Gender is an essential factor that shapes how economic, parental, and marital roles are manifested in a family environment. The changes in gender roles during American history were reflected in the ways the U.S. families were formed. According to Lindsey (2018), urbanization and industrialization are the fundamental driving forces behind the shift in gender roles. Access to work and education-related opportunities allowed women to consider marriage from a different perspective than in the society of the past.
Moreover, growing numbers of economically successful women reshaped the conventional perception of breadwinning and household duties. In contrast to the traditional ideal of a nuclear family, modern people often choose alternative forms of relationships, such as cohabitation, same-gender families, single-parent families, single individuals, or voluntarily childless families. Thus, the main characteristic feature of the contemporary American family environment is the increasing variety of its forms and lifestyles that are affected by egalitarian trends in gender roles perception.
The Process of Shaping Modern Gender Roles in the U.S.
In the early history of the United States, gender roles and family life were strikingly different from what they are now. Gender segregation was a distinctive feature of American society in colonial times, affecting all aspects of lifestyle, such as education, occupation, family roles, and power relations. As Lindsey (2018) claims, marriage was an obligation for every woman, while single men were commonly accepted. Although institutional marriage gave some stability, it did not improve the condition of women as it was influenced by coverture – a custom of seeing the couples as one legal unit presented only by a husband. Thus, women did not have any property, and divorce was practically impossible.
The role of women changed in the late nineteenth century with a trend for companionate marriage, when the partners were chosen based on romantic love, and women were valued for their morals and virtue. The duties started to be shared in such families, especially concerning raising children. However, women still had limited legal power and restricted opportunities. The spheres of activity were strictly divided into masculine and feminine, with men being occupied in finance, politics, or law, and women engaging in domestic work. Such families were often characterized by a significant age gap as men were expected to “gain the education and job skills necessary to support a family”(Lindsey, 2018, p. 217).
That is why they entered marriage later than women, who had to be prepared only for domestic roles. Such differences in age, education, and economic success gave men significantly more power over women who were seen as objects for patronizing.
Modernization that began with the twentieth century led to a turnover in the division of gender roles. Women became increasingly attracted to different forms of occupation, including those that were traditionally masculine. The ability to be economically independent has changed the way women see marriage. As it is no longer the only way for economic success, it may be postponed or even considered as optional. With the emergence of women who pursue careers, the age of marriage and childbirth has significantly increased. Although these changes mostly concern women, they have also changed the gender roles for men.
For example, men tend to share domestic and parental duties more in families where women work. Although modern tendencies have a distinctive egalitarian emphasis, gender roles are still affected by stereotypes, conventionalism, and discrimination that are reflected in the family environment.
Gender-affected Aspects of Family Life
Entering Family Life
The role of marriage as a social phenomenon has significantly changed with the transforming gender roles. While it was the only accepted form of relationships in the past centuries, today, people often do not prioritize it, preferring postponed marriage, cohabitation, or single life. Bertrand, Kamenica, and Pan (2015) connect the drop in marriage rates to the increased female earnings that allow them to be independent.
Lindsey (2018) also argues that transforming gender roles are behind the demographic changes in a family environment. Moreover, today, the marriages between older women and younger men happen more often and are more acceptable, which is linked to female economic independence (Lindsey, 2018). What is more, the changes in gender roles have modified conventional marriage, so couples often seek alternative lifestyles, such as cohabitation.
The number of couples who live as a husband and a wife without getting married officially has increased during recent decades. Lindsey (2018) reports that in the 1970s, it was estimated at half a million with “3 million in the 1990s, to over 8 million couples today, including over 600,000 same-sex partners” (p. 237). The lifestyle of such couples is different as they tend to share their duties more evenly, often have equal incomes, and possess more freedom to leave, which results in the higher divorce rate among them (Lindsey, 2018). Single life is another option to choose instead of marriage. While previously the failure to find a wife or a husband was connected to the idea of some deficiencies of an individual, it is no more the case today, as marriage is not an obligation.
