Gender, Veiling, and Class: Symbolic Boundaries and Veiling in Bengali Muslim Families

By Md. A Sabur

In the wake of rapid changes due to economic growth, women in Bangladesh have quickly begun to participate in secular education and paid labor. At the same time, there has been increasing visibility of Islamic practices and gender conservatism among women. I address this paradox: “more modern” and “more religious” at the same time in contemporary Bangladeshi society. My research focuses on the meaning of veiling among Bengali Muslim migrant families in rural Bangladesh. These women are experiencing upward class mobility based on remittances from family members who are migrant workers.

The findings from my recent article in Gender & Society focus on transnational families whose husbands work abroad and whose wives take care of families in rural Bangladesh. I show that veiling is not simply religiously motivated but also helps cultivate social boundaries, distancing these women who aspire to or already belong to the middle class from working-class or poor women. They do gender by veiling because doing so also identifies them as middle class and so they gain privilege, status, and prestige in rural Bangladesh.

My research team and I interviewed 57 Muslim migrant couples (114 interviews). We also did  ethnographic research in Bangladesh, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and South Korea. 43 of the 57 wives in these migrant couples practice veiling in public spaces—including the burqa, abaya, khimar, headscarf, and chador. Only two Muslim couples disagreed that women should veil and do not practice veiling. Twelve couples mention that although wives do not currently practice veiling, they may in the future. All the remaining 43 couples (86 respondents) report that  veiling was practiced and discussed why at some length in the interviews.

Although veiling is usually explained as a gendered expression of religiosity, my research digs deep into the everyday uses of veiling in Muslim families. We learned that the women in middle-class families wear veils to protect their natal and husbands’ families’ honor and assert their middle-class status. In some cases, these families have attained middle-class status through remittances from migrant husbands. Veiling serves as a form of conspicuous consumption, validating their newly acquired social status and setting them apart from lower-class Muslim families. Middle-class Muslim families both enable and encourage veiling to signal their upward class mobility.

Middle-class Muslim women make a variety of choices in what veils they wear, when they wear them and where they wear them. Their husbands also send or bring them expensive veils from abroad, which helps solidify their class status while encouraging them to veil. Yet while veiling helps women and their families emphasize their middle-class status, new middle-class Muslims encounter challenges, tension, and conflicts. For example, women may face generational conflicts as to “proper” gender norms, with mothers-in-law concerned that wives do not wear traditional sarees and have instead adopted veiling.

In the age of globalization and transnational labor migration, the expansion of the new middle-class has been accompanied by gender conservatism in many locations like Bangladesh. My research shows that veiling serves to daily produce class inequality and social hierarchy through conspicuous consumption.

Md A Sabur (@SaburMdA) is a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at North South University Dhaka, Bangladesh. His research focuses on transnational labor migration, remittances, and changes in women’s status in rural Bangladesh.

Where are We in Closing the Gender Gaps in Time Use?

By Man-yee Kan and Muzhi Zhou

Do women and men spend time in the same way? The answer is a clear No. Across the globe, women do more unpaid domestic work than men, and men spend more time on paid work. There has been little change in the gender gaps in time use over the years. Advocacy for gender equality has lost momentum for this use of time as a political agenda.

Yet, other changes have happened. In most industrialized societies, the percentage of women with a college education has exceeded that of men. Mothers with children are no longer expected to stay at home. Women still shoulder most of the domestic work but does that imply that they work longer total work time than men when we consider both paid work and unpaid domestic work?

We know more about time use in Western than East Asian societies. Sometimes, it is assumed that gender inequality is higher in these East Asian societies because of the emphasis on traditional family ties and the prevalence of men working long hours. We wanted to know if this the case. We wanted to know if the patterns and trends of gendered time use is very different in East Asian societies compared with European and Anglophone countries.

In our recent article published in Gender & Society, we seek to answer these questions by using diary data from both western industrialized societies and East Asian societies: Beijing, China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. And we looked at data from the past three decades.

There are both differences and similarities between Western and East Asian societies.  There is overwhelming evidence of stalled progress in both Western and East Asian societies. In particular, in Japan, Korea, and Southern European countries, the gender gaps in paid work and domestic work are large. The trend toward closing these gender gaps has been extremely slow in Japan and Korea and has stalled in Southern European countries. In Beijing, Taiwan, and countries like the US and the UK, the gender gaps in paid work and unpaid work time are relatively small and these differences have stopped closing in the most recent decade. Still, women have longer total work time than men across both East Asian and Western societies.

Our findings indicate that policies dependent on family ties and the expectation for women’s providing unpaid caregiving hinders progress toward gender equality. The implications of our research are that we must design policies more carefully to tackle the social norms that presume women responsible for domestic and caring responsibilities because those norms impede progress toward gender equality in the division of labour at work and at home.

Man-yee Kan is an Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Oxford. Her research interests include gender inequalities in the family and the labor market, time use research, ethnicity, and migration. She has been awarded a European Research Council Consolidator Grant (2018–2024) for the project GenTime, which investigates gender inequalities in time use in East Asian and Western societies.

Muzhi Zhou is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford and an incoming Assistant Professor at the Urban Governance and Design Thrust, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (Guangzhou). She studies how critical life events, such as marriage or childbirth, reshape people’s lives in Europe and East Asia, family formation patterns, and how children spend their time and its implications.

