Women as Wives:
Cultural and Historical Variations
If it is true from the standpoint of human development that a maternal orientation works against gender hierarchy, it might be conceptually neat if societies that stress women's mothering were characterized by greater gender equality than those in which women were defined primarily as wives. But such neatness is obviously not to be found in cross-cultural studies, and attempts to generalize about the degree of gender equality in various societies are rife with empirical and conceptual problems. Although I have neither the expertise nor the temerity to attempt a cross-cultural overview, it is possible to make certain limited generalizations relevant to the mother-wife distinction and gender equality. I begin this chapter, then, by describing findings concerning greater gender equality in those simple societies that are characterized by matrilineal descent rules and matrilocal residence rules. These societies are more likely to have less gender hierarchy than patrilineal-patrilocal societies. I also examine the different but related cases of so-called matrifocal enclaves found occasionally in class societies. These also seem to be characterized by less gender hierarchy. Matrifocal societies have in common with matrilineal-matrilocal societies a tendency to deemphasize the wife role, and this seems to be related to greater gender equality.
Although these cross-cultural examples of relatively egalitarian arrangements are instructive in thinking about alternatives to the present situation, any attempt to implement them would have to
take into account the larger modern context. The major part of this chapter is devoted to describing the historical development of this modern context, beginning with a description of the agrarian patriarchal societies that preceded modern industrial societies.
It is generally agreed that the patriarchal societies that arose along with the state and social classes were more oppressive to women than either modern industrial societies or most preclass societies. Although modern women's situation in the industrial societies that succeeded the agricultural era derives from the situation of women under Western versions of patriarchy, it differs from it in important respects. In modern industrial Western societies and perhaps especially in the United States, patriarchy has been much moderated by the influence of Protestantism, with its doctrines of individualism, and the nuclear family ideal.
But the nuclear family system, although different from classic patriarchy, creates its own problems for women in an individualistic society. I trace the vicissitudes of the definitions of women in the "modern family" that arose in the nineteenth century. These definitions moved, within the context of individualism, from a stress on women as mothers in the nineteenth century to an emphasis on women as wives in the twentieth. Finally, I return to the concerns with which I began the chapter and present a theory concerning what I will call "middle-class matrifocality" and its connection to the rise of the Women's Movement in the late 1960s.
Matrilineal Horticultural Societies
Some of the most widely studied cases of societies in which females enjoy relatively high prestige and power are matrilineal-matrilocal horticultural societies. These societies count descent mainly through the mothers line, and husbands live on lands owned by the matrilineage. Matriliny does not eliminate male authority, because the mothers brother is likely to exercise some authority over his sisters son, but matriliny does tend to weaken the husband's authority over wife and children. When descent is matrilineal and the residence of the married couple is matrilocal, there is at least the potential both for breaking up the solidarity of brothers and for weakening the authority of husbands, since brothers leave their own territory when they marry to become husbands of wives who
own the land. Among the Iroquois, unrelated men lived in a long-house with wives who were each others sisters. Thus, as brothers men have less chance to exercise authority over their sisters' sons, and as husbands they also have less authority over their own wives and children.
Indeed, one of Lévi-Strauss's arguments for his view that marriage constitutes "an exchange of women by men" is the relative rarity of matrilineal-matrilocal arrangements. The reason for this is that matriliny coupled with matrilocality weakens the position of men as husbands and threatens "sexual asymmetry," that is, "male dominance." Lévi-Strauss notes that such societies generally have some compensating features that counteract the disadvantages to husbands that the matrilineal, matrilocal situation entails. These compensatory mechanisms suggest that husband's authority over wife may be, from the male's standpoint, something very important to preserve in all kinship arrangements.
Evidence for the importance of matrilineal kinship in enhancing women's status comes from a study designed to test a hypothesis proposed by the sociologist Randall Collins about causes of variation among societies in male sexual dominance. Collins suggested that the degree of male "sexual" dominance ("sexual" in the narrow sense, resting ultimately, he claims, on males' physical desire and greater strength) would vary more in relation to economic and political factors than in terms of kinship variables. A study designed to test Collins's hypothesis on a cross-cultural sample found to the contrary that marital residence and descent rules of the society (i.e., kinship variables) were the better predictors of degree of sexual inequality. Specifically, the researchers found that male sexual dominance and control over sexuality was less developed in matrilineal descent groups and that whatever the residence rules, matriliny weakened the concentration of male power.
More recent support comes from the family sociologist Ira Reiss, who, using the Standard Cross-Cultural sample, finds, not surprisingly, greater male sexual rights in patrilineal than in matrilineal societies. Moreover, Reiss finds that in those patrilineal societies where males also lived together in the same community, there was a "greater likelihood of a low evaluation of the female gender."
Significantly enough, matrilineal-matrilocal societies often seem to be characterized by what can be described only as a "maternal"
ideology. For example, the Navaho culture has been described as making all one's kin "into differentiated kinds of mothers." The major deity in Navaho religion is Changing Woman and she is referred to as "Mother." She is associated not with heterosexual relationships but with fertility, creativity, growth, renewal, and change. Changing Woman was created by the sexual union of First Man and First Woman. She is then a mother who is the product of the coming together of both maleness and femaleness. Femaleness is not seen as deviance from maleness as it is in Western culture, but rather Changing Woman encompasses both maleness and femaleness as a mother, and males and females in turn are expected to relate to each other as her equal children.
