Our topic is sexual identity and the meaning of gender in elite public discourse. Few topics are more important, for what is ultimately at stake is nothing less than how we raise our children and what kind of people we wish to be. Yet it is also a dangerous, almost forbidden, topic. To say anything interesting about this subject is likely to give offense to many of our nation’s policy and opinion leaders. For ironically, in a society purporting great interest in all things sexual, our elite discussion of gender is almost quaintly repressed and sublimated, governed primarily by taboo, euphemism, and silence, and undergirded by a cast-iron orthodoxy that insists on the fundamental social irrelevance of sexual differences between women and men.
Let us state our thesis plainly. While we do not uncritically accept the separate-spheres gender philosophy of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, we do believe that, on the whole, our own generation’s prevailing gender philosophy—typified by its adamant denial of difference and dependency—has harmed, rather than helped, the search for a common life for man and woman that promotes the accomplishment and happiness of each. Specifically, we believe that current public discourse on this subject is dominated, to its detriment, by twin ideals of androgyny and expressive individualism. The result is a public philosophy that undermines families, neglects children, and makes individual adult happiness more difficult to achieve.
In his Road to Divorce, the historian Lawrence Stone describes the recent transformation of Western societies from “largely non-separating and non-divorcing” ones to “separating and divorcing” ones as “perhaps the most profound and far-reaching social change to have occurred in the last five hundred years.” Consider the numbers. In the United States in 1960, there were thirty-five divorced persons for every 1,000 married persons. Today there are 142—a 406 percent increase in thirty years. During that same period, the proportion of children living with only one parent jumped from 9 percent to 25 percent. Between 1960 and 1985, the percent of all childbirths occurring outside of marriage increased from 5 to 22; the percent of teenage mothers who are unmarried increased from 15 to 58; and the overall proportion of American adult life spent in residence with both a spouse and at least one child dropped from 62 percent, the highest in our nation’s history, to 43 percent, the lowest in our history.
These numbers reflect two processes. The first is deinstitutionalization: the erosion of marriage as a social institution embodying widely shared moral values. The second is dejuridification: the shrinking of the legal regulation of marriage. Together, these processes have transformed marriage from a binding social commitment to an essentially private, freely terminable lifestyle option. In essence, divorce has become a “right”—less a judicial issue than an administrative procedure.
What caused this momentous change? Let us begin with language. Consider the most important new word to emerge during the divorce revolution: “no-fault.” Almost all of our grandparents, as well as most of our parents, would be amazed and distressed by the claim that ending a marriage is unrelated to issues of fault and morality. Yet in 1969, California became the first state—indeed, the first jurisdiction in the Western world—to eliminate all fault-based grounds for divorce. Over the next fifteen years, this new type of divorce law—and the new word describing it—spread rapidly across the country. By 1987, forty states plus the District of Columbia had revised their divorce laws in ways that, according to Mary Ann Glendon, tilted “decidedly toward easy nonfault divorce.”
During this time in the United States, Glendon continues, “the ‘no-fault’ idea blended readily with the psychological jargon that already had such a strong influence on how Americans think about their personal relationships . . . [and] fit neatly into an increasingly popular mode of discourse in which values are treated as matters of taste, feelings of guilt are regarded as unhealthy, and an individual’s primary responsibility is assumed to be to himself.”
The ideology and practice of no-fault thus transforms marriage both personally and socially. Personally, the no-fault idea tells us that, when a marriage ends, no one is to blame. People change; people grow apart; people must above all pursue their own happiness. Socially, no-fault terminology tells us that marriage is essentially a private matter, designed for the fulfillment of the individual spouses. Other prospective stakeholders in the relationship—such as children or the society as a whole—are understood to be at best minority shareholders whose claims are effectively without standing and therefore unenforceable.
These ideas stand in sharp contrast to the common wisdom of our parents’ generation, perhaps best summarized in a famous essay by Roscoe Pound, who insisted that family law “must distinguish the individual interests in domestic relations from the social interest in the family and marriage as social institutions.” This social interest, Pound argued, is twofold: “the maintenance of the family as a social institution” and “the protection of dependent persons, in securing to all individuals a moral and social life and in the rearing and training of sound and well-bred citizens for the future.”
