gender roles

♀ The Sex-Directed Educators

Photograph by  diepuppenstubensammlerin  via  Photopin  ( cc ).

Photograph by diepuppenstubensammlerin via Photopin (cc).

This is the seventh post in my chapter-by-chapter analysis of The Feminine Mystique, as I read the book for the first time in an effort to educate myself about the roots of modern feminism. You can read the other posts here.

When I was in college we used to joke about women getting their “MRS degree”—a stupid, sexist joke predicated on the notion that most women at an evangelical college probably want to get married more than they want to get a degree. Most of the students came from conservative backgrounds, so many of the women probably had been conditioned to assume they would marry soon after college and start cranking out the babies. Certainly a vague sense of unease began to creep across each class of women as they neared matriculation without serious prospects in that direction. No one discouraged women from taking their studies seriously, though. Everyone I knew would have been appalled at the idea of deliberately steering women away from academia.

In the 1940s and ’50s, though, educators and guidance counselors were doing exactly that. Having bought into the oversimplified lie of functionalism, society decided that because women needed to be “feminine” to be happy girls should be encouraged to skip serious academic or professional study. In part they were reacting to what many saw as a failing of the earlier feminist movement: that enabling and supporting education for women broadened their horizons and made them discontented with domestic life. Betty Friedan quotes Lynn White, former president of Mills College:

On my desk lies a letter from a young mother, a few years out of college:

“I have come to realize that I was educated to be a successful man and must now learn by myself to be a successful woman.” The basic irrelevance of much of what passes as women’s education in American could not be more compactly phrased… The failure of our educational system to take into account these simple and basic differences between the life patterns of average men and women is at least in part responsible for the deep discontent and restlessness which affects millions of women….

It would seem that if women are to restore their self-respect they must reverse the tactics of the older feminism which indignantly denied inherent differences in the intellectual and emotional tendencies of men and women. (Friedan, Betty, The Feminine Mystique. Norton & Company, 1997, p. 159)

White and others advocated that women, instead of preparing for a career outside the home, should take courses—actual college courses—that would prepare them to be wives and mothers. Friedan refers to them as “the sex-directed educators”:

Instead of opening new horizons and wider worlds to able women, the sex-directed educator moved in to teach them adjustment within the world of home and children. Instead of teaching truths to counter the popular prejudices of the past, or critical ways of thinking against which prejudice cannot survive, the sex-directed educator handed girls a sophisticated soup of uncritical prescriptions and presentiments, far more binding on the mind and prejudicial to the future than the traditional do’s and don’ts. (157–158)

This, of course, applied only to girls who actually chose to go to college, but more and more women began to opt out of higher education as a result of this sort of ideology. High school guidance counselors began to steer young women away from further education or encourage them to take less academically-rigorous courses, even during their secondary education.

When Dr. James B. Conant went across the nation to find out what was wrong with the American high school, he discovered too many students were taking easy how-to courses which didn’t really stretch their minds. Again, most of those who should have been studying physics, advanced algebra, analytic geometry, four years of language—and were not—were girls. They had the intelligence, the special gift which was not sex-directed, but they also had the sex-directed attitude that such studies were “unfeminine.” (161)

Even some middle schools had started conditioning girls to think of themselves in gender-essentialized terms, using a lesson plan called “The Slick Chick”, which taught the “do’s and don’ts” of dating to girls as young as eleven.

Though many have nothing yet with which to fill a brassiere, they are told archly not to wear a sweater without one, and to be sure to wear slips so boys can’t see through their skirts. It is hardly surprising that by the sophomore year, many bright girls in this high school are more than conscious of their sexual function, bored with all the subjects in school, and have no ambition other than to marry and have babies. (162)

How unsurprising, then, that fewer and fewer women were going on to college. Among Indiana high school graduates in 1955, 85% of the boys who ranked in the top 10% of their classes went on to college; for girls that number was only 64%. Girls also dropped out of college at a higher rate than boys; the graduation rate for women in the ’50s was 37%, as opposed to 55% for men. Because colleges were growing more and more selective, the girls who were accepted tended to be among the strongest academically, and they were therefore less likely to drop out because of academic failure. Rather, they were quitting to get married. (162–163)

Even among those who did graduate from college, an attitude of disinterest in academics began to grow, forcing the few women who retained a passion for their studies to pretend a blitheness they didn’t feel. Friedan visited many colleges and universities, talking to women across the country, and she found them disturbingly disconnected from the ostensible purpose of attending college. Whereas Friedan recalls staying after class, or up late in the dorms, with her classmates, talking about politics, art, religion, sex, and philosophy, the college girls of the late ’50s and ’60s were talking about dates they’d been on, boys they’d met, and their future plans for marriage and children. They were no longer interested in “issues”, or at least had to pretend not to be.

A dark-eyed senior in a raincoat admitted, as a kind of secret addiction, that she liked to wander around the stacks in the library and “pick up books that interest me.”