Plastic Bodies: Women Workers and Emerging Body Rules in Service Work in Urban India

Creative Commons Image

By Asiya Islam

The climax of the hugely popular, if only slightly dated, series, Ugly Betty, is Betty’s makeover – in its various iterations around the world, Betty tends to lose her braces, smooth out her frizzy hair, replace chunky glasses with contact lenses, and tap into the transformative powers of makeup. Usually, the radical change in appearance helps her to achieve romantic success. From Ugly Betty and The Princess Diaries to Barbie and online games, makeovers are designed for women, targeting appearances, as a site of insecurity and as untapped site of personal power.

Some recent attempts at feminist retellings of Ugly Betty frame her makeover in terms of professional, rather than romantic, success and confidence. To a certain extent, this reflects contemporary developments in the world of work – globally, with the emergence of service work (think cafes, salons, hotels) and women’s entry into traditionally male occupations, women’s participation in the workforce has increased. In services, and particularly in front roles, such as, receptionists, sales assistants, stewards, and others, women’s appearances matter – service workers are expected to appease customer sensibilities through not only pleasant greetings, friendly conversation, and helpful demeanour, but also makeup and clothing.

Young women working in services in Delhi agree that a makeover is required to become a professional. I have been conducting long-term ethnographic research with such women. In a discussion about emerging job opportunities, a young girl, referring to her friend’s elder sister who worked at a mall, admiringly noted, ‘She wears pants and shirts to work, right?!’ Another woman, Chandni, shared how her personality had changed by being in work – she was no longer a ‘village-type girl’ with ‘oily braided hair’, rather she had become a modern urban woman who knew how to do ‘light’ and classy makeup. Many had indeed enrolled in ‘personality development’ classes at skills centres to adapt their body language – posture, smile, handshake – to suit the middle/upper class sensibility of their workplaces.

Is a makeover something that is done to you or rather does it require active participation to make yourself over? How do workers appraise emerging requirements for such makeovers in service work? In my research in Gender & Society, I show that although there are aspects of changes to their appearance that young women enjoy, they are far from simply accepting and endorsing these makeovers. Indeed, while strategically adopting some bodily changes, women also reflect upon and critique the workplaces that demand them in the first place.

The first time I met Prachi, she greeted me, smiling, with ‘Good morning, ma’am’ as I walked into the café she worked at. A few months later, when our relationship had developed beyond that of worker and customer, Prachi shared her frustrations with work. After she quit, she grumbled about having to ‘keep a plastic smile on the whole day’, referring to the artificial and forced nature of her smile. Chandni shared Prachi’s frustration, both of them agreed that although they are required to wear formal clothes – shirt, trousers, belt, black shoes, and socks – this is not matched by the quality of work. Prachi continued, ‘I was like what the hell are you trying to do. It’s only Rs.7000 [USD 95] salary anyway. Chandni also said it’s so professional in the training, neighbours think we’re going to a good job, then we go back to our aukat [status] …’ After donning smart appearance for the training sessions, the women felt that they were demoted to their working/lower middle class status with low pay, long working hours, and limited career progression at work.

Their makeovers are, then, really about attempting to appear as solidly middle class and changing their personalities to match their new look. At times, they  find pleasure in these changes, but they also experience them as a problem because of the mismatch with the low-end, poorly paid service work they are doing. They further worry that people will be able to see through their newly adopted looks and personalities, rendering them inauthentic and embarrassing. I consider these varied dynamics of changes to women’s bodies in emerging service work in urban India as “plastic.” This metaphor refers to the ways in which women use their bodies to find and keep jobs in service industries. My research shows how ‘plastic bodies’ are site for both self-expression and assertion of agency, as well as a way jobs compel women to change themselves. My findings draw attention to the complex ways in which, unlike the delightful acceptance of makeovers by fictional characters such as Betty and Princess Mia, women workers both enjoy and critique the changes they must make to their bodies to participate in service work.

Asiya Islam is a Lecturer in Work and Employment Relations at the University of Leeds. Her research explores emerging gender and class relations in urban India through the life narratives of young lower middle class women, with particular focus on emerging forms and futures of work and social inequalities.

More Dads are Home Taking Care of Children than Ever Before – Are Views About Gender and Work Changing?

By Arielle Kuperberg and Pamela Stone

In 2021, the number of stay-at-home dads in the United States reached record highs. Does this mean that cultural views about gender, masculinity, work, and family—particularly the idea that men should be breadwinners—are changing? Not necessarily.

Our recent research in Gender & Society assesses cultural views of stay-at-home fathers over three decades, by examining their portrayal in leading newspapers and magazines between 1987 and 2016. We found that news portrayals of stay-at-home dads have indeed become more positive over time. But the growing support for full-time caregiver fathers is conditional. Dads who lost their jobs because of involuntary unemployment are viewed sympathetically, especially since the Great Recession. But dads who are able to work, but choose to stay home with children instead, are still described negatively. As much as we’d like to think that the gender-bending phenomenon of (slightly) increasing numbers of dads at home is a harbinger of more fundamental gender liberalization, our results suggest that this is not unambiguously the case.