The Hopis are similar in belief to the Navaho; indeed the Navaho beliefs were likely derived from the Hopi. Navahos conceive of female roles and male roles as different but equal and complementary. It is true that women are associated with the domestic sphere and men with the wider community, but in another sense the wider community itself is conceptualized metaphorically as a house—the center of domesticity. It is the household and the clan, which is centered in the female-governed household, that shelters the individuals who compose the community. In a sense the private is the public, and the domestic is the community. Among the Hopi there are both male and female ceremonies; the women's ceremonies express and celebrate the interdependence of male and female. Nevertheless, as with the matrilineal, matrilocal Iroquois and Navaho, men hold the formal positions of authority in the community, even though that authority may be of little "real" significance.
In matrilineal societies in the Pacific, men bring personal renown to themselves in their own ceremonies, but this is counter-balanced by women symbolizing both women and men and thus the community as a whole in theirs. In the Trobriands, another matrilineal society, women have value not so much because they reproduce biologically but because they are seen as social and cultural reproducers. Women are charged with regenerating the dala (the unnamed ancestral beings through which Trobrianders trace their descent). It is through them that the entire community, both women and men, gain their being.
Thus in matrilineal societies, women are more likely to connect both women and men as equals, a connection related ultimately to the early dependency of both female and male infants on women.
This is very different from the modern Western emphasis on women as the "wives" of men and as the mothers of their husbands children.
Scott Coltrane, also using the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample of preindustrial societies, finds that societies having a patrilineal kinship system and a male-dominant residence pattern were negatively correlated with public status of women. Coltrane also finds that one can predict women's public status even more accurately if one adds paternal participation in early child care to the regression equation. (Adding other variables, however, such as women's contribution to subsistence, does not help explain the variance in women's public status.) Thus, while arrangements other than patrilineal and male-centered residence patterns may or may not enhance the likelihood of women's public status, patrilineal and male-centered residence patterns are associated with lesser public status for women.
Although the mechanisms that produce these correlations are not clear, it may be significant that the highest correlation Coltrane obtained between paternal nurturance and various facets of female public status was with "female origin symbolism." This correlation was higher than the correlations between paternal nurturance and female access to positions of authority or between paternal nurturance and female public participation. The strong connection between paternal nurturance and female origin symbolism suggests that societies governed by a maternal paradigm would tend to justify and encourage males to participate in maternal activities.
I am not suggesting that women's cause in modern society would be served by reestablishing the rigid gender division of labor characterizing many matrilineal horticultural societies or by duplicating any other nonpatrilineal form found in preindustrial societies. It is nevertheless instructive to examine the world views of such societies to see how they contrast with the more typically male constructions of our own society. I would especially stress the sense in which the maternal represents the common humanity of both males and females and that often this is associated with males' participating along with females in early child care.
Matrifocal Enclaves in Class Societies
Modern class societies are far removed from horticultural societies and thus it is perhaps even more relevant to examine the matrifocal
(as opposed to matrilineal-matrilocal) systems that are found under various circumstances within class societies. Such matrifocal societies also tend to have greater gender equality because of the power of a maternal paradigm. In these societies, regardless of the particular type of kinship system, women play roles of cultural and social significance and define themselves less as wives than as mothers. Raymond Smith, who coined the term matrifocality and who studied matrifocality in the Caribbean, describes it as involving "priority of emphasis (being) placed upon the mother-child and sibling relationship, while the conjugal relationship is expected to be less solidary and less affectively intense." According to Smith, the weak intensity of the conjugal relationship "is crucial in producing matrifocal family structure."
Matrifocality, however, does not refer to domestic maternal dominance so much as it does to the relative cultural prestige of the image of mother, a role that is culturally elaborated and valued. Mothers are also structurally central in that mother as a status "has some degree of control over the kin unit's economic resources and is critically involved in kin-related decision making processes" (p. 131). It is not the absence of males (males may be quite present) but the centrality of women as mothers and sisters that makes a society matrifocal, and this matrifocal emphasis is accompanied by a minimum of differentiation between women and men.
Nancy Tanner uses three Indonesian societies, the Igbo of West Africa, and black Americans as examples of societies in which the culturally defined role of mother is made central. This is not always the genealogical mother, but sometimes the senior woman in a kinship unit. In all of these societies, relationships between women and men are relatively egalitarian and there is a minimum of differentiation between genders. Tanner notes that in Java there is "little difference between women and men with regard to initiative, assertiveness, autonomy, decisiveness" (p. 155). Overall, women in matrifocal societies find their identity not as appendages to husbands or brothers but rather as relatively independent and active women and mothers.
Tanner notes that the image of the strong, active mother, with which black women are more identified than middle-class white women are, has made middle-class black women less ambivalent than their white counterparts about combining careers with marriage. The image of black mothering is the most accessible image
middle-class white women have that can counter the tendency to assimilate "mother" to "wife," that is, counter the tendency to attribute to mothering the dependency and side-kick status that attaches to "wife."
