Gender: Nature or Human Invention?
This is another of our very belated book reviews - of books that belong on our Resources page but for some reason or another were late in arriving there. Today's review is about Barbara Risman's wonderful Gender Vertigo. Published in 1998 when she was a sociology professor at North Carolina State University (she's now at the University of Illinois at Chicago), Gender Vertigo examines what is means to be men and women in our culture - and it means so much more than most of us could consciously admit!
Gender Vertigo suggests that our labeling of everything as 'masculine' and 'feminine' is taken for granted as a way of organizing all aspects of our society. That what we all assume is the natural nurturing instinct of women is in fact a gender structure "so accepted that we seldom even see it." We've built it ourselves.
In particular, Risman examines how this plays out in families and then presents 15 'feminist' families - in other words, ESP families ("in which the husband and wife...actually agree that they are equally responsible for earning the family wage and doing the family labor of housework and childrearing"). In her study, interestingly, the 15 families shared several characteristics: high education for both parents, fathers who were rather easy-going, secure about themselves and family-centered, and mothers who often outearned their husbands.
She divides the ESP couples into four relationship types: dual-career (two parents who were equally career-centered), dual-nurturer (two parents whose lives centered around the family), post-traditionals (parents who had escaped traditional relationships and wanted to avoid them now) and those pushed by outside forces (parents who became equals due to outside circumstances). I think Marc and I are dual-nurturers-who-value-our-careers!
It gets really interesting when Dr. Risman interviews the children in these 15 families. In fact, involving the ESP kids in research is rather rare, so she provides an important look at what equal sharing might be doing to our kids. Although she doesn't delve into how ESP affects kids' self-esteem or other life-functioning characteristics, her data show that ESP kids believe in ESP and fully expect their adult lives to be similar to their parents'. Interestingly, however, coming from a family in which a mother and father are true peers doesn't prevent kids from considering their own classmates to be gendered. The ESP kids, like all other children, believe in differences between girls and boys and consider themselves to fit in with these societal gender expectations. As Risman says, "It almost seems as if these children believe that boys and girls are opposites but that men and women are magically transformed into equal and comparable people."
Dr. Risman's concluding chapter introduces the dizzying out-of-the-box thinking that would be needed to produce a world not organized by gender - in other words, a world where equality is possible. She argues that this type of thinking is the only exit from "deeply held but incorrect beliefs about the natural differences between women and men."
Gender Vertigo is a feminist sociology text, written for a social science audience. But don't let that stop you from being inspired by its messages. I'm definitely inspired to be a part of what Dr. Risman envisions for our gender-equal future. I'm happy to read what we might be inspiring in our children when they someday pick their partners and set up their families. I'm thrilled to read of Dr. Risman's solid belief in gender as social invention rather than a natural constraint.
And I'm happy to introduce you to the latest entry in our Resources section: Gender Vertigo.