THE RIPPLE EFFECT OF GENDER CODES
Gender culture is a matter of beliefs about manhood and womanhood, and of emotional anchors attached to these beliefs. Many discrete beliefs, such as “a woman’s place is in the home,” can be understood as positions on central cultural rules about gender honor. The traditional person in Anglo – Saxon, Hispanic, and Asian American cultures within the United States generally means to or does accord more honor to men than women, whereas the egalitarian accords (or aspires to accord) equal honor to both. But, for both, it matters how and where honor is won. The issue arises for each: Does honor won in one sphere “convert” to honor in another? The traditional holds to what we might call a gendered “honor conversion rule.” According to this rule, a man’s greater glory in the world of work can be converted into honor at home. A woman’s cannot. The traditional, in other words, holds beliefs not just about how much honor women can enjoy but about the basis that honor should rest on. To gauge a man’s honor, the traditional asks: What’s his job? How high up is he in the company? How much does he earn? How honest and fine a man is he at work? He may be an attentive parent, generous with his time, imaginative in the games he plays with the children—but this doesn’t add as much to his honor as a man as his performance at work. To gauge a woman’s honor, the traditional asks: Is she married? To a good fellow? How many children? Are her children doing well? Is her home tidy? She may work outside the home, but any honor she earns there doesn’t convert into honor as a woman.
According to the traditional code, a man’s success at work reflects glory on his wife. Mr. Jones gets promoted at the bank, and his wife is held in higher esteem. It is not just that Mrs. Jones takes pride in Mr. Jones. In the eyes of others, her тип status rises. But in a traditional community, Mrs. Jones’s promotion at work can’t enhance her husband’s status. She can’t give him that. This is because Mr. Jones’s honor as a man is based on his capacity to provide for his wife, and through this he provides a rank for the whole family on the social-class ladder. So his wife’s job, or public presence
in general, counts only insofar as it adds to or detracts from that. And indeed, the more successful she is at work, the more she can detract from his honor as a man.
The egalitarian honor code is very different. Here, male and female honor are based equally on their roles in the public and private realm. Women can transfer their honor to men, just as men transfer theirs to women. By this new code, women can rank the family on the social-class ladder too.
The communities from which my couples were drawn differed widely, some generally favoring the working wife, others the homemaker. Most couples had friends who shared their values, but acquaintances who didn’t. One man captured this sense of cultural pluralism:
In some social circles, it’s high status to have a professional wife. I would say it is more high status to have a wife who is a highly regarded professional than one who is home cooking dinner. Yet we have a dentist friend who refuses to let his wife work. After a while, they crossed us off their list because my wife gave his wife too many ideas.
Only a minority of San Francisco Bay Area couples in the early 1980s were pure traditionals. One such couple were Frank and Carmen Delacorte.* Frank was a serious, quiet thirty-year-old, high school-educated, El Salvadoran by origin and a cabinetmaker by trade. He felt that it was his job— and only his job—to provide for his family. Frank disliked the unskilled work he had recently been forced to do assembling boxes in a box factory, daily inhaling a glue he feared might be harmful. But still, he was proud to provide for his family.
His wife, Carmen, was a large, voluble, dark-haired woman who ran a daycare center in her home for the children of neighboring mothers who worked. She did it, she explained firmly, “to help Frank”: “The only reason і in working is that every time I go to the grocery store, the bill is twenty dollars more. I’m not working to develop myself or to discover my identity. No way."
Frank felt grateful that Carmen helped him do his job—without complaining. Consider the “not complaining.” One evening Frank and Carmen had dinner with another couple, the wife of which resented haring to work as a waitress because “the man should earn the money.” To the discomfort of the Delacortes, the wife openly exposed her husband’s vulnerability—he didn’t earn enough to keep her at home.
A similar situation arose when Frank rode in a carpool with his foreman, an ardently outspoken traditional. As Frank hesitantly explained:
We are talking about needing extra money and 1 told him about the business that Carmen has [taking children into her home) and I said: ‘You know, you’ve got a house. Your wife could have a business like Carmen’s. It’s not too bad.” His attitude was “no! no! no! … I don’t want anybody saying my wife is taking care of other people’s children." He feels tike he lives the way most people should live—the husband working, the wife at home.
