By Sofia Rivera
Families have historically been founded on gender ideals that dictate many aspects of individual lives. These gender roles impose strict sanctions on the way in which people may act according to their gender, with a heavy emphasis on the “ideal” forms of masculinity and femininity. These roles dictate gender expression, sexuality, and personality traits – so removing these roles may lead to parenting and family experiences free from strict confines. Traditional gender ideals play a significant role in the perception of how parenting is performed as well as the ways in which family systems are constructed; however, challenging these conventions could present positive outcomes for contemporary families.
Gender roles are not a new concept and have played a role in familial systems for a significant portion of human history. First occurring due to divisions in labor, they have evolved into a cornerstone of modern society, shaping perceptions of families and individual family members. In, “A Brief History of the American Family”, author Roberta L. Coles explains how gender roles and family systems have largely come as a response to the dominant economic practices that governed the time (Coles, 33). The “three economic eras – agricultural, industrial and service” originally only led to the division of labor due to physical characteristics and capabilities, such as physical strength (Coles, 33). In the agricultural era, women had a large role in the survival of the household financially. While men had jobs such as, “planting the fields and hunting”, women undertook tasks like, “tending gardens and chickens, processing foods and milking cows” (Coles, 35). There was an obvious division of labor, and gendered jobs – but women were allowed and expected to help, as necessary.
As time progressed, society moved into the industrial era, and the roles of men and women in the workforce, as well as their own homes, faced immense changes. Roberta Coles asserts that overtime the, “… shift in economic provision affected gender roles and responsibilities. Men’s role in the family narrowed to the ‘breadwinner’, the provider. Outside the home most of the day, husbands became honored, sometimes distant, visitors to their families. Essentially, the men’s realm became the public arena, whereas the women’s became more private and domesticated” (Coles, 39). These gender roles put a lot of emphasis on heteronormative relationships where the man was the provider, and the woman took care of the children and continued to teach them how to act in “accordance” with their assigned gender. For example, women were now expected to be completely, reliant on the men in their lives (especially financially). This phenomenon was identified by sociologist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who theorized that this “sexuo-economic relation” was a condition that only existed amongst humans because women were denied certain rights and freedoms in order to ensure their subordinance to their male counterparts (Lengermann, 117). This point was corroborated in “The Evolution of American Families” by Stephanie Coontz. Coontz discussed how families “reorganized” themselves based on the dominant labor system of the period, stating, “Men (and children, too, in working-class families) began to specialize in paid work outside the home… But wives, who had once played a vital role in producing for the household and marketing their surpluses…now began to devote the bulk of their attention to housework, sewing, and child-rearing. Once referred to as yokemates and meet-helps, wives increasingly were seen as being responsible for the family comfort rather than co-producers of the family’s subsistence” (Coontz, 43). While women were once seen as important co-contributors to the home (and the home economy), the industrial era (which lasted from about 1800 to 1970) popularized the image of the perfect nuclear family – where everyone had a gendered role they were expected to adhere to.
The establishment of these ideals and the emphasis on adherence to “traditional” gender roles have had significant lasting effects, even now, on how familial systems are viewed, and how roles within the family are experienced. Even after the industrial era popularized the heteronormative nuclear family model, this model, and its corresponding gender roles, still greatly influenced the perception and performance of mothers. In Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (which was published years after the ‘ending’ of the industrial era), Adrienne Rich focuses on motherhood when detailing how experiences as a parent are shaped by traditional gender roles. Rich asserts, “the experience of maternity and the experience of maternity and the experience of sexuality have both been channeled to serve male interests; behavior which threatens institutions, such as illegitimacy, abortion, lesbianism, is considered deviant or criminal” (Rich, 42). Traditional gender roles stem from patriarchal notions that recognize men as being more powerful than women and encourage them to exert their “power” over their female counterparts. Women have faced decades of fighting not only to have a say in family planning, but to also be able to make choices about their own bodies. For example, women are still seen fighting for access to birth control, and safe, legal, abortions as these rights are not always guaranteed.