Finally, the no-fault idea reflects, in microcosm, a much broader set of newly regnant cultural values that substantially redefine our society’s understanding of love, mating, and adulthood. As sociologist Ann Swidler points out in her essay on “Love and Adulthood in American Culture,” these values celebrate above all “a new concern with the survival, wholeness, and autonomy of the self that makes self-sacrifice seem weakness, and self-realization seem a moral duty.” For Swidler, the new story of love and marriage “validates adulthood as a period of continuing crisis, challenge, and change” that “provides no resting place from demands on the self.” Because it rejects the idea of the self as “a stable achievement,” the new story fails to “make the achievement of adult commitment, fidelity, intimacy, and care themselves seem heroic, meaningful achievements.” At the heart of this new story is the idea that dependencies and permanent commitments are obstacles rather than pathways to fulfillment.
The new values carry wide-ranging consequences. In our society, divorce is approaching a rough parity with marriage as an expectation, ritual, and experience of adult life. In just three decades, the proportion of Americans who believe that couples who do not get along should not stay together for the sake of the children has increased from a decided minority to an overwhelming majority. Divorce has penetrated every aspect of our culture. A new national magazine called Divorce was launched in 1987. Newspaper society pages chronicle divorce parties along with debutante parties. Greeting card companies now include divorce cards (“Think of your marriage as a record album. It was full of music, both happy and sad. But what’s important now is YOU: the newly released hot new single!”) in their inventories of “occasion” cards. A liquor ad featured in magazines shows two women in conversation with a caption reading: “He’s crazy about my kid. And he drinks Johnnie Walker.” Numerous religious denominations—including Lutherans, United Methodists, Episcopalians, Unitarians, and the United Church of Christ—have incorporated divorce prayers and accompanying rituals into their liturgies. A new line of children’s books includes titles such as The Divorce Workbook: A Guide for Kids and Families.
What is to be done? The challenge, clearly, is not primarily economic or political, but cultural. The problem is especially rooted within elite culture. It is necessary, therefore, to confront directly the newly ascendant cultural values. In the area of divorce, the most effective tool is also the most controversial: the reestablishment of the social stigma that has traditionally accompanied voluntary family dissolution. Today the word “stigma” is generally used pejoratively, as are such related words as “guilt,” “shame,” or “blame.” But if a primary negative imperative is to banish the idea of “no-fault” from our thinking about divorce, a key step in the process is to reclaim our appreciation and use of stigma.
Stigmatizing a behavior will reduce its frequency. To test this hypothesis, observe the current behavior of those whose preferences run toward smoking in crowded restaurants, littering beaches, or using racially derogatory language on television. Conversely, it is an anthropological commonplace that de-stigmatizing a behavior will increase its frequency. Without this type of values shift, little effective change will occur, regardless of what policymakers do.
At the same time, politics also affects culture. Laws and public policies do more than distribute resources and establish rules and incentives. They also convey normative messages. They help shape our public conversation—our cultural stories—about who we are and who we want to be. Reform of our marriage laws, therefore, can contribute, at least indirectly, to a broader renewal of the marital relationship. The first priority is surely to reverse the legal trend toward easy, no-fault, little-responsibility divorce—especially when the separation is contested by one spouse, and most especially when minor children are involved.
Much of the no-fault idea is rooted in the assumptions of androgyny and individualism. No-fault divorce laws tend to assume, for example, that the division of marital property is the principal means for settling the financial aspects of divorce. After the divorce, it is assumed, each spouse can and should be largely self-sufficient. Yet if we look at the real-life facts of gender roles and dependent relationships, the flaws in these assumptions become clear. Roughly three-fifths of all divorces involve minor dependent children who, overwhelmingly, end up in the custody of their mothers. Most ex-wives, due in part to pre-divorce work and childrearing arrangements, have much lower earnings capacity after divorce than do their ex-husbands.
The result of ignoring these gender and dependency realities is that, after divorce, the living standards of women and children tend to drop, often dramatically, while the living standards of men tend to rise. Moreover, even with improvements brought about by federally mandated state child-support guidelines, child support payments by non-custodial parents, almost always fathers, tend to be quite low—in part because judicial discretion allows judges, operating on the self-sufficiency assumption, to award low payments and in part because the absence of meaningful post-divorce supervision means that only a minority of mothers receive full payment of the support that has been awarded. These facts help explain why women, rather than men, have emerged as the most persistent and eloquent critics of our current divorce laws. As Mary Ann Glendon puts it: “American divorce law in practice seems to be saying to parents, especially to mothers, that it is not safe to devote oneself primarily or exclusively to raising children.”