Black women often have little respect for white women because of the degree to which their identity derives from being a dependent, infantilized wife. Toni Morrison explains: "Black women have no abiding admiration of white women as competent complete people; whether vying with them for the few professional slots available to women in general, or moving their dirt from one place to another, they regarded them as willful children, pretty children, mean children, but never as real adults capable of handling the real problems of the world."
Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple is perhaps the most widely read example of what could properly be called a matrifocal spirit although it takes place in an early twentieth-century black patriarchal setting. Walker chronicles the resilience, power, and strength of women and the closeness of sisters, and in the end the patriarchs in her vision are transformed into friends, lovers, and brothers. Sexuality is not always seen as heterosexual, nor are heterosexual relations ideally envisioned as female "surrender" and male domination.
Walker does not depict men as personages so powerful that "separatism" can be the only "solution" for women. I suspect that separatist views are more typical of a middle-class white women's response to perceptions of sexism than of black women's. From black women's standpoint, separatism would mean abandoning their loyalty to the men of their community as their mothers and sisters. In this connection I was struck by the comment made to me by a young black lesbian, in an informal discussion of lesbian separatism, that she would never want to join any woman's organization that would exclude her brother. Her vision of equality involved women and men as sisters and brothers. This is both African and also very much a part of Protestant imagery, adopted in this country more fully by blacks than by whites, that expresses equality and solidarity through the terms "sister" and "brother."
Diane K. Lewis offers further evidence of more egalitarian relations between black husbands and wives, which she too attributes to an African cultural heritage. She notes that in black families both husband and wife have power and make tacit agreements based on
individual preferences about areas in which each will be dominant. In addition, black women are more likely than white women to be sexually assertive: "While in Euro-American culture the male is the aggressor and the female the passive receptor, in Afro-American culture, the woman is expected to take an active role in the male's attempt to establish a sexual encounter." Lewis also points out that males as well as females take a "mothering" attitude toward infants and young children.
Clearly there are some complex problems in analyzing the situation of blacks in the United States, and it would be racist to deny that economic problems among non-middle-class blacks are increasing. Female-headed households are also increasing rapidly today, and this is probably less a manifestation of matrifocality as an ideal than of joblessness among lower-class black males. In spite of the complexities involved, I believe that matrifocality should be examined more seriously by middle-class white feminists for clues as to how greater gender equality might look. That matrifocality is often found in situations in which some type of internal or external colonial exploitation is occurring should not in itself discredit matrifocality. It simply reflects the links between capitalist exploitation and male dominance.
Both matrilineal-matrilocal societies and matrifocal societies provide examples of structural arrangements that de-emphasize a definition of women as wives and thereby tend to enhance the status of women in the public sphere. We have also seen that these societies are characterized—in different ways—by what might be called a maternal paradigm that includes both men and women as equals. Before examining what I will call middle-class white matrifocality and its role in the emergence of modern feminism, we need first to examine patriarchy itself. Patriarchal societies involve a very different kind of organization with very different implications for the status of women. Patriarchy is important to look at because the historical roots of modern industrial societies are patriarchal.
Agricultural Societies, the Rise of the State, and Patriarchy
Engels declared long ago that the patriarchy that arose with the great agrarian states represented "the world defeat of women."
Feminists of various camps—especially radical and Marxist feminists—have used the term patriarchy as the name for the overall system that has oppressed women. Heidi Hartman emphasizes the male peer group by defining patriarchy as "a set of social relations which has a material base and in which there are hierarchical relations between men and solidarity among them which enables them to dominate women." She goes on to say that "The material base is men's control over women's labor power." This definition implies that the ultimate mechanism of enforcement is male solidarity and I agree, but I would specifically emphasize that under patriarchy this control is exercised by fathers as heads of households. Patriarchy literally means "father rule." Moreover, I restrict the use of patriarchy as a system to the great agrarian states where fathers of adult sons headed extended "families."
Today, most anthropologists would agree, regardless of their stance on issues such as the universality of male dominance, that an entirely different order of male dominance became associated with the rise of the large and populous agricultural states organized in terms of classes. The patriarchal systems that emerged brought women for the first time under the direct control of fathers and husbands with few cross-cutting sources of support. Women as wives under this system were not social adults, and women's lives were defined in terms of being a wife. Women's mothering and women's sexuality came to be seen as requiring protection by fathers and husbands. Protecting unmarried women's virginity appears to go along with the idea of the domestication of women and an emphasis on a radical dichtomy between the public and the private sphere. The private sphere is watched over and protected by men, and women are excluded from the public domain. These agrarian societies that give power over women and sons to fathers should properly be called "patriarchal."
Agrarian patriarchies vary greatly from one another and are rationalized and guided by differing religions and religious teachings. Patriarchal societies include the classical Chinese and the Islamic and Hindu societies in which brides are likely to be brought into the patriarchal household. Wives belong completely to the husbands family and their sexuality is strictly controlled, their marriages are arranged by parents, and virginity is a symbol of value.
Not all societies that can be called patriarchal are patrilineal,
however. Bilateral systems have tended to characterize kinship in most of the Western world for a long time. In these systems a woman's dowry and her husband's inheritance are pooled to form a conjugal fund or estate, which has the effect of minimizing lineage and emphasizing the conjugal unit. But here too, marriages are arranged and virginity is prized.
