The Perils and the Possibilities of All-Black Male Schools

 

By Keisha Lindsay PhD

Cross-posted with permission from The Society Pages 

What do Louis Farrakhan, George H. W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Mark Zuckerberg have in common? They are examples of the strange political bedfellows who support separate, publicly funded schools for black boys.

As a public school graduate and one of the few black women faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I know what discrimination in the classroom looks like. So, when I first heard about the effort to establish all-black male schools (ABMSs), I was relieved that school districts were finally listening to anti-racist activists’ assertion that structural racism in schools is unacceptable. In other words, I situated the push to open ABMSs within black people’s well-established understanding of the classroom as a place for resisting racism. To this end, proponents of the forty-plus ABMSs established since 1991 rightly argue that: black urban schools are under-resourced relative to white suburban ones; traditional public schools utilize racist curriculablack students are disciplined more harshly than white students, and black teachers are under-representedin the nation’s schools.

At the same time, the anti-feminist ethos sometimes present in #Black Lives Matter and other expressions of black politics is also evident in conversations about ABMSs. It is unsurprising then that my initial optimism about ABMSs soon turned to concern. I recognized that despite their best intentions, some advocates of ABMSs minimize the degree of black girls’ own oppression in school. Equally disturbing is many ABMS supporters’ assumption that black schoolboys underperform because they are distracted by black girls. This claim reproduces harmful images of black women as “jezebels” who sexually corrupt the men in their midst.

There is much to learn from the movement to open ABMSs. One lesson is that intersectionality – the analytical framework pioneered by black feminists to illuminate how racial, gendered, and other systems of power are mutually reinforcing – can be used to advance multiple political agendas, including anti-feminist ones.  On the one hand, advocates of AMBSs embrace intersectionality when they assume that black boys underachieve not only because they are black in racist schools but also because they are black boys in white, female-dominated classrooms. This intersectional logic highlights black boys’ experience of gender-specific racism or the fact that the nation’s teachers, most of whom are white women, suspend black boys at higher rates than other students, including black girls. On the other hand, numerous advocates of ABMSs assume that black boys underachieve because white women teachers create racist, “feminized” classrooms at odds with these boys’ “naturally” aggressive learning style. This latter intersectional approach obscures research which indicates that biology does not automatically make boys tactile learners and girls oral learners. Most significantly, ignoring these data leads far too many supporters of ABMSs to overlook the needs and aptitudes of black children, like highly verbal black boys, who defy stereotypical gender roles.

So where does the reality that the push for ABMSs resists racial inequality but sometimes relies on gender inequality leave those of us committed to challenging intersecting inequalities in our personal, activist, and/or professional lives? I believe that supporters and critics of AMBSs can form politically progressive coalitions. This might seem like an unrealistic goal given that advocates of ABMSs sometimes reject black feminist criticism of their efforts. Indeed, black feminists who express concerns about these schools have heard that we are “colluding with the enemy” or giving racist whites the opportunity to condemn ABMSs and, in turn, stifle black boys’ academic prospects. It is also true, however, that while many proponents of ABMSs conceptualize black children’s oppression in ways that threaten bridge-building, other advocates recognize that the sometimes sexist and heterosexist rhetoric in favor of these schools harms both black boys and black girls.

Building on this finding requires all participants in the debate about ABMSs to embrace a particular type of educational advocacy – one which recognizes that public schools are key to addressing oppression and that black children are forced to learn in some of the worst public schools. Putting this kind of nuanced advocacy into practice means using accessible, community-based spaces to challenge our assumptions about how and why black children are oppressed in school. It also means defining “good” public schools as those which foster all black children’s capacity for self-determination and self-actualization in the classroom, and beyond.

As a public school graduate and one of the few black women faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I know what discrimination in the classroom looks like. So, when I first heard about the effort to establish all-black male schools (ABMSs), I was relieved that school districts were finally listening to anti-racist activists’ assertion that structural racism in schools is unacceptable. In other words, I situated the push to open ABMSs within black people’s well-established understanding of the classroom as a place for resisting racism. To this end, proponents of the forty-plus ABMSs established since 1991 rightly argue that: black urban schools are under-resourced relative to white suburban ones; traditional public schools utilize racist curriculablack students are disciplined more harshly than white students, and black teachers are under-representedin the nation’s schools.