The androgynous imperative within elite discourse is most evident, and especially harmful, when it seeks to suppress or deny the differences between mothers and fathers. Most fundamentally, it contests thousands of years of precisely those aspects of our bio-evolutionary history that have favored, above all, the survival of the human infant. By shifting the focus of family life away from children and toward adult satisfaction, the new imperative assaults those cultural norms of parental sacrifice and denial that are essential to successful childrearing. Ultimately, therefore, the androgynous imperative challenges the central prerequisite of social life: fostering the competence and character of the next generation.
Again, consider the key words: “mother” and “father.” What are their meanings in today’s elite discourse? Historically, of course, the definition of these words goes far beyond “female parent” and “male parent.” The Oxford English Dictionary devotes six pages to the word “mother” and its cognates and four pages to “father” and its cognates. Indeed, we can find few, if any, words in our language that are more richly invested with personal, social, cultural, moral, and religious meaning.
Similarly, we can locate no other words more essential to our understanding of gender differences. Certainly anthropologists, sociobiologists, endocrinologists, ethnologists, and obstetricians would all resist, on professional grounds, the obfuscation of these words. (So, for that matter, would most babies.) Yet elite discourse increasingly insists that we speak, not of mothers and fathers, but of the androgynous and even non-familial “parent” or “co-parent.”
“In anticipating parenthood,” says a 1978 parents’ manual written by the Boston Women’s Health Collective, “whether natural or adoptive, we both eagerly awaited our child’s arrival and worried about ways our life together would change. We are no longer simply ‘lovers,’ ‘friends,’ ‘partners,’ but co-parents in another kind of venture altogether.”
The deracination of our vocabulary of sexual differences has its ironic side. In a culture drenched in the imagery and language of adolescent sexuality—a culture that tolerates, and at times promotes, the onset of sexual activity at ever younger ages—we detect a curious primness about mature sexual differences. When it comes to mothers and fathers, elite culture shies away from fecund women and virile men and seems much more comfortable with interchangeable androgynes.
Irony aside, however, the substitution of “parent” for “mother” and “father” serves explicit political and cultural objectives. First, it aims at establishing what Alice Rossi terms an “egalitarian ethos” in child nurture which “urges several programmatic changes in family organization: a reduction of maternal investment in children to permit greater psychic investment in work outside the family, an increased investment by men in their fathering roles, and the supplementation of parental care by institutional care.”
Second, the gender-neutral “parent” also seeks to establish moral equivalency among family types. Thus married mothers and fathers, single mothers and fathers, lesbian and gay custodians of children—all become equalized as the same thing: “parents.” By liberating us from the concreteness of traditional familial statuses and sexual identities, the new “parent” encourages us to embrace as equivalents all possible childrearing forms and to remove any distinctions of gender and family form from our understanding of parenthood.
Moreover, “parent” can be isolated not only from gender and family status, but also from kinship itself. Thus a 1991 conference publication from the Child Welfare League proposes a “many parents” model of childrearing that approvingly suggests equivalency among the “many parents”—“biological parents, kinship care parents, family foster parents, group care or house parents, and adoptive parents”—of our nation’s children.
Consider another word that is essential to a vocabulary of difference: pregnancy. Pregnancy, a condition unique to female mammals, is a primary expression of biological difference between the sexes. Moreover, the word “pregnancy,” like the words “mother” and “father,” is historically redolent with positive cultural meaning: it is a “blessed event,” the state of “expecting” and of “being with child.” These definitions helped to tell a story of pregnancy in our culture—a story that sacralized a physiological event and exalted the pregnant woman.
Today, we increasingly tell ourselves a quite different story. Consider a typical version of the new story, written in 1977 in Patricia Ashdown-Sharp’s A Guide to Pregnancy and Parenthood for Women on Their Own: “Pregnancy is a momentous event in any woman’s life, married or single, and it helps to understand your initial feelings, which may include any of the following, or even several mixed up at the same time.” The list of feelings includes: pleasure, doubts and fears, embarrassment, apathy, activity, running away, and suicide. In this story, pregnancy is increasingly portrayed as problematic and difficult—a source of anxiety, fear, and unwelcome dependency. The overall result is a new cultural definition: pregnancy as disability.
