Traditional Gender Roles in Marriage | Omega

What makes a healthy family as marriage evolves beyond traditional gender roles? Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way We Never Were and Marriage, A History is director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families.

Omega: You’ve noted that the gains of feminism in achieving gender equality interact in contradictory ways with growing economic inequality. What is the most urgent role of feminism going forward? 

Stephanie: It’s important to understand just how far we have come since the 1960s. This was a time when women had to turn to the “help wanted: female” section of the newspapers for jobs and could legally be paid less than men, excluded from many occupations, and fired if they married or became pregnant. Homemakers had no claim on the income earned by their husbands, and there were still “head and master” laws giving husbands the final say in family decisions. At the time, 70 percent of Americans felt that a woman’s place was in the home.

Today gender inequalities are produced in more indirect ways than the past. Eighty percent of Americans support equal rights for women, and outright pay discrimination is illegal. Implicit bias tests show that stubborn prejudices persist, but these must be tackled in different ways than when people believed it was okay to blatantly favor men over women. Similarly, pay discrimination now works largely through parenthood rather than gender per se. Caregivers are discriminated against, and since more women than men take time off work or ask for family-friendly work policies, they bear the brunt of such discrimination. But as more men ask for work-life accommodation, many men face such discrimination, too. So feminism has to deal with a more complex set of inequalities—growing inequalities among women as well as men, persistent but less blatant prejudices against women, and especially the new hardships facing many men as traditional working-class occupations and male privileges are being destroyed.

Omega: Men seem to be caught between old and new cultures of manhood—husbands have doubled their share of housework and tripled their share of child care, reporting higher levels of work-family conflict. What do you think the next 30 years will bring for masculinity?  

Stephanie: In some ways, men are now where women were 50 years ago—held back by the masculine equivalent of “the feminine mystique” that Betty Friedan described for women. Many observers claim that we need to find new ways of validating masculinity as older routes to a traditional masculine identity are closing down. But I don’t think that should be our main task. After all, women made the most progress when we stopped trying to “prove” our femininity and refused to live up to the old stereotypes of womanhood.

Omega: As our society has advanced, our institutions have lagged. Men and women are spread increasingly thin at work and home. What is the role of the state and society in supporting happy and healthy families? 

Stephanie: People tend to forget that the male breadwinner family was not at all traditional. It was a 20th century invention, backed by new economic practices rewarding men’s work at the expense of women’s and by new values stigmatizing women who had any aspirations other than to be a wife and mother. It had the benefit of abolishing exploitative child labor, but it excluded women from public life and relegated men to a second-place position in family life.

Today, changing economic trends and social values have created a situation where men and women need and want to share breadwinning and homemaking more equally. But we cling to social practices and work policies that assume every worker has a wife at home to take care of the rest of life. Our failure to adopt the family-friendly work practices and support systems that are now routine in Europe and Scandinavia creates higher levels of work-life stress, more vulnerable relationships, and higher poverty rates than are found in any other developed country aside from Mexico and the former USSR.

© 2014 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies

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