What Is the State of Gender Affairs?

Category: Weekly Columns

There’s no question that technology changes faster than most of us yuppies and boomers can handle.  I don’t know what the current number of years for technology “generations” is, but I do know that if you have children five or more years apartin age, they will each use technology differently.  I’ve observed my own two boys, just three years apart, using social media/smart phones each in his own distinct way. My younger son relies almost exclusively on texting, while my older son actually occasionally talks on his cell-phone.

Things may not move quite this fast with our state of gender affairs but I assert that we are now experiencing changes in our gender roles much faster than at any other time in human history.  While I’m part of the sixties generation where we believed we re-invented everything, from sex to politics, established that anyone over 30 didn’t know anything, changed college life forever, was the first generation to have the pill, and the first to topple a presidency and end a war by withdrawal, we still have our own adjustments to these gender changes.

Title IX did not exist.  Anita Hill hadn’t happened and the term “sexual harassment” sounded to us flower children like a come-on line.  Women senators, governors, and CEOs were far from commonplace, and the notion of a male secretary or a female firefighter was unheard of.  Divorce was still stigmatized, shame existed as a consequence of poor behavior, reality TV meant Walter Cronkite, seeing a movie was only possible in a theatre, and phones had wires and rotary dials.

Today, naturally, things are quite different.  The Pew Center released a study on January 19, 2010, called “The New Economics of Marriage: The Rise of Wives,” which revealed how dramatic some of these gender changes have been in the past 40 years. This study mostly discussed marriage and income, changes in who worked and stayed home, gender educational levels reached, and other marital statistics.

For instance, “In 1970, 28% of wives…had husbands who were better educated than they were, outnumbering the 20% whose husbands had less education. By 2007, these patterns had reversed: 19% of wives had husbands with more education, versus 28% whose husbands had less education. In the remaining couples — about half in 1970 and 2007 — spouses have similar education levels.” (From the Pew Center Study).

How can these changes not affect gender relationships?

The study also related changes in marital issues, and concluded that the “reshuffling of marriage patterns from 1970 to 2007” during which time, “Among U.S.-born 30- to 44-year-olds, women now are the majority both of college graduates and those who have some college education but not a degree. Women’s earnings grew 44% from 1970 to 2007, compared with 6% growth for men.”

Does anyone still question how much different our roles and expectations for each gender are today vs. just a few decades ago?

Another finding from this study relates to what has occurred to men and women during our present economic downturn, which ”is reinforcing these gender reversal trends, because it has hurt employment of men more than that of women.”

Have these changes affected marriage?  You betcha. The study went on to say that, “These days, Americans are more likely than in the past to cohabit, divorce, marry late or not marry at all. There has been a marked decline in the share of Americans who are currently married.  Among U.S.-born 30- to 44-year- olds, 60% were married in 2007, compared with 84% in 1970.”

How have all these changes affected men’s and women’s roles within marriage?  Another Pew Research Center survey, in 2008, found “that wives who earn more than their husbands are more likely to have decision-making power, especially over major purchases and household finances. According to the survey, in couples where the husband makes more money, spouses are about equally likely to say that husbands (35%) and wives (36%) make most decisions regarding household finances. However, in couples where the wife makes more, spouses say that only 21% of husbands make most decisions on household finances, compared with 46% of wives.”

What does this all mean for our children, for our boys who are now outnumbered in college entrances for the first time in American history?  What will it mean in relationships?  How will it affect the work force?

I don’t think there’s a clear answer and only time will tell, but like the well-known story of Exodus, where a generation of Israelites weren’t allowed to enter “the promised land” due to their memories, I suspect that my generation will stubbornly cling to our notions of which sex does what.

In my marriages, both of my wives worked, but I made the larger income and made the major financial decisions.  However, during my first marriage when I left my career to be the SAHD (stay-at-home-dad) and when we later got divorced, I became my boys’ sole parent.

Those years were very confusing for me because I was not treated as an equal parent at my son’s schools, when I tried to participate in the parent organizations.  I got “lip service” appreciation from the mothers but was mostly ignored.  I believe that was because I am in the transition generation where our gender roles are uncomfortably changing, whether for better or worse.

During those years, men almost universally asked me one question, “Have you gotten a job yet?”  Women usually asked, “What do you do all day?”  Can you imagine one mom asking another mom that question?

Now, in my second marriage, I am still the SAHD, working out of my home, still taking care of the majority of our financial needs, while my second wife continues to work in her career.

You might say that I’m one confused man still wanting to be the “man of the house,” but recognizing the changes that have occurred during my adulthood while not feeling totally comfortable with them.  That is what happens in any “revolution” and we are going through a revolution of gender roles and expectations.

The boys in my family will know nothing different, as they are growing up with technology that was only in the mind of Stanley Kubrick (well, Isaac Asimov really, I suppose) and gender roles that my parents couldn’t even imagine.  When I was a young boy, I played with my Roy Rogers gun set while wearing my Davey Crocket hat.  The girls I knew loved Ann Margret, from “Bye Bye Birdie,” and Annette Funicello, from “The Mickey Mouse Club.”

The Sallan boys and their generation are growing up as these gender changes become more acceptable and maybe even second nature to them. Men and women will have interchangeable roles in many instances.  A clear definition of what a man or woman can or should do, may no longer exist.  I sincerely hope it’s for the best.  Time will tell.