Although, at least to the modern mind, there can be no doubt that women's status worsened under these restrictive patriarchal systems, some features of patriarchy can be interpreted as advantageous for women. Sherry Ortner points out that one meaning of patriarchy is that men took more responsibility for families. Ortner argues that the development of patriarchal family structure can best be understood not as just the domestication of women but also as the domestication of men, since men as fathers became responsible for families. With the rise of the state, "the husband/father was no longer simply responsible to his family, but also for his family in the larger system." Fathers were economically, legally, and politically responsible for the family and its "proper functioning." The system makes sons dependent on fathers, and sons under the father's authority are juvenilized for a much longer period. Ortner sees this domestication of men as part of an evolutionary trend that will lead to fathers participating increasingly in family life.
The domestication of men theme is developed considerably more fully and explicitly by David Bakan with respect to Western Christianity. Bakan interprets the Bible as a chronicle of the transformation of "wild males" into responsible fathers who nurture and protect their families in the manner of mothers. Patriarchy, Bakan argues, "maternalizes" males by forcing them to care about and be responsible for "families." But, at the same time, fathers "juvenilize" those adults under their "protection."
Although there is some truth to the idea of the juvenilization of males by maternal fathers, it is important not to lose sight of the other side of this picture: the permanent juvenilization of women. Men may attain some semblance of adult status sooner or later by becoming husbands and fathers of fathers, but women pass from the control of father to husband. Wives become in this system perennial children, and patriarchy can rightly be interpreted as the juvenilization of women by men.
From Patriarchy to the Male-Headed Nuclear Family
With industrialization the patriarchal family underwent radical change. It became smaller and more egalitarian but remained father-dominant. The Protestant idea of "family" as constituting a little spiritual commonwealth, a "little church" carrying out the divine will, predated industrialization. It was modeled originally on the economically productive households of yeoman farmers under feudalism and later those of landowning peasants and craftsmen. The small producing unit under the headship of the father was ready and waiting to be the "ideal" family for capitalist industrialization—except that industrialization led to a redesigning of husband and wife "roles."
Protestantism gave a new interpretation to patriarchal ideology that on balance represented a gain for women. The progressive aspect of this new definition was that it considered husbands and wives to be equal, even beyond the spiritual realm. Husband and wife were to be friends and lovers to each other; marriages were civil contracts and could be broken by either party. The view gave women a new dignity and more equality. But equality was contradicted by wives also being told to be meek and mild and above all obedient to their husbands, who in turn were obedient to God. Loving companion and obedient wife is a contradiction. Protestant ministers must have been aware of this because of the rhetorical effort they put into denying it.
Protestant ideas of equality and individual accountability ultimately lie behind the feminist push for equality, but at the same time, these ideas increased the significance of husbands in the lives of women and increased the extent to which women's "life chances" (Max Weber's felicitous term) depended on whom they married. This dependence was exacerbated by marriages no longer being arranged by parents; a woman was on her own in choosing a partner. If she chose badly, she "had no one to blame but herself." Women's dependence was to become even greater when their livelihood came to depend solely on their husbands' earnings. This had not been true when the Protestant idea of family was developed—a time when the family was a joint agricultural enterprise.
Each country's story is different in detail, and I now begin to speak mainly about the United States. By the nineteenth century, as production was increasingly removed from the home, a recognizable "modern" family ideology began to be touted in middle-class periodicals and from the pulpit. The family no longer farmed, it was no longer an enterprise, but a haven—no longer the world in microcosm, but a refuge from the world. The home was often depicted as a vine-covered cottage with a picket fence, but unsullied by cows or chickens or crops. Husbands were to go out from the haven to work in the world and wives were to stay at home and cheerfully perfect it, to re-create the male worker. Wives were also to be mothers, cherishing children and preparing them spiritually and psychologically (though the word was not used then) to leave home to make their mark in the world. Although this ideology was centered in the rising middle class, in time it came to affect all of the society. Men wanted their wives not to have to work, and black women's having to work became a racial stigma.
The history of capitalism and of industrialization in the West is associated with the rise of "individualism" as an overarching ideology. Individualism has gained an especially strong hold in the United States because as a new territory, it lacked a feudal or aristocratic tradition. At first, individualism applied mainly to men. Blackstone's dictum that "husband and wife are one, and that one is the husband" reflects the idea that husbands are the individuals, beholden to no one, and their wives live through them.
But individualism also opened up the possibility that women might be individuals too. Throughout the nineteenth century, married women increasingly gained rights as individuals, beginning with the passage by states of Married Women's Property Rights Acts. Finally in 1920, women gained the right to vote as individuals at all levels of government. And now, the egalitarian and individualistic ideology that grew out of Protestantism provides part of the impetus for women's present-day push for equality in the job world.
The husband-wife relationship is not one of equality, however. In the "modern family," middle-class white women in the United States were increasingly defined as wives and in fact their life chances increasingly depended on whom they married. Women's fortunes depended on getting and keeping a man who was better
off than they were, to "provide" for them and their children. This phenomenon accounts for the persistence of the "marriage gradient," well known to family sociologists, in which unmarried women tend to be high status in terms of their own family background and personal accomplishments, that is, "the cream of the crop," whereas unmarried men tend to be at the bottom of the status hierarchy, that is, "the bottom of the barrel." Although most men and women marry within their social class, the system as a whole tends toward "hypergamy," that is, women marrying up.
