More about Gender-Based Division of Labor in the Home

Dear Kimberly,

It was great reading your personal “observational study” of fathers and children delighting in their time together!   And thank you for sharing your honest inner struggles as you’ve been noticing how these warm, happy scenes contradict the more rigid gender-based trait assignments that you’ve heard about in sermons (namely that women are emotionally equipped for caring for children in a way men are not).

In some ways, I’m amazed to see these old issues of separate “spheres” or “roles” rising up again in the 21st century.  You ended your last post by referring to the wise comments of one of our readers who enjoys being a stay-at-home-dad while his wife works in a profession she enjoys outside the home. He talked about how much he and his wife love each other and their children and said, “In the end that should be all that matters, not what gender is doing what.”

And he’s right.  His remark reminded me of a story I heard a woman tell years ago.  She said when she was a young child, their busy mother had asked her brother to help out by washing the dishes or some such chore he didn’t think the male sex should have to do.  “I’m not doing that! That’s girls’ work!” he protested.  Without missing a beat, their mother said, “Work doesn’t care who does it. It just needs to get done!  Now get busy!”

Biologically Determined Destiny?

But in spite of the common sense idea that tasks just need to be taken care of and “work doesn’t know or care who does it,” there’s a kind of gender predestination that has often been assumed.  Aileen S. Kraditor, in studying the history of American feminism, summarized the assumptions behind this notion:

Strictly speaking, men have never had a ‘proper sphere,’ since their sphere has been the world and all its activities. They have always been, accordingly, human beings who happened to be male.  Women, on the contrary, have occupied sharply circumscribed spheres — the home, the church, the philanthropic society, or sewing circle — regardless of differences among individuals in talents and tastes, and have, accordingly been thought of as females who happen to be human.” (Emphasis added. Aileeen S. Kraditor, ed., Up from the Pedestal: Selected Writings in the History of American Feminism. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1968, p. 10.)

Kraditor points out that it was taken for granted that what men would do with their lives depended on their particular potentialities and interests and could vary greatly. But what women would do with their lives was determined not by choice or talents but by by their gender alone.  “Thus, it was proper for men to live for themselves — to achieve self-fulfillment by developing their individual talents — whereas women should live for others — to achieve self-fulfillment by caring for their husbands and children. Church and charity work was a logical extension of that role outside the home and hence was socially acceptable” (p.10).

Except that the church, too, has insisted on separate spheres for women and men!   (You and I have already talked about that in our discussion of some pastors’ fears about “feminization of the church,”  and I’m sure we’ll return to it again.) It’s no wonder a lot of people are confused!

The Nurturance Question

While women were expected to find their fulfillment in the home and denied it in the world at large, men were expected to find their fulfillment in the world at large and denied it in the home.  Both genders get cheated in that way of thinking.

As you know, I like to keep all of this in historical perspective. We’ve already talked about the vast changes that occurred with the industrial revolution and later with World War II when women by necessity had to be both wage-earners and homemakers while so many men were away fighting in the war. But afterwards there was a great period of transition.  War-related industries were no longer needed, factories were closing, and men were returning from military service and needed jobs. Historian William Chafe summed up the problem:

“The movement from a wartime to a peacetime economy threatened the advances women had made and raised directly the question of women’s future economic role. Would female workers return to the home, or would they stay on the job? More important, would the nation allow wives and mothers to continue working, if to do so posed a threat to employment for men just back from battle?”
(William H. Chafe, The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic, and Political Role, 1920-1970, Oxford University Press, 1972, p. 175)

During this transition period, politicians, magazine writers, social scientists, preachers, and others began calling for a restoration of traditional gender patterns in the family structure. Fathers were expected to head households and support the family while mothers stayed home caring for the house and children.

Many women who had been in the labor force resisted, but they were swimming against a powerful tide. Discrimination was widespread, not only in wages but also in barriers erected. Chafe reports that in 1948, medical schools had a quota permitting women to make up no more than 5 per cent of students admitted.  He also writes that “70 per cent of all hospitals refused to accept female interns; and medical associations like the New York Obstetrical Society barred women members” (pp. 184-85). The numbers of women aspiring to enter law and other professions declined.

