Section Six: Families

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Section Six: Families

Learning Objectives

  • To understand how families contribute to gender socialization and gender inequality.

  • To recognize how a person’s experience in a family is affected by a person’s gender, race, sexuality, and class.

  • To be aware of the differences in family structures that exist and of how these structures are different and similar.

  • To be conscious of how families can be a woman’s source of strength or resistance.

  • To be aware of how public discourse and the media frame our understanding of families.

Section Summary

The institution of the family contributes to gender socialization and is often the site of gender inequality. Families vary considerably in their make-up (sexuality of the members, number of parents, etc.) and by race/ethnicity and class.

  • Families provide people with the first sense of themselves as a gendered being.

  • People spend much of their adult lives in families.

  • Women and men have different experiences and duties in many families.

  • Public discourse and the media shape how we understand various aspects of the family.

  • Families can be a women’s source of strength or resistance, as well as their subordination.

Reading 26: Melissa Morrison, “Bridal Wave”

Morrison uses examples from TV and other forms of popular culture to demonstrate how American culture obsesses over weddings while often ignoring the difficulties within and social realities of marriage. Today’s focus on weddings reflects American consumerism and bias for recognizing only heterosexual relationship.

  • Morrison compares the feverish focus on weddings “wedding porn.” This is described as the emphasis on the wedding ceremony without focusing on the sentiments and problems the ceremony represents.

  • In America marriage is in decline with fewer people marrying, more people cohabitating, and people waiting longer to marry.

  • The average wedding costing around $22,000. This cost is out of reach for many Americans, especially the poor and minorities.

  • President Bush has allocated $1.5 billion to encourage low-income heterosexual couples to marry, but this does not necessarily help the people stay together in beneficial relationships.

  • Weddings are a heterosexual industry. Despite the possible profits of gay or lesbian weddings, popular culture has rarely portrayed gay unions.

  • Celebrity weddings encourage people to marry and spend a lot of money doing it.

  • The wedding industry’s intended clients are upper-income whites. Most wedding materials portray these couples and sell to these couples.

  • One of the most common causes of marital conflict is money, so it may be that the cost of weddings contributes to the downfall of marriages.

Reading 27: Carolyn Herbst Lewis, “Waking Sleeping Beauty: The Pelvic Exam and Heterosexuality during the Cold War”

Lewis describes how physicians in the 1950s and 60s encouraged premarital women to have a pelvic exam in the hopes of instilling “proper” gender roles in the marriage which they believed would strengthen the marriage and subsequently strengthen the nation. Physicians were concerned not only with sexual deviancy, but with maintaining distinctions between “good” and “bad” heterosexual identity and performance. The pelvic exam enforced traditional gender roles by suggesting that “good” healthy adult women should be passive sexually, virgins at marriage, focused on motherhood rather than orgasms, and only orgasm vaginally.

  • Physicians (as well as many other influential leaders) feared the rising divorce rate and what they saw as “sexual chaos” including promiscuity and homosexuality. Doctors believed that they needed to fix these problems by encouraging healthy heterosexual marriages. Fuelled by the Cold War and fear of the Soviets, they worried that communities and the nation would fall apart if they did not do so.

  • Influenced by Freudian theories, doctors believed that in order for women to be healthy and “well adjusted” during maturity they would psychologically shift their orgasmic focus from the clitoris to the vagina. Women who could not orgasm through vaginal penetration were diagnosed as “frigid.” Doctors believed that women should not focus on their own pleasure because only men’s orgasm was necessary for procreation.

  • Physicians believed that marital breakdown resulted from women’s sexual ignorance and fear, which they believed began on the wedding night. This led doctors to try to prepare and instruct women during premarital doctor’s visits. They did not try to prepare premarital men to be gentle or reassuring during this first sexual experience, however.

  • Physicians made assumptions about race and class, and their pelvic exams were particularly reserved for white, middle class women who they believed to be more modest and thus in need of more sensitivity than their other patients.

