This is a guest post from Julie Hartley-Moore, who has a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University. She taught at BYU for 9 years, was a Dean at Elgin Community College in Illinois, and is now director of the Utah State University Campus in Tooele. She is a wife and mother of two.
I want to thank Nathaniel Givens for his willingness to share his parenting experiences in this post. His stance stirred up a lot of heated debate. But what most caught my attention in the original post and some of the ensuing comments was the mistaken notion that “across both time and cultures, women tend to be nurturing caregivers and men tend to be physical providers and protectors.” As an anthropologist, I would like to address a few of the misconceptions in that belief.
These misconceptions start with the premise that the working dad/stay-at-home mom dyad constitutes “the traditional family.” Some of the statements even invoked hunter-gatherers as examples of this pattern. The truly traditional human organization was indeed in foraging groups, but those groups were structured as small bands of related individuals, not as nuclear family units. Hunter-gatherers were nowhere near a primitive version of the Leave It to Beaver household with dad as the great and wise provider and mom just a warm, fuzzy nurturer guarding the hearth. Here’s why.
First, hunting is hit-or-miss, but gathering is fairly reliable. Except in extreme climates like the arctic, women can gather up to 80% of a group’s food. It is as appropriate to say Woman = Provider as it is to say Man = Provider.i
Second, hunting itself is not an exclusively male activity. Foraging women engage in small-game hunting of everything from rabbits to turtles to turkeys. Specialization and intensive time commitments are only required for big game hunting, and then it does tend to be men who are hunters–although there are plenty of exceptions.ii
Here’s the catch, though. A specialized big game hunter’s success may not translate into better support for a wife’s child-rearing endeavors; in fact, it actually may be the other way around. Studies of foraging societies have found that men are able to specialize as big-game hunters only when women take on a larger proportion of the other necessary labor, including gathering, shelter building, tool production, food processing, care of young children, etc. The economic support that women (and older children) provide allows hunters to specialize. It also allows them to parlay their skills into greater social status: observations of foraging groups show that hunters share their catches with everyone in the band. While the hunter may thereby become Mr. Popularity, his wife and children may not actually end up with more meat than anyone else. The debate rages on as to whether hunting actually improves men’s reproductive success or if it just gives them better chances of attracting a mate.iii
(By the way, we see this same pattern of women’s labor allowing men to specialize and gain social status in our workforce today. A male executive with a stay-at-home wife who does his shopping, cooking, and laundry, cares for his offspring, and hosts fancy dinner parties for his boss is freed to devote more time to his career than he otherwise could. He also has a competitive advantage over men and women who have to participate in their own daily maintenance work.iv)
The degree of gender stratification in a society correlates well with the degree of job specialization place. In foraging and horticultural societies–horticulturalists grow their own food, but don’t need things like plows and draft horses to pull it off–women play a primary role in food production and gender stratification is much less pronounced. Intensive agricultural systems produce an excess of food and can support a large population, which allows for a great range of job specialization from farmers to potters, carpenters, artists, priests, and kings. Agriculture is necessary for the development of cities and large civilizations and, later, industrialization. But this kind of extensive specialization results in hierarchies and extreme stratification based on all kinds of categories, including job, caste, and gender. We think that throughout history, women have become disadvantaged by agriculture. Men have controlled access to land through laws banning women’s ownership or through inheritance systems that disqualify female heirs (any Downton Abbey fans here?). Male leaders have had more or less exclusive access to the social authority required to organize labor and raise armies, with a few exceptions. They have also been able to monopolize access to the means of production, like plows or factories. Women still labor in agriculturally based societies, and, in fact, throughout history most families could not survive economically without women’s labor, but their work has been assigned a lower value and status than men’s.v
Intensive agricultural systems also develop organized religions, often with an exclusively male priesthood, that teach women their proper roles and reinforce male supremacy. Women who violate their assigned gender norms are seen as deviant and dangerous. Economies that confine women’s labor to the home correlate with the greatest gender inequalities. This pattern even has its own name: the domestic-public dichotomy. In these societies, women’s labor becomes invisible and unacknowledged; the behavior and clothing appropriate for women is very proscribed and limiting; and women’s ability to participate in the public realm is restricted.vi
Industrial societies were built on the backs of these pre-existing agricultural hierarchies and gender ideologies. Interestingly, though, during early industrialization, most factory workers were young women. This allowed families to assign agricultural labor or skilled crafts to the males and have female labor generate supplemental income. As males increasingly competed with females for factory work, though, (as happened following waves of immigration in the U.S.), public rhetoric began defining paid work as unfit for women–or, at least, unfit for “decent” women. This conveniently cut the competition male workers faced. Of course, that rhetoric changes based on industry need: insert Rosie the Riveter here; push her back into the household when the soldiers come home. Women still worked in industrial settings and their income remained crucial for working class family survival; however, the rhetoric shift enabled discrimination against them in terms of pay and eligibility for better positions.vii
I’ve spent a lot of time going on about “providing.” What about “nurturing?” The main point of the original post was that mothers have an unfair advantage over fathers in bonding with their children because of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is indeed important in infant bonding, but it is not the only way bonding occurs.
