From time to time, I hope to use this newsletter to offer sociologically-informed advice in response to reader questions. Today’s dispatch is the first in that series – scroll to the end for more info about how you, too, can have your question answered in a future installment!
Earlier in quarantine, I (a cis woman) moved in with my (cis male) partner. I consider myself a feminist, and I have no desire to be a stay-at-home mom/domestic goddess or otherwise assume more than my fair share of the household labor. But after we moved in together, I found myself weirdly compelled to do traditionally female tasks like cooking meals and cleaning. What am I doing, and how do I stop?!
Trapped in the 1950s
Early in my relationship with my partner, I remember wanting to bake a dessert and surprise him with a treat to celebrate the end of a rough work week. You know, just a nice, thoughtful gesture. Then the second-guessing began: Did I really want to bake cupcakes, or did I just feel like I should want to bake cupcakes? If I baked the cupcakes, would that set a dangerous precedent, wherein I would be responsible for all the celebratory baking for decades to come, or could the cupcakes simply be…cupcakes?
This is my long-winded way of saying I relate to your dilemma. One of the perils of dating as a gender scholar is that I occasionally twist myself into knots in an effort to separate my own preferences (I enjoy baking, at least occasionally) from societal scripts that have been imposed on me (Women bake desserts; men grill things). Fortunately, some key ideas from the sociology of gender can shed helpful light on our shared struggle.
Several decades back, sociologists and other scholars began to argue that gender isn’t just a property of an individual. Instead, they made the case for thinking of gender as a system, structure, or institution. One of my favorite versions of this argument (from Risman) identifies three interconnected levels or dimensions that together make up the gender structure. I find this to be a very helpful framework for thinking about gender inequality, so I hope you’ll pardon what may initially seem like a digression. (I should also note that for brevity’s sake, I’m focusing below on individuals who identify as men or women. What theories like this one have to say about nonbinary folks is a topic for another week.)
The first of the three levels is the institutional: across society, goods, resources, and opportunities tend to be distributed in gendered ways. Women tend to have less power, money, and influence than men; are more likely to be discriminated against; and have historically been treated differently under the law.
Next is the interactional level: we “do” or “perform” our gender via our interactions with others, often in line with the different cultural expectations society has for men and for women. Women are expected to perform parenthood differently from men, for instance: mothers are the ones who soothe tears and pack diaper bags; fathers are the ones who throw footballs in the backyard and load the car before a road trip.
Finally, we have the individual level. Many people develop an identity or sense of self that aligns with the expectations society places on someone of their gender. Put another way, we tend to internalize cultural expectations to the point where we experience them as personal preferences. I might aspire to become an elementary school teacher or a nurse, for instance, because I like helping people and working with little kids. Those are personal preferences that have been socially patterned: as a woman, I’m “supposed” to be nurturing, helpful, and community-oriented, so it’s convenient that I’ve taken these on as part of my identity.
My best guess, 1950s, is that when you moved in with your partner, you ran up against this three-part system. Maybe you, like many women in different-gender relationships, earn less than he does, so it made intuitive sense that he should get a break after-hours (institutional).
On some level, you were probably aware of the cultural scripts that specify distinct roles for men and women to play in different-gender romantic relationships. He’s supposed to bring you flowers; you’re supposed to be more emotional; he’s supposed to make a mess; you’re supposed to pick up after him. When you made a home together, those scripts were probably the most readily available, so it’s understandable that you would reach for them, even without realizing that’s what you were doing (interactional).
Or perhaps you identify as (or aspire to be) a thoughtful and caring person, in line with expectations for someone of your gender. Instinctively, then, you sought to show your partner you cared for him, and to do this you turned to tasks like cooking, which are often seen as nurturing (individual).
So, 1950s, I can boil the answer to the first part of your question down to 7 words: the gender structure made you do it. As for the second part, about how to change, I think you’ve already taken the first step. I mentioned a little earlier that gender-traditional scripts tend to be the most readily available. Many of us, myself included, often fall back on them instinctively when we’re navigating a new situation. But when we introduce some conscious reflection about what we want or need in a particular circumstance, it’s often possible to put some distance between ourselves and those scripts.
In my case, I find joy in baking something especially delicious every now and again, whereas my partner finds all the measuring of ingredients highly annoying. So, I bake, and he washes the dishes. Is this gendered? Yeah, sort of. But it feels okay, because it’s an intentional choice we’ve made. In your case, you might realize that cooking is really not your thing and look for other, non-culinary ways to show your love for him and contribute to your shared home. So long as you both agree on how you’ll feed yourselves, and neither of you feels like more of the household grunt work is falling to you, I wouldn’t worry too much about the specifics of your arrangement. It’s impossible for any of us to escape the gender structure altogether, but fortunately there are ways to work within it.
Send me your questions related to parenting, gender, family, and the like, and I may attempt to answer them in a future segment! You’re welcome to ask about a personal dilemma, as today’s questioner did. Or, feel free to share a more general question about something in my wheelhouse you’re curious about. You can send in your question in one of two ways: 1) simply reply to this email! 2) If you prefer complete anonymity, even from me, I’ve set up a Google form that you can fill out here.
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