At the same time, the anti-feminist ethos sometimes present in #Black Lives Matter and other expressions of black politics is also evident in conversations about ABMSs. It is unsurprising then that my initial optimism about ABMSs soon turned to concern. I recognized that despite their best intentions, some advocates of ABMSs minimize the degree of black girls’ own oppression in school. Equally disturbing is many ABMS supporters’ assumption that black schoolboys underperform because they are distracted by black girls. This claim reproduces harmful images of black women as “jezebels” who sexually corrupt the men in their midst.

There is much to learn from the movement to open ABMSs. One lesson is that intersectionality – the analytical framework pioneered by black feminists to illuminate how racial, gendered, and other systems of power are mutually reinforcing – can be used to advance multiple political agendas, including anti-feminist ones.  On the one hand, advocates of AMBSs embrace intersectionality when they assume that black boys underachieve not only because they are black in racist schools but also because they are black boys in white, female-dominated classrooms. This intersectional logic highlights black boys’ experience of gender-specific racism or the fact that the nation’s teachers, most of whom are white women, suspend black boys at higher rates than other students, including black girls. On the other hand, numerous advocates of ABMSs assume that black boys underachieve because white women teachers create racist, “feminized” classrooms at odds with these boys’ “naturally” aggressive learning style. This latter intersectional approach obscures research which indicates that biology does not automatically make boys tactile learners and girls oral learners. Most significantly, ignoring these data leads far too many supporters of ABMSs to overlook the needs and aptitudes of black children, like highly verbal black boys, who defy stereotypical gender roles.

So where does the reality that the push for ABMSs resists racial inequality but sometimes relies on gender inequality leave those of us committed to challenging intersecting inequalities in our personal, activist, and/or professional lives? I believe that supporters and critics of AMBSs can form politically progressive coalitions. This might seem like an unrealistic goal given that advocates of ABMSs sometimes reject black feminist criticism of their efforts. Indeed, black feminists who express concerns about these schools have heard that we are “colluding with the enemy” or giving racist whites the opportunity to condemn ABMSs and, in turn, stifle black boys’ academic prospects. It is also true, however, that while many proponents of ABMSs conceptualize black children’s oppression in ways that threaten bridge-building, other advocates recognize that the sometimes sexist and heterosexist rhetoric in favor of these schools harms both black boys and black girls.

Building on this finding requires all participants in the debate about ABMSs to embrace a particular type of educational advocacy – one which recognizes that public schools are key to addressing oppression and that black children are forced to learn in some of the worst public schools. Putting this kind of nuanced advocacy into practice means using accessible, community-based spaces to challenge our assumptions about how and why black children are oppressed in school. It also means defining “good” public schools as those which foster all black children’s capacity for self-determination and self-actualization in the classroom, and beyond.

Keisha Lindsay, PhD is an associate professor of gender and women’s studies and political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research and teaching interests include black feminist theories, black masculinities, and gender-based politics in the African diaspora. She is the author of In a Classroom of Their Own: The Intersection of Race and Feminist Politics in All-Black Male Schools (University of Illinois Press 2018).

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The Unfinished Gender Revolution: Lessons from Russia

By Sarah Ashwin

Revolutions tend to stop at the threshold of the private household, doing little to liberate women from domestic inequality. Even the “gender revolution” of women’s increased access to employment, education and birth control in countries such as the US since the 1960s is generally viewed by scholars as “stalled” (http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0891243210361475). Along with continued inequality in employment, a key item of unfinished business is domestic inequity, with women continuing to perform the lion’s share of domestic and caring labor despite their mass entry into paid work (http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/000312240406900601). How does such stalling occur? Here I examine the iconic case of the Russian revolution of 1917 and its aftermath.