American nuclear families are slightly dysfunctional. It’s unusual cross-culturally and historically for mothers to go it alone in the isolation of a single-family household while dad goes off to work. It’s very difficult to figure out how to be a mother for the first time, without someone more experienced there to coach you along the way and give you lots of breaks. The isolation and the overwhelm contribute to maternal depression rates. Less atomized family structures don’t have those problems. People in a band or an extended family or a small horticultural village have a mutual interest in the survival of an infant and they are all right there to help with their care–mothers, fathers, older children, grandparents, aunts, and uncles alike. It is not unusual in foraging groups for women to breastfeed other mother’s babies as needed. In fact, the developmental psychologist Ann Cale Kruger set out to time how long !Kung babies cried before being comforted and found that it was someone other than the mother who comforted the baby the majority of the time.viii One of the defining characteristics of humans as a species is this kind of cooperative support, called “alloparenting.” Indeed, many physical anthropologists think this is what gave us our adaptive advantage over other species (note: they think alloparenting did it, not hunting). Mothers with stronger social support networks are much more likely to see their infants survive into adulthood, where they can perpetuate their socially-inclined genes in the gene pool.ix
Even in our nuclear households, though, breastfeeding mothers are not the only parents who experience a hormonal incentive for bonding with infants. Men who spend time with babies develop elevated levels of prolactin and oxytocin, the bonding hormones. Men who care for young children also experience lower testosterone levels. Through what is called a positive feedback loop, the more time a man spends with children, the more his hormone levels change, and the more inclined toward and adept at nurturing he becomes. The same pattern works with adoptive parents. It isn’t breastfeeding per se that gives a mother a bonding leg-up, although that helps; it’s the time spent in proximity with the baby that does the trick.x
In addition, infancy is a short period in the unusually long, nurturing-intensive human childhood. It is expected in many societies around the world that fathers will respond throughout the day to their children’s needs. Some cultures have egalitarian parental roles.xi But even in societies with stratified gendered divisions of labor, boys typically learn their roles and their work alongside their fathers, because they wouldn’t be able to learn the specialized skills they need from someone of a different gender. Industrialization may have tried to foist off the responsibility for childrearing onto mothers and schools so male workers could devote their lives to their jobs, but many fathers still choose to actively parent their own children, especially Gen X-ers and Millennials.xii This is good. Children with “nurturing” fathers have higher rates of positive intellectual and cognitive development than children with more a emotionally distant father and caregiver mother. In societies that allow fathers to parent, “paternal warmth” or nurturing is recorded at equal levels as “maternal warmth” and has equally important effects on child development.xiii Here’s something that should worry fathers who leave the childcare exclusively to mom: girls whose father’s are physically present in the home but disengaged from their children have the same problems of sexual promiscuity and abusive romantic relationships as girls raised without fathers.xiv
There is nothing biological stopping fathers from becoming active parents. Sometimes, however, their wives engage in what social scientists call “maternal gatekeeping”–a way of distancing dad from the kids so that mom can gain status within the family. A gatekeeper mother limits the father’s chances to learn how to interact with the children by monopolizing child-related labor and time, setting rigid standards, and criticizing the father’s efforts so that he is never comfortable in the caregiver role. He’s not a dad, he’s a babysitter (and an incompetent one at that). This pattern is associated with mothers who base their own identities in strictly defined, gendered ideologies. Not coincidentally, some of the best research on maternal gatekeeping comes out of BYU. [See Note 1]
So, from a cross-cultural and historical perspective, the basic premise behind the original post is just wrong. It’s like saying, “My wife plays the piano and I don’t. All the piano players I know are women. Therefore, women are natural piano players and are divinely created to be so.” It ignores the fact that piano players acquire that skill by taking lessons and spending hours practicing; anyone could learn by investing the same amount of time, although there will still be varying degrees of individual talent. If a father does not spend time with his children, other than to babysit occasionally when the “real parent” is gone, he will never learn how to nurture them, and consequently his children will not look to him for comfort. Those choices to adhere to strict gender roles in parenting essentially rob men of some of life’s greatest experiences and rob children of beneficial support. The good news is, it’s a pattern that’s within our power to change. All that men have to do is get more involved–and perhaps convince their wives to let them.
Note 1. S. M. Allen and A. J. Hawkins, 1999, Maternal Gatekeeping: Mothers’ Beliefs and Behaviors That Inhibit Greater Father Involvement in Family Work, Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 61, No. 1, pp 199-212. Available here.
i For details on hunting and gathering, see
- B. Hiatt, 1974. “Woman the Gatherer,” in Woman’s Role in Aboriginal Society, Edited by F. Gale, pp. 4–15. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies;
- K. Hill and A. M. Hurtado, 1996, Ache Life History: The Ecology and Demography of a Foraging People. New York: Aldine;
H. Barry and A. Schlegel, 1982, Cross-Cultural Codes on Contribution by Women to Subsistence, Ethnology 21: 165–88;
- C. Ember, 1978. Myths about Hunter-Gatherers, Ethnology 17: 439–48;
- R. L. Kelly, 1995. The Foraging Spectrum: Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.;
- Frank Marlowe, 2001, “Male Contribution to Diet and Female Reproductive Success among Foragers” Current Anthropology, vol 42, no. 5, 755-760;
- F. Marlowe, 2000, Paternal Investment and the Human Mating System, Behavioural Processes 51:45–61.
- K. Hawkes, J. F. O’Connell, and N. G. Blurton-Jones, 1991. Hunting Income Patterns among the Hadza: Big Game, Common Goods, Foraging Goals, and the Evolution of the Human Diet, Philosophical Transcripts of the Royal Society of London 334:243–51.
For more on women’s hunting contributions see
- R. Bliege Bird, 1999, Ecology of the Sexual Division of Labor, Evolutionary Anthropology, 8:65–75.
- R. Bliege Bird and D. W. Bird, 2008, Why Women Hunt: Risk and Contemporary Foraging in a Western Desert Aboriginal Community, Current Anthropology Volume 49, Number 4;
- F. Dahlberg, 1981, Woman the Gatherer, New Haven: Yale University Press;
- Cooperation and conflict: The behavioral; Bruhns and Stothert 1999;
- A. Estioko-Griffin and P. Bion Griffin, 1985, Women Hunters: The implications for Pleistocene Prehistory and Contemporary Ethnography, in Women in Asia and the Pacific: Toward an East-West dialogue, ed. Madeleine J. Goodman, 61–81. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
For details on male specialization as hunters see
- N. Waguespack, The Organization of Male and Female Labor in Foraging Societies: Implications for Early Paleoindian Archaeology, American Anthropologist, Vol.107, No. 4,pp.666–676;
- K. Hawkes, J. F. O’Connell, and N. G. Blurton-Jones, 1991. Hunting Income Patterns among the Hadza: Big Game, Common Goods, Foraging Goals, and the Evolution of the Human Diet, Philosophical Transcripts of the Royal Society of London 334:243–51.Frank Marlowe, 2001, “Male Contribution to Diet and Female Reproductive Success among Foragers” Current Anthropology, vol 42, no. 5, 755-760;
For studies on the competitive advantage of having a stay-at-home wife see,
- J. C. Williams and H. Boushey, 2010, “The Three Faces of Work-family Conflict: The Poor, the Professionals, and the Missing Middle,” Center for American Progess, http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/labor/report/2010/01/25/7194/the-three-faces-of-work-family-conflict/
- L. K. Stroh and J. M Brett, 1998, The Dual-earner Dad Penalty in Salary Progression, Human Resource Management, Volume 35, Issue 2, pages 181–201;
- J. A. Schneer and F. Reitman, 1993, Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 36, No. 4, Aug., 1993.