Certainly both popular wisdom and medical opinion dispute this understanding. Yet neither of these sources of authority guided the legislative establishment of pregnancy leave in the United States. Passed as an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was part of a larger effort to secure equal rights for women in the workforce and to provide statutory protections for all workers without regard to gender.
Cast as an issue of civil rights and argued in the familiar American idiom of individualism and formal equality, pregnancy can no longer be viewed simply as a healthy condition unique to women. Instead, it must be construed as a temporary disability, like a broken leg, no different from any other temporary disability that might handicap any other worker.
This redefinition of pregnancy—from blessed event to disability—reflects a broader change: the cultural shift from a family-based ethic to an employment-based ethic. Historically, pregnancy has been exclusively a family event, extra-commercium. It is now increasingly a workplace event, mediated by the money world.
Consider the meaning of this shift. The family perspective understands pregnancy and childbirth as the central event of family life, to be welcomed with ceremony, thankfulness, and celebration. The labor-force perspective understands pregnancy as a workplace disruption that weakens employees’ attachments to their jobs, increases absenteeism, and reduces productivity.
The old story of pregnancy and childbirth accentuated the differences between men and women—physical, emotional, and social—and reinforced the cultural ideal of separate and complementary spheres. A classic rendering of that story is found in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The scene is one of radical separation, with a clear division of physical and emotional labor. Levin waits in an anteroom as his beloved Kitty goes into labor. Kitty submits to the physical pains of childbirth while Levin experiences emotional anguish as devastating as her physical pain.
Leaning his head against the doorpost in the next room, he stood there listening to someone shriek and moan in a way he had never heard before, and he knew these sounds were coming from what had once been Kitty. He no longer had any desire for a child. Now he hated that child. He did not even want her to live any more; all he wanted was an end to this horrible suffering.
Levin’s emotional vulnerability, his fear and ignorance, contrast sharply with Kitty’s emotional strength, physical courage, and womanly knowledge. These are the familiar elements of the old story. With a winking apology to Tolstoy, one might even compare Levin to Ricky Ricardo in the famous January 1953 television episode of I Love Lucy—an episode that captured the largest audience share in American television history. Rotund and serene in her impending maternity, Lucy arrives at the hospital carrying her own suitcase, while Ricky is pushed alongside in a wheelchair, emotionally unhinged and temporarily disabled.
The old story, moreover, extends these differences into the post-partum period. Popular advice literature warns a husband that his wife will experience new emotions; she may, in fact, lavish more affection on the new baby than on him. Family life will change, the old story warns. A new baby exacts new and different sacrifices from mother and father—sacrifices that result, however, in life’s highest rewards.
The new story explains these same physical, psychological, and social components of pregnancy and childbirth, but through a radically different narrative. Underlying the new story is the cultural ideal of androgyny. It minimizes, rather than celebrates, the differences between mothers and fathers. It focuses not on family and biological identity, but on individual rights and options. In short, it recasts the experience of pregnancy and childbirth into the familiar terms of the marketplace and of what Robert Bellah terms the therapeutic model. Accordingly, pregnancy and childbirth become yet one more path to greater individual freedom and self-expression.
In the old story, pregnancy separates women from men. In the new story, pregnancy brings the sexes together. Men, in fact, join women in the state of pregnancy, so that couples versed in the latest linguistic fashions tell their friends that “we are pregnant.” Men should join women in the delivery room, since mothers and fathers should share as equally as possible the pain and pleasure of childbirth.
At the same time, the woman in the new story must zealously defend her freedom and independence. In Your Baby, Your Way, Sheila Kitzinger urges the expectant mother to draw up a birth plan designed to achieve an autonomous birth. This task aims, not simply at achieving an obstetrically trouble-free birth, but at liberating the pregnant woman from medical, social, and legal constraints. Childbirth is a political act: “Through striving to achieve autonomy in childbirth—the biological act that epitomizes a woman’s role as mother, nurturer, homemaker—conformists become nonconformists, assimilators become dissidents, charming, polite, compliant women become political activists.”
Yet, paradoxically, the emphasis on rights and options only makes pregnancy more problematic. According to Kitzinger,
a woman’s experience of pregnancy and birth is likely to be fraught with a sense of inadequacy and powerlessness. At the point when she is bringing new life into the world and a tremendous power is released in her body, she feels most helpless. She is trapped in a situation outside her control.