Nineteenth-Century Mothering in the United States
Freud did not invent the idea of the critical importance of the childhood years for the individual character; it began much earlier, as part of nineteenth-century religious teachings. For example, in 1843, in a widely read book, the Reverend Horace Bushnell wrote, "Let every Christian father and mother understand, when the child is three years old, that they have done more than half of what they will ever do for his character." Because so much was thought to depend on the early years, mothers were seen as especially appropriate for the task of this early molding because of their association with early child care. In the nineteenth century, religion also came to be less associated with men and more associated with women and concomitantly with personal morality. Husbands, although they clearly retained the formal headship of the household and acted as the court of last resort, were expected to consult their wives on matters of morality and child-rearing.
As noted earlier, women used their newfound hegemony in the home over mothering and morality as an opening wedge to gain access outside the home to education and political influence in order to attack directly problems related to community morality and human welfare. Women claimed they needed education to be proper mothers and wives, and by the latter part of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, women's organizations had pressured state legislatures and Congress, not to mention innumerable local governing bodies, into enacting a host of laws concerning child labor, social hygiene, and women's equity. Married women's "out-
side" activities in the name of motherhood did not challenge their central role as wife, however. Indeed, later, the wife role was to become even more prominent.
Unmarried Women versus the Heterosexual Imperative
By the late 1800s and early 1900s more women were choosing not to marry and were supporting themselves. These women were the early professionals and had usually graduated from one of the excellent women's colleges that had been established in the late 1800s. They rejected their mothers' primary identification as wives and sought to achieve a sense of personal accomplishment for themselves. Although valuing the "manly" qualities of health, strength, and brains, these women were definitely "woman-identified" in the sense of living and working with and for women in women's colleges, in settlement houses, and in reform organizations.
But these New Women and their humanistic (I would say, motherly) enterprises were cruelly treated by what historian Mary Ryan has called the "heterosexual imperative." The cultural emphasis placed on the heterosexual couple and the denigration of nonmarriage for women arose along with corporate capitalism, mass advertising, and consumerism. The dominant images of the 1920s, just after women had obtained the vote, were those of youth and romance, marrying a prince charming, and at the same time being his equal and pal. Whatever else the "emancipated" flapper image might connote, one thing was certain: the flapper was not a mother figure and she was very, very interested in men and sex. Jane Addams, the nonmarried and maternal founder of Hull House, was aghast at the new emphasis on sex and the couple and deplored the way the world was changing.
The flapper promised women fun and sexual titillation in return for forgetting about their mothers' "silly old power." The dream was to meet and marry a rich man, rise in the social scale, and live happily and nonpolitically ever after. This dream was purveyed to ever-widening audiences through the movies and defined the hopes of working girls from rural or immigrant backgrounds. The emphasis on being attractive to men, catching a man, and so forth had of course been present in the nineteenth century and before, but
adding a more overt sexuality to the image and setting the heterosexual couple in center stage of subjective existence called into question the affectional ties between middle-class women that had been taken for granted in the nineteenth century.
At this time, the newly minted term lesbian began to be used to punish female autonomy. According to Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, male sex reformers, psychologists, and physicians redefined the issue of female autonomy in sexual terms, so that women who competed with men for economic independence and political power were labeled Mannish Lesbians. While the Mannish Lesbian threatened men, the sexually repressed, man-fearing Lady in Lavender lesbian image threatened the flapper, who was expected to be quite the opposite (pp. 265, 282–83). Both images were used to discredit child and maternal welfare programs by characterizing them as the work of "unnatural celibates." By the 1920s accusations of lesbianism had become the way to discredit women professionals, reformers, and educators. Overall, the hegemony of "the heterosexual couple" made women more male-oriented and at the same time kept women out of public affairs.
Women in the Mid-Twentieth Century
Whereas women's association with nurturance in the nineteenth century became for many an avenue of entry into the public sphere, women's mothering by the mid-twentieth century had been thoroughly privatized. Yet women as mothers remained very much responsible for how their children turned out. They were expected to devote themselves to their children, but not in such a way as to "castrate" their male children. Nobody much worried about female children. The Freudians in the 1940s and 1950s ignored Freud's emphasis on fathers and worried about "seductive" mothers and "castrating" mothers instead. In effect the idea was that such mothers would juvenilize males. At that time it was not possible to see that the "wife role" allowed, even demanded, that ordinary men juvenilize females as a matter of course.
Lundberg and Farnham, in a chapter melodramatically entitled "The Slaughter of the Innocents" in their 1947 book, Modern Woman, The Lost Sex, described various ways in which mothers could ruin children. These authors also assured us that the "femi-
nine woman" left her man to his projects in the world and knew she was dependent on him and "the phallus." Thus, women were admonished not to "castrate" their husbands by in any way competing with them. They were to keep out of men's business and at the same time not overinvest in children.