For a quick overview of the development of agriculture and gender stratification, see this textbook: http://highered.mcgraw-hill.com/sites/0072500506/student_view0/chapter11/faqs.html
On the domestic/public dichotomy, see
a. M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere, eds., Women, Culture, and Society, Stanford University Press, 1974.
b. M. Thornton, 1991, The Public/Private Dichotomy: Gendered and Discriminatory, Journal of Law and Society
Vol. 18, No. 4, pp. 448-463 http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1410319?uid=3739648&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21103315454331
A. C. Kruger and M. Konner, 2010, “Who Responds to Crying? Maternal Care and Allocare Among the !Kung,” Human Nature, Vol. 21, No. 3.
For more on alloparenting, see
- S. B. Hrdy, 2009, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; 1999, Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection. New York: Pantheon;
- K. Hawkes, 2003, “Grandmothers and the evolution of human longevity”. American Journal of Human Biology 15 (3): 380–400;
- E. L. Charnov. 1998. Grandmothering, menopause, and the evolution of human life histories. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A. 95:1336–39.
For studies on dads and hormones see
- A. S. Fleming, C. Corter, J. Stallings, and M. Steiner, 2002, Testosterone and prolactin are associated with emotional responses to infant cries in new fathers, Journal of Hormonal Behavior, 42(4):399-413.
- L. T. Gettlera, T. W. McDadea, A. B. Feranlic, and C.W. Kuzawaa, Longitudinal evidence that fatherhood decreases testosterone in human males, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 108 no. 39, http://www.pnas.org/content/108/39/16194
- I. Gordon, O. Zagoory-Sharon, J. F. Leckman, and R. Feldman, 2010, “Oxytocin and the Development of Parenting in Humans,” Biological Psychiatry, Vol 68, No. 4
On egalitarian parenting see
- B. Hewlett (Ed.), Father-child relations: Cultural and biosocial contexts (pp. 281-295). Chicago: Aldine.
On Gen X parents see A. Hurlbert, 2004, “Look Who’s Parenting,” New York Times, July 4, http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/04/magazine/04WWLN.html
For research on caregiving fathers and parental warmth, see
- N. Radin, 1981, The Role of the Father in Cognitive/Academic and Intellectual Development. In M. Lamb (Ed.), The Role of the Father in Child Development (2nd ed., pp. 379-427). New York: Wiley.
- N. Radin, N., & G. Russell, 1983, Increased father participation and child development outcomes. In M. Lamb & A. Sagi (Eds.), Fatherhood and family policy (pp. 191-218). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
- R. Rohner, 1986, The warmth dimension: Foundations of parental acceptance-rejection theory. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- R. Rohner and R. Veneziano, 2001, The importance of father love: History and contemporary evidence. Review of General Psychology, 5, 382-405.
J. M. Del Russo, 2009, Emotionally absent fathers and their adult daughters’ relationships with men. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. udini.proquest.com
Clearly women provide even in Leave it to Beaver scenarios. While Andy is out policing, you imagine June raising a garden, bottling fruit and vegetables for winter, even bringing in or splitting firewood etc. Well, maybe not june because she was a Hollywood actor, but any rural mother… Each are crucial and each do a certain kind of heavy lifting, but the fact that there are certain roles that have gone with each gender should not be overlooked when considering ideals and exceptions. I dont think there is anything eternal about the above activities but I also dont think we should abandon a good balanced approach just because we can poke critical theory holes in it.
Just a twist on the last comment and my thought about the eternal nature of various activities. While certain activities in and if themselves might not be eternal I suppose the effects and lessons etc that each of us learn from them would mold an eternal character, so in a small possibility the gender roles and hardships we experience could be prepatory for an eternal, refined gender. I wouldnt think that should be used lightly to justify uncharitable behavior or situations.
I am a lurker, not a commenter, but THIS. I have been having conversations highlighting the idea that our modern day gender roles are social constructs for years. Thank your for this easily understood, masterfu essay that does a better job of explaining the problems with father/provider mother/nurturer than I ever could. This should be required reading.
Simply outstanding. Thank you for this Julie (and Julie).
Thanks for posting this, Julie. It jives much more with our family’s experience than the ideas expressed in Nathaniel’s post. My husband was initially somewhat less comfortable with nurturing our first baby than I (not surprising, considering that we both grew up in families where the dad worked long hours and the mom stayed home with the children full-time). However, through spending significant time with our children since their birth, and now as their primary caregiver, he exhibits at least as much ability to nurture them as I do.
We sell everyone short when we insist that fathers are inherently disadvantaged when it comes to nurturing their children. I’ll definitely be putting this on my shortlist of well-articulated posts about gender roles.
This was boss. I have been a Hrdy/alloparenting evangelist for years. This was such a concise synthesis, much better than my angry exclamations when Im confronted with confidently wrongheaded claptrap about the timeless centrality of modem gender roles. I know I’ll be sharing it widely – thank you so much for writing it!
I have a degree in Marriage, Family, and Human Development from BYU, and this post is excellent, wonderfully written and comprehensive of my studies.
“It isn’t breastfeeding per se that gives a mother a bonding leg-up, although that helps; it’s the time spent in proximity with the baby that does the trick.”
Fair enough; however: a mother carries the child in her womb for nine months. Mother and child form a connected physical unit. After birth the child may be breastfed for months or even years. It seems very unlikely that that physical bonding would have no lasting impact, and that a father spending time with his child could create a equal or equivalent measure of bonding.
