs of individuals are not to blame for the stalled gender revolution; instead, Coontz points to a failing economy and inadequate work-family policies as the major obstacles to gender equality.
Coontz relies on recent research which suggests that many men and women want egalitarian relationships. Specifically, a 2010 Pew Poll found that 72% of men and women think that marriages based on equality are the best. The implication of this research is most people start out with an egalitarian relationship as “Plan A.” If the conditions are right, most couples want to fulfill a utopian vision of gender equality in their interpersonal arrangements. However, as in most situations, “Plan A” rarely comes to fruition, especially under a set of constrained structural conditions. At some point, many people have to fall back on “Plan B,” a plan that involves more work for men and more family responsibilities for women.
Coontz suggests a few reasons to explain the prevalence of this less than egalitarian back up plan. She describes economic conditions in which men make more money than women and in which neither men nor women have adequate access to family leave. When men and women have few economic options, they return to a more traditional arrangement because it is the most lucrative and/or the most obvious choice. Ultimately, Coontz makes a strong argument for better family/work policies in order to create the conditions for gender equality
I think Coontz’s analysis is insightful. As a sociologist, I appreciate her emphasis on the many structural problems that prevent more gender equality between men and women. Importantly, she showcases the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy, highlighting the ways in which economic conditions uphold the patriarchal arrangements between men and women. We can’t expect a change in gender relations if our institutions do not reflect the goals of gender equality.
Yet, I am not convinced that these structural alterations are the only requirements necessary to produce the desired changes in gender relations at the individual level. Patriarchy has endured as a system of power not just because of social structures and institutions, but also because of cultural values and beliefs. While we have evidence to suggest that men and women want more egalitarian relationships, we also have evidence to suggest that cultural attitudes still reflect the belief that the household is women’s domain.
For example, when both men and women work, the bulk of the family and household responsibilities fall on the women. While this surely has something to do with economic conditions (for example, who can more easily leave the workplace without repercussions or significant loss of money), it also has something to do with the historical association of the household as the women’s domain. This link between women and housework persists despite the many gains that women have made in the public sphere.
What I am suggesting is that we still have a ways to go with our cultural ideas about gender and family. Better social structures can help change these ideas, but can we think of others ways to disentangle women from the private sphere?
I left my home state of Florida for some very personal reasons: racism and nativism, extremist right wing politicians, fiscal conservatism (and the failing school and social systems it produces) – not to mention vigilante justice (thanks to the stand your ground laws) and face-eating druggies. When people ask about where I grew up, I’m not proud to answer. But this summer, it got just a tiny bit better. Florida, ever a bastion of political, religious, and moral conservatism, a state a long way from marriage equality, took a few small steps forward. Sarasota, my home county, along with several other FL counties, drafted a domestic partnership registry. By registering as domestic partners, couples (both same- and opposite-sex) can gain certain benefits—like end of life and emergency care decision-making and education choices for dependents—without relying on or having access to the institution of marriage.
Recently, various cable and national news outlets reported that U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend had “ordered” soldiers under his command at the base at Ft. Campbell, KY to not commit suicide. While this makes an attention-grabbing headline, it was more of an exhortation than a command. Nevertheless, the U.S. military has been criticized for years about the way it has been handling the skyrocketing military suicide rate, which, by some measures, has now surpassed the overall U.S. population suicide rate. The base has the highest suicide rate in the entire U.S. Army.
Over a century ago, Durkheim’s famous (though methodologically flawed) study of suicide concluded that members of those groups with stronger social integration are less likely to take their own lives. It is hard to imagine a more socially cohesive group than military units; yet it appears that numerous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, for longer periods of time, are eroding the more primary social ties, such as to the family and community. Gen. Townsend has tried to appeal to the soldiers’ sense of duty to the army and commitment to their units. However, some experts believe that this will be ineffective, as it does not address the wearing away of the very connections that may be the best way to avert the problem in the first place.
Immigrants’ stories of sacrifice and (re)settlement are often overshadowed by statistics about demographics like educational attainment, income, and family size; the stories themselves remain untold.A recent New York Times article explores the impact of these stories on the children of immigrant families.Each year sociologist and Hunter College professor Nancy Foner teaches a class entitled “The Peopling of New York” wherein she asks students to interview a close relative about recent family history.Given that many of Foner’s students are children of immigrant parents, the stories they collect often involve accounts of immigration and the sacrifices it entailed.Students are surprised to learn these stories, and many develop a new appreciation and gratitude for the sacrifices their parents made.Understanding the reasons why these stories are pushed aside upon arrival, and the effects of their telling, may have important implications for understanding the processes of both assimilation and identity formation for immigrants and their children alike.
The nuclear family is often understood in terms of propinquity, or the physical nearness of parents and their children to one another.While it is typical for extended families to live apart from one another, we generally assume that married couples and their children live together. In coping with a challenging economy, however, many couples are being forced to reevaluate their responsibilities and priorities in unexpected ways.One manifestation of this is the rise of “commuter marriages” wherein one partner lives apart from the other and sometimes their children.Many couples are beginning to consider this kind of arrangement necessary given the faltering economy and scarcity of jobs.They are expressing a willingness to go where the best and most lucrative jobs are, though they may be unwilling to uproot their families or jeopardize their partner’s careers.This structural change to the institution of the family is being facilitated in part by technologies such as cell phones, email, and Skype.
While the economic benefits of a commuter marriage are considerable, work-family conflict is inevitable. For example, parents’ interactions with their children are changing, as are partners’ interactions with one another. Partners are having to reconsider their own statuses and roles within the family structure which may cause stress for both partners and their children.
What it means to be a family has been reconstructed, redefined, and renegotiated over time and in response to various social, political, cultural, and economic challenges.The commuter marriage is yet another outcome of this process, one that is sure to have a significant impact on family structure and interaction.
S. Winslow-Bowe on work-family conflict
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