Women's clubs, which had dealt with serious and even radical issues at the turn of the century, were now more likely to be depicted as laughable. The professionalization of many of the activities in which women had engaged in the nineteenth century had made volunteer work vulnerable to being seen as the meddling of amateurs. In 1942, Philip Wylie, in his best-selling book, Generation of Vipers, coined the term momism and criticized the middle-aged woman during World War II for building "clubhouses for the entertainment of soldiers where she succeeds in persuading thousands of them that they are momsick and would rather talk to her than take Betty into the shrubs" (p. 193). Here Wylie manages in one sentence to blame the middle-class woman for her two-pronged predicament. He ridicules her for attempts to find meaningful projects outside the home and he accuses her of being a bad mother by interfering with her adult children's heterosexual pursuits. Moms for Wylie were ugly and useless. Women were to be sexy wives.
In a distorted way, Lundberg and Farnham (a journalist and a psychiatrist) recognized that mid-twentieth-century middle-class women were not in a good situation. They felt that women were dissatisfied, that middle-class woman's sphere was narrowing to the point of extinction, and that mothering and glamour were not enough for "the healthy ego." Yet these authors explicitly and unremittingly attacked feminism as they understood the term. For them feminism from a psychological standpoint had a single objective: "the achievement of maleness by the female, or the nearest possible approach to it."
If feminism was nothing but masculinism and hence no solution, how could women's situation be improved? Lundberg and Farnham's solution, not very thoroughly worked out, was for married women to take over the jobs of spinsters! "All public teaching posts now filled by women would be reserved not only for married women but for those with at least one child" (pp. 364–65). The progressive aspect of this proposal was that it protested the practice of barring married women from teaching and many other professions. But
only wives could take on such roles, and wives were definitely expected to be dependent physically, psychologically and financially on men. Thus Lundberg and Farnham were unable to break out of their overriding commitment to the male-dominated heterosexual couple. Indeed, they strongly reinforced this commitment and stigmatized nonmarriage.
During the 1950s, more and more people in the middle class were marrying at younger and younger ages. These young couples were buying single-family homes in the suburbs and contributing to the "baby boom." Here the consolidation of the isolated nuclear family as ideology and, to a lesser extent, reality reached its height. Women's mothering had become privatized, women's extrafamilial maternal activities were ridiculed, and women's lives were expected to revolve around their husband's "career." By 1950, servants, boarders, and unattached kin in the household had generally become a thing of the past. Wives had become more equal to their husbands as their friends and sex partners, but at the same time wives were expected to feel successful only vicariously through their husband's accomplishments. Wives were in each other's physical presence in the suburbs, but their fate was too bound up with their husbands' occupations to allow most of them to bond in more than superficial ways. There was little sharing of child care with other women, in part because these women usually were not employed outside the home and because each mother had her own views of child-rearing and a certain competitiveness. Each little nuclear unit had its separate agenda that revolved around the husband's career.
Talcott Parsons, later to become a target of feminist criticism, began writing on the family during the same period as Philip Wylie and Lundberg and Farnham. While most other sociologists were devising scales to measure the personal compatibility of prospective marriage partners, Parsons was engaged in a genuinely analytical attempt to understand how family structure and its mode of articulation with the "occupational sphere" affected both genders. For Parsons the mid-twentieth century situation for middle-class women looked like this: They had been educated similarly to men
at least through college and were taught to value occupational achievement but were then married and were faced with a husband who was totally immersed in a career away from home, a shrinking domestic role, and, most important, a lack of a clear-cut definition of just what women's "role" was.
Parsons did not consider either strict domesticity or a full-fledged career as a viable solution. He also saw problems with what he called "the glamour role" and with "the good companion role" as compromises. The glamour role emphasized women's specific sexuality, while the good companion role stressed cultural and humanistic interests that wife and husband had in common. But glamour and exaggerated sexual differentiation could not last forever, and "the good companion role" was not something that husbands had time to share (pp. 95–98).
In historical perspective, the glamour role was a precipitate of the heterosexual imperative and the "emancipation" of women in the 1920s. The good companion role was essentially an updated version of the cultural interests, charity work, and moral activity that occupied nineteenth-century wives. Neither updated version provided any real solution to inequality. Parsons concluded that "in the adult feminine role there is quite sufficient strain and insecurity so that widespread manifestations are to be expected in the form of neurotic behavior" (p. 99). Although Parsons failed to predict the reemergence of feminism, he was keenly aware that the "feminine role," as he called it, was a crucial point of "strain" in the nuclear family system.
Parsons was also well aware that some middle-class married women worked outside the home. His own wife worked as a secretary on the Harvard campus while he was teaching there. He did not stress the positive advantages of working for women, however, but focused instead on the destabilizing consequences of women's competing occupationally with their husbands. He pointed out that the jobs middle-class women held were usually not full-fledged careers and hence were not a threat to the solidarity of the couple.
Understandably, Parsons's hypothesis that marital solidarity would be threatened by wives' having jobs comparable to their husbands struck liberal feminists of the 1960s and 1970s as highly reactionary. He appeared to be opposing equal job opportunities for women by saying that occupational equality was incompatible with stable
marriage. But he can also be interpreted as saying middle-class women's jobs were far from equal and were therefore not comparable to their husbands. From a more radical feminist standpoint, as we shall see later, Parsons was correct about there being a negative association between marital stability and occupational equality. Parsons, however, did not understand the degree to which financial dependency rather than "role differentiation" may have been accounting for the "marital stability" associated with the non-employment and low-paying jobs of wives.