News articles about stay-at-home dads often focused on the stigma and hardships that these dads faced in their everyday lives. In the 94 articles we analyzed, stay-at-home dads discussed being laughed at, dismissed, or even accused of being a pedophile while at the playground with their child. They were often described as being shunned by mothers and ridiculed by their friends. Fathers discussed feeling like “less of a man” because they could not financially provide for their families, and over half were described as feeling isolated and experiencing stress because of their role. Many recounted being called “Mr. Mom”, the title of a 1980s movie about an inept stay-at-home dad. This phrase reinforced the idea that active parenting was something that women do, not men. Further reinforcing this idea, some dads were instead excessively praised for doing the most basic chores with their child (like bringing them to the grocery store).

But the focus on stigma lessened over time, as more dads began to stay home with children. After the Great Recession resulted in high rates of unemployment, dads who had lost their jobs and took on caretaking roles at home were no longer described as experiencing stigma, and were discussed sympathetically and supportively. Accounts of stigma experiences didn’t disappear, however; instead they were mostly confined to another type of stay-at-home dad—those who had chosen to stay home with their children, and hadn’t been forced into the role by lay-offs.

In our article we also compared stay-at-home dads’ depictions to demographic trends. In the figure below, we extend this analysis to 2021 to include another major economic shock—the COVID pandemic. What is clear is that the rate at which fathers were at home rose in the wake of economic downturns, but eventually reversed course and reverted to near pre-downturn levels upon economic recovery. Over the period we studied, staying home became more common among dads—especially after the Great Recession of 2007-9. But the number of dads who reported they were home specifically to take care of children was still very low—less than two percent in 2021. And prior to the pandemic, rates of staying home had begun to go down among dads of younger children, declining almost to pre-Great Recession levels by 2019. These patterns also suggest that the post-recession increase in dads staying home was not a result of long-lasting changes in attitudes and ideologies about gender and work, but rather was a temporary response to economic precarity.

Figure 1: Percent of U.S. fathers out of the labor force, and out of the labor force specifically to care for children, 1980-2021.

Source: Authors’ analysis of Current Population Survey – March Supplement Data.

Taken together, our findings indicate that cultural views on stay-at-home dads may be changing, but mostly for dads who stay home because they don’t have any other choice. The stigma about stay-at- home dads has been reduced, but only because more dads are out of the workforce because of broader economic circumstances that make it impossible for them to be breadwinners. Dads who choose to stay home and not contribute financially to the family are still stigmatized, presumably seen as failures as breadwinners or as deadbeats for ducking this responsibility entirely. But dads who began to stay home because of the pandemic (or other future economic events) are likely to be viewed sympathetically, suggesting some relaxing of strong male-breadwinner social norms.

And cultural views may continue to change. A recent report found that over 70% of mothers will spend at least part of their children’s childhood as the main financial provider, with the average mother spending 6 years in this role. The pandemic also reversed the beginning of a decline in staying home rates among fathers of young children, and dads are now out of the labor force and home with kids at record high rates. The sustained rate of dads staying home with kids may reduce the stigma of this role even further, as more children grow up with dads at home as caregivers for at least some portion of their childhoods.

On the other hand, support for dads staying home may be reduced if economic conditions improve more broadly, reducing the number of men in that role involuntarily. And during the pandemic, while more dads withdrew from the labor force and increased the time they spent on housework and childcare, in 70% of families it was mothers who were primarily responsible for homeschooling when schools went virtual. Mothers were also far more likely than fathers to withdraw from the workforce or reduce their hours in paid work. These pandemic trends also reinforce the idea that the recent uptick in dads staying home is not an auger of radical gender change, but that traditional ideas about gender and parenting and divisions of labor are still going strong. Until these ideas change, and the stigma of men voluntarily staying home with children is reduced, few men will be willing to take on this role, preventing advancement towards full gender equality in work and family roles.

Arielle Kuperberg is Associate Professor of Sociology and Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and Chair of the Council on Contemporary Families. Pamela Stone is Professor Emerita of Sociology at Hunter College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Follow them on twitter @ATKuperberg and @profpamstone.

From the Gospel to Pregnancy Tests: Evangelism in Pregnancy Centers

By Kendra Hutchens

In 2021 the movement to oppose abortion rights experienced a banner year. By the midpoint of 2021, according to the Guttmacher Institute, state legislatures or municipalities enacted more abortion restrictions than in any other year since Roe v. Wade. In September, the United States Supreme Court declined to block Texas Senate Bill 8, a law that effectively bans abortions in Texas after six weeks and institutes a bounty system that enables private citizens to sue anyone assisting a patient seek or obtain an abortion. Beginning in December 2021, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments for Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to consider the constitutionality of a Mississippi law that bans abortion after fifteen weeks of pregnancy. Widely viewed as a referendum on Roe v. Wade, the Court’s decision may drastically alter women’s rights to reproductive healthcare.

Amidst these legal rollbacks, a larger, quieter faction of the antiabortion movement works “to overturn Roe v Wade in hearts, not just the courts.”

Pregnancy centers—also termed crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) or pregnancy resource centers (PRCs)—are non-profit, faith-based organizations that provide, in their words “alternatives to abortion.” While centers desire, in the words of one network organization, “to make abortion unwanted today and unthinkable for future generations,” they stay largely out of the legal fray. Instead, they position themselves as ministries that, like in Texas, are ready to help women when clinics that provide abortions empty. It is this concept of ‘ministry,’ that I write about in an article* recently published in Gender & Society.

