The Bureaucratic Harassment of U.S. Servicewomen

By Stephanie Bonnes

Earlier this year, a closed Facebook group called “Marines United” was revealed to be a place where 30,000 military men shared nude photos of servicewomen without their consent. Sound familiar? This incident is only the most recent in a long string of military sexual abuse scandals (the Air Force, Army, and the Navy have also been implicated in the negative treatment of servicewomen). Over the years, many policy recommendations have been developed on how the military as an organization should address these issues. However, my research shows that it is also important to recognize the role of individuals who interpret, carry out, and implement organizational rules, policies, and regulations.

The culture of the U.S military promotes an aggressive, warrior identity and its command structure reflects standards of white, hetero-normative masculinity. White men comprise the vast majority of officer positions. Within the military hierarchy, service-members who are in positions of power are tasked with interpreting and implementing various rules, often based on their own discretion. This power and authority can be manipulated and exploited to cause harm.

While nearly all of the 33 servicewomen I interviewed for my study experienced some form of sexual harassment, many of their accounts focus on the bureaucratic dimension of their harassment: the precise ways that servicemen (commanders or peers) implemented rules and procedures in order to disrupt their ability to engage in the military workforce and damage their military careers.

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            For example, a white enlisted Marine recounted her attempt to report an instance of sexual harassment she experienced. She was told by her commander that, if forced to investigate, they would cancel her Christmas leave. She said, “It was clear that this was a threat. I was asked, ‘Do [you] really want to ruin this man’s career? If we have to go forward, we will have to cancel your leave.’” After suffering sexual harassment, she grew so anxious at the thought of not being able to go home that she dropped the report.

 

In another case, a Latina Captain in the Army recalled how a fellow Captain tried to undermine a decision she made regarding one of her soldiers. She says “So, my senior enlisted guy requested leave, I approve it….so, I forward it to the Captain [who tracks personnel happenings in the unit] and this motherfucker denied it. He has no authority to do that. So, I fight him on it, fight for my enlisted guy’s leave. So, he turns around and gives me a “counseling statement.” It said I was disrespecting a superior officer. He is the same rank as me … And he says my attitude is detrimental to unit morale and he has no other option but to recommend a dishonorable discharge.” This same captain repeatedly issued administrative sanctions for small and non-existent “infractions” to try to portray her as poor service-member to their commander.

These are two examples of “bureaucratic harassment,” a concept I identify as a specific sub-type of workplace harassment where bureaucracy is both the tool that perpetrators use to harass, as well as their source of power over others in the organization. By threatening to take away earned leave, the enlisted Marine’s commander manipulated his power to grant leave in order to restrict her from reporting sexual harassment. By building a paper trail of petty infractions and complaints, the Army officer’s colleague attempted to exploit his social power (as a white male over a Latina) through the bureaucratic system.

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Organizational features such as high levels of discretion in approving leave and promotions, assigning daily work activities, and conducting employee evaluations allow for individuals to cause harm through official administrative channels. Many servicewomen perceive this treatment as legitimate since it occurs through official military organizational channels. They do not report it, they spend a lot of time responding to and fighting infractions levied against them because of it, and often they end up leaving the military as a result of it. Servicewomen who are prevented from reporting experiences with sexual abuse may be forced to stay in a unit with the perpetrator. Having a negative record of service can prevent servicewomen from accessing promotions and opportunities and can result in lost post-service medical and educational benefits. By identifying the unique tactics that servicemen use to harass through bureaucratic systems, the organizational features that facilitate bureaucratic harassment, and the unique forms of harm it causes to servicewomen, my research aims to make these processes visible so that they can be recognized and prevented in the future.

Stephanie Bonnes is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her research broadly focuses on gender and race at the intersections of victimization, inequality, crime, and organizations. Her dissertation explores the experiences of women in the United States Military including, but not limited to, servicewomen’s experiences with sexual abuse.

