“Men” are not Born, but Made – by Women, Too

men drinking
“A Russian man proposes a toast at a school class reunion in a Kaluga park.” (Photo by author)

Simone de Beauvoir famously argued that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Yet “men” are also not born, but made. And importantly, men are made by women, too.

Behind any historically masculine ritual, whether it’s drinking with fraternity brothers in college or watching football with family members on Thanksgiving, there are women shaping the boundaries of those rituals.

Increasingly women participate in masculine rituals (e.g. certainly women drink at parties or watch football), but women continue to shape masculine rituals which can change the boundaries of masculinity itself.

After writing my book about Russian families (2015), Women without Men, I remained troubled by the literature on men’s heavy drinking and related masculine rituals that downplayed what women do to manage the men’s behaviors.

While drinking in Russia is an extreme case, due to alarmingly high rates of men’s drinking and large gender gaps in drinking, it allows us to see how gender norms are established, maintained, and sometimes directly challenged by women and men.

The Research

Through living with Russian families and interviewing more than 150 Russians, including single and married mothers and some men, I learned that women in heterosexual relationships are expected to engage in the extensive invisible labor of managing men’s drinking practices – drinking with them, covering for men drinking at work, doing the lion’s share of household chores and childcare so that men still have “leisure time” to drink. Although most Russian women also work for pay, on top of doing most household labor and childcare, the work they do to try to “produce” responsible men has been neglected.

Rather than passively coping with men’s heavy drinking, Russian women are expected to manage it so that men’s money keeps coming home. They most frequently do so in conditions not of their own making. Besides a highly unequal division of labor at home, a gender pay gap where men significantly out earn women and a culture that is often hostile towards feminism, women do their best to accommodate some aspects of men’s drinking – for the sake of their families’ well-being – while resisting other aspects by trying to set some limits on men’s behaviors. Men’s behaviors impose demands on women, especially when their families’ survival is at stake.

In Russia, women routinely take on extensive invisible labor. I call these complex strategies for accommodating men’s behaviors, while also resisting some aspects, collusive femininity. Women frequently engage in the invisible labor of managing men. However, women’s invisible labor also puts them in a “double bind.”

Women are performing this invisible labor to ensure the well-being of their children, yet through performing the work of managing men they are ultimately supporting men’s entitlement to drink.

We need to make visible the many ways that women shape the boundaries of masculinity – including masculine rituals such as drinking – by highlighting women’s extensive, invisible management labor in families and the double binds many women face.

Of course, some mothers reach a breaking point where they are simply unwilling to manage men’s drinking (or infidelity, or whatever harmful behavior it might be) any longer and they embrace an alternative femininity – mostly through becoming single mothers.

What women do, and what women refuse to do, shapes masculinity and what men are allowed to become. When women have had enough with men’s behaviors, whether in terms of workplace harassment – witness the #MeToo movement – or heavy drinking, gender inequality may, in time, be challenged.

Jennifer Utrata is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Puget Sound. She is the author of the award-winning Women without Men: Single Mothers and Family Change in the New Russia (Cornell, 2015). She recently finished an ACLS fellowship year at the University of Washington researching a second book tentatively entitled The ‘Third Shift’: Intensive Grandparenting and Family Inequality. Her current research focuses on how intergenerational supports shape gender and family inequality among parents in the United States. You can find her on Twitter @JenUtrata.

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