What are Pregnancy Centers?

Pregnancy centers offer free resources like urine pregnancy tests, options counseling, limited obstetric ultrasounds, and material services (e.g., diapers, infant clothing, and car seats). They can provide confirmation of pregnancy that helps clients enroll in Medicaid and many refer to a network of social service providers and offer parenting classes. Some offer STI testing, medically unfounded “abortion-pill reversal” services, and unsubstantiated “post-abortion counseling.” Centers are increasingly professionalizing and medicalizing (estimates hold that approximately 70 percent now offer ultrasounds under the licensure of a physician). However, most are led, staffed, and supported by evangelical Christian women and only offer services that align with their religious worldview. Thus, they do not provide nor refer for contraceptive or abortion care, instead advocating for abstinence outside of marriage and ‘natural family planning’ within marriage. More troubling still is evidence provided by a variety of studies that pregnancy centers disseminate medical misinformation about abortion and contraception, and craft websites that obfuscate their services and mission. Though pregnancy centers are not full-spectrum healthcare providers, some receive state and federal funding.

These centers comprise a distinct movement within the broader antiabortion movement that is uniquely evangelical and gendered. While the patriarchal ideology that infuses conservative evangelical Christianity tends to keep women out of positions of power in churches and other evangelical groups, pregnancy centers are led by women who use this gendered ideology to articulate and defend approaches to abortion opposition that focus on women’s presumed needs. This approach is popular. Pregnancy centers, draw more volunteers who put in more hours than any other part of the moment. Indeed, with somewhere between 2,500 and nearly 2,800 centers across the United States they outnumber, by a wide margin, facilities that offer abortion. Despite this vast reach, most women cannot distinguish between a pregnancy center and an abortion provider and new research conservatively estimates that approximately 13 percent of pregnant people visit a center during their pregnancy. My research sheds light on these centers, by focusing on the concept of ministry and how it shapes centers’ tactics and performance of care.

Ministry Not Manipulation

Pregnancy centers identify as “faith-based” and, most centers, like the two that I studied over the course of three years, are seeped in evangelical Christianity. Centers’ founders, leaders, and supporters—most of whom are evangelical Christians—describe their work as a ‘ministry.’ And, as is typical of centers in the U.S., they affiliate with large, evangelical network associations (like Care Net, Heartbeat International, or NIFLA) that define the goals and strategies of affiliates. A key part of their ministry? Evangelism.

For instance, Care Net holds that the primary mission of the pregnancy center is to share the gospel of salvation with clients, while Heartbeat International promotes centers as an “unparalleled opportunity for relational evangelism” giving  “young women in the throes of perhaps her most trying time…a thoroughly gospel-saturated response, pairing a Christ-centered offer of hope with a real-world commitment to walk alongside another.”

Given these endorsements, imagine my surprise when I did not see Bibles handed out, tracts dispersed, or staff sharing personal testimony with clients. “Ministry not manipulation” was an oft repeated phrase in centers and at trainings that staff unpacked in in-depth interviews. They painted a portrait of relational evangelism that is uniquely gendered, a process I refer to as feminizing evangelism. In learning to practice feminized evangelism, staff—who avowedly hate abortion—come to empathize with women considering abortion on the basis of shared, gendered experiences. They articulate a unique ministry that they hope is more effective than other approaches to evangelism. However, staff consciously work to realign their deeply felt religious beliefs with practices that require them to put the Bibles away and to avoid conversion conversations.

Feminized evangelism gains more widespread support and client trust. In removing overt ‘God talk’ from appointments, centers produce a narrative of care that is grounded in social welfare and wrapped in the language of ‘empowerment’ and ‘trauma-informed care.’ While staff emphasize that they don’t hide their faith, most clients in my study did not realize the pregnancy center they visited was “faith-based” prior to their first appointment. Over the course of my fieldwork, both organizations gained secular and nonsecular supporters across the political spectrum, and solicited referrals from various secular organizations (including, unsuccessfully, a local Planned Parenthood). Pregnancy centers are not held to the same regulatory and credentialing requirements as healthcare facilities, Further, their religious orientation restricts the range of services provided and shapes how they deliver them, information that most women want to know. When that worldview is not transparent, clients cannot give informed consent to services.

Supporting people with resources that enable them to build families if, when, how, and with whom they want should be a priority for our country. Excluding contraceptive and abortion care from reproductive support does the opposite. Pregnancy centers believe that providing limited economic resources and empathetic counsel enables meaningful choices but the ability to make unconstrained reproductive choices depends equally on access to a full range of healthcare services, including abortion and contraception.

The Supreme Court’s decision on Dobbs, not expected until 2022, may restructure the landscape of abortion care. Pregnancy centers are ready to fill the void and patients. If they do, patients with few resources—those who are low income, underinsured, live in rural areas or conservative states, or women of color—will bear the consequences of religiously-based healthcare restrictions.

*This is freely available to read, download, and share through Open Access.