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“If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right”: How intensive mothering ideologies motivate women to freeze their eggs

By Kit Myers

Elective egg freezing first caught the public eye in 2002 when a fertility center in Los Angeles began offering “commercial” egg freezing to healthy women who were delaying motherhood into their 30s. Predictions of gender-liberated utopias and eugenicist dystopias abounded in the following years and interest in elective egg freezing hit a fevered pitch in the fall of 2014 when Silicone Valley giants Facebook and Apple announced the addition of egg freezing to their benefits packages in an attempt to attract more women. Hailed by some as a move to give women in tech more control over their fertility, many commentators worried that egg freezing was, at best, a stopgap solution that failed to address systemic issues of work-family conflict in the tech industry and beyond. In lifestyle pieces and opinion columns, women who froze their eggs were alternately depicted as hard charging career women putting motherhood on the back burner or as baby-starved women desperate for a shot at motherhood.

When I began interviewing women who had chosen to freeze their eggs in the summer of 2014, I found neither of these stock characters. Instead I found a cohort of women in their mid-30s to 40s who were deeply ambivalent about motherhood. They were high achieving in education and work, but none of them felt they had made a conscious choice to prioritize their careers over motherhood. Most had expected to pursue the standard script of love, marriage, and baby carriage by their early 30s, but setbacks in their love lives —including broken engagements and divorce—had knocked them off track. They generally felt that these romantic challenges were the primary reason why they froze their eggs, but as I spoke to more and more of these women it became clear that their beliefs about the best way to raise children was a major factor as well.

In my Gender & Society article, I explore the life histories of these women in order to understand the role parenting ideologies play in choices that childless women make about their fertility. Women with electively frozen eggs provide a particularly interesting perspective on fertility decision-making because the technology of egg freezing allows women to prolong indecision. Many of these women explain that—before they froze their eggs—the ticking of the biological clock made them feel as though they had to rush to make up their minds about motherhood. Should they:

A) Settle for the next half-way decent guy to come along?

B) Give up on love and pursue single-motherhood-by-choice?

C) Give up on having kids altogether and cultivate a childfree lifestyle?

For women with frozen eggs the answer was: D) None of the above. They weren’t ready to give up on motherhood but they also weren’t ready to settle or go it alone. What they really wanted was a way to keep their options open until marriage, financial security, and career advancement allowed them to pursue motherhood on their own terms. For the women in this study, egg freezing enabled that option. But how did these women arrive at the point of needing to freeze their eggs in the first place? Demanding careers and complicated love lives played a role, but beliefs about appropriate parenting styles also contributed to their ambivalence.

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Although parenting styles abound—attachment parenting, child-centered parenting, positive parenting, slow parenting, etc.—most current mainstream parenting styles fall under the rubric of intensive motherhood, which is child-centered, labor-intensive, and financially expensive. While we often presume that new mothers get drawn into particular parenting camps during pregnancy or early motherhood, messages about appropriate middle-class parenting are so deeply embedded in mainstream culture that most women already have a sense of how they should parent, long before they ever have children.

As the name implies, intensive motherhood is intense. It demands a lot of mothers and all of the women in my study were aware of those demands. Despite being fully committed to intensive mothering, Angela worried about the toll it would take on her, explaining, “You have to sacrifice your needs for [your kids’] needs. I think if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right. I’m going to put their needs in front of mine … You have to hand your life over to them. It’s hard… It’s emotionally draining. It’s financially draining.” Most of the women I interviewed didn’t feel that they were up to meeting those challenges without first finding supportive partners and workplaces. Yet most of the women had already encountered inflexible workplaces and unsupportive partners and worried that they might never achieve their ideal scenario for raising children. Freezing their eggs gave these women some peace of mind that motherhood would still be an option for them when (and if) they felt ready to pursue it.