#9, And yet adoptive mothers somehow manage to bond with their children. Or are you saying that an adoptive mother cannot create an “equal or equivalent measure of bonding” with her child?
Deep Sea (#9), I can only offer my personal experience that the “measure of bonding” I have with my father is equal to that which I have with my mother. By your logic, would you also contend that the measure of our bonding with Heavenly Father is inherently less than the measure of our bonding with Heavenly Mother?
This was wildly interesting. Thank you.
Thanks Julie H-M, and Julie S for arranging. So many modern discussions on this subject (and countless others) flatten the past, as if there’s been some single pattern until now. When you look more closely, things get a lot more complicated, including for later centuries than those you discuss. That has something to do, of course, with the long- or short-term perspective someone is taking, or the level of abstraction someone is working at. But the abstraction has to have something to do with actual historical evidence in more than one place and time to have some serious cross-cultural meaning, and too often that evidence is simply assumed rather than demonstrated.
Love. Love. Love this article.
Wonderful. Thank you!
Stellar response! Thanks for this, Julie!
This was wonderful! Thank you. Nathaniel’s post left me feeling sad, that we’re missing out on the great synergy that comes when we work together as a couple without expectations of who is going to be the good nurturer etc. It’s how I felt after one of the GC talks when the apostle lamented that his grandchildren asked to go to “Grandma’s” house and not his house. He genuinely sounded sad but instead of thinking about how time spent with people engenders relationships, he chalked it up to a mother’s divine role as being the favorite parent and then he is off the hook in trying to have a relationship with his grandkids where they want to visit him. Why would feeling as close to grandpa as grandma demean your relationship with Grandma? Why would a child feeling just as nurtured by a father make the mother less important or special? It seems like the more nurturing the better, and we all do it differently. It might be harder than prescribing to fixed gender roles where you both do your thing and specialize and as a result don’t really have to engage with each other that much in the particulars of your spheres. In that scenario though you miss out on great opportunities for personal growth and growth in your marriage relationships and the relationships with your children. I have seen so many instances of the maternal gate-keeping you mention and I feel it is a direct response to where we place women’s value. It is so much more exciting and enlightening to be true partners, where all options are available as you consider the needs of each other and your family. I had one of my Mia Maids tell me last week that her life plan is to get married ASAP and start having babies, and that she’ll drop out of school the day after she gets married because her purpose in life is to be a mother. We still create that pressure for the girls. But it also becomes a cop-out–my worth is as a mother so I don’t have to work hard and expand my mind to learn new things. We live in an area where not everyone goes to college and this attitude isn’t unique. It’s easier for a girl who doesn’t like school to imagine letting a man take care of her from 18 on then to figure out what she would have to do to take care of herself–and she is praised for her righteous desire. It’s similar to the cop-out men can take to not really work on nurturing because it’s not their “role.”
Let’s talk about for everyone how to gain Christlike attributes and that family is number one. If we’re all doing that, male and female, we’ll figure out pretty well how to take care of our families and each other.
This was rambling, I’m sick today, but thank you for a great article.
Superb and fascinating. Thank you for taking the time to write this.
This is wonderful. Thank you.
Lots of good stuff here, thank you Julie. I particularly think the last few paragraphs are helpful.
I’m curious to see how you read scriptures in relation to your expertise in this area (EG Adam tilling the Earth).
An interesting post on the history of the “provider/nurturer” model- though I don’t think it addresses or contradicts Nathaniel’s main points. Nathaniel wasn’t arguing for any particular configuration of gender roles (since those are expressed culturally contingent on numerous variables) but simply, that gender roles in general serve more than a simply oppressive purpose; they have the capacity to discipline members of society into interdependent roles that serve an overall beneficial collective purpose. Of course, gender roles have and can do a lot of other negative things—none of which Nathaniel is defending.
But the fact that there is a significantly growing impulse to neuter our society of gender seems to ignore 1) the stubborn, if contentious, biological facts of sexual difference and their implications, 2) the potentially beneficial fruits of the complementary and interdependent practices gender roles can foster, and 3) the repository of meaning that “womanhood” or “manhood” can contribute to individual identity.
Nathaniel’s main point—that gender roles can serve as a “matrix for growth and a paradigm for arranging the way we approach marriage” –isn’t invalidated by the anthropological history of the various configurations that gender roles have acquired in different cultures and different times. I think defining “gender roles” as broadly as possible—essentially, any arrangement that recognizes the unique contributions that men and women offer—can put a more positive spin on the baggage-laden concept. The more I study gender, the more convinced I am of Sylvia Agazinski’s argument that while gender is always culturally expressed (and thus, appears in myriad manifestations contingent on a number of circumstances), the fact that gender overwhelmingly tends to be culturally expressed as a duality along sexual difference seems to lend weight to the idea the category of gender and gender roles is an important social concept, if not what one would call a *specifically* or *particularly* fixed one. And I don’t find that it is inevitably or exclusively negative or oppressive, even if it often can be. End point being that before we dismiss gender roles as something as superficial and uncomplicated as playing the piano (something your own post complicates, to a great extent, does it not?) we might find something valuable in them worth preserving.
I can’t remember when I first learned that the traditional dad-at-work / mom-at-home setup of the 1950s was an aberration rather than a historical constant, but it was several years ago, and it had a big impact on what I think about gender roles. That is why, in my last post, I wrote:
It’s disappointing to see a rebuttal that so thoroughly and authoritatively dismantles a claim I didn’t make and, in fact, a claim that I explicitly disavowed. If I don’t think any particular culture has gender roles perfectly, what is the basis for claiming that I hold the culture of 1950s Americana as my paragon?
I do not, and if it wasn’t clear from that statement it could probably have been inferred from the fact (also covered in my post) that my wife and I are “far from the stereotype” and that she’s “getting her PhD in computer science.” Not exactly working outside the home, but definitely not being a full-time homemaker either.