The issue of housework in modern American families has been surprisingly unaffected by egalitarian trends. Even in dual-earner couples, women still have the majority of domestic work on them. While men’s duties are mostly seasonal or limited in time, such as fixing cars or doing house repairs, women are responsible for daily ongoing chores. Moreover, such work is often devalued, especially for women who prefer to stay at home. The word ‘housewife’ used for the description of this role bears offensive connotations, while it can be replaced by a more neutral term ‘homemaker’ that applies to both genders. Lindsey (2018) claims that the contribution of men to housework has increased over time, but its proportion is still small. The differences are especially striking when it comes to parenthood, as mothers are expected to spend more time with children.
The breadwinning question is inherently connected to the changes in gender roles in society. Goldscheider, Bernhardt, and Lappegård (2015) believe that the entering of women into the workforce reinforced egalitarian perception of gender roles both in society and families. Despite the positive tendency, the issue of earnings inequality is still clamant. According to Bertrand et al. (2015), the income gap between genders reaches about 25 percent. According to the studies, cultural norms and stereotypes are influenced by the economic situation. Pedulla and Thébaud (2015) prove that wives are more likely to stay at home only because they generally earn less than their husbands. However, in the case of equal workplace conditions, the balance between housework and breadwinning would be identical for men and women.
Transition to parenthood is often considered as a critical stage for many families, affecting the entire lifestyle and family roles. The experience of genders to becoming parents is strikingly different. Due to the physical aspects of motherhood, such as breastfeeding, women tend to spend more time on infant care than men. Moreover, the increased amount of housework also becomes their responsibility, while men often manage to maintain their previous roles (Lindsey, 2018).
In most families, mothers have to adjust their work time, while the inability to make sacrifices poses tremendous social pressure on them. According to Borelli, Nelson, River, Birken, and Moss-Racusin (2016), the U.S. women more often feel “the work-family guilt … about the conflict between employment and family” (p. 365). Although the time that fathers spend with their children has increased over time, as well as the opportunities for outsourced child care, the overall gender gap in parenthood remains unchallenged.
The division between genders regarding child-rearing is especially striking with single-parent families. According to Lindsey (2018), custody is given to mothers in 70 percent of the cases in the U.S., but the tendency is gradually shifting. Given the income gap, single mothers are more economically vulnerable, while single fathers still get more social support. Same-gender families are another social issue in the U.S., as even legal recognition does not grant social acceptance.
However, Webb, Chonody, and Kavanagh (2017) note that “attitudes toward same-gender families have been improving in recent years” (p. 1351). There is a gender difference in the bias towards such families connected to the conventional association of children’s upbringing as a more feminine role. Thus, gay fathers have even less social approval than lesbian mothers who are rearing a child.
Modernization and the emergence of career opportunities for women have led to a more egalitarian society transforming traditional gender roles. As marriage is no longer a necessity for survival, its rate is declining with the increase in other forms of relationships, characterized by higher individual independence, such as cohabitation. Although families can now negotiate the division of chores, housework and income issues are still affected by unequal economic opportunities. Such an aspect of family life as a child upbringing is extremely vulnerable to social pressure, characterized by many biases regarding same-sex families, single parents, and mothers’ employment that are yet to be challenged.
Bertrand, M., Kamenica, E., & Pan, J. (2015). Gender identity and relative income within households. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 130(2), 571-614. Web.
Borelli, J. L., Nelson, S. K., River, L. M., Birken, S. A., & Moss-Racusin, C. (2016). Gender differences in work-family guilt in parents of young children. Sex Roles, 76(5-6), 356-368. Web.
Goldscheider, F., Bernhardt, E., & Lappegård, T. (2015). The gender revolution: A framework for understanding changing family and demographic behavior. Population and Development Review, 41(2), 207-239. Web.
Lindsey, L. L. (2018). Gender roles: A sociological perspective. New York, NY: Routledge.
Pedulla, D. S., & Thébaud, S. (2015). Can we finish the revolution? Gender, work-family ideals, and institutional constraint. American Sociological Review, 80(1), 116-139. Web.
Webb, S. N., Chonody, J. M., & Kavanagh, P. S. (2017). Do we think children need a mom and dad? Understanding how gender ideology impacts attitudes toward same-gender parent family rights. Journal of Homosexuality, 65(10), 1351-1371. Web.