My work suggests that growth of elective egg freezing among professional-class women exposes the gaps between these women’s hopes and aspirations and the realities they encounter in their workplaces and love lives. Insecurity at home and at work leaves these women worried that they won’t be able to live up to their own expectations of good motherhood. Faced with the overwhelming demands of intensive motherhood, these women freeze their eggs in the hope of buying themselves time to find the perfect combination of factors that will allow them to be the mothers they want to be. Yet egg freezing is an imperfect fix that places the burden of resolving work-family conflict on individual women, rather than addressing the cultural and structural factors that make motherhood so difficult for these women to accomplish in the first place.

Kit Myers is a doctoral candidate in Sociology and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California. Their research focuses on the intersection of gender, sexualities, and families with science, medicine, and technology. They are currently working on their dissertation on professional class women’s fertility decision making.

 

Reorganization of Family in Refugee Integration

 

By: Stephanie J. Nawyn

Refugee resettlement in the US is designed to achieve individual self-sufficiency through employment, with the assumption that those refugees who cannot work (such as children) will be cared for through the employed caretakers. Unlike in other countries where acculturation is the primary goal, US resettlement assistance is directed almost entirely at facilitating refugees’ employment and ending their government cash assistance as quickly as possible (usually within 1-6 months, depending on the state in which refugees are resettled).

Holding individual self-sufficiency as a goal makes the same false assumption about family life that feminists have long criticized, that productive workers have free reproductive labor available at home to free them up for economic activity. This antiquated understanding of family formation is especially damaging for poor and working class families, including most refugee families, whose employment prospects are unlikely to provide wages sufficient to cover quality childcare or care for elderly or disabled relatives. For refugees who already face intense acculturative stress (not to mention any pre-arrival trauma), the need to acquire a job while also having caretaking responsibilities is exhausting and frustrating.

Because most everything that is necessary for survival and what we might call a life of dignity (food, water, safe housing, etc.) must be purchased, having an income is critical for survival in the US. With the decline of the welfare state and increased privatization, things that most Americans would consider rights are in fact not rights per se, but resources only available through purchase. Rights afforded by fair housing laws and rental contracts can only be accessed if people can afford to take property owners to court. The right to clean water can only be accessed if people can afford their water bill or can purchase bottled water. So challenges to earning a living become challenges to accessing the basic rights we associate with living in the US. Janine Brodie called the limiting of rights to those who can afford to purchase those rights “market citizenship”. Market citizenship limits the ability of refugees to access the basic rights they are told will be afforded to them in the US (i.e. things necessary for a safe life), as they often come with little or no financial resources or human capital that is valued by US employers.

But refugees are, by definition, survivors, and they seek out creative ways to access the labor market and their rights as new US residents. Demonstrating that rights are not just things given by the state but sometimes need to be agentively pursued, refugee households reorganize themselves to ensure that as many households as possible have the resources needed to secure their rights. My research with colleague Breanne Grace and Betty Okwako-Riekkola on Burundian families demonstrates how refugees can use creative reorganization of family households to spread out resources that provide access to market citizenship rights.

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The most common strategy we found was for refugees to redistribute family members across different households, so that every household had the human resources they needed to engage in paid employment and to access translation necessary to interact with English-only speakers. First, it was common for people to move to households that had too few earners and too many dependents. Teenagers, pre-teens, and older adults who could not easily find employment outside the home would provide childcare to families with younger children so that the adults in the family could be employed. Single adults moved in with siblings who had children in order to maximize the number of earners in a household. While this type of extended family household is common in Burundi and had been more prevalent in the US at different historical periods, it represents a departure from the definition of family propagated by the US Department of State, which would not allow some of these family members to be resettled as the same household (and in fact, many Burundians in our study had adult siblings and elderly parents back in refugee camps who had not been given refugee visas to the US).

Another limit to rights that refugees commonly experience is the inability to exercise rights because they are not English fluent. For example, in our study a Burundian family could not seek help with a basement flooded with sewage because they could not even ask anyone who to contact when the landlord failed to address it. So, Burundians redistributed household members in order to provide sufficient interpretation and translation assistance. Older children (who often learned English much faster than adults) would live with other families who were linguistically isolated (defined as having no one in the household who was English fluent). Without English speakers to interpret for free, these families would need to pay a professional interpreter.