Kendra Hutchens is a research associate at Circle A Productions and a lecturer at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her academic research explores crisis pregnancy centers and Americans’ abortion attitudes. In the public sector, her research focuses on deinstitutionalization for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Amsterdam Black Women Refusing Myths of Color-Blindness

By Ariana Rose

In the summer of 2020 after the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, protests erupted around the world in solidarity with American Black Lives Matter protesters. Amsterdam was no exception. Protesters also chanted the names of Tomy Holten and Mitch Henriquez, two men of color who were murdered by Dutch police, countering popular Dutch beliefs that racism and police brutality are problems specific to the United States. The Dutch have been criticized for forgetting their colonial past and for refusing to acknowledge race or racial discrimination despite the exclusion of and violence toward Black people in all sectors of society (for more information about this, please see: White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race by Gloria Wekker).

In my recent Gender & Society article, I discuss how Black women navigate this contradiction and how they respond to the Netherland’s culture of color-blindness. I studied a Facebook group called Amsterdam Black Women (ABW). The group was created by five expat Black women and organizes both on- and offline activities. By connecting with women on the basis of race, the group implicitly demonstrates that race matters and does impact the conditions of one’s life despite the color-blind narrative of the white mainstream. Through events and activities, members of ABW imagine different ways to thrive in a society that denies them pathways to well-being through structural and institutional racism. The group has become a safe space for Black women to discuss their experiences in the Netherlands openly and a place where creative strategies to deal with its members’ marginalization are emerging. Rather than responding to prejudice with detachment or defeat, the women articulate new ways to bypass the energy drain they experience in white social and professional settings. Within the group they diagnose and heal as a community. As Audre Lorde has written, doing so “is self-preservation, and [an] act of political warfare.”

One of ABW’s founders pointed out how Dutch racism was unique in its particularities which was especially confusing to women who came from abroad: “Dutch racism is not like anywhere else.” Although ABW members met for happy hours, brunches, and book clubs, discussions often settled on the everyday racism they experienced. Women felt comfortable being honest about their experiences which contrasted with the ways white spaces silenced them. In falling outside of Dutch expectations of whiteness, Black women felt both invisible and hyper-visible. Many gave examples where people did not show them basic respect (a greeting, for example) which made them feel invisible. Others said they felt hyper-visible, or perceived as different, which made them uncomfortable and vulnerable to unwanted attention or discrimination.

During my research, ABW members spoke about the exhaustion they experienced trying to “prove” that the racist things that happened to them were indeed racist. They said Dutch people were unwilling to engage in these conversations because of their beliefs in color-blindness. ABW members were labeled as unpleasant for speaking up or problematized in more severe ways for advocating for themselves. Many stayed quiet about their mistreatment to avoid backlash or creating more of a psychologically unsafe environment for themselves.

ABW gave them a place to speak up, to be honest, and to be treated with respect. By being in community with others who understood their experiences, members could discuss their personal biographies, vent, joke, and complain, making sense of their lived experiences. They rejected Dutch norms that required them to accept their oppression silently or support false narratives of a progressive and color-blind society. Within ABW, Black women could be vocal about their Blackness. They could center it, celebrate it, honor it, and also grieve the realities that come with Blackness in an anti-Black world. This helped them to thrive despite routine denials and trivialization of racial inequality in professional, social, everyday, and sometimes even family settings. ABW organically honored the need for communion, allowing its members to return to the world post-processing. Members found this healing through this validation of experiences and made them more resilient to the oppression they were simultaneously subjected to and told didn’t exist.

The sense-making and self-preservation work I saw happening in ABW is crucial in creating conditions for further organizing and activism as we continue to work toward a world where we might not need to know the names of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, or Tomy Holten for the reasons we do today.

Ariana Rose received her master’s degree in Sociology with a focus on social problems and policy from the University of Amsterdam. Her research focuses on race, gender, health, well-being, and spirituality. She is the founder of Studio in Between, a research and social impact design space in Amsterdam.

Why They Can’t Just Use Cloth: Diapers and the Gendered Politics of Providing Basic Needs

By Dr. Jennifer Randles

September 27th, 2021 kicked off the tenth annual Diaper Need Awareness Week in the United States where one in three families with infants and toddlers cannot afford enough diapers. City, state, and federal legislators across the country endorsed proclamations recognizing diaper deprivation as a problem and applauding the work of a growing national network of diaper banks and pantries that distribute free diapers to families and partner organizations. Privately funded diaper banks have proliferated in the United States since the 1990s and now number in the hundreds. Collectively they distribute millions of disposable diapers a year, and yet meet only about five percent of the estimated need. Diaper bank staff on the front lines of diaper advocacy face consistent criticism. What could possibly be controversial about providing financially strapped families with a basic need every baby has?

For starters, diapers are not officially recognized as a need. Diapers are not covered by existing public aid policies, including SNAP and WIC food assistance programs. Categorized along with hygiene and cleaning products, diapers are an “unallowable” non-food expense. Like other items deemed discretionary rather than medically necessary, diapers are still taxed in most states. Yet one would be hard-pressed to find any parent or caregiver who considers diapers optional. Although welfare cash aid can be used to purchase diapers, it’s not coincidental that the number of diaper banks in the United States has grown exponentially since 1990s welfare reform. Many fewer families now receive cash aid, and the value of that aid has dwindled. The average $80 monthly diaper bill for one child would alone use 8 to 40 percent of the average state benefit through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

But there’s another important reason that diaper bankers face consistent criticism and stalled efforts to pass policies that would provide public diaper support: cloth diapers. In my recent article in Gender & Society based on interviews with 40 diaper bank staff, most of whom were involved in diaper policy advocacy, and 70 mothers who experienced diaper need, I discovered a key case of how gender, class, and race inequalities intersect to impede policies promoting access to basic needs. Many diaper bankers shared stories of policymakers, community members, and other stakeholders who responded to requests for diaper support by asking Why don’t they just use cloth?

