That’s Just How Women (and Men) Are

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the stereotypes that we place on one another, and the implications of those stereotypes, particularly along gendered lines.  (Jerry’s recent post reminds us, however, that issues of race & gender are deeply intertwined).  As the macro-level, I know about the destructive nature of many of dominant stereotypes that exist in our society.  But at a personal level, it is often difficult for me to know how to respond to gendered stereotypes.




In discussing why gender inequality continues to persist amidst social changes, sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway (Framed by Gender, Oxford, 2011) notes that the gendered stereotypes we hold are often resistant to change.  This has important implications.

 What people think “most people” assume about gender… [is what] people use to coordinate their behavior with others on the basis of gender (159).

In other words, stereotypes are often more important in shaping our actions that our beliefs about our “own gendered characteristics.”  In part, this happens because of a pressure to conform to public expectations, or bear negative reactions from others.

]These stereotypes are destructive.  While they hurt both men and women, women face more restrictions and consequences than men from them. Recently, our department hosted a screening of Miss Representation.  This 2011 documentary highlights the ways that negative media representations of women and girls are connected to the low levels of leadership that women have in our society, especially in politics.  Although it’s not addressed in this film, most of us would acknowledge that in the evangelical world, additional pressures exist that can hinder women from leading.

How do we respond?  As a professor at a Christian college, one of my goals is to encourage my students to be open to wherever God would lead them, and to be willing to follow Him in radical ways.  I want to see them use their passions for His Kingdom.  Frederick Buechner writes, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (Wishful Thinking, HarperOne, 1993, 57).  I want my students to discover those places, wherever they may be.

As I suspect is the case with most readers, I daily encounter gendered expectations. I know I am not alone. Our society of course, is not monolithic, and those expectations vary in different contexts (even as some consistency may exist).  Some seem quite innocuous.  Others don’t. They all matter.

As a Christian covered by grace, I want to live a life of extending grace to others.  Sometimes my first thought is to downplay the significance of these stereotypes and expectations.  I don’t want to make a person feel bad by letting them know I don’t fit their assumptions.  Life will just be easier if I go with the flow.  It’s not really that big of a deal if I change my behavior in this setting. I know that I’m more competent than they see me, and I don’t want my pride to get in the way.

Yet reading Ridgeway, I was reminded that this is not about me.  It’s about stereotypes that will hinder (and have hindered) students I hope to encourage, my daughters, my friends, and people I don’t know. They are destructive, and my acquiescence can be part of the problem. One of my hopes this holiday season is that I will take more responsibility in challenging these gendered stereotypes in grace, and encourage others to do so as well.

The Problem with Being Thankful

I enjoyed celebrating Thanksgiving with my family. I’m thankful for the lives of my three daughters, for my husband; I’m thankful for my parents, my siblings, and my extended family through marriage.  This season, I was especially thankful that my husband and I are able to provide for our family, to meet our children’s needs, and be able to see them thrive. Yet even as I am grateful for these things, I feel a sense of unease in thanking God for these things as good gifts.

Part of this stems from the fact that I hurt alongside with the poor when I celebrate Thanksgiving.  Bryant Myers, in his book, Walking with the Poor (1999), writes:

Poverty is a result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not     harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.

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Social scientists often distinguish between absolute and relative poverty, because poverty is not just about material need.  One of the curses of poverty is the broken relationships that it entails.

Since becoming a mother, I often think more about what poverty means for parents, and the pain of not being able to provide for one’s children.  Sometimes when eating dinner with my pasta-loving children, I imagine what it would be like to have to tell them that I do not have food to feed them.  I watch them play, and celebrate the fact that they can live a life of childhood free from real scarcity or worry.  I rejoice in the fact that I have a job that gives me the time (and energy) to spend time just being and loving my children in person.  But I do not take these realities for granted.