I understand the temptation to try and place ideological others in neat and orderly battle lines like so many tin soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars, but it does a disservice to us all to not actually read one another for the purpose of understanding.
What I actually believe is that there are intrinsic differences between men and women and that these different attributes tend towards different gender roles, and that female gender roles in human history tend towards nurturing and caring for children leaving male gender roles to tend towards activities farther removed from home. But the 1950s arrangement was only one particular case, and it remains an open question for me (at least) as to what exactly the roles should look like today and what they might look like tomorrow. (I hope this clarifies my previous statement that “the specifics have to be fluid as general, abstract principles are worked out in the context of particular socio-economic realities.”)
The final observation I’ll make is that, far from undermining the point of my post, Julie Hartley-Moore explicitly reaffirmed it. (Credit where it’s due: my wife pointed this out to me.) Look at the last sentence of the post:
The fact that men have to ask permission to be more involved in the raising of their off-spring underscores my point powerfully: men and women do not approach the division of family responsibilities from equal footing. It wasn’t a throw-away closing remark, either, as the prior discussion of maternal-gatekeeping illustrates.
Women are, due to biological reality, often closer to their children. It doesn’t mean that men cannot nurture (which is something I’ve never said) nor does it mean there are no exceptions (which is something I’ve never said) nor does it mean that the specifics are the the same across time and culture (which is something I’ve never said), but it does mean that gender roles are going to be skewed towards women occupying more of a nurturing role. The post doesn’t contradict that point; it reaffirms it.
I think the real question is not whether gender roles have historically been skewed towards a nurturing role for women, but whether they should continue to be so skewed.
Thank you for clarifying, Nathaniel. Your last two sentences were just what I was going to point out. My personal difference with your opinion is that I believe enforcing (“should”) skewed gender roles as we do in the church is, in general, harmful rather than beneficial to men, women and children. I have seen this play out in my marriage and in the lives of my children.
This is so interesting. Thank you for compiling this. It helps me not feel like such an exception to the natural order of things. I personally find great satisfaction being able to contribute economically to my household and enjoy contact with other adults. Also, I think my daughter really values the close relationship she has with her Dad through all of his conscious effort spent nurturing her.
Very interesting; thanks for the post.
Nathaniel, I read the sentence you emphasized quite differently. “All that men have to do is get more involved-and perhaps convince their wives to let them” can be read as a critique of society’s cultural prescriptions rather than a reflection of mothers’ inate desire to nurture.
Indeed, that has been my experience. My wife has a strong natural affection for her children. But it has never interfered with my ability to nurture our children. I’ve never had to ask permission to read to the kids, change diapers, take the kids shopping or do any other nurturing. My wife’s closeness to our children has never presented a barrier to my ability to be just as close to them. For us, parenthood is not a fixed pie.
In my experience, the few barriers to nurturing have come from older generations’ attempts to put me in my place. Thankfully, my wife has consistently come to my defense and remarked, “actually, Dave is really good at [cooking breakfast] [fixing boo-boos] [playing dolls],” just like I come to her defense when needed, “actually [wife] is really good at [driving the car] [balancing the checkbook] [selecting who says the prayer for dinner].”
If people are misunderstanding you, perhaps it is because you post “Why I believe in gender roles” and at the same time state “it remains an open question for me (at least) as to what exactly the roles should look like…” You can’t complain that people miss your point unless you actually have a point to make. So, please (and I mean this sincerely) what gender roles do you believe in? Because right now, it’s like listening to two missionaries on the doorstep who say “We believe in God, and you should too, but we have no idea who He is or what He wants us to do.”
Nathaniel, in the line from Julie’s post that you jump on, the key word is “perhaps.” However, I (like many other men, I’m sure) have no need to convince my wife to let me be involved in nurturing my kids.
And even if my wife did need convincing, that’s a much different thing than asking permission. I don’t need my wife’s *permission* to nurture my kids any more than she needs my *permission* to provide for our family. We are, as equal partners, together responsible for both, and we decide as partners how to manage both. But the idea that I ought to be less responsible for the nurture of my children because I’m a man is rubbish.
The point doesn’t hang on just one sentence, however. It’s implicit in the entire discussion of maternal-gatekeeping. This presumes that mothers do, in fact, have the option of being gatekeepers against fathers. It presumes women are in primary control of access to the kids. It presumes a superior position for women in relation to the children in the family. This makes sense, and is bolstered by all kinds of ancillary arguments like whether it’s easier (in general) for a man or a woman to feed a newborn. (Not just in middle-class, 21st century America but throughout all of history.)
I can’t fit everything ever into a single post, Dave. :-) I have at least 1 of 2 posts to come on the topic where I will develop my ideas farther. But, in the meantime, there’s nothing at all contradictory about saying I believe in gender roles that are less-narrowly defined than 1950’s vintage stereotypes.
Those are fair points. But there is a large difference between recognizing that someone has power to abuse and supporting a system which fosters that abuse. Men generally have greater power to inflict physical harm. But it is wrong for them to do so. Women generally have greater power to restrict access to children. But it is wrong for them to do so. A man does not need his wife’s permission to be with their children any more than a women needs her husband’s permission to leave the house.
I apologize for jumping the gun on your future posts. I look forward to hearing what gender roles you support and why.
Nathaniel, I don’t think the gatekeeping thing you latched on to does as much work on your behalf as you suggest it does here:
Note that when JH-M introduces gatekeeping, it is in the context of societies that currently and/or have inherited the legacy of systematically disenfranchising and oppressing women and using law and other means to confine them to the home. *In that context*, we see the gatekeeping behavior. She notes that, “not coincidentally,” BYU researchers have studied this, which I took to mean that Utah has an especially acute issue with this. Perhaps this is due to our emphasis on, and widespread “believing in,” the roles that put women on not “equal footing.” It does not directly derive from nature or biology in the way that you tried to pivot the argument to suggest. And for you to position the gatekeeping behavior as evidence of women’s dominant position is completely backwards, given the historical antecedents.