Women’s liberation from what the Russian revolutionary leader, Vladimir Lenin, called their “state of household slavery” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1919/sep/23a.htm) was a declared aim of the new Soviet state. But women’s emancipation was not viewed as a goal in itself. It had an economic and political purpose – to draw women into the labor force so they could contribute to the industrialization drive, and to induct them into Soviet public life, turning them from “kitchen slaves” into Soviet citizens.  What Lenin called “exceptionally petty” domestic labor such as cooking was to be socialized in public institutions (https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1919/sep/23a.htm). This ambition is perfectly illustrated by the 1931 Soviet poster “Down with Kitchen Slavery!  Yes to a new way of life!”

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The “enslaved” woman of the past is pictured in a cramped, dark private kitchen, forced to wash clothes by hand and use a tiny stove. A woman worker opens a door to a vision of the socialist future featuring a bright, airy factory, canteen, nursery and club. In the “new way of life” women would be able to participate in employment and public life, with domestic and caring labor performed by state institutions. Women did indeed join the labor force in successive waves so that by 1970 nearly 90 per cent of working age Soviet women were in full-time work or study.  But the ideal of socialized household labor never became a reality except in the sphere of childcare. Since the state made no effort to encourage men to perform “exceptionally petty” labor in the household – men were expected to devote themselves to what was perceived as more productive, industrial labor – women were left with a notorious “double burden” of full-time work and domestic labor which persisted until the end of the Soviet era and beyond.

My article with Olga Isupova focuses on how this legacy has impacted gender ideology; that is, women and men’s beliefs about how domestic and paid work should be configured. Despite high women’s employment during the Soviet era, three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1994, an international survey found nearly two thirds of Russian women and 70 per cent of men supported the statement “a man’s job is to earn money; a woman’s job is to look after the home and family” (International Social Survey Programme http://w.issp.org/menu-top/home/). We use data from 115 interviews with 23 young women who we followed between 1999 and 2010 to understand how such beliefs are sustained and how and when they are challenged.

We link gender ideology to the macro-environment of a society in relation to gender – what researchers call its “gender order” – and to the micro-level of interaction between men and women in which gender researchers argue individuals are constrained to “do gender” – that is, to demonstrate their masculinity or femininity through their behaviour (http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0891243287001002002). The Soviet gender order influenced gender ideologies in two important ways.  First, although the state promoted women’s employment it did not challenge traditional conceptions regarding gender and domestic labor. For example, a modified version of the male breadwinner norm persisted, with Soviet economic writings taking it for granted that wives should earn two-thirds of their husband’s wages (https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Women_in_Soviet_Society.html?id=rtWfengNqQ8C&redir_esc=y). This reinforced the idea that domestic labor was women’s responsibility (even when Lenin was agitating for the socialization of domestic labor, he assumed women would staff the new institutions (https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1919/sep/23a.htm). Second, the Soviet Union had comprehensive censorship and all forms of independent organization, including feminism, were banned. This made it hard for women to analyze their situation and question men’s domestic privilege. The difficulty is brilliantly captured in Natalya Baranskaya’s 1969 novella A Week Like Any Other (https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=JXZvMAEACAAJ&dq=Baranskaya+a+week+like+any+other&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwitm4vk8pzbAhXjCcAKHQyyBfsQ6AEIJzAA), which depicted the struggles of a full-time Soviet working mother who performed all the housework even though she and her husband were both scientists. The heroine is portrayed as exhausted, unhappy and perplexed, but rather than critiquing the gender inequity that leaves her so burdened, she blames herself asking, “What is the matter with me?” Attempts to live up to the ideal of the Soviet superwoman perfectly balancing work, motherhood and household management left many women asking the same question.

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Artist: Mariya Samokhina 

In the post-Soviet era, the relaxation of censorship and increased freedom to organize has made it easier for women to access alternative ideas and question traditional gender relations. Nevertheless, nearly a decade after the Soviet collapse, some young women in our study were unable to imagine egalitarian gender relations despite being fiercely critical of the “kitchen slavery” faced by their mothers. It should also be noted that freedom of association and information are again under threat in Russia today under Vladimir Putin, though the impact of this on the gender division of domestic labor is still unclear.