These reformulations of family households changed the ratio of producers to dependents. We call this ratio the “neoliberal citizenship ratio”, as it represents the ratio of people who can access market citizenship under neoliberalism to people who cannot; essentially a “work to need” ratio. For families living on the margins of the economy, a high neoliberal citizenship ratio can determine how well a given household and its members will survive.

The reorganization of households was a strategy used by refugees who had extended family in the area. But for those households without extended family, co-ethnic ties were not sufficiently strong to give them access to free labor from other households. These families still received food and clothing donations from other Burundians that supplemented the meager assistance received from the state. But it did not provide the same access to basic rights that extended kin networks provided.

Our research (available in the Journal of Refugee Studies) highlights the particular ways in which the neoliberal shift from government provision to private provision hurts vulnerable people in the US, and puts additional burdens on already stressed families to make up for shortfalls in state support. It also demonstrates how the metric of success for resettlement – individual employment – erases the reproduction of family poverty inherent in the resettlement system.

Stephanie J. Nawyn is the Co-Director for Academic Programs at the Center for Gender in Global Context (GenCen) and an associate professor in the Department of Sociology with expertise in gender and migration. Her work has primarily focused on refugee resettlement and protection, as well as the economic advancement of African voluntary migrants in the U.S. She was a Fulbright Fellow at Istanbul University for the 2013-14 academic year, studying the treatment of Syrian refugees in Turkey. Her most recent work is forthcoming in Journal of Refugees Studies and Journal of Ethnic and Racial Studies. And she is currently on the editorial board for Gender & Society.

External Childcare Services & Gendered Perceptions of Time Conflicts

By Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen and Dominique Oehrli

In recent decades, female contributions to paid work have strongly increased. This trend can be observed in most countries, although to different degrees. This, in turn, has nourished public and scientific discussions on whether and how female employment could be promoted. Most prominently, it has been shown that external childcare services play a crucial role: These measures facilitate the reconciliation of family duties and paid work as they provide women with opportunities to become more extensively employed and also promote the preference to do so.

However, quite obviously, the relationship between external childcare provision and female employment does not occur in a vacuum. In other words, and this is the starting point of our article, if external childcare policies lead to a stronger labor market involvement by women, these policies also may have much broader consequences on what women and men (!) do beyond the labor market, that is at home or in society.  In our study we therefore look at the relationship between external childcare policies in Swiss municipalities and gender-specific perceptions of time conflict. Hence, we are interested in whether childcare policies indeed shape the allocation of time to paid work, work at home and social activities and how the potential time conflicts in handling these different activities are perceived by individuals.

The main finding of our study is that the existence of childcare policies in a municipality mainly affects men’s perceived time conflicts. For men, having small children does not induce any time conflicts if they do not live in a municipality that provides Early Childcare and Education (ECEC) services. By contrast, fathers living in a municipality with ECEC services face substantially higher time conflicts regarding both, leisure and housework activities. Conversely, women’s perceived time conflicts are to a much lesser degree related to childcare services in the municipality. Childcare provision is associated with stronger perceptions of time conflicts only when children get older, probably because mothers typically increase their employment level when their children grow older.

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Given these results, do we need to question the positive framing of external childcare provision? While our findings may seem to be somewhat disillusioning at first sight, a closer look leads to a more positive conclusion. In fact, our findings clearly support the hypothesis that the provision of childcare services is associated with a more equal division of labor within households; in particular also with a stronger involvement of fathers at home. It is true that this increased equality induces some “costs” (i.e., stronger perceptions of time conflicts) that are mainly reported by fathers. That is, at least in the Swiss context—changing gender norms provoke more negative feelings and stress in men than in women. This gender difference may be explained by the fact that a more equal division of labor for mothers is strongly related to increased opportunities. Put differently, although a stronger labor market involvement may objectively mean more time conflicts for women as well, this situation does not automatically translate into stronger perceptions of time conflict. In contrast, it can be argued that a more egalitarian division of labor makes fathers’ lives more complex. The advantages of more modernized family roles are less obvious for them, but rather they are confronted with new and stronger constraints. Moreover, at the more normative level, these fathers may feel a conflict between their involvement at home and the still persisting traditional image of how a “real man” should behave. This is a conclusion that seems reasonable at least in the Swiss context. Hence, it is the clash between the different normative ideals that makes the situation particularly difficult for fathers.

