Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Incredible Shrinking Male

The Incredible Shrinking Male (Gender Role: An Historical Introduction)

Gender roles are obviously changing in the modern western world, but why? Some might contend it is a matter of personal choice, an issue of liberation from stifling tradition, or the product of moral decadence. I contend that gender role changes are the result of forces unleashed by the Industrial Revolution that moved productive work and the generation of sustenance from the home into the factory/business/corporation. This process has resulted in a vast broadening of the female role and a virtual elimination of an identifiably unique male gender role.

In traditional economies the basics of gender roles were determined by physical sexual differences. Women bore the children and raised them until they were weaned because women had wombs and mammary glands (OK, I know you know this part, bear with me) which meant womens’ productive work had to accommodate child rearing. Thus women did work that necessitated less physical strength (though no less stamina) and could be done in the company of small children. This evolved from gathering wild foods to tending fixed gardens and handling domestic duties. Men did the jobs that entailed heavier labor and that which necessitated them being away from the place of residence for longer periods of time. This evolved from hunting game to handling the heavy labor (e.g. plowing) in farm fields--and fighting wars. These are broad generalizations, but were typical in traditional economies/cultures for generations.

The Industrial Revolution, over time, eliminated the need for extensive heavy labor as machines came to do the work. The female role was obviously changed but its biological essence was not eliminated, and indeed women can do the "heavy lifting" today with machinery. The male role as "bread winner" (primary wage or salary earner)—a creation of the Industrial Revolution itself as prior to it everyone in the family contributed to the family’s economic productivity—is hardly exclusively, and in many cases not even primarily, male today. This applies as well to the traditionally male role as warrior (originally male due to strength and speed issues, but also due to the fact that biologically—due to reproductive issues--men are more expendable than women) which is no longer an exclusively male preserve, again due to the Industrial Revolution and it’s results.

But gender roles work for a society not only when they make practical economic sense, but also when they provide individual psychological rewards such as fulfillment and identity. Again, the traditional female role in rearing children remains as potentially psychologically rewarding today as it would have been centuries ago. The male role in rearing children, however, has all but disappeared. In traditional economies men play a major role in teaching the older male children how to fulfill their roles as adults. The men typically take responsibility for the ceremonies by which boys are officially inducted into manhood. Undoubtedly all this provides a sense of bonding and rootedness and connectedness that helps hold these societies together. And it gives/gave men a sense of place, responsibility, fulfillment, and yes, a sense of identity. This role has been completely shattered in the western world where today the male role in child rearing is largely optional. While many men have simply opted out of child rearing, those who choose to take an active role in rearing their children are often simply seen as “helping” their wives. Certainly their contribution is, at best, viewed by society as useful but auxiliary. Men have thus lost the traditional role that offered them a sense of identity and psychological fulfillment.

Is it any wonder that it is almost impossible for anyone to provide a sensible generally applicable definition of masculinity today? Is it any wonder that gender lines are so blurred today, particularly for men? I’m not advocating a return to a romanticized view of the traditional economy nor to rigid gender roles. Indeed those days are gone forever; but I do think it’s time we realized that the Industrial Revolution—a relatively recent phenomenon in human history (and indeed one that is still ongoing in parts of the world, and has not even begun in others)—has created a disruption of long standing traditional gender roles. While the old versions of masculinity and femininity no longer make sense; new ones that give a sense of fulfillment have not yet been created. As a beginning, we, as a society ought to recognize that traditional roles have lost their economic and psychological bases and have become little more that cultural symbols with little practical relevance. At the very least, we need to grasp that gender roles are neither eternally ordained nor something individuals simply choose of their own free will.


Michele Angelique said...

RE: The Incredible Shrinking Male (Gender Role: An Historical Introduction)


Thank you Stephanie for this thoughtful and interesting post! I enjoyed the read very much.

It's true the Industrial Revolution played a huge part in women joining the workforce. Another large influence was the first and second world wars. Able bodied men were drafted, thus vacating their employment positions, and husbands were called away from supporting their home and family. Under the conditions of high workforce vacancies, families losing the financial support of the male figure, coupled with a marked shift in the available labor demographic, many women ventured out of the home into the workforce, often out of sheer necessity.

Another huge influence of women's progress in the workforce was the women's liberation movement (which is still occurring). Because of the new feminist attitude, more women have come to realize we are intellectually equal to men, and are capable of supporting ourselves financially. Hence, the numbers of women enrolling in post-secondary education has risen dramatically. Today in Canada and the U.S., the number of women in university is approximately equal to the number of men.

As you note, women have moved into more traditionally masculine roles at a far greater pace than men have moved into more feminine roles. While the women have entered the workforce, gaining most of the same social liberties as men, by and large men have failed to enter the "homeforce", to fill the vacancies left by women. Today, we don't yet see a significant number of "stay at home dads", although the number is slowly increasing.

One point of progress that was made in the past 3-4 years in Canada, was to reform the program governing "maternity leave". It used to be that only the mother was entitled to government financial support for 1 year after giving birth. Now, either parent can stay at home with the baby while collecting what is now called "parental leave".

As society begins to allow men to exhibit nurturance and compassion, we will see an ever increasing shift of men opting for more traditionally feminine roles.

Thank you again Stephanie for introducing this topic.

Love & Light,

Stephanie Yates said...

I think I failed to clarify a critically important aspect of my original posting. Throughout human history, in what scholars label "traditional economies" (i.e. those geared largely towards subsistence), both genders played essential, but very different, economic roles. Both men and women were part of the household's productive activity and neither were more or less important, just different and different because of physical characteristics. While economically valued roughly equally, gender roles were really sex roles and were rigid and communally determined. There was little personal choice involved as survival depended upon individuals doing the tasks expected of them. Thus, women have traditionally been a part of the productive work force (a term which essentially meant all adults throughout most of human existence).
The Industrial Revolution created the idea of a male work force and a female "home force" (to use Michelle's creative and descriptive term). It bifurcated work from home and family where it had been since prehistory. It created the artificial notion of a male breadwinner (income earner) and a female housewife (expenditure manager). It is these roles that contemporary popular culture has myopically ensconced as "traditional". They are only a few generations old and are already outdated as Michelle points out.
And while Michelle's comments are valid for the Industrial Age (though I would argue that the long term structural socio-economic changes produced the women's liberation movement, not the other way around), my original posting was comparing today's utter lack of a male gender role with the traditionally established one that much predates the Industrial Revolution. My point was that human males--and females--traditionally knew what was expected of them as adults and that role had at least the potential to be both practically and psychologically fulfilling. Today's male has no such defined gender role; today's female does.
For those interested in the historical development of gender roles, I suggest Louise Tilly and Joan Scott's classic work _Women, Work and Family_ for a great introduction to the effect of the Industrial Revolution on gender roles.