In the Delacortes’ world, the old code held: the wife of an adequate man shouldn’t work. At the same time, the declining earning power of men’s wages f rom the 1970s on meant that, whether they like it or not, men like Frank needed their wives to work. The culture of patriarchy persists, but recent trends are eroding its economic base. Meanwhile Frank just dodged the waitress’s insult and got an indirect hit from his foreman with his strong “no! no! no! .. .” So, thank God, he thinks, that Carmen works without complaint.
For her part, Carmen feels Легjob is to care for the home and children; she expects Frank to do the outside chores and to help with the inside ones when she asks. Like most working mothers, totaling paid and unpaid work together, Carmen averaged fifteen hours more each week than Frank did— which added up to an extra month a year. But as a traditional, Carmen could not define her “double day” as a problem. Like a number of traditional women I interviewed for The Second Shift, Carmen found a way around her dilemma. She claimed incompetence. She did not drive* so Frank had to shop with her. She didn’t have a mechanical sense, so Frank had to get money from the automated bank teller. In this way, Carmen got relief from the burdens and also clung to her ideal as a traditional woman. But she did so, as Erving Goffman would note, at the expense of her “moral character”—for now she seemed just a bit stupid. Instead of switching to a new gender code that would give her credit for doing paid work and Frank credit for doing unpaid work at home, Carmen continued to see her earning as “helping Frank out” and his shopping as “helping her out"—as gifts.
The Delacortes agreed on certain symbolic extras. Frank occasionally brought flowers to Carmen. Carmen sometimes troubled to bake an apple pie because it was Frank’s favorite dessert. The roses and pies were their private extras, symbols of other private gifts.
Flowers from a man to a woman, and food from a woman to a man, are widely shared symbols of giving—ritual gendered gifts. Commercial advertising exploits these gender conventions even as it perpetuates and vastly extends them. The floral industry advertises roses as a man’s gift of love to a woman. Pillsbury advertises its flour with “Nothin’ says lovin’ like something from the oven—and Pillsbury says it best.” Frank felt Carmen baked the pie because she knew that he personally—not eight million viewers— loved a pie with tart apples and a crisp crust. Carmen felt Frank gave her roses because he knew she—not all American women—loved red roses with tall stems. Each drew on public conventions and commercials as the model for their personal ones. They were recent immigrants in the diversity of San Francisco, and maybe roses and pie made them feel more American.
So the Delacortes’ economy of gratitude was archetypically traditional. Economic times strained their gender ideal, but Carmen had found a way of getting Frank to help at home without altering that ideal, and her method was also archetypical for traditionals. But they agreed on the terms. So what felt like a gift to the giver felt like a gift to the receiver. Seldom was a gift “mis-received,” There was no cultural waste in their gift exchange, and this was one reason they enjoyed such a rich economy of gratitude.
Michael Sherman was a thoughtful, upper-middle-class engineer who in the eight years of his marriage, at his wife’s urging, had converted from traditional to egalitarian gender rules. His wife, Adrienne, was a college professor. By the time their twins were bom, their understanding was that both would give priority to the family and would take whatever cuts in income and career they had to. Adrienne was not helping Michael establish a place on the class ladder; her job mattered as much as his to that sense of place. When Michael bathed the twins, he was not helping Adrienne; he was doing what good fathers do. Adrienne was not grateful for Michael’s help
bathing the twins. She expected it. But Adrienne grateful for something
else—Michael was sticking his neck out, he felt, because, for men of their generation in their social circle egalitarian marriages were still rare. In that sense, she felt Michael had given her an “extra.” Because she had struggled to establish the new terms in her marriage, and because the rules were new in her social circle and in the wider culture itself, then, Adrienne sensed the terms were fragile. Michael had some social support, but not from the people he wanted it from. His wife, her friends, some women friends of his thought he was “wonderful.” But his parents, Adrienne’s parents, some of his male acquaintances didn’t comment. They thought Adrienne was bossy and Michael henpecked.
Michael himself suffered pangs of anxiety and frustration that he was lagging behind other men in his field married to women who took the load off them at home. But Michael didn’t complain; he was doing this І or himself as well as for Adrienne, and for this Adrienne was grateful.
For his part, Michael was grateful because, despite their egalitarianism, Adrienne had for six years in good spirit moved from city to city, disrupting a professional training precious to her, in order to follow him. Acquaintances had mistaken her for “just a supportive wife,” and her academic mentor had questioned the seriousness of her purpose. Adrienne had swallowed her pride, and she’d done that for Michael.