Against this background, our results eventually point to the need for policy makers to consider and target not only women but increasingly men when crafting childcare (but probably also parental leave) policies. Most importantly, our article implies that childcare services are a relevant, but not a sufficient mean to promote a sound work-life balance for parents. In this vein, it is also important to acknowledge that childcare policies may have different consequences on different groups depending not only on their specific design but also on the cultural context. In a country like Switzerland, for example, in which a (modernized) male-breadwinner model still dominates and in which childcare coverage is far from universal, the changes induced by these policies may create particular conflicts – including normative struggles. However, these policies may at the same time be a trigger for changing traditional gender norms and moreover provide men also with positive experiences in new roles. Whereas these processes will obviously need some time, this might eventually lead to a situation in which policies promoting more equal gender roles will be perceived as opportunity rather than as constraint also by men.

Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen is professor in comparative politics with the University of Bern. Her main research interests concern comparative welfare state research and political behavior and attitudes. Current research projects aim at linking these two areas by considering potential policy feedback effects, mainly in the field of family and energy policy.

Dominique Oehrli is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Political Science, University of Bern. Her main research interests concern comparative welfare state research and, in particular, gendered policy effects. In her PhD thesis, she investigated the relationship between conditional cash transfers and women’s labor market involvement in Latin America.

We Don’t Leave, They Kick Us Out: Women’s Exit from Male-Dominated Occupations

By Marga Torre

We all know that women and men tend to perform different jobs, and also that jobs typically performed by males come with more power and status. Indeed, sex segregation at work is the most relevant factor explaining the sex gap in wages, promotion, and authority. Therefore, accessing male-dominated fields is crucial for women’s economic and social advancement.

According to data provided by the National Bureau of Statistics, in 1970 about 70 percent of women in the US would have had to change jobs in order to be occupationally distributed in the same manner as men. By 1990, this percentage had decreased to 52, but it has remained rather stable since then. How is this possible when more and more women seem to be entering occupations traditionally dominated by men?  The figure below explains why.  As observed, for every 100 women moving from female- to male-dominated settings, 95 women do the opposite, thereby essentially maintaining existing levels of segregation. In other words, women’s increasing ability to “unlock the door” to male occupations has been accompanied by a substantial movement of women out of male-dominated occupations, reproducing the levels of segregation. In 1989 Jerry A. Jacobs labelled this phenomenon the revolving door, and it continues to be significant today.

Women’s occupational movement

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Source: Calculated by the author using NLSY79 (1979-2010).

Why, then, do women leave male-dominated occupations—with their higher salaries and status levels—after clearing the barriers to entry? Understanding the flows between male- and female-dominated occupations requires us to examine women’s careers trajectories. Let us imagine two almost identical women starting to work in the same male-dominated occupation. They went to college together and have the same number of years of work experience. The only difference between the two women is that one started her career in the male sector right after college, while the other did so only after a period of employment in female-dominated jobs. Are they both equally likely to succeed in the male-dominated occupation? Despite their similarities, there are reasons to think that there is a higher risk of attrition with the second woman. This, I argue here, is because the notion of women’s work is imbued with assumptions and beliefs about the worth of the worker, which hinders their integration in the male sector. I use the term scar effect to describe the penalties associated with time spent in female-dominated occupations for women’s opportunities in male-dominated occupations.