Embedded within this seemingly simple retort are numerous sexist, classist, and racist assumptions about easy individual solutions to structural problems like diaper need. Whereas policymakers are still predominantly white, affluent, older men unlikely to change many diapers, much less struggle with diaper need, the parents I interviewed were mostly mothers of color living in poverty who had tried cloth diapering but found it to be more expensive, labor-intensive, and time prohibitive. As Leslie, a Black 28-year-old mother of one, explained to me,  “That’s probably why programs don’t cover diapers, because they think cloth are free. But then you have to spend on washing, detergent, water, electricity, and all the work and worry. You still have to pay for it in some way.” For these reasons, cloth is the diaper type used by a very narrow segment of American families – typically married middle-class homeowners with an in-house washer and dryer and a stay-at-home parent. Most daycare facilities will not accept cloth diapers, and many states have laws prohibiting washing them in public laundry facilities.

Disposable diapers became almost universal during the last three decades of the twentieth century, the same time period when the labor market participation rates of mothers with children three and younger doubled from around 35 to over 70 percent. Now that over 95 percent of babies in the United States wear disposables for most or all of their diapering needs, mothers of color feared that having their children seen in public in anything but a “normal” disposable diaper – such as a cloth diaper presumed to be a “rag” – could invite suspicion about their parental fitness. As it turns out, parents most likely to struggle with diaper need can’t just use cloth diapers because the ability to do so is now profoundly influenced by middle-class, white, androcentric privileges.    

This is a case of what I call gendered policy vacuums, which refer to when gender disparities and ideologies result in policy gaps around caregiving and provisions needed to satisfy basic human needs for sustenance, health, cleanliness, and dignity. Gender policy vacuums have emerged around numerous related struggles, including food insecurity, housing instability, and most recently, childcare deficits in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. The American ideology of individualism tasks mothers with responsibility for ensuring their children’s well-being through labor-intensive and time-consuming parenting practices, such as breastfeeding, home-cooking, and cloth diapering. But such directives devalue and render invisible feminized care labor, especially that performed by low-income mothers of color.

As mothers shared with me, the same social, economic, and political conditions that intersect to create their diaper need also prevent them from using cloth diapers as a way to meet that need. But the assumption that poor women’s labor can readily solve problems of gender inequality  – as the Why don’t they just use cloth? retort suggests – rationalizes lack of public redress for gendered inequalities and resultant policy gaps around caregiving. As one diaper bank founder, Janine, said of her continued efforts to advocate for diaper policies: “We expect so much more of poor mothers, so why not cloth, many ask. For families for whom that works, great! But why do we expect the poorest parents to do the most work? I want people to have what they need. Most of them need disposable diapers.” Let’s hope that our policies will eventually acknowledge that need, paving the way for public support for this basic need so easily taken for granted – unless your baby doesn’t have one.  

Jennifer Randles (@jrandles3) is Professor and Chair of Sociology at California State University, Fresno. She is the author of Proposing Prosperity: Marriage Education Policy and Inequality in America and Essential Dads: The Inequalities and Politics of Fathering. She is currently writing a book on diaper insecurity, the diaper bank movement, and diaper politics.

Maintaining the Gender Gap in Orgasms Takes Work

By Nicole Andrejek

Why is there a gender gap in orgasms in heterosexual sex? Research has long shown a gender gap in orgasms between men and women in heterosexual sexual encounters. They have also shown that sexual practices that focus on clitoral stimulation reduces the gap. Since we know this, why are couples not engaging in the types of sexual activities that might reduce the orgasm gap?

In my recent research with Tina Fetner and Melanie Health in Gender & Society, we examine data from the nationally representative Sex in Canada survey and find that 86% of men had an orgasm in their most recent heterosexual sexual encounter compared to 62% of women. We found that women whose most recent encounter included receiving clitoral stimulation via oral sex are more likely to have had an orgasm than those who did not. Other recent studies have documented similar gender discrepancies in orgasm rates, but since many focus on a particular group, such as undergraduate students, it has been unclear until now whether this was a problem across heterosexual couples more generally. Our study shows that it is.

To better understand why the gender gap in orgasms persists despite all we know about what increases women’s likelihood to orgasm during heterosexual partnered sex, we conducted in-depth interviews with women and men across Canada. Our interview participants drew on traditional beliefs about gender to justify men’s orgasms as natural and expected and women’s orgasms as time-consuming work.

Three different perspectives stood out. Our participants voiced essentialist views of gender and sexuality that naturalized differences between men and women to explain why men prioritize physical pleasure, while women are expected to prioritize emotional intimacy during sex. Another theme was that many of the people we interviewed defined what counts as “regular” sex as equating to penile-vaginal intercourse. Through this narrow, phallocentric understanding of sex, stimulation of the penis (and consequently men’s pleasure) inherently becomes a part of “regular sex.” Alternatively, sexual behaviors focused on clitoral stimulation, like oral sex, were considered to be “special,” “separate” from the main event, and “extra work.” Finally, some of those we talked to relied on the sexual double standard to justify why women self-regulate their sexual expression. In these instances, women’s sexual desire and sexual practices focused on women’s pleasure were understood as dirty or wrong, and their bodies were considered simply too difficult to please. These narratives were produced by both men and women, revealing how heterosexual couples reinforce traditional, essentialist gender norms during sex.

