Entrenched Gender Role Warfare on Two Fronts

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Originally posted
7 May 2012

We support gay marriage. In case it hasn’t been clear where the admins of Women: Rise Up Now stand on the issue of same-sex marriage, there it is. We believe marriage is a human right, not a hetero-sexual privilege. We hold strong feelings on a number of issues that aren’t always front and center on this page simply because our aim was to build an online community dedicated to legislative action for women’s rights. As editors, we try to stay focused on our mission.

Right now, though, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate our work on our core issues from everything else going on in the political realm. One of the main reasons is that the common arguments against same sex marriage and rationalizations about institutional sexism seem to be coming from the same place: deeply entrenched gender roles in American society.

On women’s rights side the entrenchment is most clear in gender pay gap, brought into national conversation by the 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Act and Wisconsin Governor Scott’s repeal of the state’s equal pay law. Though Walker said he signed the repeal to protect the state’s legal system from “frivolous” lawsuits, that the repeal was influenced by gender role assumptions was made public by Wisconsin lawmaker Glenn Grothman’s defense of his vote. Grothman blamed the pay gap, not on discrimination, but on the fact (as he sees it) that “money is more important for men.” Grothman’s logic seems more suited as a line of dialogue from the show “Mad Men” than a speech from a U.S. lawmaker in 2012.

The full quote from Grothman is even more revealing:

“You could argue that money is more important for men. I think a guy in their first job, maybe because they expect to be a breadwinner someday, may be a little more money-conscious. To attribute everything to a so-called bias in the workplace is just not true.”

Only men expect to be the breadwinner? Despite our obsession with all things “Mad Men,” it is not 1965 and women are the primary or co-breadwinners in two thirds of American families.

Yet there is still a belief among some that women “should” earn less because they drop out of careers to care for children, work fewer hours, take less demanding jobs, etc. Republican strategist Alex Castellanos argued as much on CNN in a discussion with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. But Maddow countered with facts that CNN later backed up with research: even when you remove variables such as job level, number of hours worked, etc, men still earn more than women for doing the same jobs. Even when men take jobs traditionally filled by women such as nursing and teaching, they earn more than their female counterparts.

Castellanos’ statement that women work fewer hours is not borne out in facts. It’s an assumption, based on traditional beliefs about gender roles. Women work fewer hours because they’re home with kids, because that’s what they’ve always done, right? Not necessarily. What about the women who don’t have children by choice, work the same hours, in jobs traditionally staffed by men? Statistics show that they will still earn, on average, 77% of what men earn. Even female CEOs, those who have risen to the highest levels in their fields, earn 69 cents for every dollar male CEOs earn.

In the 1990s, fathers began dropping out of the workforce in larger numbers to offset child care costs while their female partners worked. It’s too early to tell how their incomes will suffer for these career interruptions but this shift certainly has not had an impact on the wage gap data yet. That shift also did not seem to have an impact on gender role expectations. Stay-at-home fathers report being being asked repeatedly by strangers if they were “baby-sitting for the day” rather than being their children’s primary care givers. In politics and the workplace, child care is still perceived as a “women’s issue.” As late as 2001, you were hard-pressed to find men’s rooms with baby changing tables in public buildings. Did we really have to wait for the 21st century for the innovation of the family restroom? Apparently it took that long for our gender role assumptions to catch up with parenting behavior, at least when it came to diaper changes.

It’s not as easy to pinpoint a year or even an era where views opposing gay marriage are stuck in, as there are always been gay people in this country and it’s fair to say they have always faced levels of discrimination and been treated as “less than” their fellow citizens. What is clear is that there has been a rapid evolution in the demand for equal recognition of gay relationships over the last 20 to 30 years, culminating in the current national movement for gay marriage. In my lifetime, we’ve gone from the words “longtime companion” being said in hushed tones on television to legalized gay marriage in eight states.

But spend anytime listening to the anti-gay marriage rhetoric and you have to wonder just what they are trying to preserve: the institution of marriage or their ideals of masculinity and femininity? Setting aside the religious anti-gay marriage rhetoric in favor of the more applicable social arguments, the most common assails against gay marriage sound like this:

“Same sex marriages confuse children.”
“Marriage should be between a man and a women for the purpose of pro-creation.”
“Children need both male and female role models in their homes.”
“Same sex marriage will undermine society.”

Now, try to separate even one of these from an underlying assumption about gender roles. You can’t do it. All four are deeply rooted in the idea that there are masculine and feminine roles and the must be reinforced to preserve…what? Order? A power structure? Separate standards of behavior? What exactly, beyond the roles themselves?

Far from contributing to the downfall of marriage, early studies of homosexual couples joined in the first legally recognized American gay marriages are giving psychologists insights to how all marriages can function better, once freed from gender stereotypes. One such study is detailed in a 2008 article in the New York Times:

“One of the most common stereotypes in heterosexual marriages is the ‘demand-withdraw’ interaction, in which the woman tends to be unhappy and to make demands for change, while the man reacts by withdrawing from the conflict. But …new research shows that same-sex couples also exhibit the pattern, contradicting the notion that the behavior is rooted in gender, according to an abstract presented at the 2006 meeting of the Association for Psychological Science by Sarah R. Holley, a psychology researcher at Berkeley.”

Of course, appreciating that these insights might be valuable to heterosexual marriages assumes the ability to see marriage as something that unites human beings, not simply sorts them into their predetermined roles.

Roles assigned to racial, ethnic, and gender group have not been static through the history of human civilizations and there’s no reason to believe they need to stay static in ours. In every era, though various authorities said that these roles needed to remain static because they were as “nature/the gods/the universe/society” intended. These so-called authorities were often proven wrong. But even when proven wrong, they didn’t given up their power and assumptions without a fight. Now we are again in a battle, on at least two fronts. And once again, we know that winning this battle will not be easy.

by – Pattie

Author: womenriseupnow

An awareness and mobilization site designed to fight back against recent attacks against womens' rights.

One thought on “Entrenched Gender Role Warfare on Two Fronts

  1. Pingback: DNC Day 2 – Convention Cop «

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