  • The model for the premarital exam was outlined in a JAMA article by Nadina Kavinoky. This exam included instruction in relaxing and contracting vaginal muscles and penetration with an instrument. They also advocated exercises to dilate the hymen prior to marriage.

  • Physicians believed that they were the second hero of the “Sleeping Beauty” story because they helped the prince/husband to navigate through their bride’s hymen and save the community.

  • Decisions about dilation were not left up to premarital women, but the permission of the husband and often the woman’s parents was necessary before the procedure could occur.

Reading 28: Denise Segura, “Working at Motherhood: Chicana and Mexicana Immigrant Mothers and Employment”

From her interviews with Chicanas and Mexicanas, Segura describes how ideas concerning motherhood are culturally formed. Immigrant Mexicana women see paid labor as a duty of motherhood, while many Chicana women feel guilty about working rather than staying home with their children.

  • Chicana women tended to be voluntarily unemployed or ambivalently employed mothers. Mexicanas tended to be involuntarily unemployed or nonambivalently employed mothers.

  • Mexicanas see paid labor and domestic or childcare work as intertwined with motherhood, because they were raised in Mexico where women’s labor is not seen as separate from their position as mother. This allows these women to feel less ambivalence and less guilt about their work.

  • Chicanas experience greater guilt and ambivalence because they have been raised in the United States, where the productive labor of the family is seen as separate from the expressive functions of the family; these women saw paid labor as distinct from their roles as mothers.

  • These findings contradict theories that suggest that more recent immigrant women would experience greater guilt and ambivalence about work. Their culture places a stronger emphasis on the importance of motherhood than American culture does.

  • Neither of these forms of motherhood challenged male privilege in the family and many of these women spoke of being pressured by their husbands regarding their work situations.

Reading 29: Kathleen Gerson, “Moral Dilemmas, Moral Strategies, and the Transformation of Gender: Lessons from Two Generations of Work and Family Change”

Women’s increased entry into the workforce has altered the traditional model that divided men’s and women’s work into different categories with husbands contributing to the family by working and wives caring for the family. These changes have produced moral dilemmas for balancing individualism and commitment. While most young people espouse equality, men and women have different strategies if egalitarian relationships are impossible.

  • New social conditions of a changed economy and changed ideas about gender, particularly women, have undermined the link between gender and moral obligation. Women are now expected to perform paid work and the majority of family work. Men now have more opportunities to abandon family obligations and more pressure to be actively involved with the family.

  • Most families feel that they do not have enough time to care for their families and for self-sufficiency.

  • Gerson performed 120 life-history interviews with a racially diverse sample of New Yorkers aged 18-32 to understand how young men and women are handling these dilemmas.

  • The young New Yorkers felt that a lasting relationship was an ideal that was hard to reach and should be based on the quality of the relationship. Many of these people wondered if it would be possible to balance commitment and self-affirmation.

  • The majority of young people whose mother worked supported the idea of two-person careers as good for the family, and half of the young people whose mother stayed home wished she had worked for pay.

  • Most of the young people also felt that a good father not only worked to financially support the family, but also spent time with the children and was there emotionally.

  • In this context a good parent is constructed as someone who cares for the family both economically and emotionally.

  • Most of the men and women felt that self-interest, too, could not be limited to just work or the family. However, significantly more men than women preferred the traditional gender order in the family.

  • Few young people believe they will be able to integrate work and family, and most jobs make it difficult to do so.

  • Men and women differed in how they would live if their egalitarian ideal could not be achieved. Women preferred to remain autonomous if they are not able to have an egalitarian family structure, but men would prefer a “modified traditionalism” where they remain the primary or sole breadwinner and their partner performs most of the domestic labor.

  • Some young people are waiting to marry or have children, and thus feel that autonomy and individualism are prerequisites to commitment.

Reading 30: Hung Cam Thai, “For Better or Worse: Gender Allures in the Vietnamese Global Marriage Market”

Thai uses the example of the couple Minh and Thanh to demonstrate how the decisions of Vietnamese women and Vietnamese-American men to engage in transnational marriages are based on a need for respect and global class relations.