As well as being institutionalized within the gender order, traditional or egalitarian ideas are enforced (or not) in the everyday interactions of men and women. Women themselves can reinforce traditionalism when they expect men to perform as breadwinners. We found that the ideal of the male breadwinner was an important prop to traditionalism, with traditional women using men’s superior wages to explain why housework was a woman’s responsibility even when both partners worked full time. But some women in our study also became more egalitarian, and we found that this was easier after they met supportive men with whom they could imagine an egalitarian relationship. Individuals’ gender ideologies are therefore shaped both by dominant ideas within the gender order and by interaction, with the two influencing each other.

We saw quite significant change during the 10 years of our study, with some women moving towards egalitarianism and others, though self-identified as heterosexual, giving up on men and embracing what we called an “ideology of independence”. Although the second position gave women facing difficult challenges a sense of agency and dignity, it left men unchanged and free from domestic and caring responsibilities, a dynamic which is sensitively analyzed in Jennifer Utrata’s book on Russia’s lone mothers (http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/?GCOI=80140100573890). The ideology of independence is the necessary shadow of male breadwinner ideal, and has provided a safety valve for gender traditionalism.

The struggle between gender traditionalism and egalitarianism continues globally. We think situating gender ideology in the context of particular gender orders and relating this to the everyday micro-interactions of men and women aids our understanding of how this dynamic unfolds in different contexts.

Sarah Ashwin is a professor of industrial relations in the Department of Management at the London School of Economics. Her recent publications develop different aspects of gender theory by interrogating Russia’s stalled gender revolution.

DEALING WITH MOTHERHOOD

By Heidi Grundetjern

Mothers who use and deal illegal drugs find themselves in particularly complex gendered situations. For these mothers, by being involved in crime and being perceived as failing to live up to normative gender expectations, they are stigmatized two-fold in society. In addition, they operate in a gender-stratified drug market supported by masculine “rules of the game.” Men often exclude women from accessing lucrative positions because of presumed dedication to caregiving.

Maternal Identities among Women in the Illegal Drug Economy

In my research, I examine motherhood among women who are part of the hard drug economy in Norway. Although such mothers have in common having little access to normative motherhood, I found vast variation in maternal identities among the mothers in this study. I identified four maternal identities, patterned by their gender performances and work situations: grieving mothers, detached mothers, motherly dealers, and working mothers. Timing of pregnancy, time spent with children, control over drug use, and place in the drug market hierarchy contributed in explaining their maternal identities.

Grieving Mothers

For the grieving mothers, motherhood was vital to their identities despite having lost custody of their children and having limited contact with them. Their strong embodiment of femininity suggested that motherhood fit neatly with their identities. The lost opportunity to engage in mothering on a daily basis brought them seemingly endless grief, which had pushed them into heavier drug use. In the drug economy, they held lower positions in the hierarchy. Holding on to motherhood as pivotal to their identities continuously fueled their grief, yet their sadness was important for negotiation of the stigma they faced.

Detached Mothers

Like the grieving mothers, the detached mothers had lost custody of and had limited contact with their children. Yet, their identities stood in stark contrast, as they did not attempt to present themselves close to normative motherhood expectations. They were young and still adjusting to their adult identities when they had children, all of whom were unplanned. After losing custody they (re)turned to embracing their masculine identities as “one of the guys,” an identification that had emerged as an adaptation to the male-dominated context they were in. This enabled them to partly mitigate some of the emotional stress of losing a child and navigate the drug economy more successfully than did the grieving mothers.

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Motherly Dealers

The motherly dealers had significantly more contact with their children. They constructed uniform identities that accommodated being both mothers and dealers. These mothers were relatively successful dealers, had their children prior to entering the drug economy, and had previously lived conventional family lives. They drew on maternal responsibilities when accounting for their involvement in the drug economy, and emphasized care and sociability as business strategies. Although they could not escape the stigma of failing to living up to normative motherhood expectations, they created leeway for themselves by widening such ideals.