The figure below uses data compiled between 1979 and 2010 to show the exit probability for women switching from a male- to a female-dominated occupation one year after being hired. We distinguish three type of women with three different career trajectories: women already working in the male field (insiders), women recently arriving from a female-dominated occupation (newcomers), and women who have experienced previous episodes of attrition from male-dominated occupations (repeaters). Blue indicates lower exit rates, while the spectrum closer to red indicates higher exit rates—all after controlling for relevant demographic characteristics (age, level of education, parental and marital status), and work-related features (tenure, hours worked, year of experience).

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          Source: Calculated by the author using NLSY79 (1979-2010)

As observed, the probability of moving to a female-dominated occupation one year after entry is significantly lower for women who have been working in the male field than for women who have recently arrived from female settings. More specifically, the probability of attrition to female occupations is 22 percent for insiders but over 40 percent for newcomers in the case of “high-status” professionals. The probability of exit for repeaters is higher still at about 50 percent, almost twice the probability of attrition for insiders. It could be that co-workers perceive previous episodes of attrition from male-dominated occupations as an indication of failure, or of women’s inability to fulfill their responsibilities; such sentiments and lack of confidence in their abilities could raise the probability of such repeaters exiting and returning to a more supportive environment. The differences among women in low-status occupations are less pronounced. Attrition rates range from 30 percent for insiders to about 42 percent for repeaters, with newcomers at around 40 percent. In short, attrition is substantially higher for newcomers than for insiders among both categories of workers, while professionals suffer extra penalties for earlier episodes of attrition.

This evidence points to the scar effect of female work; in other words, women’s attrition can be partly explained by newcomers’ disadvantages with respect to both men and women employed in male-dominated occupations. This effect is more pronounced in the most prestigious occupations. Incumbents in male-dominated occupations tend to penalize women arriving from outside the world of men’s work, whose presence is seen as inappropriate or peculiar, more than women whose career paths have followed men’s all along.

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Marga Torre is Assistant Professor in Sociology at University Carlos III of Madrid (Spain). Her research interests include gender, occupational segregation, labor markets, and social media. Her work has recently appeared in Social Forces, Sociological  Perspectives, and International Migration.

 

 

Queering Romance

By Ellen Lamont

For the last couple of decades, debates over same-sex marriage dominated the national political conversation on gay rights. Slogans such as “love is love” and other mainstream narratives proclaimed the right to wedded bliss for same-sex couples, and movement leaders worked to normalize certain LGBTQ relationships by emphasizing their similarity to straight couples. Yet not all LGBTQ individuals were on board, and many asserted that liberation was not about gaining access to a government sanctioned institution or mimicking the practices of heterosexual couples. Instead, they argued, the appeal of queer life was in making life choices, and defining relationships, on one’s own terms. Only in doing so could one radically transform the sexist, heteronormative practices that structure romantic relationships.

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            Normative dating and courtship practices are widely accepted in the U.S. because they reliably communicate interest and facilitate relationship progression. Men are expected to ask for, plan, and pay for dates, progress the relationship, and propose marriage, while women are expected to simply react. Given that these norms are predicated on assumptions of heterosexuality and are deeply gendered, I wondered how queer individuals navigated the early stages of romantic relationships, a time when people are more likely to fall back on well-established practices as a way to deal with uncertainty. In order to explore this question, I interviewed 40 LGBTQ-identified young adults in the San Francisco Bay Area about their dating practices. Given their young ages, geographic location, and extensive contact with queer community organizations and friend networks, my respondents were well-situated to remake romance outside of the standard Hollywood script.

            Contrary to the voices of liberation through assimilation, my findings show that some LGBTQ-identified individuals – particularly those in more radical, politicized queer spaces – reject the presumption that they should mimic heterosexual relationship practices, which they saw as constraining, unimaginative, and heavily gendered. Instead, respondents argued for dating practices built on reciprocity.