  • The men are unable to marry because they have low class status in the United States, while the women are unable to marry because of their higher class and education level in Vietnam.

  • Both of these statuses are considered unattractive to prospective marriage partners based on the intersection of class and gender ideology.

  • These Vietnamese men and women attempt to improve their marriage status through marriage migration. In the global marriage market, Vietnamese-American men receive status because they are living in the United States. The Vietnamese women are seen to be in a lower position because of their location in Vietnam.

  • The women expect that their husbands in the U.S. will have a more egalitarian gender ideology than the men in Vietnam do, while the men expect that the women from Vietnam will respect traditional gender roles.

  • These gender ideologies are likely to clash during the marriage when the women come to the United States; this could place the women in danger or force them to lose their own egalitarian ideology.

Reading 31: Nancy Naples, “Queer Parenting in the New Millennium”

Naples discusses the queer communities’ various opinions regarding the GLBT movement’s focus on same-sex marriage rights. Many efforts are needed to expand conceptions of the family and to challenge heteronormativity.

  • Conservatives have focused much money and attention on traditional marriage. The Bush administration has funded programs to promote marriage among low-income people, and Senate conservatives have unsuccessfully attempted to bring about an amendment that would limit marriage to heterosexuals.

  • Although much of the mainstream GLBT movement has focused on opening up marriage to gays and lesbians, many in the GLBT movement are skeptical of this direction. They fear that the focus on marriage would assimilate queers into a heterosexist regime, undermine radical queer politics, and further marginalize those in non-monogamous relationships. Others suggest that the tremendous energy within the same-sex marriage movement can be harnessed to achieve other goals of the GLBT movement.

  • While some have argued that marriage is only an issue for white gays and lesbians, recent research suggests that many GLBT persons of color desire same-sex unions, too.

  • Under the current laws, gays and lesbians are denied many opportunities and benefits including access to adopting or having children. Many gays and lesbians must go through expensive legal processes to obtain only some of the rights.

  • Queer parents like Nancy Naples pose a challenge to various assumptions about families, gender and sexuality. However, the prevalence of heteronormativity causes the non-biological parent often to constantly explain his/her relationship to the child and he/she may even need to adopt her own child.

Discussion Questions

Reading 26: Melissa Morrison, “Bridal Wave”

  1. What does popular culture like TV shows and magazines tell us about weddings? What does popular culture suggest about marriage?

  2. What is “wedding porn”? Why does Morrison suggest that the wedding industry look like porn?

  3. What is President Bush doing to encourage marriage? How do you think it will affect people?

  4. How much does a wedding cost? Who can afford these costs? How does this affect the wedding industry? Do you think the high-cost of weddings affects marriages? How so?

  5. Why are weddings so popular on TV shows and in magazines? Why do people focus on celebrity weddings? How do celebrity weddings affect people?

Reading 27: Carolyn Herbst Lewis, “Waking Sleeping Beauty: The Pelvic Exam and Heterosexuality during the Cold War”

  1. What was involved in the 1950s and 60s premarital pelvic exam? Why do you think this exam fell out of favor in medical practice after this time period?

  2. Why did doctors believe that pelvic exams were necessary? What do you think is problematic with this exam?

  3. What was the definition of frigidity according to physicians in the 1950’s and 60’s? How does this differ from traditional definitions?

  4. Why did doctors believe that they were the second heroes of the “Sleeping Beauty” story? Why did they think they were important for saving the “kingdom”/U.S.?

Reading 24: Kathleen Gerson, “Moral Dilemmas, Moral Strategies, and the Transformation of Gender: Lessons from Two Generations of Work and Family Change”

  1. What is the moral dilemma facing men and women according to Gerson? How have things changed regarding this dilemma?

  2. How do young people feel about their mothers having worked or stay home? Why might the children of working mothers be happier with the idea of the working mother? Why did some whose mothers stayed home wish their mothers had worked?

