“Hidden” Gender Power

By Veronica Tichenor

In the April 2016 issue of Gender and Society, Jennifer Randles presents her research on “marriage education” programs, which were enacted through welfare reform in the 1990s to support the marriages of couples living in poverty. Randles reports that, while some of these programs seem to encourage equality between husbands and wives, men still enjoy advantages that remain largely hidden.

I was drawn to this article because Randles discusses two ideas that I have used in my research. First is the concept of three-dimensional power (from the work of Aafke Komter and Steven Lukes). The idea here is that power can play out on one level when spouses are in open conflict over a particular issue, such as how to divide household chores, but could also exist on a second level which is more “covert,” such as when the fight over the chores has ended, but one spouse isn’t happy with the result and is thus resentful under the surface. The third level refers to “hidden” power; in this case, if a wife does all (or most) of the housework and childcare—even if she works outside the home, and may not mind doing it because she thinks it’s her job—we would say that her husband has enjoyed the “hidden power” embedded in the idea that housework is “woman’s work.”

The second key idea Randle uses is from the work of Barbara Risman: that gender, as a social force, also operates on three levels—in individual gender identities, in social interaction, and in cultural beliefs and practices. I used these ideas in my research on marital power among heterosexual couples where wives earn much more than their husbands. I wanted to see if these women’s incomes would give them the same kind of power that breadwinning husbands have historically enjoyed—especially greater financial and decision-making power, as well as the ability to avoid doing housework. I found that women’s incomes did not “buy” them the same privileges as men—in part, because money and housework are very closely tied to the gender identities of father/breadwinner and mother/homemaker. Men want to feel like they are doing “their job” of providing for their families, even if they make very little money, and women want to feel like good moms and wives, even if they spend a great deal of time away from home. These gender identities exert a very strong pull, despite recent changes in gender norms, and give men greater power in their families.

Shifting this power balance in marriage requires looking at how cultural practices shape what happens in families. Of course, beliefs about gender play a role here, but so do social policies. Marriage education programs focus on improving communication between spouses because more stable relationships are presumed to lead to greater economic prosperity. But as Randles points out, what poor families really need are good quality/low cost daycare, improved education, and job-retraining to ensure that parents can find work that pays living wages and that their children are well cared for. And these problems aren’t confined to poor families.

In a culture that values independence and self-reliance, and sees marriage and having children as “private” decisions, we have left all families to fend for themselves amid tremendous economic changes that have left both poor and non-poor households struggling. All families would benefit from the policies mentioned by Randles; the list should also include eliminating the gender gap in wages and enacting a set of workplace policies that no longer assume that every worker has a “wife” at home managing all of the family responsibilities. These policies would reduce both family stress and the imbalance of power between spouses in the home. By focusing on hidden power, as well as how gender plays out on all three levels of social life, the barriers to achieving greater gender equality become more visible, and help us see the path toward it more clearly.

Veronica Tichenor is  Associate Professor of Sociology at SUNY Polytechnic Institute. Some of her research interests include marriage and family life, especially power dynamics in intimate relationships; the importance of motherhood and fatherhood to women and men in the United States; and, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). She is also an editorial board member for Gender & Society

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