Working Mothers

The working mothers took sole care of their children despite being active dealers. They differed from the others by not only combining mothering and paid work (i.e., drug dealing) but also by separating the two. By coming close to the normative mothering ideals, they reduced the stigma of being mothers and users/dealers. Still, other challenges surfaced as they faced the paradox of performing according to expectations of two highly different domains. For these mothers, such expectations were likely heightened, as the gap between work and home domains were more substantial than what occurs in most legitimate occupations.

 The Constraint of Motherhood Ideologies

Scholars have argued that mothers cannot escape the presence of normative motherhood in their constructions of maternal identities. The detached mothers were the exception that confirms this rule. Rejecting dominant motherhood norms seemingly also required rejecting femininity. Their experiences, as with the experiences of the rest of the mothers in this study, are a powerful reminder of the omnipotence of motherhood ideologies, and how those ideologies constrain mothers whose social positions make them unattainable.

Heidi Grundetjern is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. Her research focuses on the role of gender in illegal drug markets, with a specific emphasis on the experiences of women who deal drugs.

Redoing Gender, Redoing Religion

By: Helana Darwin

One night while I was watching Transparent, a particular scene caught my attention. The young female rabbi is explaining how difficult it is to be in a masculinized profession without losing her sense of femininity and sexiness. To demonstrate her point, she takes off her kippah (a small skullcap that is traditionally worn by Jewish men, otherwise known as a yarmulke) and proclaims “Sexy!” Then she places the garment back on her head and makes a face, announcing “Not sexy.” The other character smilingly assents to her point.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this scene. My thoughts drifted to all of the women pursuing rabbinic ordination at the seminary where I had just earned my Master’s degree in Jewish Studies. Most of them wore kippot (plural of kippah), like the rabbi in Transparent. Did they similarly struggle with feeling like their kippah cancelled out their femininity or sexiness? Could this possibly explain why more women do not wear kippot , despite the transnational Jewish feminist push to embrace masculinized Jewish practices? Since the 1970s, Jewish women have boldly fought for their right to full inclusion within Judaism, and yet the sight of a woman in a kippah remains rare. Why?

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I couldn’t find an answer within academic databases. The vast majority of feminist head-covering research focuses on whether or not the hijab is oppressive or empowering to Muslim women who wear it. The general consensus among feminist scholars today seems to be that this is a false dichotomy; in reality, the hijab has different meanings to different women, depending on a number of factors including their nationality, parentage, local culture, and age. While this academic debate has been fruitful, it has rarely extended beyond the gender-normative case study of the hijab. This trend within the literature struck me as regrettably limited.

How, I wondered, do women who wear kippot reconcile their seemingly contradictory religious and gender scripts? Given my connections within the Jewish community, I realized that I was well-positioned to conduct this research. Indeed, within 24 hours of sending out my survey link, I had already received more than 400 responses. Additionally, I was also flooded by effusive emails, from respondents who wished to thank me for giving them a chance to clarify the meanings of their practice. In total, I collected responses from 576 Jewish women across the globe who wear kippot. I have derived two articles from this data so far. The first article focuses on the religious meanings of women’s kippah practice. It is called “Jewish Women’s Kippot: Meanings and Motives” and it is published in the journal Contemporary Jewry. The second article is significantly more theoretical and focuses on the extra-religious meanings associated with the practice. It is called “Redoing Gender, Redoing Religion,” and is in the current issue of Gender & Society.

“Redoing Gender, Redoing Religion” illuminates a new angle of the gender/religion nexus through this open-ended survey data, demonstrating how these two axes of accountability are intertwined. Jewish women have historically been exempt from the majority of Jewish ritual practices due to an anachronistic assumption that they are too busy with child-rearing and other domestic tasks. As a result, practices and customs such as wearing the kippah have become masculinized. When women assume such a historically masculinized practice, they render themselves vulnerable to gender-policing and a parallel process that I call “Jewish-policing.” According to those who hold themselves (and others) accountable to the patriarchal tradition, these women are neither “doing femininity” properly, “doing Jewish properly,” nor “doing Jewish womanhood” properly. Although some Jewish cultural fields embrace a shift towards egalitarianism, the women remain accountable to their more traditional coreligionists beyond the confines of these progressive spaces.