As to the rest of your response, I don’t see you explaining or accepting responsibility for the work that your insistence on the concept of “ideal” did in your main post and your comments in the attached thread. You quote yourself giving a disclaimer that you don’t think anyone has a “perfect lock,” but in the context of your whole post and comments, that sentence did feel more like a perfunctory disclaimer. It didn’t match everything else you were saying. So if you feel frustrated that the sentence doesn’t seem to be performing as effectively as a shield against criticism as you would like, please understand why that is.
Thanks for this great post. Very interesting.
Nathaniel, I am also very curious about your definition of gender roles and look forward to that post.
That is a possible interpretation. In that case, JH-Ms post would be supporting my own post only in a special case and not in a general sense. In either case, however, her primary target is a particular view that doesn’t appear in my post at all.
I agree with this very much, but I’d go even farther. Because a man has greater power to inflict physical harm, it’s wrong for him to do so and it makes sense for society to require that men go above and beyond and conspicuously avoid anything that even looks like an implied threat of physical harm.
That is one interpretation of old-fashioned gender roles that require men to consistently demonstrate submission of their physical power in the interests of women, such as holding doors, standing when a woman enters the room, and in extreme cases sacrificing life for women and children.
That is more along the lines of the kinds of gender roles I have in mind: roles that flow out of gender differences but are not identical to those differences or bald reiterations of natural discrepancies.
And no worries on jumping the gun. It’s an interesting topic. I know lots of people want me to spit it out already, but I think it’s important to proceed with caution when I know passions can run high and when I know that I myself have a lot to learn about the things I’m writing about.
I consciously chose to put a new topic between my last post on this topic and the next one for exactly that reason: so that we could have a better hope of getting beyond entrenched political narratives on such an important and sensitive topic.
This is fantastic, Julie, a really good and thorough exploration of cultural assumptions about gender roles. We should hand out framed copies of this post at church. :)
Nathaniel, surprise, we may agree on a few things after all. I won’t comment on all your specifics now, though I appreciate you giving some detail. I’ll just say that I will likely agree with some of your conclusions (e.g., men’s threats of physical violence are more serious than women’s; see Louis C.K. bit about dating). And I will likely disagree with others (e.g., whatever the merits of “women and children get lifeboats first,” it has nothing to do with male propensity for violence).
Moreover, I will even give you one gender difference of my own that I’m okay with (not exactly a role, though): it’s fine to put urinals in men’s restrooms and not women’s, at least until women say they would like them too. Just because women don’t benefit from urinals, that is no reason to deprive men of their benefits. That said, in the spirit of equality, I would favor a public policy requiring larger bathroom space for women than men so as to equalize the amount of time each gender must wait in line. At every sports event I’ve attended the women’s line is much longer than the men’s even though there are considerably more men in attendance. I heard a rumor that the Conference Center actually did this – put more restrooms for women than men – but living far away from Utah I haven’t checked it out. If true, you might consider that fact for your next post as an example of gender differenciation by the church that feminists could approve of.
This is a wonderful post. I completely, totally “disavow” the notion that proscribed gender roles are beneficial for either society or for individuals. All they do is try to force people into molds that they may not necessarily fit. In fact, I think they do more to discourage people from doing good things (such as men nurturing or women providing) than to encourage them to do good things. Our world is a better place when people are free to choose the roles that they will fill. In fact, I have seen studies that show that couples work more efficiently when they work together on tasks than they do when they are told which of the tasks each person will have and given time to do them at the same time. How about we start allowing people to use their talents and strengths to contribute to their families and the church instead of telling them the ways they are allowed to contribute?
Excellent and succinct summary of very important information and interesting feedback and discussion from resulting posts. Thank you, Julie, and everyone else too.
I feel that men and/or women can organize and analyze proclivities and ranges of gender, etc., all they want, but the bottom line is that men have historically treated and currently treat women as less than men are.
Are their exceptions? Surely there are a few, which deserve more attention. But such general attitudes did not and do not comport with love.
There is need to repent.
Me thinks people still don’t know the difference between biological difference and gender roles.
“What I actually believe is that there are intrinsic differences between men and women and that these different attributes tend towards different gender roles, and that female gender roles in human history tend towards nurturing and caring for children leaving male gender roles to tend towards activities farther removed from home.”
Men’s activities in the home or their gender roles being removed from the home is not “intrinsic” though. That is the problem with your assumption. Intrinsic differences are not the roles we socially or culturally fulfill, most anything men/women naturally do is due to biology. Gender roles are not intrinsic.
“The fact that men have to ask permission to be more involved in the raising of their off-spring underscores my point powerfully: men and women do not approach the division of family responsibilities from equal footing.”
So unless you are talking about biology being unequal footing, which can be addressed, the unequal footing is not due to “intrinsic” differences, but social ones, which are often sexist, like the (non-biological) gender roles you said you believed in.
Seriously stop using biology as a gender role. Child birth is not a role. Breastfeeding is not a role. So the unequal footings women have due to their biology is not due to some social gender role.
Albeit breastfed babies may prefer their mother, but that is out of a biological need, that is survival, that is not because woman are ____ and men are _____ in their gender roles. Babies who are bottle fed will prefer their primary care giver.
I had a horrid pregnancy. Sure those 9 months might have proved “bonding” biologically speaking for myself and our child (psychologically and emotionally I beg to differ) but adoptive parents are also able to bond with children. Biological advantage of breastfeeding aside, bottle fed babies will bond. Other care givers are able to bond with children. Gender (and therefore gender roles) does not facilitate nor does it prohibit bonding with children.
My husband cared for me for my entire (remember horrid) pregnancy. So our child was also biologically bonded to him because of his nurturing to me. Within minutes of her birth (while I was still in surgery) she was being soothed by HIS voice, she was nestled into HIS skin for kangaroo care, she was sucking on his fingers, she was bonded to him as well, because babies biologically attach to their care givers. When I first held her and spoke to her she searched and turned towards his voice when he spoke. While an infant if she was crying and it wasn’t due to hunger, she much preferred HIM for soothing.