  3. According to Gerson, what do young people hope for when arranging their own families? What might get in the way of these egalitarian dreams?

  4. How do men and women differ in the way they intend to handle the demands of work and family? What does Gerson suggest can be done to make this easier?

Reading 25: Denise Segura, “Working at Motherhood: Chicana and Mexicana Immigrant Mothers and Employment”

  1. Discuss the differences between Chicana and Mexicana mothers regarding work and motherhood. Why are they different?

  2. How do husbands factor into Chicana and Mexican women’s decisions regarding work and motherhood? How does the class status make a difference in these decisions?

  3. Why does Segura’s research on Chicana and Mexicana mothers differ from what was expected relative to current understandings of immigrants? Do Mexican immigrant women experience greater gender equality?

Reading 26: Hung Cam Thai, “For Better or Worse: Gender Allures in the Vietnamese Global Marriage Market”

  1. Why are Minh and Thanh unable to find spouses in their home countries? How is the idea of respect linked to Minh and Thanh’s decision to marry a person so far away?

  2. What are the social structural reasons why people like Minh and Thanh decide to participate in marriage migration? What are the demographic reasons?

  3. How are Minh and Thanh’s gender ideologies likely to clash when they are married? What do you think will happen to couples like this?

Reading 27: Nancy Naples, “Queer Parenting in the New Millennium”

  1. Why are many queer scholars and activists concerned with the GLBT movement’s focus on same-sex marriage? Do you think their concerns are justified? Why or why not?

  2. What benefits might gays and lesbians receive from the legalization of gay marriage?

  3. What political actions does Naples describe that conservatives are using to promote heteronormativity? Can you think of other laws and money that are used to promote heteronormativity?

  4. What effect does queer marriage or parenting have on heteronormativity and traditional gender relations?

Assignments and Exercises

Exploring Wedding Magazines: This exercise could be done as an in-class exercise or a take home assignment. Students should carefully examine one wedding magazine issue such as Brides, Modern Bride, Wedding Style, or regional wedding magazines. Students should be asked to find any articles that discuss the marriage or the relationship rather than products. Additionally, students should be asked to look for any pictures that show or articles that discuss homosexual or non-gender normative individuals. Students should discuss their findings and what they reveal about the wedding industry.

Writing about a Different Family Structure: This exercise is designed to have students think about how their family structure has contributed to their current life. Ask students to spend part of class time writing about how their lives would be different if they had a family structure different from the one in which they grew up. Students should write about a one-parent family if they grew up in a two-parent family or a family with straight parents if they were raised by queer parents, etc. Students should take a moment to reflect on how these family structures would contribute to their understanding and expression of gender and sexuality. Ask students to discuss what they believe would be different.
Interviews with Families: Ask students to interview four people in their immediate family about their family lives. They should attempt to gain a greater understanding of how work and family often clash and how the expectations concerning these things are gendered. Ask students to interview people from at least two different generations in order to see how some things have shifted over time. They should ask many questions related to the division of household labor, work outside the home, childcare, and gender expectations.
Panel with People from Diverse Families: In order to expose students to a variety of family structures, a panel should be arranged that represents the many structures discussed in these readings (queer families, dual-earner families, egalitarian families, single-parent families, traditional families where a woman stays home, families where a man stays home, etc.). Ask the panelists to describe the difficulties they face in the course of balancing work and family. Also ask these parents about the positive and negative aspects of their particular family structures. Were they raised in the same type of family structure they are now living in? Additionally, ask the students to come up with questions that will divulge the varying ways in which gender is an important structure in each of these families.
Partner Contract: This is an exercise to encourage students to think seriously about how the various aspects of family and gender will ideally apply to their lives. Ask students to develop a contract for their future together with a current partner, spouse, lover, boyfriend or girlfriend, or a close friend who will pretend to be one of the above. This contract should negotiate how various aspects of family life will be governed. These aspects should include:

  1. division of labor in the home and for pay [Ask students to be specific about the amount of time each chore and each job will take. How will relocation or advancement be handled?]