These issues were also touched upon by Barbara Katz Rothman in “Motherhood Under Patriarchy”. In this Rothman discusses, similarly to Adrienne Rich, how motherhood has almost completely been shaped by long-standing patriarchal ideals. Rothman theorizes, “some of our social customs and traditions have their roots in this patriarchal system… The ‘double standard’ – the ideas about virginity for a bride, abortion, ‘illegitimacy,’ about women’s sexual and procreative freedom in all areas – reflects men’s concern for maintaining paternity” (Rothman, 31). In efforts to control women, and maintain their own power, men in the patriarchy have upheld strict and outdated ideals, even though in many ways, women are the backbone of creation. Rothman further describes how in many cases, mothers are considered replaceable as they are simply doing a “job” by birthing and rearing children (Rothman, 42). This devaluation of a mother’s role in the life of her child highlights the mistreatment and negative effect that traditional gender roles have. In this system, women are not “good” enough to work the same jobs as men, so they are expected to stay in domestic and family roles that are more suited towards them. However, women and motherhood are still so regulated, that women participating in their own family planning is often frowned upon, and their role as a caretaker and nurturer is often seen as a hirable position.
While traditional gender roles affect women and mothers, they also have a large impact on fatherhood. Traditional gender ideals value the most extreme forms of masculinity and have established cultural expectations of sexuality, personality, and work-life. The ‘best’ fathers are ones that have married a feminine woman, are strong and stoic, and have a high-paying job that supports the family (forcing them to spend many hours away from the family). This has created ongoing issues for those men who do not fit into these stereotypes. In the video and article, “Father’s Day and the History of Being a Good Dad in America”, Olivia Waxman explains how long-standing cultural ideas regarding masculinity and fatherhood have had lasting effects on men in America. Waxman describes how the ‘American Father’ identity was centered around “bread-winning and [men’s] ability to place children in work positions” (Waxman). There was no expectation, or even desire, that men would have a role in the emotional development of their children. Traditional gender ideals celebrated men who had no interest in the “feminine” tasks of raising children and were more focused on simply making more children continue their family name – and spending time outside the home once this was done. This labels men who cannot have biological children (either because they are not in a heterosexual relationship, or simply could not have children) or who want to spend time with their children, as somehow less than other men, and not fitting the traditional “masculine” image of a father.
In the interviews I conducted, I asked four individuals (two males and two females) questions regarding how gender affected their experience as parents if they believed they challenged gender ideals, and if challenging these gender ideals had a positive impact on their experience on their family. In the case of both men that I interviewed (Frank and Harold (names have been changed)), they both described how they grew up in very traditional homes, and when they first had children there was an expectation that they would raise their children the same way. In the case of Frank, he explained how for the beginning of his son’s life, he had taken a very traditional approach to fatherhood, and it was not until his son came out to him that he changed this. He expressed how his son was scared to come out to him as gay, for fear that he would not be accepted by a father who had always expected him to be “manly”. After this, Frank discussed how he realized that he needed to step away from the traditional way in which he was parenting – there was never an issue of loving his son, but there was an issue in the values he was emphasizing and instilling. His wife, Marie (who I also interviewed), had a more difficult time coming to terms with her son’s sexuality after living in a very conservative and traditional landscape for most of her life. She expressed how she was worried about the backlash that she and her family would face if her son publicly came out, and if she and Frank encouraged him to come out and he got bullied, it would make them bad parents. Eventually, Marie discussed how she supported her son, after realizing that a familial support system was extremely important, regardless of society’s perception of them. In Harold’s fatherhood experience, he realized as soon as his daughters were born that he wanted a very hand-on role in their upbringing. In his case, he was able to retire when his daughters were very young and took advantage of this to stay home with them while his wife worked. Although Harold described how many people did not understand or support his choice, his staying home had a great influence on his daughters who were inspired to pursue careers without any sense that they were “supposed” to stay at home and raise their own children. Harold’s wife, Sammy (another interviewee), described how her never leaving her job (aside from maternity leave) to raise her children was something that she faced a lot of backlash for. She explained how frustrating it was to know that people considered her a bad mother because she was providing for her family, but her husband was a great father if he did the same. She raised the poignant point that she did not want there to be good or bad mothers and fathers, she only wanted to be considered a good or bad parent.
The four interviewees all highlighted the benefits associated with challenging conventions. In the case of Marie and Frank, they both struggled with traditional gender ideals as they raised their son who is gay. Traditional masculinity is something that expects men to be heterosexual, as being in a relationship with a man is “feminine” and frowned upon. By challenging conventions, and supporting their son, Marie and Frank allowed their son to express himself and be the happiest and truest version of himself possible. In the case of Harold and Sammy, they challenged the conventions of masculinity and femininity by creating a household where Sammy was the main source of income while Harold stayed home with the daughters. In their case, challenging the traditional masculine and feminine roles set a precedent for their daughters, who were encouraged to take whatever path they wanted in life regardless of if society considered it feminine or not. I was raised in a household like the one that Harold and Sammy established and was always reminded and encouraged to pursue what I wanted regardless of the gender roles associated with it. I was also encouraged to use my voice to stand up for myself, and never let any man dictate my actions or belittle my accomplishments thinking that they have power over me because of our genders. This has allowed me to grow into an individual who has been free from gendered expectations and has rarely felt as though I should put “femininity” ahead of my own personal desires.