We are now looking at exact opposites. In the old story, pregnancy empowers. In the new story, it disempowers.
Where do these new definitions come from? Again, we look to culture. We believe that the heart of the matter—not merely a reflection, but rather the basic source of the new story—is a shift in cultural values. Specifically, as noted, we look to the growing influence of the twin cultural values of androgyny and expressive individualism.
In Reclaimed Powers, a cross-cultural study of gender patterns in aging, David Gutmann describes a pivotal event in human development: the “parental emergency.” Young parents respond to the emergency in two ways. First, they assume the gender-specific roles learned during early socialization—roles they may have modified, experimented with, or even ignored before they became parents. Second, they abandon narcissistic strivings toward omnipotentiality. They voluntarily limit their potential freedoms in order to secure the physical and psychological wellbeing of the dependent child. As Gutmann puts it, “There is general agreement that parents will, as part of their general servitude, accept deep restrictions on their own needs and deep revisions of their own psychological make-up in order to meet their children’s essential needs.”
In short, parenthood demands that children come first. Its essential requirement is sacrifice and denial. Its result is “the routine, unexamined heroism of parenting.” In Gutmann’s cross-cultural studies, parental altruism approaches the status of a universal norm, since it is essential to the survival of the species.
Yet to what degree is this norm reflected in our public discourse and policy debate about gender roles and childrearing? The answer is unsettling. Clearly, the dominant discourse seeks to extend, rather than suppress, the narcissistic tendencies of young adulthood. For parents, no less than non-parents, the self—not the other or the neighbor or the child or the family—constitutes the governing moral idea of contemporary culture.
Even a casual reading of advice literature for new parents reveals this tendency. Compared to the old story, far greater emphasis is attached to recognizing and affirming adult “needs” as against baby’s demands. In the old story, the arrival of a new baby ushered in a period of mutual sacrifice. In the new story, a baby tests the parents’ own sense of independence with its assertion of neediness. Parents must “balance” the baby’s needs against other social and personal “needs.” The very title of one parenting manual, Ourselves and Our Children, succinctly states the new set of priorities: parents come first.
These new definitions of parenthood and pregnancy reflect larger changes in our family ethos and civic culture. In his essay on “The Invasion of the Money World,” Robert Bellah argues that the values and language of the marketplace are invading the family realm and, more broadly, the realms of church, neighborhood, and community. Activities once assigned to families—child care, meals, even outdoor play—are increasingly monetized: converted to services that are bought and sold in the marketplace. As one part of this trend, mothers, who have traditionally dominated the realms of family and community life, now pursue, or at least are strongly expected to pursue, regular paid employment outside the home.
As a result, the separate sphere of family and community life is both shrinking and losing its distinctive character. Increasingly, this sphere no longer constitutes an independent moral realm containing relationships and values different from those of the commercial realm. This trend helps explain why women are no longer considered—nor, at least in the dominant discourse, would they want to be considered—more virtuous or innocent than men. More importantly, this trend tells us why home and family are no longer expected to serve as the essential base of women’s power and self-esteem.
Not that everything in the new story is for the worse. Certain revisions in traditional gender roles, we believe, have been beneficial for both men and women. Women today have far greater opportunities for a public life, with its considerable recognition and rewards, than did our mothers’ generation. Moreover, as the life span increases and as the proportion of life devoted to childrearing concomitantly decreases, women clearly have more time, over the course of the life cycle, to devote to work in the marketplace. We see benefits for men as well. Men no longer must bear sole responsibility for breadwinning. With a mutual, if not equivalent, commitment to both the worlds of paid work and of family, husbands and wives who stay together may achieve a greater harmony of interests and perhaps even greater emotional closeness.
At the same time, separate-spheres philosophy—properly, we believe—located life’s most enduring virtues and satisfactions not in the marketplace or even in the public square, but in the home. Indeed, nineteenth-century feminism hoped to reform the world according to the model of home and family. Domesticating the marketplace, not commercializing the domestic realm, was the central focus of much early feminist thought.
Thus, the current identification of home and family as the source not of woman’s strength but of her weakness stands as a sharp departure from earlier feminist traditions. And when some contemporary feminists attack traditional family life as oppressive, they frequently fail to recognize that men as well as women have historically embraced the sacrifices and restrictions of family life as their best chance for happiness and individual fulfillment. In an important respect, the gender script of our parents’ generation was intended to be less blatantly sexist than aggressively familistic.