  2. children and childcare [How will children come into the family? Who will take care of the child during the day? How will discipline be handled? What happens when a child is ill? What parenting strategies will be employed?]

  3. gender socialization and gender presentation by the “parents” [How will children be socialized in terms of gender? How will parents model their own gender ideology?]

  4. relationship with extended family [How might responsibilities regarding older or sick relatives be handled? How close will you remain to biological families?]

  5. emotional support and friend networks [What expectations exist about love and respect from each partner and from those outside the family?]

Cross-cultural Families: In order to discuss the ways in which families vary by culture and economic standing, ask students to write a short paper about family structures in a culture or an economic class other than their own. They should approach this paper as a research paper for which they look for biographies, popular media examples, and academic literature that describe family life. Ask them to discuss how attitudes and expectations about motherhood, family structure, sexuality, and gender vary by culture and economic standing. They should present these papers to the class to inform the class about a wide variety of structural differences in the family.
Wedding Traditions Debate: Many of today’s wedding rituals derive from sexist traditions that are rarely understood by those who practice them. Have students investigate the history of and think about the gendered implications of a wedding ritual such as the wedding shower, the bridal veil, or the father “giving away” daughter. Students should be divided into groups to argue for or against including this tradition in a wedding ceremony.

Web Links
Alternatives to Marriage Project

Many couples cannot (such as gays and lesbians) get married and others choose not to get married. This site explores some of the various “alternatives to marriage” that couples form. This organization seeks validation and support for unmarried relationships.
Asian Americans and Interracial Dating and Marriage

Social norms, mores, values, and laws regulating families have been organized around sex, sexuality, and property concerns, and also around racial hierarchies that make “marrying outside one’s race” a threat to the existing structures of social organization. The Asian-American experience in the United States has been shaped by pressures against out-marriage (or “exogamy”) both within Asian-American communities and from white-dominated society. Learn more at the Asian-Nation website.
Dual-Science-Career Couples

How does “family” relate to “career” in the lives of women? Do women in professional positions have more power in their relationships? What happens when both partners work in the same profession—and it’s a non-traditional field for women? These are some of the questions facing women in the male-dominated field of physics, and this information is relevant to people in careers besides physics. One strategy physicists have used to explore this issue is to share their concerns with others facing similar challenges. This website introduces some of their concerns, strategies, and triumphs.

Feminist Perspectives on Reproduction and the Family

Many feminists and other philosophers and theorists see equality in the family as intrinsically linked to gender equality in society. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explores feminist ideas of equality in the family and in society in this website.

Human Rights Campaign (HRC): Marriage and Relationship Recognition

Nancy Naples describes the mainstream GLBT movement’s focus on same-sex marriage rights and this difficulty of social acceptance for GLBT families. The Human Rights Campaign Fund is at the forefront of the mainstream GLBT movement for equal rights. In this section of the HRC website there are stories describing the struggle to have queer families accepted. This site also provides links to information on relevant legislation and goals.

Many people who want to have a wedding wish to avoid the consumerism and the sexist and heterosexist language and traditions Melissa Morrison discusses. This website is a site for people who are interested in alternatives to some of these traditions. What traditions are and which are not questioned on this site?
Juggling Work and Family

As Kathleen Gerson describes, many families have struggled with balancing the demands of work and family, and most young men and women worry about how this balancing act will take place. This site provides numerous links to information for employers who are trying to structure a family-friendly workplace and for families who are trying to work out a balance. There are additional links to organizations and other information that may be helpful to families seeking to be egalitarian.
Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life: Gay Marriage

The Pew Charitable Trust has several forums that seek to enhance the understanding of various issues central to American society. One issue that this research center has focused on is gay marriage. This website offers a number of factual reports on the status of gay marriage in the United States as well as American attitudes toward this phenomenon. There are helpful maps and statistics offered in these pages as well.
Sex Education in America

Mary-Jane Wagle describes what is and what should be taught in sex education programs in the United States. Recent research by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government looks at what parents and educators want in today’s sex education programs.

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