While prosperity gospel is not the prevalent paradigm within Christian churches in the United States, many of us (Christians) still see our material resources as a gift from God.  And this is the belief I wrestled with this Thanksgiving.  While I fully believe in the sovereignty of God to give to some and not to others, that’s not my dominant explanation of why I have and others do not. Many of the blessings I celebrate are linked to my social location. Recently, The Economist ran an article on inequality in the United States, noting that inequality is on the rise.  But what they highlight as one of the central problems is that social mobility is declining, declaring that “Although the United States is seen as a world of opportunity, the reality may be different.”  This argument ran under the subtitle,

A long ladder is fine, but it must have rungs

Unfortunately, there are many people who want to climb the ladder; those who want to support their families. While I will continue to be thankful for the ability to give to my children, I believe simply being thankful is not only not enough.  It’s not the full story. It fails to see the way that our gifts are often not things that are ‘given by God,’ but rather are the result of a broken and unequal system. For me, that means needing to acknowledge that I benefit from a global economic system in a way that many do not, and to ask God what it means to be faithful with those resources that I have. As I think about what that means for my own life, I keep coming back to three things:

  • To make a conscious choice not to exploit others, either indirectly or directly.  This requires me to more actively ask questions and investigate how I am able to achieve the lifestyle (and the “blessings” I have). For some, this entails questions about ethical and sustainable consumerism.
  • To be committed to helping families thrive, and to help parents be able to support their own children.  I recognize that most parents want the best for the children, and being a good parent is largely (although not solely) about having certain resources.
  • To remember why I became a sociologist. One of my central research interests deals with the way relationships are structured by changes in the international political economy.  While I often investigate macro-level concerns, it is because of the pupusa vendor in El Salvador trying to feed her children that I became a sociologist.

I am thankful to God, the giver of life.  I am thankful that He loves all His children. And I am thankful for the opportunity to try and be a part of pursuing His heart for the world.  Of course, I will not deny that I am still thankful for my family and our resources, but even more thankful that God desires for all families to thrive.

The Right to Vote and Political Change

In my last post, I noted how much I’ve appreciated the chance to read through the American Girls series with my oldest daughter, in part because of the ways it has led to some wonderful conversations about class, race, and culture.  As I write this on the eve before Election Day, I cannot help but reflect on the questions of gendered inequality and political change.

Political change is rarely an easy or nice process.  In this election, I have a number of friends and family try to tell me that the election does not matter that much. Neither candidate is perfect.  Our trust should be in God. Good people support both candidates. I agree with Yancey’s recent post that the demonization of the other side is problematic. And yet while I agree with some  arguments offered by citizens uninterested in the election results, it does not negate the fact that the stakes are high.  I suspect during the era when women were fighting for the right to vote, or African-Americans fighting for changed laws during the Civil Rights movement, people also made similar arguments.

Political change can be a contentious process. Recently, a posting on Facebook alerted me to a set of political anti-suffrage images from about a century ago.  While the accompanying article was meant to highlight the ways that women are still treated with a lack of dignity in the media, it was the portrayal of the women in the images that caught my attention. The women are painted as ugly, lazy, hateful of their spouses, and indifferent towards their children (not all that unlike some of the more negative depictions of current feminists).

When my daughter reads about Samantha (an American Girl) and her discovery of the women’s suffrage movement, a very different portrait is presented than the images just referenced.  Samantha finds her beautiful aunt speaking at a rally; her aunt is able to convert her mother-in-law to seeing that change is good.  The story ends well. People see the light.  And maybe for a six-year old, that is an appropriate way to introduce the story.

But it’s not reality. In a world divided by partisan politics, my intent is not to suggest that we should stake our identity on political affiliation, or hold politics as the answer to all of life’s problems. But the implications of who wins matter. It matters for everyone. The marginalized are often the ones who know this the best.

I continue to love those friends and family members with whom I strongly disagree, and value the chance to dialogue with them about important issues, including (but not limited to) politics.  And I hope they continue to love me.  But the answer is not for me to pretend the election does not matter, and to turn to questions about the weather or Sunday’s football game.  During the suffrage movement, I’m sure many also wanted to move to ‘easier’ topics, to believe that women’s voting was no big deal. It was easy to portray the women who fought strongly for the right to vote as a bit overzealous or misguided.