            The women in this study utilize a range of strategies to internally reconcile the tensions between the traditional script of gendered Judaism and their egalitarian values: some feminize the kippah so as to affirm their gender-normativity while doing Judaism differently; others utilize the kippah’s masculine-encoding to do Jewish womanhood differently. However, regardless of the women’s efforts to internally legitimize their practice, they remain externally accountable to their traditional coreligionists, who perceive their practice as a politically motivated statement. In response, some women go to great lengths to discursively distance themselves from feminism, insisting that they desire inclusion within tradition rather than an end to Jewish tradition itself. Others embrace their association with feminism, using their hypervisibility to begin conversations with coreligionists about gender equality within Judaism.

            These results lend new insight into how gender and religion function as mutually constitutive categories: while men can simply “do Jewish” by wearing the kippah, women are not afforded such a gender-blind privilege. Rather, coreligionists perceive women who wear kippot as automatically doing something other than Judaism, something that is inherently gendered and political—such as “doing religious feminism.” It appears that these two systems of accountability (gender ideology and religious ideology) remain inextricably linked to one another, despite evidence of an egalitarian shift within certain Jewish fields. Future research about gender norms/ideologies should consider religious background along with the more commonly included variables, given this evidence.

Helana Darwin Sociology doctoral candidate at Stony Brook University who is on the market. Her research highlights the regulatory impact of the gender binary system through a wide range of case studies. Recent publications include “Doing Gender Beyond the Binary: a virtual ethnography,” published by Symbolic Interaction and “Omnivorous Masculinity: gender capital and cultural legitimacy in craft beer culture,” published by Social Currents. Learn more about Helana’s research at helanadarwin.com.

 

How Do Race and Gender Show Up In Youth Sexual Health Promotion?

By Chris Barcelos

Elizabeth Randolph, a white woman in her late 50s, manages a sexual and reproductive health clinic in “Millerston,” a small, former manufacturing city in the US northeast that is known for its high rates of teen pregnancy among Puerto Rican youth. “Not to sound racist at all,” she told me, “but teen pregnancy really is a Latino cultural issue. It’s just not a bad thing if a kid gets pregnant. It’s just much more socially acceptable within that community.” Although Elizabeth was clear that she didn’t want to “sound racist,” she did frame Latinx culture as a cause of Millerston’s high teen birth rates, and this no doubt informed her professional work. Like other people involved in the city’s youth sexual health promotion efforts, her understanding of the effect of culture on sexuality and health are part of what I call a “gendered racial project,” meaning the ways in which race and gender interact to create social meanings, experiences, and inequalities. In sexual health promotion, the ingrained ways in which race and gender show up are often unnoticed by the people who design policies and programs; in Millerston, these professionals are usually not members of the communities they serve. Ideas about race and gender affect the kinds of youth sexual health promotion that communities implement and can reinforce, rather than fix, gender, race, and health inequalities.

My article “Culture, Contraception, and Colorblindness: Youth Sexual Health Promotion as a Gendered Racial Project,” explores how sexual health promotion aimed at young, low-income Latinas in Millerston can be understood as a gendered racial project. I spent three years interviewing professional stakeholders like Elizabeth and participating in coalition meetings, teen pregnancy prevention events, and provider trainings. I found that youth sexual health promoters understand “Latino culture” as stable and uniform in its approach to sexuality and reproduction. They assume that Latinas are against contraception and abortion, and that Latinx families are silent about sexuality and promote teen childbearing within the family. This understanding allows health promoters to justify their efforts to regulate the sexuality and childbearing of young Latinas, including whether they should have sex, what kinds of contraception they should use, and whether they should become parents.