Our participants’ explanations for the orgasm gap made men’s orgasms appear natural and expected and women’s orgasms as extra, more work, and more difficult. Their understandings contribute to the normalization that penile-vaginal intercourse is what constitutes “regular sex” and this itself privileges men’s pleasure and orgasms. Although women’s lack of orgasms compared to men may feel like an individual, intimate problem, we demonstrate that the gender gap in orgasms takes work. It is enabled by the gender essentialist beliefs embedded in the institution of heterosexuality. These findings help us move beyond essentialist “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” justifications that women simply do not care about orgasm to how gender beliefs deprive women of an equal opportunity to orgasm in heterosexual sex.

Nicole Andrejek (@NicoleAndrejek) is a qualitative researcher on the Sex in Canada project at McMaster University and at the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital. Her research interests include analyses of Canadians’ sexual practices, sexual health, and sexual pleasure. Her forthcoming book, Dating in the Digital Age (Routledge), examines undergraduate women’s experiences navigating sex, friendships, dating, and consent in university hookup culture.

Schools as Hostile Institutions: Everyday Violence Against Black Girls and Immigrant Girls of COlor

By Dr. Ranita Ray

One morning as I was sitting toward the back of a 5th grade classroom, Carmen, a Black girl—extremely devoted to academics—was completing her math assignment. She raised her hand to ask the teacher a question. Ms. Josephine, her white teacher, asked Carmen to wait. Carmen kept her hand raised—she did not want the teacher to forget about her. Ms. Josephine raised her eyebrows and rolled her eyes at Carmen. Carmen, embarrassed by this visible impoliteness in front of the entire class, resisted by rolling her own eyes. Ms. Josephine saw this and said loudly, “Barbie right here, she needs more cheese with her wine…” Everyone laughed. Later that day when Carmen wanted to use the bathroom, Ms. Josephine said, “You just come pretty every day and you want to go to the bathroom to chat.” Everyone laughed at Carmen again. Her eyes filled with tears; Carmen put her head down on her desk before the tears could roll down her cheeks.

As a wave of bills and legislations to suppress conversations around racial oppression and privilege sweeps the US, and white parents debate the right time to teach their kids about race, I bemoan the futility of these conversations. The reality is that regular racial harassment, cruelty, and indifference is a common experience for Black and brown students inside schools. And this should be the urgent conversation on race and public schools.

The hostility that racially marginalized students, particularly Black and immigrant girls of color, experience inside their classrooms and schools every day is not unleashed by police and School Resource Officers alone.

From 2017 to 2020 I followed a cohort of economically marginalized Black, Latinx, Asian, and recent immigrant students, in a large metropolitan public-school district in western US, documenting their journey from 4th to 6th grade. Inside the classrooms and corridors, over and over again, I witnessed teachers harass Black girls and immigrant girls of color.

Just as Black girls like Carmen were harassed and reduced to their sexuality, robbed of their innocence and girlhood, immigrant girls of color were harassed drawing on caricatures of the immigrant. Like Ms. Luft, a white 4th grade teacher, who mocked a supposed “Asian Accent,” laughing and joking with her colleagues at lunch, as some 4th graders who had returned early from lunch pointed and laughed at their classmate Kevin—whose parents were Chinese immigrants.

Even Black and immigrant girls, like Carmen and Kevin, who excelled in the classroom, as per white middle-class standards, were not immune to racist harassment.

Moreover, I watched how teachers repeatedly refused to acknowledge Black and immigrant girls’ intellect even when they excelled as per white middle-class standards. Like when Eliza’s white 5th grade teacher discounted the fact that she had remained at the top of her class (in math and English) through 4th and 5th grade by arguing that Eliza just “works a lot” unlike a white girl who simply “has this knack for reading.” Her teacher argued that “she [Eliza] is at top is kind of like fake.” And, when Gloria, who had recently immigrated from Michoacán, wanted to participate in class discussion her teacher either plainly told her that she was not legible by her classmates (most of whom, I noted, understood her very well and were themselves bilingual), or when Gloria spoke in class her teacher simply narrowed her eyes and shook her head side to side to indicate confusion at what Gloria said and then ignored her answer.

Sometimes immigrant girls of color were used as the vehicle to harass Black girls. Like when a teacher working with a group of “lower-ability” English learners told a Black girl in the group, “Maria [a recent immigrant] has an excuse. Her family, they don’t speak English. What makes you sit here,” implying that the Black girl must lack intelligence or is lazy.

Sometimes teachers used the example of Black girls at the top of the class to deride Black girls who did not meet academic standards urging that if “those just like them” can succeed then others must just be “dumb.” They did the same thing to immigrant girls of color. For example, when Mariana continued to perform well academically despite her father’s deportation, she was used as an example of grit. Mariana was not allowed to mourn her father’s deportation and the resultant trauma in her family. Teachers told other immigrant girls of color that they simply weren’t good because Mariana’s situation was “proof” that anyone “just like them” can do well.