To justify the sending of women back to the kitchen, biological arguments about women’s nature were brought forward, along with religious, psychological, and other arguments. That was the background of the 1950s that I wrote about in my last letter.  It was  a lonely time for a budding young feminist like me, since I was doing the same kind of questioning as you’re doing now, Kimberly, but with extremely little social support.

Then came the 1960s and 1970s when women with similar questions began speaking out and meeting each other. Traditional gender attitudes were being challenged as women listened to their own hearts and heads and insisted on their right to educational and occupational opportunities. And not surprisingly, the old biological arguments emerged again in a terrific backlash.  (Actually they had never really gone away.)  A political leader claimed women’s “raging storms of monthly hormonal imbalances” made them unfit for high government positions.  If a  woman wasn’t ecstatic about cooking, cleaning, and caring for her children and husband, with no other outlets for her intellect and energy, she was told that something was wrong with her psychologically.

Women’s physical makeup was said to uniquely fit them for childcare.  The message came from all directions.  As a young mother in the late 1950s, I had thought of Dr. Benjamin Spock as a very common sense sort of person. I still have a well worn 1957 edition of Baby and Child Care in which he starts out with the reassuring statement to parents: “You know more than you think you do. . . . Don’t take too seriously all that the neighbors say. Don’t be overawed by what the experts say. Don’t be afraid to trust your own common sense.”  And yet, I have in my files an old copy of an article he wrote in Redbook magazine in 1969 which contains this paragraph:

“Biologically and temperamentally, I believe, women were made to be concerned first and foremost with child care, husband care and home care (though of course they also are capable of taking on most of the other occupations and interests that have been men’s challenges). But education has interfered with women’s satisfaction . . . . It has persuaded many college-educated women –wrongly, I think — to respect only those occupations that require a university degree — and motherhood is not one of them.  This has taken a lot of pride out of child rearing. Imagine how much more fun it was way back in the simple days, when to produce a baby was the greatest miracle any woman could perform — like discovering radium or writing a best seller today.” (Benjamin Spock, M.D., “Mothers Who Try to Be All Things,” Redbook, March, 1969, p. 60)

Dads and Nurturance

As you know, a lot of rethinking has gone on about gender roles in the nearly 40 years since Spock wrote that, but in view of sermons you’re hearing and conversations you’ve been having, I know you agree that we still have a long way to go. You’ve several times mentioned attachment theory and the mother-child studies that have been done. But more and more research has also been done since the studies you read about in your psychology classes, which brings me back to the topic of your September 15 post and your questions about fathers and nurturance.

For some excellent material  on the topic, check out the online resources available through the Denmark-based  European Fatherhood website, which is designed for researchers and professionals who are concerned with gender equality and greater involvement of fathers in childcare, including taking advantage of the paternity leaves offered in various European countries. You’ll especially enjoy reading “Men too are competent caregivers” by Svend Aage Madsen, Ph.D. who heads the project.  Here is just a small sample of what he writes: “The historical and mythological image of the father as distant and absent and of men as unwilling or unable to care for their children is false.  Current research has shown men to be just as capable as women at building close affectionate bonds with their infants and in providing the care needed for healthy psychological and social development in the child. Men’s potential as caregivers is strong, and studies have shown that infants’ attachment to a primary caregiver is gender neutral.”  He goes on to discuss the barriers against developing this potential and points out the need for changes in attitudes about masculinity and the workplace culture.

It’s all about balance, Kimberly, for both men and women. Both the instrumental and expressive sides of life are important for all of us as human beings.  Since both women and men are made in God’s image, I believe all of us should be reflecting both aspects of life — the love side and the work side, in whatever ways either is expressed.  How we do it is a matter for individuals, couples, and families to decide.

Again, I’ve gone on for too long!  I guess we both just have a lot to say.  But now I’ll stop.

Your friend,

Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni (1935-2024) was an independent scholar, writer, and editor, and the author or coauthor of nine books. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992). Letha served as editor of Christian Feminism Today in both its former print edition (EEWC Update) and its website for 19 years until her retirement in December 2013.



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