To this day my still breastfed two year old is terrified of the small remote control helicopter. If I fly the helicopter she will point and laugh at it, she copes well in as much as her father is there to console her to sooth her. However when my husband tries to fly it I am unable to relieve her fears or make her feel comforted and safe. Even the sound/sight of it is so terrifying that she wets herself (and she is otherwise potty trained) and breaks out in hives from fear. The same is to be said for other things she is afraid of, id Daddy is there she wants HIM. If he is gone working, which is alot, then she readily accepts me. However, if she hurts herself or is in pain she wants me.
Breastfeeding has not given me any comforting advantages, we are fairly equal because of our parenting style, even if I do the most of it as a SAHP.
Biological difference: It is significantly easier for women to breastfeed than men. (Some men can, actually and some women cannot.)
Gender role: Women usually are the caretakers for children, especially very young children.
Obviously the role is not the same as the biological difference. Just as obviously there is a pretty clear link from the biological difference to the role. The gender role is not, itself, intrinsic, but it is a social adaptation to an intrinsic gender, biological difference
What is unclear in this example?
And yes: I understand that in modern times you’ve got formula and bottle-feeding, but that is a recent development, whereas female have been breastfeeding / acting as primary caretaker (at least for very young children) for longer than our species has existed.
Once more: at this point I’m stressing where gender roles come from. And the answer is “from biology” even though the roles themselves are not biologically determined. The question of whether or not we should perpetuate these roles / reimagine them / or ditch them all together is a separate issue.
EDIT: And, to your second post, yes there are exceptions to the rule. It’s true to state something like “men are generally taller than women”. It’s also true that some women are taller than some men. The exception doesn’t change the overall rule. Gender roles cannot be universally applied to every culture nor–within a specific culture–can they be universally applied to every couple. That doesn’t mean that they serve no purpose.
That tension between general rule and individual exception is actually the next issue I will be addressing within this topic.
The suggestion that gender roles come from biology and not elsewhere is the problem though, as you are using biological functions like breastfeeding to support your theory on gender roles. Gender roles are not biological functions. The biological “roles” women/men fulfill are mere functions of their biology, like child bearing or breastfeeding, and don’t belong in gender roles discussions. Take feeding babies, men are not less capable of feeding a baby a bottle of formula than a women are. (And I say that as pretty ardent breastfeeding supporter for those who choose to breastfeed their children.)
Women are not more biologically suited to fulfill socially ascribed gender roles, that people keep calling innate qualities. Women are not more intrinsically able to wash dishes, or kiss boo-boos, or plant gardens, or change diapers, or vacuum, or cook dinner, or drive to soccer games, or sew, or scrapbook, or take care of children (who are not breastfed anyways), or submit to their partners, or all the other things that get attributed to female gender roles “because of their biology”. Likewise, men don’t fulfill their male gender roles because of the biological processes of their reproductive organs.
Gender differences that relate to biological differences generally are not applicable to what are considered gender roles. These would be things like hormones, height, strength, weight etc.
Awesome post! I also really liked Nathaniel’s post. Rachael’s comment #22 said it really well!
I really think there is something to attempting to understand the hunter/gatherer societies in trying to find and understand ideal gender roles (and the flexibility and cooperation therein) and community and family roles. I really think there is something very important to gender complementarity and roles both here on earth and in eternity, even though culturally I think we have a lot of errors in this regard. Moms are not meant to be locked up in the home away from society at large with only their own children to talk to, and dads are not meant to be kept from their children. But I hope these errors and others like them don’t lead to throwing away the search for ideal gender complementarity and roles altogether.
Really intrigued by J-H-Ms anthropological rundown and especially the following comments:
“…that gender roles in general serve more than a simply oppressive purpose; they have the capacity to discipline members of society into interdependent roles that serve an overall beneficial collective purpose. Of course, gender roles have and can do a lot of other negative things—none of which Nathaniel is defending.”
“The exception doesn’t change the vet all rule. Gender roles cannot be universally applied to every culture nor – within a specific culture – can they be universally applied to every couple.. That doesn’t mean that they serve no purpose.”
One glaring omission in this post seems to be the effect of the traditional multi-generational household on nurturing and providing. The disintegration or re-configuration of the family pretty much began with the migration of families away from family farms and ranches to industrial centers. In that case, outside of WWII, the majority workforce was male. So as a consequence, someone had to stay with the children. Since grandma and grandpa were no longer with the family, it fell to the wife and mother. I’m sure in some cases, it was reversed, depending on who got the job. I know that both of my Grandmothers worked outside of the home at various times, but they were not LDS.
What I find so odd is the overt sense of hostility that seems evident when anyone tries to have a discussion about gender roles. Some things like biology are pretty much indisputable. The rest is pretty much opinion.
Why is the male body larger and stronger than the female body?
Evolution has favored men in heavily physical activities. Natural selection has favored women who engaged in activities that didn’t require as much brute force. Doesn’t it follow that these selections took place based on respective roles in hunter/gatherer societies? Not saying these things can’t be questioned or changed, but to say that biology and gender roles is arbitrary or insignificant doesn’t make much sense. Also, from an evolutionary point of view, no behavior, including the construction of gender roles, can be arbitrary sense it is serving the herd in some way.
Thank you, Julie M. Smith for writing this insightful post.
Growing up, I assumed that I would one day be a stay-at-home mom. As an oldest child, I am used to caring for my younger siblings and have developed a nurturing instinct.
However, I also cared very much about excelling in academics. I graduated from high school with honors and went on to attend one of the top universities in the U.S. I had the opportunity to travel the world through extracurricular programs, take classes from renowned professors, and do many other amazing things I would have never dreamed of being able to do.
Along the way, I realized that I no longer wanted to be a full-time stay-at-home mom, not because I think raising kids isn’t worthwhile, but because there are many other things I want to do, such as explore the exciting career path I recently began. Although I am not yet a mother, what Dr. Smith wrote about the challenges of the extremely atomized family structure (i.e. maternal depression) really resonated with me. It is hard being part of a religious community where a woman’s value and identity is often tied to child-bearing and rearing, while other activities and accomplishments are seen as extraneous, secondary, or “nice,” but not really very important.