Of course, teachers of color can also engage in racial harassment. I found that Black girls were harassed even by teachers who seemingly had the most radical race politics. I want to note, however, that the teachers and administrators in the schools I studied, as well as the larger district, were overwhelmingly white just like much of the education profession. And harassment most often came from white teachers.

Teacher pay is also decidedly exploitative and they often work in hazardous conditions with minimal resources. But this truth coexists with widespread teacher racism. What I found is not surprising either; it is reflective of the regular coverage of teachers racially harassing students across the nation. 

My research warns us that academic achievement is a fundamentally incomplete, and even dangerous, way to understand how marginalized students experience school. Schooling, different from education, has in fact historically served as a way to stifle Black freedom and assimilate colonized people and Third-World immigrants into the state.

The focus of attention on the achievement gap reflects an incomplete understanding of schooling.  Simply having marginalized peoples at the top of the classroom (or positions of power) is insufficient. While integration and diversity projects in education center, and benefit, whiteness and white people, we also need more than anti-racist trainings for educators.

It is time to follow the lead of generations of Black and Third World scholars and activists, and transform how we conceptualize schools—from an idealized site of potential liberation to its reality as a site where violence may be experienced.  Because what we need is a future where marginalized communities have the right to self-determine their educational freedom.

Ranita Ray (@ranitaray1) is Associate Professor of Sociology and Maxine Baca-Zinn Endowed Chair at the University of New Mexico. She is the author of The Making of a Teenage Service Class: Poverty and Mobility in an American City—the 2018 C. Wright Mills Award Winner. Supported by NAEd/Spencer Foundation, she is currently writing a book on the everyday gendered-racial violence of schooling and the proliferation of race discourse in contemporary United States.

In the Name of Equality? Are Finnish Relationship Enhancement Seminars Post-feminist?

By Marjo Kolehmainen

Introduction: Behind the scenes of the Nordic ideals

Finland is one of the Nordic welfare states which rank highly in international equality measures. Finland is often considered to be exceptionally democratic and a trailblazer in gender equality and sexual rights.  Still, it has proved challenging even here to tackle gender inequality in intimate relationships. While equality may be supported in general,  people can still oppose having more equal personal relationships. One way this may be seen is that they insist that relationship conflicts are caused only by individual differences between partners and ignore cultural norms regarding gender or sexuality.

Relationship and sex counseling seminars are a place that can influence intimate practices. To learn more about how relationship counseling reinforces or challenges popularized beliefs about gender and sexuality, I attended relationship enhancement seminars in Finland.  As might be expected, both professional therapists and counselors as well as lay experts at these event all supported gender equality and sexual rights. Yet there was no consensus regarding what a good relationship actually looks like. These seminars are instead a site where what gender equality in practice means is contested. Diverse views on gender and sexuality mesh, and sometimes clash.

My research suggests these seminars are full of ambivalence about gender equality. The  showcasing of support for gender equality or sexual rights actually shows  very little about how counseling practices advance equality, or not. In my article, published in Gender & Society, I identify several contradictory patterns. First, some experts believe that equality has gone too far. Second, many experts critique inequality verbally yet remain invested in depoliticizing views about gender in relationships. Third, some experts embrace diversity and expand everyday understandings of gender and sexuality. My findings complicate the belief that Nordic countries are always supportive of gender equality in personal relationships.

Findings: Contradictory patterns

The first pattern is when gender equality is framed not only as having been achieved but also as having “gone too far.” Equality is not seen as a goal to strive toward, but is rather located in the past.  Women are claimed to be the new dominant gender. For instance, the experts claim  “men have become too nice”  or “men have no balls anymore,” or they “should man up.” Here, men are portrayed as victims or an oppressed group. These claims conceal contemporary gender inequality and belittle women’s experiences of gendered injustices.

The second pattern involves token critiques of inequality that seem to support gender equality and LGBTIQ+ rights, but do not challenge the status quo. The ideal of equality becomes clearly visible when experts demonstrate that they are aware of the dangers of making generalizations from heterosexual experiences. They justify their exclusive focus on intimate relationships between a man and a woman because it is “familiar” to them. Or they acknowledge same-sex but such statements remain tokenistic since that they do not addressthe obstacles and discrimination same-sex couples still face.

The third pattern contains acts of resistance. There were events in which diversity is welcomed and experts resist prevailing notions about gender and sexuality. While it is fairly typical for speakers to mention rainbow couples in passing, these events provide occasions for acknowledging “different options, for instance, asexual, pansexual, polyamorous” or for hoping that gendered norms “would not narrow one’s understanding of oneself or other people.” In other words, here, equality is understood more broadly than as gender equality between women and men or basic LGBTIQ+ rights. Moreover, equality is not rendered as something already achieved but as something to fight for.

Concluding remarks: A postfeminist sensibility

In my research, I conclude that these three different approaches to gender equality constitute a postfeminist sensibility. While the term postfeminism is often used to suggest a backlash against feminism, I define the simultaneous coexistence of feminist and anti-feminist elements as postfeminist. These three patterns together illustrate a postfeminist sensibility in which contrary positions toward feminism coexist. My findings complicate the idea that Nordic countries are straightforwardly progressive.

Marjo Kolehmainen is a postdoctoral researcher in gender studies at Tampere University, Finland. Her current work concerns digital intimacies, especially the diverse practices of teletherapy in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. You can find her on Twitter, @MarjoKolehmain.