The Women's Movement
The feminism that emerged in the sixties focused on the increasingly felt contradiction between equality and individualism and on women's exclusion from the world of work outside the home. It also for the first time named and challenged the "sexism" that was apparent in male-female interactions. The former was first articulated by professional women, and the latter by younger women radicals. But as I have argued, this conflict between individualism and being a wife is a long-standing one in this society. The question remains, why did it serve as the basis for a movement at this point? The issue of when feminist perspectives are embraced by large numbers of the population can ultimately be accounted for by economic, demographic, and ideological changes in complex interaction.
Certainly a major role in the reemergence of feminism was played by the steady increase in women's working outside the home. By 1955 almost 50 percent of American women were working outside the home. Women wanted to work, service sector jobs were available, and younger families especially needed women's wages. As middle-class women began to work, they surely changed their view of themselves and became more responsive to feminist concerns. Seminaries, law schools, and medical schools were experiencing declining enrollments, and women students who could afford the tuition became very welcome. These women needed the supporting ideology of feminism.
It is also possible that feminist perspectives became especially persuasive when they did because the ratio of marriageable males to marriageable females (if males must be older) had become "less favorable" to females. "Suitable" husbands were in short supply,
so for some portion of the female population being one's own person became a necessity.
In addition to middle-class women's increased labor force participation and the "marriage squeeze," however, a change in consciousness among middle-class youth also coincided with these events. The more androgynous sensibilities, or less gender-differentiated personalities, that characterized the youth of the late sixties may have stemmed from what I will call middle-class matrifocality.
Middle-Class White Mothers and Matrifocality
In my view de facto and only partially culturally legitimated matrifocality among upper middle-class professionals has been very much connected with the role crossovers that occurred among their offspring and with the rise of feminism itself in the late 1960s. In the white middle class, mothers have been central in the home, whereas fathers have tended to be psychologically, and often literally, absent. Fathers played neither a patriarchal role nor a nurturant role. Middle-class mothers did not work regularly outside the home, or if they did, it was in relatively low-level jobs. Thus, women did not make an important direct economic contribution to the family, which would rule out calling the white middle class matrifocal by Tanner's definition. Yet these mothers who were so central in their children's lives often had a comparable kind and level of education to that of their husbands and were likely to have come from a higher class than their husbands.
Although marriages tend toward hypergamy (women marrying up), the probability that a considerable number of college-educated wives will come from a higher class than their husbands is due to the tendency since World War II for the women to be of higher status than the men in educational institutions, where many marriages are contracted. This tendency results from the following process. In any family able to consider a college education for their children, sons are likely to be favored over daughters so that (other things being equal) the son will be sent to a better school than the daughter if funds are limited. Thus, the brother of a woman at a state university is likely to attend a more highly ranked school than she is, whereas the sister of a man at a state university is likely to
be at a less highly ranked school than he is. It is clear from my colleagues' and my research on social science undergraduates at the University of Oregon that the women come from families of higher socioeconomic status than do the men.
It is my impression, although I have no formal documentation, that the parents of the young middle-aged today often consist of a lower-class man who went to college on the GI bill after World War II and a middle-class woman whose parents paid for her college education. In this sense, these wives are their husbands' equals by virtue of their class "superiority" even though they do not have an occupational role comparable to that of their husband. Families with these characteristics are especially likely to be found in professional segments of the middle class and are closer to realizing matrifocality by Tanner's definition than one might think. These families do not represent the hypergamous marriages that characterize the overall marriage gradient. They constitute an exception to it. It is almost as if the "feminine mystique," with its emphasis on the male-oriented woman, was designed to overcome middle-class mothers' not being in many vital respects inferior to or beholden to their husbands and being understood by their husbands (albeit ambivalently) not to be.
It is certainly not out of the question that the adolescents of the sixties, with their challenges to traditional definitions of masculinity and male-serving femininity, are in part a product of the kind of matrifocality found in middle-class professional families. Here mother dominance, in the sense of a maternal orientation in the context of factors equalizing the relationship between husband and wife, may have fostered less gender-typed attitudes in the children. Rather than producing compulsive masculinity, these mothers seem to have reared a generation of males who are, as Richard Flacks describes them, "likely to be less motivated for dominance, less physically aggressive and tough, less physically competitive, and more emotionally expressive and aesthetically inclined." Some of these same characteristics in males were described less favorably earlier by Kenneth Keniston in The Uncommitted: Alienated Youth in American Society. Flacks goes on to speculate that "many girls raised in these ways are likely to be less submissive, more assertive and more self-assured and independent" (p. 32). As more and more middle-class mothers work outside the home, the
trend toward role crossovers should continue—and on a less ambivalent basis—because mothers can act directly as role models for their daughters.
Sexism, Classism, and Racism
The women whose history I have been describing in this section have generally been privileged in terms of both class and race. Perhaps it fell to privileged middle-class white women to focus on "sexism" precisely because of their economic privilege. From the vantage point of class and race privilege, it was possible to focus directly on the dominance men took for granted as men. Although less-privileged women had been coping with male dominance for years, and very often virulent forms of it from white males, middle-class women were in a better position to label male dominance in general as "oppression" and put it front and center in their analyses. The white middle class has been the central locus of the ideology of individualism and achievement, and it is this ideology that conflicts with middle-class women's situation as wives.
