Families and Gender Equity

By Coltrane, Scott | National Forum, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Families and Gender Equity


Coltrane, Scott, National Forum


As we approach the millennium, Americans are faced with a perplexing paradox about gender equity. Although most people think men and women should be equal, gender remains one of the most important determinants of a person's life chances. Compared with men, women are more likely to earn low wages, take orders from others, perform domestic labor, live in poverty, and be raped or abused. Men, in contrast, are more likely to kill someone, be a victim of homicide, be involved in a lethal accident, commit suicide, and die soon after retirement. Contrary to popular opinion, these gender differences are neither natural nor inevitable. Subservient women and macho men are the product of historically specific social, political, and economic arrangements and are both cause and consequence of identifiable patterns of family life.

Women can now attend military academies, start businesses, play professional sports, run for public office, and in principle rise to the top in almost any personal or professional endeavor. In practice however, it is rare for women to accomplish these things. Although most Americans say that they would vote for a woman for president, no woman has ever been nominated for that office by a major party. More women have been elected to public office than ever before, but most of them sit on local school boards and city councils, and only one in ten members of Congress is a woman. Women now outnumber men in college, but they are rarely as successful as men once they enter the labor market. Women are almost as likely as men to be employed, but they still earn only three-fourths of what men do and typically occupy gender-segregated jobs with fewer benefits and with limited opportunities for advancement. Now, as in the past, it pays to be a man. To understand why men enjoy special privileges, we need to look beyond politics and economics to consider gender equity in the family.

THE IDEALIZED SEPARATION OF WORK AND FAMILY

The primary justification for excluding women from positions of authority is a holdover from the nineteenth century. According to the Victorian ideal of separate spheres, frail but morally pure women found true fulfillment in their domestic roles as wives and mothers, and rugged manly men left home to earn a family wage. The ideal middle-class woman was supposed to tend children and humanize husbands, providing them respite from the cruel and competitive world beyond the home. The actual boundary between home and work was never as distinct as the ideal implied, especially for poor families, but the romantic image of separate spheres enjoyed unprecedented popularity.

As recent "family values" rhetoric attests, the idealized separation of work and family continues to carry strong messages about gender. Women are seen as naturally self-sacrificing and emotionally sensitive, rendering them perfectly suited to care for children, serve husbands, and keep house. Fathers, in contrast, are seen as competitive protectors and providers, enabling them to assume their "rightful" position as head and master of the family. Modern versions of the separate-spheres ideal suggest that women can be happy only if they marry and devote themselves to raising families. Men, in contrast, are admonished to be breadwinners first and to avoid sissy stuff like cleaning house or playing peek-a-boo.

Emotionally laden images of separate spheres belie the reality of life in most American households, since both men and women are now called on to hold jobs and do family work. Holding on to mythical ideals about rigid gender roles and inalterable sex differences makes it difficult for today's couples to negotiate equitable living arrangements and for parents to meet the needs of their children. Social-science research conducted over the last few decades demonstrates unequivocally that gender ideals are transformed as societies change and that family practices reflect and reproduce economic and political arrangements.

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