By Emily Kane
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Jill Filipovic addresses “Why Men Want to Marry Melanias and Raise Ivankas,” referring to the traditionally gendered division of responsibility Donald J. Trump celebrates for his wife but seems to reject for his daughter. Filipovic goes on to note public opinion data suggests men favor independence and strength in daughters more than wives, but sweetness and attractiveness in wives more than daughters. This is an important pattern to note, with clear implications for reproducing gender inequality. And it’s a pattern that shapes the way some fathers participate in gendering their daughters even in early childhood. In my book The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls, I approach these patterns with explicit attention to the intersections of race, class, gender and sexuality, and find that the way Donald Trump looks at things is more common among men privileged by race and class.
In my analysis of interviews with parents of preschoolers from a wide variety of backgrounds and social locations, I identify five distinct groups based on their parenting practices, one of which I call “Naturalizers.” These parents tend to view gender as rooted in nature, celebrate gender differences as positive, and reject seeing gender as a source of power. Though parents from all social backgrounds were represented in this group, a particular strand within it was expressed by upper-middle class white fathers with both sons and daughters. They encouraged a modest expansion of gendered expectations for their young sons, who they viewed as “hard-wired” for rough-and-tumble competitiveness but hoped to round out with just a small infusion of domestic skills and nurturing orientation. For their daughters, they viewed that nurturance and a maternal instinct as the hard-wired element, which they more actively hoped to round out with the skills to “choose” male-dominated careers if they wished to do so. This emphasis on choice, especially expressed by privileged fathers who often viewed it as unconstrained by structural power, is very much consistent with accepting traditionally gendered wives and more career-oriented daughters who still show that supposedly natural material instinct. As Filipovic quotes in her piece, Donald Trump praises his daughter as “a devoted mother and an exceptional entrepreneur.”
As I argue, this combination of expectations is a trap, particularly because of these fathers’ heteronormative assumptions about their daughters. “Although a significantly different kind of masculinity may be of little interest to the Naturalizers…, their hopes to secure opportunities for their daughters cannot be separated from the traditionally gendered skills they encourage for those daughters nor from the fates of their sons. Without changing gendered expectations among both men and women, as well as the interactional and institutional constraints that create obstacles to such change, opening new opportunities while reinscribing old obligations for girls and women only creates the illusion of options” (p. 79). But this is where an intersectional analysis is especially critical, as class-privileged women at least have a shot at making this “choice” to some extent, by outsourcing the traditionally gendered labor of carework to low-wage domestic employees who are often women of color and immigrant women. By exploiting inequalities of race, class and nation, class-privileged women can perform devoted motherhood and professional achievement in ways far less accessible to the vast majority of women. But even these privileged women face the less-easily outsourced emotional labor expectations of what Sharon Hays termed “intensive mothering,” which limits their time and capacity to participate fully in a broad array of economic, civic and political endeavors.
This narrative of hard-wired maternal instincts and free choice, without recognition of the structural constraints generated by intersecting inequalities of race, class, gender and sexuality, allows men like Trump to celebrate traditionally gendered divisions of labor with their wives as a choice while also celebrating a broader range of still limited options for their daughters. But without an equally broadened range of options for their sons and the structural support of social policy that allows everyone to participate in carework while also maintaining economic security, that celebration leaves even class-advantaged daughters constrained, and perpetuates the structural inequalities it so conveniently ignores.
Emily W. Kane is Professor of Sociology and a member of the Program in Women and Gender Studies at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Her current research and teaching interests include race, class, gender and neoliberal social policy in the United States; family and parenting; and community-based research. “The Gender Trap” was reviewed in Gender & Society in 2013.