You learn freshman year to turn up your nose at the library. Lately though—well, it hits you, that you won’t be at college next year. Suddenly you wish you’d read more, talked more, taken hard courses you skipped. So you’d know what you’re interested in. But I guess those things don’t matter when you’re married. You’re interested in your home and teaching your children how to swim and skate, at and night you talk to your husband. I think we’ll be happier than college women used to be. (153)

As a result, fewer and fewer women had any real direction or purpose after bearing and raising children. They had never done the hard work of advancing fully into adulthood, choosing instead to embrace the childish dependence of being kept women with no need to form outside interests or determine their own passions and strengths. As their children began to leave the nest, they found they had nothing to do—no real identity. A study of Vassar graduates conducted in 1956 found some disturbing trends:

  1. Twenty or twenty-five years out of college, these women measured lower than seniors on the “Development Scale” which covered the whole gamut of mental, emotional, and personal growth. They did not lose all the growth achieved in college (alumnae scored higher than freshmen) but—in spite of the psychological readiness for further growth at twenty-one—they did not keep growing.

  2. These women were, for the most part, adjusted as suburban housewifes, conscientious mothers, active in their communities. But, except for the professional career women, they had not continued to pursue deep interests of their own. There seemed some reason to believe that the cessation of growth was related to the lack of deep personal interests, the lack of an individual commitment.

  3. The women who, twenty years later, were most troubling to the psychologist were the most conventionally feminine—the ones who were not interested, even in college, in anything except finding a husband. (177)

Friedan ultimately blames women themselves for rejecting education and career when it was offered to them, albeit in misleading pseudo-scientific terms. But I don’t know that I agree. Women should certainly be able to choose early marriage and limited education if they want, without being judged. But the choice should be informed, not based on well-meaning lies—or it doesn’t really qualify as “choice”.

♀ One Thing I Know About Being a "Real Man"

Last week User Interface (UI) designer Sarah Parmenter wrote about an experience she had six months ago, when an anonymous persecutor attempted to post pornographic pictures purportedly of Parmenter to the official Twitter account for An Event Apart, a very high-profile design industry conference at which she was speaking that day. When the event’s organizers blocked this person from their feed, they set up a fake Twitter account during Parmenter’s presentation and began sending the pictures to her employers and professional acquaintances. Fortunately, Jeffrey Zeldman, the co-founder of the event, encouraged everyone in attendance not to pay attention to trolling, so Parmenter experienced no career setback. But the incident clearly went beyond mere harassment to attempted professional sabotage.

Later that week, Whitney Hess, another professional UI designer, responded to Parmenter’s revelation by writing a post about her own experience with harassment. She reported that, although her silence in the face of mistreatment has actually earned her some fans and even brought clients to her door, it has also allowed misrepresentations of her character to go unchallenged, lowering her reputation among some sectors of the design community.

On Thursday of last week I listened to a conversation between Hess and Parmenter, hosted by Dan Benjamin and Haddie Cooke on 5by5’s The Crossover. The group talked about gendered harassment in general but also narrowed their focus to discuss deliberate career sabotage. Despite a very fair-minded acknowledgement from Hess and Parmenter that some women had also engaged in this sort of persecution, the majority of their detractors were obviously male. While my heart warmed to hear how their supporters had defended them, this sort of harassment absolutely must stop. I came away from the podcast and from my reading of their posts resolved to be more proactive about noticing and challenging gender-based attacks on the internet.

But I have also been thinking quite a bit about this exchange midway through the episode:

Hess: It has always come down to the fact that they feel as though I’m stealing their spotlight.

Parmenter: Yeah, I would agree with that.

Hess: That they were once more prominent, that their careers were going better, that more people listened to them, before I came around. And that now that I’m here, I’m too loud, and I’m too opinionated, and I’m attracting too much attention, and they’re no longer being heard.

Hess goes on to point out that not only have these people largely failed to damage her, their direct ad hominem attacks have actually hurt their own reputations; moreover, they could have spent the time they wasted persecuting her on projects of their own that would have garnered positive attention. Deep down, these individuals probably realize this, so why do they persist in such a counterproductive activity? I suspect they can’t help themselves; they’re acting from an emotional response to the erosion of the advantage men until recently enjoyed in the professional world.

For many men, their professional lives form an essential part of their “manhood”. Getting a job, being successful in that job and building a career out of it, and accumulating wealth through that career—optionally using that wealth to support a family—are part of what makes us “real” men, according to both social convention and overt instruction received from our parents and religious institutions. In recent decades, though, this signifier has lost much of its meaning as women have also built careers for themselves and even taken on the role of primary breadwinners on behalf of their families.

We can say the same thing about many of the other traditional markers of masculinity. Women now participate in athletics, martial arts and other feats of physical prowess, encroaching on the “masculine” traits of strength and protection of the weak. While not yet achieving parity, they have also begun to occupy more positions of power, making decisions that effect the lives of men—rather than the other way around.