As much as American culture in the 1950s worshipped Mom in the kitchen, it celebrated Dad in the den. Father’s Day became an important national holiday during this period, as Hallmark cards iconized the “at-home” dad, with his pipe and newspaper. Television viewers seldom saw the father of Father Knows Best at work. We never knew what Ozzie Nelson or Ward Cleaver did for a living. For these television dads, the pathway to the good life ran, not through the office, but straight to the backyard with the kids.
In contrast, the contemporary vision of happiness and progress as reflected in elite discourse is seldom identified with building a family. The new vision focuses on achievement in the marketplace. It is rooted, above all, in the assumption of a fully mobilized workforce. In this story, both women and men find fulfillment and contribute to the good of society through their participation in the workforce and in their behavior as paid workers and consumers.
Consider our public policy debate on child care. It is dominated by a labor-force, as opposed to family perspective. The debate frequently centers less on what is best for the parent-child relationship than it does on what is best for the labor force. To the degree, for example, that the mother-child relationship conflicts with the mother-job relationship, the mother-job relationship is almost always treated as primary.
This economic focus in child care debate reflects, in large part, the remarkable success of the “work-family” movement of the 1980s—a broad coalition of corporate consultants, policy think tanks, business leaders, legislative lobbyists, and others who seek, in the words of one prominent organization, “new approaches for balancing the changing needs of America’s families with the continuing need for workplace productivity.” A national work-family conference in 1988, entitled “Child Care: The Bottom Line,” elaborates this perspective:
Never before in the history of the United States has the issue of child care been so inextricably linked with the state of the nation’s economy. Not only does the availability of affordable, high-quality child care affect the well-being of the majority of American families, it affects the bottom line of every business in the nation and . . . inevitably . . . affects the United States’ ability to compete successfully in a global economy.
As one national leader of the work-family movement recently put it: “Child care is really an economic development issue” that is “as essential for getting people to work as public transportation.” This approach became truly bipartisan during the 1980s, defining the discourse of Republicans as well as Democrats. The most influential child care report of the Reagan Administration, for example, organized by the Department of Labor, was entitled “Child Care: A Workforce Issue.”
Such an approach sends a clear message to both policymakers and families. The message to policymakers is that child care is a matter of economic policy, designed almost exclusively for mothers who work full time in the paid labor force. Thus, for U.S. Representative Patricia Schroeder, probably the nation’s most influential advocate of the work-family agenda, to argue that child care policies should recognize the role of non-employed parents is “like saying the highway program must recognize people who don’t drive.”
This approach leads to specific and dubious policy consequences. Most of the child care debate in the 1980s, for example, assumed that the goal is to allow more parents, especially mothers, to achieve a new “balance” that, in practice, would mean less time with children and more time at work. Yet considerable evidence suggests that many mothers want precisely the opposite: to spend less time in the workplace in order to spend more time with family. The chief policy recommendation of the economistic assumption is more day care centers. In contrast, the chief recommendation of the familistic assumption is more part-time work and other options to reduce, rather than increase, hours of paid employment.
For families—or again more specifically, for mothers—the message of today’s child care debate is not to feel “guilty” or overly constrained by the responsibilities of childbearing and childrearing. The new imperative is not to permit the demands of children to stand in the way of work responsibilities.
In sum, we identify three major tendencies in our current public discourse and policy debates on parenthood: the universalization of what Sylvia Hewlett terms the “competitive male model,” the denial of parental altruism, and the invasion of the family culture by the jobs culture. These tendencies contribute to a regnant cultural ethos, especially strong among elites, that is harmful both to the quality of our public discourse and to the well-being of families, particularly children.
In the realm of everyday life and practical morality, most Americans, if asked, say that they seek happiness through family life, not through their careers. Most women want to be mothers and prefer staying home while their children are very young. Most women want and expect financial and emotional support from husbands and fathers. Many, we suspect most, divorced mothers view divorce as harmful to children. Yet our dominant elite discourse about love, marriage, and parenthood would have it quite the other way on each of these issues.
Finally, the ideals of androgyny and expressive individualism behind the dominant ethos fail to deliver on their basic promise: they do not make for greater individual happiness. Individual happiness and family obligation are not, as the elite story would have it, antithetical. Survey research shows quite compellingly that happiness with marriage and family life remains by far the strongest predictor of personal happiness and overall life satisfaction.
