The Top and Bottom of Gender Ideology
A gender strategy is a plan of action through which a person tries to solve problems at hand, given the cultural notions of gender at play. To pursue a gender strategy, a man draws on beliefs about manhood and womanhood, beliefs that are forged in early childhood and thus anchored to deep emotions. He makes a connection between how he thinks about his manhood, what he feels about it, and what he does. It works in the same way for a woman.
A womans gender ideology determines what sphere she wants to identify with (home or work) and how much power in the marriage she wants to have (less, more, or the same amount). I found three types of ideology of marital roles: traditional, transitional, and egalitarian. Even though she works, the “pure” traditional woman wants to identify with her activities at home (as a wife, a mother, a neighborhood mom), wants her husband to base his identity on work and wants less power than he. The traditional man wants the same. The “pure” egalitarian, as the type emerges here, wants to identify with the same spheres her husband does, and to have an equal amount of power in the marriage; Some want the couple to be jointly oriented to the home, others to their careers, or both of them to jointly hold some balance between the two. Between the traditional and the egalitarian is the transitional, any one of a variety of types of blending of the two. But, in contrast to the traditional, a transitional woman wants to identify with her role at work as well as at home. Unlike the egalitarian, she believes her husband should base his identity more on work than she does. A typical transitional wants to identify both with the caring for the home and with helping her husband earn money, but wants her husband to focus on earning a living. A typical transitional man is all for his wife working, but expects her to take the main responsibility at home too. Most men and women I talked with were “transitional.” At least, transitional ideas came out when I asked people directly what they believed.
In actuality, I found there were contradictions between what people said they believed about their marital roles and how they seemed to feel about those roles. Some men seemed to me egalitarian “on top” but traditional “underneath.” Others seemed traditional on top and egalitarian underneath.1 Often a person attached deep feelings to his or her gender ideology in response to what I call early “cautionary tales” from childhood, as well as in response to his or her present situation. Sometimes these feelings reinforced the surface of a persons gender ideology. For example, the fear Nancy Holt was to feel of becoming a submissive mother, a “doormat,” as she felt her mother had been, infused emotional steam into her belief that her husband Evan should do half the second shift.
On the other hand, the dissociation Ann Myerson was to feel from her successful career undermined her ostensible commitment both to that career and to sharing the second shift. Ann Myersons surface ideology was egalitarian; she wanted to feel as engaged with her career as her husband was with his. This was her view of the “proper experience” of her career. She thought she shouldiowc her work. She should think it mattered. In fact, as she confessed in a troubled tone, she didn’t love her work and didn’t think it mattered. She felt a conflict between what she thought she ought to feel (according to her surface ideology)—emotionally involved in her career—and what she did feel—uninvolved with it. Among other things, her gender strategy was a way of trying to resolve that conflict.
The men and women I am about to describe seem to have developed their gender ideology by unconsciously synthesizing certain cultural ideas with feelings about their past. But they also developed their ideology by taking opportunity into account. Sometime in adolescence they matched their personal assets against the opportunities available to men or women of their type; they saw which gender ideology best fit their circumstances, and— often regardless of their upbringing—they identified with a certain version of manhood or womanhood. It “made sense” to them. It felt like “who they were.” For example, a woman sizes up her education, intelligence, age, charm, sexual attractiveness, her dependency needs, her aspirations, and she matches these against her perception of how women like her are doing in the job market and the “marriage market.” What jobs could she get? What men? What are her chances for an equal marriage, a traditional marriage, a happy marriage, any marriage? Half-consciously, she assesses her chances: Chances of an interesting, well-paid job are poor? Her courtship pool has very traditional men? She takes these into account. Then a certain gender ideology, let s say a traditional one, will “make sense” to her. She will embrace the ideology that suits her perception of her chances. She holds to a certain version of womanhood (the “wilting violet,” say). She identifies with its customs (men opening doors), and symbols (lacy dress, long hair, soft handshakes, and lowered eyes). She tries to develop its “ideal personality” (deferential, dependent), not because this is what her parents taught her, not because this corresponds to how she naturally “is,” but because these particular customs now make sense of her resources and of her overall situation in a stalled revolution. The same principle applies to men. However wholehearted or ambivalent, a persons gender ideology tends to fit their situation.