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They emphasized how both partners (or more, if in polyamorous relationships) should ask and pay for dates, communicate interest, and facilitate relationship progression. In addition, they aimed to construct relationships free from societal constraints and instead based on the individual needs of each partner. They viewed this approach as more honest than those that draw on cookie cutter assumptions about what people want and need in their relationships.

            This approach spilled over into their committed relationships, as respondents emphasized egalitarian, flexible, and non-gendered care work. They sought to engage in high levels of communication and negotiation so that each person’s individual, and often changing, needs would be consistently honored. Thus, my findings show how a deliberate rethinking of dating and courtship practices may set the stage for people to do the same in their long-term relationships, indicating that changing how people date may be important to building more equal, and less gendered, relationships.

            But while my respondents emphasized their desire to “write the scripts themselves” based on individual needs and wants, they faced emergent community-level norms that restricted the range of “acceptable” relationship practices. Given the queer community’s focus on resisting gendered and heteronormative practices, the people I spoke with discussed anywhere from mild to heavy pressure to avoid these practices in their own relationships. As a result, people worked hard to be appropriately radical and resist falling back on normative conventions. Those who fell back on heteronormative practices were either shamed or compelled to create narratives in which their adherence to such practices was explained away in order to undermine potential critiques. While my findings show the potential embedded in building relationships based on the expressed needs and desires of each partner rather than on default expectations, they also demonstrate that queer people struggle with the paradox that liberation can itself become a constraining norm, as the pressure to contest societal level norms translates into a pressure to always be radical.

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Ellen Lamont is an assistant professor  of sociology at the Appalachian State University. Her research examines how gender and sexuality shape young adults’ hookup, dating, and courtship practices.

 

 

 

Calibrating Extremes: The Balancing Act of Maternal Foodwork

By Kate Cairns, Josée Johnston and Merin Oleschuk

 

When it comes to feeding children, mothers today must avoid the appearance of caring too little, or too much. Either extreme garners social stigma, although the penalties are far from equal.

Theresa describes how becoming a mother brought heightened significance to her food decisions. “I really tried to avoid the junk,” she says, hosting a focus group of friends in her Toronto apartment. A mixed-race single mother raising three kids on social assistance, Theresa says the scarcity of time and money makes putting regular healthy meals on the table difficult. But occasionally her efforts pay off. She recalls with pride the time her five-year-old son “went to a birthday party at McDonald’s, came home and threw up because he just wasn’t used to that food.” For Theresa, her son’s intolerance for fast food was evidence of her devoted feeding work.

The specter of the “McDonalds Mom”

When we conducted interviews and focus groups with Toronto women, many mothers described ongoing efforts to feed their kids nutritious meals, while avoiding processed “junk.” In doing so, these women distanced their own feeding practices from an imagined “bad” mother who makes “bad” food choices. Carol (white, producer) admits that she sometimes scrutinizes other grocery carts with a “judgmental eye” when she sees “really awful stuff going down the conveyer belt with kids there.” Tara (a white single-mother who was unable to work due to chronic pain) expressed frustration that her son’s healthy lunches would inevitably be traded for junk because his friends were sent to school with “all this crap.”

As mothers in our study distanced themselves from an unhealthy “Other” who made poor food choices, we were surprised how frequently McDonald’s entered the conversation. McDonald’s seemed to function as a trope symbolizing “easy” meals, “unhealthy” choices, and “bad” mothering more generally. Gail (white, acupuncturist) contrasted her vision of healthy home cooking with a “stereotypical image of someone stopping at McDonald’s to get food for their kids.” Marissa (Black, project manager) confessed that as “busy people we do need to do fast food,” but clarified that “my kids will tell you that does not mean McDonald’s.” Lucia (Latina, social worker) said she and her son “talk about what’s junk and you know, McDonald’s and all that kind of food” in an effort to teach him “what’s healthy, what’s not healthy.”