We conclude with a political question: Should public policies strive explicitly to counteract the prevailing tilt toward androgyny and expressive individualism? To what degree can, and ought, politics seek to influence culture in the area of gender differences and dependencies?
Certainly a case can be made for public policies that affirm gender differences. For example, our society’s new divorce laws, firmly rooted in the assumptions of androgyny and individualism, simply fail to acknowledge, to a remarkable degree, the roles of most mothers within most marriages. Our no-fault divorce laws, in fact, constitute a clear embodiment of the competitive male model—a model that rewards autonomous achievement in the marketplace while largely ignoring our social and individual interests in the family and in caring for dependent children. In this case, current policy goes beyond simply the formulation of gender-neutral legal categories. These new laws are indifferent, even hostile, to important social interests.
Yet despite this caveat, we believe that, as a general rule, public policies should seek to be gender-neutral—they should generally refrain from directly defining gender identities or assigning gender roles within the family, the workplace, or public life.
In the area of divorce, for example, we believe that our laws must offer more protection for women and children. Yet this imperative does not require the law to establish gender-specific legal categories. It requires only that the law acknowledge the divisions of labor within marriage and the social importance of childrearing. In the area of custody, for example, we do not have to say: “Custody shall go to the mother.” We only have to say: “Custody shall go to the person who is already providing the most day-to-day care for this child.” Sometimes, that person will be the father. Most times, not.
In the workplace as well, policies should steer this middle ground. They should be family-friendly. But they should not seek explicitly to define the gender identities and roles of workers. Thus we favor generous “parental” leave, not “maternity” leave, even as we know that most workers who use it will be mothers. The same principle should govern wage-and-hour policies, employee benefits, and other workplace policies. Such policies would, in practice, affirm and promote formal equality of opportunity for women in the workplace and in public life, while at the same time respecting the importance of family commitment and obligation.
This conclusion implies that cultural problems require primarily cultural, not political, solutions. Controversies over gender differences are, as a rule, simply too complex and too important to be settled through legislation or political campaigns. Instead, we must turn to the institutions of civil society—the family itself, the church, the local community—to direct us in the important task of naming gender differences, affirming familial dependencies, and reasserting the permanent and binding character of relationships within the family.
Moreover, we detect some signs—some reasons for hope—that the United States in the 1990s will substantially revise its currently dominant elite stories of man and woman. We sense a culture that is now acknowledging the limits and costs of expressive individualism as a reigning norm. We sense, even within elite discourse, the beginning of a renewed appreciation of differences and mutual dependencies between men and women. We anticipate, in short, what might be termed a “new familism”—a cultural tilt toward improving the ecology of family life in the 1990s.
For example, recent scholarship on the evolution of gender roles during the life cycle finds a popular echo today—both in the declining popularity of the “superwoman” model and, concomitantly, in the growing popularity among women of “sequencing” job and family responsibilities.
Looking at contemporary U.S. culture, sociologist David Popenoe finds a new realism about family matters:
The gender-role debate is turning more in the direction of frankly discussing gender differences. In view of the new work roles of women, many men are becoming more actively involved in childrearing. A growing number of women have begun to rethink their lives and their careers along lines different from men, with a new interest in sequencing work and family pursuits that enables them to spend more time with very young children.
The 1990 Yankelovich Monitor, an annual survey of social values and consumer attitudes, finds a “major shift away from work and more toward home,” according to Peter Stisser, a Yankelovich vice president and Monitor analyst. Moreover, the currently large number of childbirths in our society—over four million this past year, more than any year in American history—suggests that a large proportion of the baby boom generation will be experiencing the “parental emergency” at roughly the same time over the coming decade. This demographic event, with its myriad social and cultural ripple effects, may well lead to an upturn in parental altruism within the society and to a renewed commitment to family well-being.
We are essentially pessimistic about the state’s ability to define and enforce gender roles and identities. At the same time, we are optimistic about our cultural capacity in the years ahead to renew the language of difference and dependency in our public discourse about man and woman—to leave behind a story that is impoverished and anemic and to refashion for our time a story of a common life for man and woman that promotes the accomplishment and happiness of each.
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead directs the Family in American Culture project of the Institute for American Values in New York City.
David Blankenhorn is President of the Institute.