In places like Millerston, where there are high rates of teen pregnancy among women of color, health professionals heavily promote LARC, or long-acting reversible contraceptive (methods such as the IUD, shot, or implant), while downplaying their undesirable side effects. For example, a white social worker in her 40s shared a story about a young client who she characterized as irresponsible because she didn’t want an IUD, while minimizing the client’s real concerns: “There’s all these reasons – they don’t want something inserted into their body, they don’t want to gain weight [sarcastically], there’s all these things, but in my head those are just excuses.” It’s also important to note, as sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva explains, that many Americans believe we live in a post-racial, “colorblind” society where race no longer matters. Yet, race very much still matters, and imagining that race and racism don’t affect reproductive health allows health promoters to overlook the long history of how LARC has been used to control the childbearing of women of color, disabled people, and others whose sexuality and reproduction are seen as outside the norm.

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Fortunately, there are seeds of racial and reproductive justice being planted in Millerston and in the field of sexual health promotion more generally – for example, in partnerships between reproductive justice organizations and the Black Lives Matter movement. Health promoters in Millerston and elsewhere could contribute to planting these seeds by participating in organizing efforts among white people committed to dismantling white supremacy, such as Standing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), or  by seeking technical assistance and training from national reproductive justice organizations such as Forward Together.  Shifting youth sexual health promotion to incorporate gender, racial, and reproductive justice frameworks means moving from a focus on paternalistically trying to modify “culture” and promoting specific contraceptives, to focusing on how to dismantle racism and enable a world where people can create the kinds of families they want.

Chris Barcelos is an Assistant Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Their research uses ethnography, discourse analysis, and visual methods to interrogate how health promotion discourses both reveal and reproduce inequalities along the lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, nation, and ability.

Gender Conformity, Perceptions of Shared Power, and Marital Quality in Same- and Different-Sex Marriages

By Amanda M. Pollitt, Brandon Andrew Robinson and Debra Umberson

Marriage is often considered a place where two equal partners come together to start a life, form a family, and grow old together. However, there has been what seems like an increase in news and blog articles about women in different-sex marriages who feel that their home lives are anything but equal. For example, in her article about emotional labor (http://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/features/a12063822/emotional-labor-gender-equality/), Gemma Hartley describes the emotional and relationship toll that being her family’s manager had: “It’s frustrating to be saddled with all of these responsibilities, no one to acknowledge the work you are doing, and no way to change it without a major confrontation.”

Feminist theorists have been talking for decades about heterosexual marriage as a place where inequalities between women and men are created and recreated, and these themes persist even today. Nearly as many women work outside the home as men. Still, women married to men continue to do the majority of unpaid labor in their relationships. This is true even when women make more money and have more highly respected careers than their husbands, and even when their husbands are stay-at-home dads. Clearly, gender inequalities between women and men in marriages persist.

However, what we know about power inequalities in different-sex relationships has relied on comparisons between women and men. These comparisons do not address the degree to which women and men within these couples are gender conforming, or how women conform to femininity and men conform to masculinity. When couples enact gender in conforming ways, this can maintain gender norms and inequalities in relationships, such as the belief that men should hold more power in marriages. For example, some research shows that within marriages in which women earn more income than men, women and men do more and less housework, respectively. These couples recreate relationship inequalities in household labor to maintain gender norms.

Now that we have marriage equality for same-sex couples in the U.S., questions arise about power dynamics and equality within these couples. Some scholars have argued that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in same-sex marriages have more equality in their relationships because the traditional divisions between women and men are not at play. This may be because lesbian, gay, and bisexual people are less gender conforming, or assumed to be, than heterosexual people. There may also be less pressure to adhere to the same power dynamics that heterosexual spouses tend to follow. At the same time, same-sex couples may feel pressure for their relationships to look similar to heterosexual relationships to combat stereotypes and gain legitimacy.

Pollitt
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Couple_on_a_bike_(9180325890).jpg

Understanding how gender conformity influences inequalities is important because these inequalities contribute to poorer relationship quality in marriages. In our recent study in Gender & Society, we wanted to explore how gender conformity shaped perceptions of shared power in same- and different-sex marriages and how these perceptions influenced relationship quality. It is important to expand our understanding of relationship dynamics in same-sex marriages which have received much less research attention than different-sex marriages. However, it is also important to consider how gender conformity shapes power dynamics in heterosexual couples.