Again and again, mothers distanced themselves from the figure of the “McDonald’s Mom,” a stigmatized “Other” they used to defend their own feeding practices. While this defense may seem judgmental, we suggest mothers’ efforts to establish this distance reflect the intense pressures they experience feeding their children. These pressures are especially penalizing for poor women who struggle to feed kids on a limited budget and racialized women who face enduring racist stereotypes about parenting and food choices. Indeed, the assumption that poor mothers make inferior food choices is evident in recent calls to restrict what can be purchased on SNAP benefits, undermining the essential role of government assistance in mitigating the effects of poverty.

Going organic… but not too organic

When distancing their own feeding practices from “bad” ones, some mothers described feeding their children an organic diet – a resource-intensive practice that has become a gold standard of middle-class motherhood. Mothers today face considerable pressure to purchase ‘pure’ foods that are free of harmful chemical additives; this “intensive feeding ideology” involves the added work of researching products, reading labels, and making baby food from scratch.

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Some more privileged mothers in our study expressed preference for these standards, but insisted they weren’t dogmatic in their commitment. Tammy (white, daycare worker) explained that while she and her husband provide their son healthy foods, they “try very hard also not to get into that urban, crunchy granola mafia kind of mindset.” Elaine (Asian, research analyst) described how she “goes with the flow” when feeding her infant daughter, and contrasted this approach with friends who are “very militant about it… almost as if it’s a religion.”

Thus, when feeding children an organic diet, mothers risk resembling another stigmatized figure: the overbearing “Organic Mom” whose feeding practices venture into excess. Implicitly coded white and affluent, this pathologized figure obsesses over what her kids are eating, denying them the tasty treats associated with childhood. Like the McDonald’s Mom, the Organic Mom is not a real person, embodied in a singular mother; she is an imagined figure used to police the boundaries of maternal foodwork.

Feeding children: A struggle shaped by social inequality

Importantly, the McDonald’s Mom and the Organic Mom do not entail equal social sanction. The stigma of being perceived as a “bad” feeder is much more socially discrediting, and engenders significantly greater penalty – including surveillance from state institutions like schools, doctors, and child welfare agencies. What’s more, an individual woman’s relationship to these figures is shaped by her social location. Given the challenge of feeding children on a limited income, along with racist ideologies linking “healthy eating” to whiteness, the threat of being categorized as a McDonald’s Mom is clearly greater for poor women and women of color than for affluent white women. And the risk of being perceived as controlling or uptight is incomparable with the stress of food insecurity. Shannon, a white single-mother living on social assistance, said she wished she could buy organic food, but has to ration her own fruit and vegetable intake so her daughter can eat them. She explained that when there’s not enough for both of them, “I will say I don’t feel like eating.”

Our point is not to equate these uneven penalties, but to draw attention to the multiple ways mothers are harshly judged for their foodwork. Notably, comparable figures of the “McDonald’s” or “Organic Dad” did not emerge in our broader study (which included men), revealing the continued gendered burden of feeding children and the more flexible standards fathers face when doing this work.

What became clear throughout our research is that mothers from diverse backgrounds face pressure to continually monitor their children’s eating in ways that are careful and responsible, yet don’t appear obsessive or controlling. We call this process calibration – the constant balancing act of striving for an elusive maternal ideal. Calibration is labor-intensive and emotionally taxing, part of the seemingly impossible task of performing the “good” mother. If you opt for affordability or convenience, you risk being seen as a McDonald’s Mom. If you take your job as health-protector too seriously, you may be deemed an obsessive Organic Mom who deprives her kids of childhood joys like hotdogs. These gendered pressures not only contribute to mother-blame, but distract us from the larger harms perpetuated by an unhealthy, unsustainable, and unjust food system. Instead of trading in individualized blame, let’s work to build an equitable food system that promotes the health of all children, not simply those whose mothers appear to care (and spend) just the right amount.

Kate Cairns is an Assistant Professor of Childhood Studies at Rutgers University-Camden. She is coauthor of Food and Femininity (Bloomsbury 2015) with Josée Johnston, Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto. Merin Oleschuk is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Toronto studying home cooking and family health.