Gender roles are outdated and “enforcing” them can contribute to a lot of pain and frustration for both women and men. Just because gender roles seemingly have roots in biological differences does not mean they are not constructs!
I want to end by sharing a favorite quote of mine from Martha Hughes Cannon, a great LDS woman who actually defeated her polygamist husband in a Utah state senate race and was a doctor: “You give me a woman who thinks about something besides cook stoves and wash tubs and baby flannels, and I’ll show you, nine times out of ten, a successful mother.”
Nurturing and providing for children is important, but I do think we need to rethink the way we divide familial responsibilities up between men and women. This article provides many compelling reasons for why that is the case.
Humm, so the 1950s isn’t God’s organizational sweet spot after all! Who’s going to tell the church? Great post!
We live in a society where our choices as parents seem to conflict with what is called success, unless you’re a woman success is measured by motherhood. (happiness and success go hand in hand here)
To be fair, vbhm, dads’ careers are not seen as important either, just a means to an end. EG all the counsel about no success can compensate for failure in the home, the Lord doesn’t care much what you do as long as it’s honorable, etc.
Thanks This is great.
When it came to hunting for early hominins, the important thing was not strength, but endurance. Brute force with the necessary physique costs to much. Calories would not be wasted on it.
The idea is that running and not walking led to bipedalism. And then somewhere along the way, really cool tools.
So here’s to persistence hunting,and the endurance running hypothesis.
And here’s to all those hairless, sweaty marathoners racing in their fancy shoes.
Julie wrote: “Men who care for young children also experience lower testosterone levels. Through what is called a positive feedback loop, the more time a man spends with children, the more his hormone levels change, and the more inclined toward and adept at nurturing he becomes.”
Certainly a medical disclosure is needed before a man accepts a calling in the nursery. Its horrifying.
As an outsider to the discipline, I found this essay informative, and as an SAHM to small children, I found the description of the domestic-public dichotomy haunting. Precisely because we don’t recognize the intense labor of caregiving as real labor I’ve often felt profoundly confused about what, exactly, it is I’m doing all day that’s nonetheless the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And precisely because we don’t acknowledge caregiving as real labor it can be extraordinarily difficult to convey to those who haven’t lived it what repetitive, ephemeral, lonely work it can be.
Since I became an SAHM about five years ago I’ve entertained two related fantasies about Mother’s Day talks. One is that every talk engage in some consideration of the Industrial Revolution, and the other is that no one be permitted to speak about stay-at-home parenthood who has not actually engaged in it for a minimum of one year. These provisions, I fantasize, would end the idealized and condescending rhetoric that typically characterizes the day.
Wonderful post. I always love hearing that historically people lived in extended family units and took care of each others’ children. It makes my own need for help with kids, and my overwhelming urge to help other families, seem much less weird than our emphasis on ‘self-sufficiency’. I am displaying evolutionarily advantageous traits! :)
I feel like this post does a pretty good job of outlining the historical fluidity of what we understand by ‘gender roles’, and given that Nathaniel already understands this, I’m intrigued by his insistence (and of course that of like-minded commenters) that emphasizing and enforcing gender roles is vital even if no one has a clear idea of what those should be. I feel like all too often we base ‘normative’ prescriptions on ‘positive’ observations(e.g. ‘women tend to be more nurturing, therefore all women SHOULD BE the primary nurturers in their marriages’, which is rather like saying ‘women tend to be shorter than men, therefore each woman SHOULD BE shorter than her husband’. What is the value in such statements?). It is when we insert that ‘should’ and make our differences the ideal that we switch from typically bland observations to demeaning, harmful, and honestly dangerous prescriptions.
Yes, friends, there may in fact be differences in the concentration and distribution of various characteristics between the genders. As many other have observed, that does not mean that each individual should be ‘striving for the mean’ of their gender. Nor does it mean that with effort, we can’t overcome our biological ‘disadvantages’ to become the people we want to be and have the relationships we want to have. (Seriously, dads, stop blaming pregnancy and breastfeeding and just focus on your own relationship with your child.)
Ok, I’ve been feeling like that last line is way too harsh. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think quality time is a lot more important than gestation in terms of building relationships, and I think ‘traditional’ gender roles hurt fathers in that they suggest they should not be spending as much time with their kids (maternal gatekeeping, male obligation to provide financially rather than emotionally, etc.)
Julie Hartley-Moore, Thank you. Thank you for taking the time to write this up.
Just a couple quick thoughts as I read:
I’m not sure if it’s necessary to tie “nurturing” to a parent-child psychological “bonding.” My first response to my first child’s birth was, “My gawd, I hope she doesn’t always look like that.” :-) Seriously. (Maybe I should post under an anonymous name.)
It’s also hard to talk about “bonding” when thinking about night feedings, misplacing excrement, mismanaging vomit placements, ill-conceived home art projects, consuming non-edibles, visiting emergency rooms to remove non-edibles, etc., etc. The lion’s share of parenting is work, and it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with “nurturing” or “bonding.”
My wife and I both work outside the home, but our work is flexible enough that one of us is always running the home. On the days I run the show (roughly half of the week), I’m not sure if I “nurture.” I’m intensely committed to raising children, and it’s very rewarding to me. But I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about whether I’m “nurturing.”
Second thought, it’s my experience that most parenting skills can be learned. Here’s an incomplete list of learnable parenting skills: (1) cooking from raw ingredients, (2) reading with children, (3) potty training, (3) assigning chores, (4) attending parent-teacher conference, (5) driving children to activities, (6) telling a child she cannot engage in an activity because you’re not “taxi dad,” (7) creating projects to do with children, (8) breaking up fights, (9) cross examining a child to find out “the rest of the story,” (10) warming up blankets in the dryer on cold nights before tuck ins, (11) telling children “no,” (12) telling children “hell no,” (13) delivering forgotten lunches to school, etc., etc. (I could go on all day, and none of it requires dad to figure out whether he is naturally “nurturing.”)
So much goes through my head when I read this great post, and all of the thoughtful responses. The only short response I can come up with is, can’t we just teach people to let each other alone to make their own choices about how they run their families?