In other words, it no longer makes sense to say “X is what it means to be a man,” because X quite likely applies to women as well as to men. While some gender differences do exist, many may be culturally-produced and -perpetuated, and many of the stereotypes about men that do have some basis in fact are not actually very flattering. I doubt very much that anyone wants to say “Having a bigger sexual appetite is what it means to be a man” or “A real man cares more about career than relationships”. Even greater physical strength, a positive and true (for now) male stereotype, will probably not satisfy most men; we aren’t very interested, generally, in defining ourselves as brutes.[1]

Many people have already identified this crisis in male identity, so nearly every week I see a blog post or article touching on the subject, often calling for a new definition of “manhood” or “true masculinity”. But I can’t think of any advantage we gain from such a definition, while I can think of plenty of disadvantages, because we have already experienced them. Clearly defined gender markers have thus far only served to reinforce the status quo of gender inequality. Moreover, anyone who truly cares about the welfare of men should realize that rigidly defining “masculinity” disadvantages men in two ways: 1) by crippling them psychologically if they realize they don’t measure up to the definition and 2) by making them more likely to feel resentful of any “non-men” who encroach upon their territory—which will likely happen with greater and greater frequency in the future.

We don’t need a new definition of manhood; we need a definition of “good personhood”. I don’t know exactly how that definition would read, but I have some ideas, mostly revolving around basic ethical principles. Better-educated people than I probably have even smarter, more thought-out ideas. I do know two things that need to be true about that definition, though: it should take the best from each set of gender stereotypes and combine them, and it should not exclude minority groups (like trans* people or the disabled) from qualifying as “good people”.

While we’re figuring it out, let’s stick with telling people how to live ethically, not how to “be” whatever we’ve identified as their gender. And there is one good stereotype about “Real Men” I’m willing to keep for now: they are confident and don’t need to tear anyone down.




  1. I suppose we could always equate masculinity with tallness; then shorter men would start wearing lifts in their shoes, just as equating masculinity with strength leaves smaller or weaker men feeling emasculated.  ↩

The Second Shift

Alexis Coe at The Atlantic reports on sociologists’ finding that women who earn high wages do not necessarily outsource the cooking or cleaning at home either to paid employees or to their husbands or children.

Housework has a performative quality to it, and conforming to traditional gender norms may produce social and psychological rewards. This is true for [sociologist Alexandra] Killewald, who said while she and her husband often cook meals together, when her mother-in-law is expected for dinner, she not only cooks the meal, but urges her husband to make it clear that she was the chef. “That’s important to me because I’m showing [my mother-in-law] that I’m a good wife,” she said. “Those expectations don’t fall on fathers and men.”

I work fewer hours than my wife, but if she sees me washing a big stack of dishes she’s still all too likely to engage in some sort of self-condemnation.

Plato Does Not Apply

Now that the Army has decided women may serve in combat situations, someone has dug up this old post on the subject by John Piper from 2007. In it, Piper expresses the following death wish:

“Suppose… Jason and Sarah were walking to McDonald’s after dark. And suppose a man with a knife jumped out of the bushes and threatened [them]. And suppose Jason knows that Sarah has a black belt in karate and could probably disarm the assailant better than he could. Should he step back and tell her to do it? No. He should step in front of her and be ready to lay down his life to protect her, irrespective of competency. It is written on his soul. That is what manhood does.”

Jenny Rae Armstrong takes this nonsense apart piece by piece, and it’s a beautiful thing.

Happy 200th Birthday, Pride & Prejudice!

Jane Austen’s classic romantic-comedy novel has never been out of print since 1813. Why not celebrate by saying something snarky about traditional gender expectations, just the way Elizabeth Bennet would? There’s no reason to feel shy just because you know she would have said it better than you.

The Default Male

“Leopard” of Crates and Ribbons posted a fantastic breakdown of this issue today:

Everything, from toilet signs to cartoon characters, has the male gender as neutral and unmarked, while the female gender is marked out with ribbons, skirts, or sexy poses. See a puppy running around the neighbourhood, and people would most likely refer to it as a ‘he’. Random stick figure? Also a ‘he’. This is the reality that all of us have grown up with, and not only is it frustrating, it also has some nasty consequences for women.

Leopard goes on to explore several expressions of this phenomenon, ranging from the merely annoying to the downright life-threatening:

Let’s take the heart attack as an example. Now almost everyone can tell you the symptoms of a heart attack. A squeezing, painful feeling in the chest is the surest sign, accompanied by pain in the left arm. Right? Well, as it turns out, that pain in the chest is a classic male heart attack sign, and female heart attacks often have very different symptoms, more comparable to indigestion than chest pain.

Women are not a variation on men; they aren’t “men with uteruses” or “men with smaller muscles” or “men with more feelings”. They’re one half of a species.

Why Boys Need Feminism Too

Libby Anne gives us a great primer on how patriarchy hurts both sexes.

If I took time off of my career to focus on my children, that wouldn’t be seen as odd. If my husband did the same, he would face questions. Women are encouraged to express their emotions, but men are expected to be strong. It is seen as natural for a woman to cry in a stressful situation, but men who cry are seen as weak.