Although there are remains of traditional gender roles in today’s society, there have also been great strides to challenge these outdated conventions and rewrite the definitions of parenthood and family in today’s society. Challenging these conventions has had immense positive impacts, and they demolish the stereotypes preventing people from being the happiest and freest versions of themselves. In “Transgender Pregnancy: The Making of a New American Family”, Jessi Hempel details her brother’s experience as he went through pregnancy as a transgender man. Evan Hempel challenged numerous conventions on his journey to carry a child as a transgender man, going against a heteronormative culture and challenging the standard conventions of masculinity and femininity. Twenty years ago, this would not have been possible. However now, as society is becoming more accepting, homosexual couples can get married, and adoption agencies and fertility clinics provide options for individuals who would not normally be able to have children. These benefits parents, who can have children and get married, when years ago neither of these things were guaranteed. This also benefits children, those in the system, and those conceived with the help of medical technology, who can get adopted or born to a loving family free from the societal pressure of gender roles. In “Mothers (and Others) Can Make Good Fathers, Too”, Michele Weldon explores how motherhood and fatherhood are becoming genderless institutions. As previously asserted, there were strict roles that parents had to fill based on their gender, and parenthood has been unique for mothers and fathers as there are different expectations for each. Now, Weldon describes, society is stepping away from this, and parenthood is moving towards becoming a “genderless, powerful notion of the designated driver for the lives of children entrusted to him or her” (Weldon). Gender roles are becoming increasingly less important in deciding how parents interact and raise their children and how families are constructed, allowing for more diverse families who are free to be their truest selves.
As society takes steps towards demolishing traditional familial conventions, it is important that people become advocates for this movement, and champions of the change that is necessary. In “Motherhood and Feminism”, Amber E. Kinser describes how important it is to continue advocating and educating others on the topics that need to be changed in our society.
For example, Kinser says, “the group (The Motherhood Project) is particularly troubled by the aggressive advertising and marketing that confront children every day. Comprising mothers from diverse races, political affiliations, and backgrounds, the organization works to educate others about the complexity of raising children in an era that is structured by ‘the values of commerce and technology’ and to encourage them to demand change” (Kinser, 134). I think that methods like these can be extremely successful as we continue to move away from toxic gender ideals that have dictated the familial experience for so long. I believe that advocating for policies such as paternal leave (which would allow men the same access to take care of their children and bond with their children as mothers do) and guaranteed access to different types of safe and legal birth control (allowing men and women to have an equal part in family planning) would be beneficial steps to take as we move towards a less gender dictated society.
Coontz, Stephanie. “The Evolution of American Families.” Families as They Really Are, by Barbara J. Risman and Virginia Rutter, W.W. Norton & Company, 2015, pp. 36–53.
Coles, Roberta L. “A Brief History of the American Family.” Race and Family: a Structural Approach, by Roberta L. Coles, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016, pp. 31–44.
Hempel, Jessi. “Transgender Pregnancy: The Making of a New American Family.” Time, Time, 12 Sept. 2016, time.com/4475634/trans-man-pregnancy-evan/.
Kinser, Amber E. “Chapter 5: Mothers Moving Forward.” Motherhood and Feminism, by Amber E. Kinser, Seal Press, 2010, pp. 131–163.
Lengermann, Patricia M., and Jill Niebrugge-Brantley. The Women Founders: Sociology and Social Theory, 1830-1930: A Text/Reader. Waveland Press, 2007
Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. W W Norton, 1976, pp. 1-286.
Rothman, Barbara Katz. “Motherhood Under Patriarchy.” Recreating Motherhood, by Barbara Katz. Rothman, Rutgers University Press, 2000, pp. 29–81.
Waxman, Olivia B. “Father’s Day and the History of Being a Good Dad in America.” Time, Time, 15 June 2018, time.com/5312912/history-american-fathers/.
Weldon, Michele. “Mothers (and Others) Can Make Good Fathers, Too.” Pacific Standard, 12 June 2014, psmag.com/social-justice/family-children-parenting-mothers-and-others-can-make-good-fathers-too-83273.