Men Want Sweet Wives and Independent Daughters

These desires reflect the real tensions in our incomplete gender revolution, in which changes in the domestic sphere have lagged behind the progress made toward equality in the public one.
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These desires reflect the real tensions in our incomplete gender revolution, in which changes in the domestic sphere have lagged behind the progress made toward equality in the public one.
(Photo: an_untrained_eye/Flickr)

(Photo: an_untrained_eye/Flickr)

A new nationally representative survey of 818 adult American men commissioned by Maria Shriver’s organization A Women’s Nation provides a fascinating look at the complexities and contradictions of men’s modern views on masculinity and gender equality.

Forty-five percent of the surveyed men, regardless of age, say it is harder to “be a man” today compared to their father’s generation, while 20 percent say it is easier and 35 percent say it’s the same. Those who think it’s more difficult primarily attribute the shift to women attaining a stronger position in the workplace, a stronger position financially, and greater gender equality. Interestingly, those are the same reasons most cited by those who think it’s easier. “So, regardless of their conclusions,” the report notes, “men say that women and their changing role in society is the greatest difference between their and the prior generation.”

I’d like a culture that doesn’t just accept a convergence—or even reversal—of gender roles but also challenges how the traits and tasks associated with masculinity are privileged, while those associated with femininity are denigrated.

What the survey suggests about the conflicting feelings within individual men themselves is even more telling. When asked about their attitude toward those changing gender roles in their own lives, the men seemed to be more open to women taking on traditionally “masculine” roles than vice versa. Nearly two-thirds are very comfortable living with or being married to a woman who works outside the home. And roughly half are very comfortable working for a woman and having a female partner who earns more money than they do. Whether you consider those numbers heartening or depressing may just depend on whether you’re a glass half-full or half-empty kind of person.

What’s clear is that men are generally more amenable to sharing the workplace with women than sharing the housework. Just 24 percent say they would be very comfortable being a full-time, stay-at-home dad. Among straight men who are married or co-habitating, only 34 percent say that they take on a greater share of the household responsibilities than their partner does, and only 24 percent of those with children say that they do more of the parenting. These figures echo the wealth of previous research on the gender housework gap, which has narrowed considerably for childless couples in recent years but persists among parents, according to a report released last week by the Council for Contemporary Families.

A similar double standard is reflected in straight men’s answers about the qualities they most want in a daughter versus a romantic partner. When asked to choose their top two or three traits from a list of options, the majority of the men ranked intelligence highly for both. Understandably, they were more likely to value attractiveness in a partner than in a daughter. But while 34 percent want a wife who is “sweet,” only 19 percent said the same for a daughter. Meanwhile, 66 percent want a daughter to be “independent,” compared to only 34 percent for a wife. And 48 percent want a daughter who is “strong,” compared to 28 percent for a wife.

Without any comparison to women’s rankings for their sons and husbands, it’s unclear exactly what to make of these differences. As Eugene Volokh rightly points out at the Washington Post, it’s possible that the meaning of some traits shifts so significantly depending on the relationship context that the results are inappropriately comparing two different questions. When asked about sweetness when it comes to a romantic partner, for example, people may be thinking solely of sweetness to them, while when asked about a daughter, they’re considering sweetness to people in general. (Another admittedly wishful theory: Perhaps when asked about their hopes for their kids, parents tend to play against gender stereotypes. That is, knowing that their girls will get plenty of cultural messages telling them to be sweet and nurturing, they may emphasize independence and strength, while rooting for the reverse when it comes to their sons.)

Still, the fact that previous research has linked having a daughter to more feminist beliefs among men supports the idea that there is indeed something more going on here. At Jezebel, Tracey Moore suggests one possible explanation: that men choose more “culturally sanctioned” characteristics in a spouse because “a wife is a reflection ON you, while a daughter is an extension OF you.”

But I think the relevant distinction is slightly different: In a wife, you want what’s best for YOU, while in a daughter, you want what’s best for HER. In this light, the men’s responses—while depressing—reflect the real tensions of this current moment in our incomplete gender revolution, in which changes in the domestic sphere have lagged behind the progress made toward equality in the public one.

What’s clear is that men are generally more amenable to sharing the workplace with women than sharing the housework. Just 24 percent say they would be very comfortable being a full-time, stay-at-home dad.

This disconnect is only partly about cultural attitudes. Certainly, as the men’s responses show, we’ve come further in accepting women taking on traditionally “male” roles than in men embracing “female” ones. But, as historian Stephanie Cootnz has argued, it’s also about “structural impediments” that “prevent people from acting on their egalitarian values.” In research she conducted for her book The Unfinished Revolution, sociologist Kathleen Gerson found that the vast majority of both men and women would prefer a relationship in which both partners continue their careers and share parenting and housework duties equally. But since our work-family policies haven’t evolved with our shifting work patterns, that ideal often can’t be achieved—and men’s and women’s fall-back positions diverge radically, according to Gerson’s interviews. Most men defaulted to a traditional division of labor, while most women said they would rather divorce than de-prioritize their careers.

In this context, it seems understandable that what you want in a life partner—with whom you create a home, family, and economic unit—might be a bit more complicated than what you want in the child you push out of that nest into the wider world. And not just for men. Take, for example, my own seemingly incoherent desires: I want a partner who is independent and nurturing, strong and sweet, smart and pretty, who has ambitions of his own and is supportive of mine, who will be a stay-at-home dad so I can always work, and who will also somehow be the primary breadwinner so I can have the flexible, low-paying job I love. In other words, I’ll take one great human being and a new society, please.

More specifically, I’d like a culture that doesn’t just accept a convergence—or even reversal—of gender roles but also challenges how the traits and tasks associated with masculinity are privileged, while those associated with femininity are denigrated. Above all, I want an economic system that properly values domestic labor—from the cooking to the emotional support to the raising of the next generation—that, for so long, men could rely exclusively on women to do. This work did not suddenly cease to be essential to the functioning of our society just because we started to give women a say in the matter; as we’ve shifted to a dual-earner economy, it’s simply become harder to figure out how to get it done.

Until then, I’ll remain unsurprised that we increasingly want our daughters to be just like our sons, but that men still want a “wife.” These days, we could all use one.

The Gender Gap explores the persisting gender inequalities of the modern age and society's unwillingness to grapple with them.

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