Understandably, radical "feminism," which focused on male oppression within the middle class, may have seemed ridiculous in the larger scheme of things to poor women and women of color, who had more immediate problems associated with class and race oppression. Often for these women the solidarity of the family has been a means of surviving this class and race oppression. Both blacks and Hispanics in this country have used the solidarity of the family and kin as their primary source of support in a hostile world. Thus for them it would seem counterproductive to condemn the masculine privilege within the family that is exercised by oppressed men.
Twentieth-century feminism is the first social theory that has used gender as a fundamental category of social analysis. Before this, gender (and male dominance) has been rendered invisible by other cross-cutting categories. Only when the unit of analysis becomes the individual can one think in terms of "pure" gender and see systematic discrimination against women. Oppressed minorities might be the last to see this because their unit of analysis is more likely to be the family. The middle class, with its individualistic ideology, would likely be the first to think in terms of "sex" oppression.
Although it is not particularly helpful to argue that the "original" oppression was sex oppression, as some radical feminists do, I believe that it is legitimate for certain purposes to use sex inequality in the sense of male dominance in heterosexual relations as a central focus, simply because men and women "marry" in every class and race group. In this sense it is not being insensitive to class and race to focus directly on this relationship.
It is also important to remember that "sexism" does provide an opportunity for male bonding across class lines. A male restaurant owner and a male employee can form a solidarity against the female "help" on the basis of pure gender prejudice. Unless of course the woman is a wife. Then a middle-class husband is able to "protect" her.
Feminism is no longer "popular," as the gains for middle-class women in the work force it helped to garner have come to be taken for granted. Some say feminism is no longer needed. From the standpoint of gender equality, however, the millennium is hardly here. Women's working has not brought on a "symmetrical" family in which husband and wife work equal time for equal wages and share equally in child care. Women's wages are still far below those of men; men whose wives work for wages do not help in the home or share child care significantly more than men whose wives do not work for wages. Many "working mothers" are clearly overworked.
Indeed, more prominent than any trend toward equality within families brought about by women's working outside has been the trend toward family breakup. As married women began to work outside the home in increasing numbers, the divorce rate burgeoned, doubling between 1965 and 1975, and high divorce rates, though leveling off, are still very much with us. The rate began its precipitous rise well before no-fault divorce laws were passed, and it is associated with the great increase in young married women's working—the age group in which divorces are most likely to occur.
The most general explanation for the connection between the rising divorce rate and the rising employment of women outside the home is simply that having a job allows a woman to realistically "choose" divorce, that is, having a job increases her alternatives. Even a poorly paying job might give a woman an opportunity to survive financially outside a marriage that she found oppressive.
Beyond this, longitudinal studies indicate that the likelihood of divorce increases as a wife's actual or potential earnings approach those of her husband (p. 54). Here one might speculate that the wife's earnings posed a threat to the husband's marital hegemony but also that her earnings made her marriage less essential for her financially. Generally, however, wives' earnings are well below those of husbands. Thus, in the large majority of families, wives' working for wages does not alter or threaten to alter the power structure.
Parsons's argument that women's working at jobs commensurate with their husbands' was associated with unstable marriages turns out to be partially right. Parsons himself suggested in a footnote that the higher divorce rate that characterized working-class marriages at the time might have resulted from wives in the working class holding jobs comparable in status to those of their husbands. It is becoming clearer, however, that it is the earnings or potential earnings of the wife, not the status of her job, that is related to divorce.
Moreover, the decision to divorce is more often made by wives than by husbands. Several recent studies that have obtained information from both husbands and wives on the causes of the decision to divorce find that women are clearly more likely to seek the breakup than men. Wallerstein and Kelly found in their California study that in 75 percent of the couples they interviewed it was the wife who wanted the divorce. These findings suggest that the exodus from marriage which we have been witnessing has been led by women. A study comparing the complaints of husbands and the complaints of wives found that wives, not husbands, are dissatisfied with their marriages. Husbands often said in answer to a question about why the marriage broke up that they were "not sure what happened." The wives' complaints are now less likely to be about the husband's failure to "provide" (and characteristics related to this) and are more likely to be complaints about the husband's affective or emotional failings (pp. 103–15).
In spite of ritualized male complaints about the shackles of marriage, the evidence on divorce suggests women are more dissatisfied with marriage than men are—dissatisfied at least with marriage as it is presently constituted. Women who can be employed are now more able to express their dissatisfaction by seeking divorce. More-
over, women are less likely than men to remarry. Surely, not remarrying is a deliberate choice on the part of some women and is not just because they were not asked, as many seem to assume. Again, I do not see nonmarriage as a large scale "solution" for women. Rather, I look forward to a rethinking of marriage and a transformation in the nature of the implicit marriage contract.
In this chapter I have attempted to put the situation of middle-class women into a larger social context. I have suggested that individualism has provided the ideological basis for the feminist protest and that middle-class matrifocality, among other factors, has helped produce children who are less gender differentiated and more sensitive to gender inequality.