Also, just as the need for a woman’s wage challenged the old gender rules, so the wage gap between working men and women challenges the new rules. Although Adrienne wanted her husband to treat her work as just as important as his, her salary was half of his. This vital reality undermined her cultural claim to an equal part in the “class-making” of the family. Adrienne was grateful, then, when Michael disregarded the wage gap and honored her anyway.
So Adrienne was especially grateful to Michael for the little signs of deference he showed for contributions she was making at work. On one occasion Michael brought the children to a conference at which she was giving a talk. As she rose to give her talk, she spotted in the fifth row center her beaming husband and two squirming children. Years later, Adrienne’s eyes moistened as she recalled this moment of seeing them there.
In the economies of gratitude in modem American marriage, the egalitarian woman is oddly similar to the traditional man. A new economic reality has undercut the cultural identity of each, making each grateful to her or his partner for treading lightly over the soft patches in it.
The Delacortes and the Shermans illustrate the tie between a cultural baseline, the definition of a gift, and gratitude. For the Delacortes, gratitude emerges along old cultural tracks; for the Shermans, along new ones.9 For each, cultural thinking implies a language by which we “speak gratitude.” In this sense, the Delacortes and Shermans speak in different tongues, just as
a meaning in one language is not understood in the other, so gifts spoken in one language of gratitude are not interchangeable with gifts spoken in another. Carmen Delacorte’s gift of “noncomplaint” would be meaningless if set on the cultural baseline of a Michael Sherman. Adrienne would never complain she had to work; she was dying to work. Had she complained, Michael would have scratched his head in bewilderment, talked of Adrienne’s “hang-up” with ambition, her “will to fail,” and urged her to see a therapist. Nor could gifts cross the language barrier the other way. How could Michael’s praise of his wife’s public contributions seem a compliment to Carmen, who said she was “not working to develop myself or to discover my identity. No way”?
The Delacortes and Shermans describe two cultural poles between which most couples fall into a large, confusing cultural middle ground. Unlike Carmen Delacorte, most Bay Area mothers to work, but like Adrienne Sherman, they aren’t primary earners. Unlike Frank Delacorte, most men wholeheartedly support their wives’ work, but unlike Michaei Sherman, most didn’t share the housework and childcare.
More important, most couples differ to some degree in their ideas about manhood and womanhood, and so differ in their understandings about gifts. The “language barrier” lies between husband and wife. The most common form of “mis-giving” occurs when the man offers a traditional gift— hard work at the office—but the woman wants to receive a modern one— sharing the work at home. Similarly, the woman offers a modern gift—more money—while the man hopes for a traditional gift—a happily home- cooked meal. As external conditions create a gender gap in die economy of gratitude, they disrupt the ordinary ways men and women express love.
Many marriages resemble the couple in O. Henry’s story “The Gift of the Magi.” In that story, Della and Jim are very poor but very much in love. At Christmas each wrants to buy a fine gift for the other Della has beautiful long brown hair, which hangs belowr her waist. Jim sells his favorite gold watch in order to buy a comb for Della’s beautiful hair. At the same time, Della secretly cuts off and sells her hair in order to buy a chain for Jim’s watch. Each makes a sacrifice for the other that makes them unable to receive a gift from the other. The poignance of the story lies not in the mix-up of the gifts itself, which is farcical. The poignance arises from our fear that each lover will fail to appreciate the sacrifice of the other. The story ends happily, however, as each finds out and gives thanks. Presendy, new economic pressures and old gender codes are creating in marriage a social version of “The Gift of the Magi,” and often the endings are not so happy.
In the O. Henry story, the lovers exchange gifts on Christmas, a ritual occasion set aside for gift exchange. Each gift is intended, planned, and an object, not an activity. The objects also fit current notions of gender— Della’s hair seemed an emblem of female beauty and Jim’s watch an emblem of male industry. Each wants to give the other what they know the other would treasure. The “mis-giving” is clearly linked to external circumstance—the timing and secrecy of each sacrifice.
But in the daily life of modern couples, little time is set aside for ritually heightened gift-giving. Domestic chores usually feel more like flat, neutral, necessary activities than gemlike offerings, each given explicitly to please the other. Yet curiously, in the course of these “flat” doings, flashes of feeling can spontaneously emerge: on one side, “He should love this. . or on the other, “God, what a sweetheart.” These spontaneous flashes suggest the comparison between the Christmas Eve watch chain and a Saturday afternoon dog wash. And for modem couples, washing the dog is more the real stuff of economies of gratitude.