To return back to the stories of the American Girls, I appreciate the ways that gender inequalities are presented, and the ways that readers are introduced to a wide variety of gendered norms that have existed throughout time and across culture.  In championing the ability of girls to do anything, the books show the strong spirits that the girls have; they show the ways that they challenge expectations that others have. The girls are portrayed as strong, capable, caring, and creative.

But within that, fighting inequality is often depicted as too easy.  As I take my three daughters into the voting booth with me early on November 6, I hope to also instill in them the importance of politics and policies when it comes to issues of inequality.  Yes, God is in control.  Yes, neither Romney nor Obama (nor any other elected official) will rid the world of sin. Yes, we can try to rise above our circumstances (to some degree).  But let us admit that we will start the day Wednesday affected by what happens at the polls.  It will impact America. It will impact the world.  We have acknowledged the important role that the women’s suffrage movement and Civil Rights legislation has had on the country.  Let us remember that so will our choices concerning immigration policy, welfare, corporate personhood, health care, and the dignity of life.






Parades and Protests

In cities across America, people marched in parades to celebrate Labor Day yesterday.  At the first Labor Day in 1882 (occurring a few years before Labor Day became an official holiday in 1894), a number of people marched through the streets of New York City.  The march 130 years ago would not have been confused with the marches yesterday, either in purpose or passion.

Walking through various neighborhoods yesterday, I saw flags hanging in front of people’s houses.  I smelled hamburgers and hotdogs cooking.  Online, I read a number of articles and other postings celebrating American workers.  For example, the US Census Bureau released this list of facts to celebrate the 155.2 million people currently participating the labor force.

For many, Labor Day is an important event, but the reasons are often very different than the reasons prompting its inclusion in the register of federal holidays. For some it marks the last day of summer before going back to school.  Many celebrate local workers (such as the fireman and police), and are thankful for the opportunities they personally have to labor in their own lives.  People often come together with family and friends. Without bemoaning these reasons for celebration, we have lost something by not remembering why Labor Day became an official American holiday.

Labor Day was originally founded in part because of class struggle.  Early organizers were concerned with two central goals:  building and inspiring the organized labor movement, and rallying the public to its cause.  In the 1930s, a number of workers were joining labor movements.  As Kazin and Ross argue (in their 1992 overview of the history of Labor Day in the United States), even with the variation across the nation in how the day was celebrated, since the 1950s, Labor Day has largely failed to evoke the raw emotions surrounding the contentious issues it once did.

It would be hard to argue that the environment towards organized labor today is a positive one.  Most will recall the events of Wisconsin in 2011, when the state—which was, ironically, the first to recognize the collective bargaining rights of workers back in 1959—scaled back such collective bargaining possibilities.  Labor movements do not have the strength they once did, although scholars of labor movements recognize the new ways that labor are involved in social movements today.

Organized labor has fewer numbers and fewer allies than it has had in the past.  Of the labor force, currently just under 12% are now affiliated with organized labor.  This chart, produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics based on 2011 data, shows how union membership varies by occupation.


Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012


What is it that we have lost, as parades down Main Street replace labor protests?

First, recent research by political scientists at Notre Dame and Texas A&M suggests that labor unions increase the “life satisfaction” of members—and non-members in areas where unions are present.  Perhaps especially important, they find that the impact of unions matters more for those with low incomes.  While I know readers of this blog will disagree about some of the current tactics and strategies used by unions, it is hard to deny the real effects that collective bargaining has had over the years.  They have been critically involved in championing changes to unemployment laws, fighting against discrimination of workers, and changing the working conditions and remuneration of members.

Second, Labor Day was not just a day where laborers worked for their goals and rallied members, but also a time when the general public was made aware of these voices (a point highlighted by Kazin and Ross).  Currently, many of those working in parallel jobs to the industries where unions abounded—many of the working poor and working middle class—do not have the same chances to have their voices heard.  Workers without economic capital and wealth are often absent from political debates about the economy (as witnessed by the current public rhetoric between democrats and republicans).

I believe that most of us want to be part of a society that provides a chance for all to participate in dignified work.  It is imperative that we not just recognize and celebrate all who labor, even as such an act is important.  We must also recognize the changes that organized labor have helped to bring about for many Americans, and the lack of power that many laborers continue to feel in our economy.