We examined survey data collected from both spouses in lesbian, gay, and heterosexual marriages which allows us to consider not only how each spouses’ responses influence their own outcomes, but also how spouses influence their partner’s outcomes. We asked participants to what extent they agreed that their physical appearance and demeanor and interests, hobbies, and skills are typical of someone of their gender. We found that women married to men, men married to women, and men married to men who were more gender conforming believed that their relationships were more equal in terms of how much power they shared. These findings suggest that maintaining masculinity norms is particularly important in relationships involving a male partner. This could be true even among gay men who many would assume have flexibility in gender expression, perhaps because these men want to appear masculine so that their relationship appears more “normal”. Our findings also suggest that power between women and men in different-sex marriages may be seen as more equal when both partners are gender conforming. Considering few heterosexual marriages share power equally between spouses, these couples may perceive greater shared power because their relationship dynamics map onto gender norms and inequalities.

In contrast, we found that gender conformity had little to do with perceptions of shared power among lesbian couples. Inequalities in lesbian marriages may relate to types of femininity we did not measure in our study, such as motherhood roles. These women might also share power by creating relationship dynamics outside normative relationship structures, such as the belief that work inside or outside the home should be divided separately between partners, because there is no male partner in their relationship or because they consider gender less important.

We found that greater perceptions of shared power are better for relationship quality. Though we expected this finding, our work shows that, among women married to men, men married to women, and men married to men, relationship quality may require maintaining gender norms including men’s power in marriages. For different-sex marriages, this finding is in line with research showing that women who believe in traditional gender roles in unequal different-sex marriages have more relationship satisfaction than women who hold egalitarian beliefs in unequal marriages. Finally, we found that partners of men, regardless of their own sex, gender, or gender expression, might need to ensure that the men in their lives perceive there to be shared power in the relationship in order to maintain their own relationship satisfaction. This negotiation of power has the potential to reinforce inequalities in relationships because it is the man’s perception of power that influences their wives’, or husbands’, marital quality. Rather than assuming women and men express gender in conforming ways, we considered how gender conformity is associated with perceptions of power and marital quality to add to our understanding of the ways that gender influences how spouses interact with one another to shape inequalities in marriages.

Amanda M. Pollitt is a NICHD Postdoctoral Fellow at the Population Research Center at the University of Texas-Austin. Her research focuses on the health and wellbeing of sexual and gender minority people across the life course. Currently, she is extending that work into research on intimate relationships.

Brandon Andrew Robinson is a UC Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies at UC Riverside. Brandon’s research focuses on gender and sexualities, race and ethnicity, health and HIV/AIDS, and urban poverty and homelessness. Their co-authored book Race & Sexuality is forthcoming with Polity Press.

Debra Umberson is professor of sociology and director of the Population Research Center at the University of Texas-Austin. She studies social ties and health across the life course. Recent work considers marital dynamics and health of same-sex couples and racial disparities in the loss of relationships across the life course.

The Common Frustration of Finding Clothes that Fit – and Why it Matters

By Katelynn Bishop and Kjerstin Gruys

Feminist scholars have long been critical of how the fashion industry harms women’s body image through media images of ultra-thin models.

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A clothes rack containing women’s shirts or dresses in bright colors and bold patterns*

However, catwalks and advertisements are not the only way the fashion industry influences women’s body perceptions. Clothing size standards are a means through which fashion retailers label and categorize women’s bodies.

These unstable and shifting standards have received little sustained scholarly attention, despite their omnipresence in women’s everyday lives.

In our Gender & Society article, co-authored with Maddie Evans, we delve into women’s everyday experiences with clothing size(s). We examine how retail spaces organize women’s access to clothing in particular sizes, how diverse women navigate these categories, and how these experiences reinforce or challenge inequalities.

Methods

Our article combines three qualitative studies, which we conducted individually before meeting at a conference.

Katelynn Bishop interviewed five owners of specialty bra boutiques, conducted participant observation at one of these stores, “Intimate Fit,” and interviewed 65 women about their bra shopping experiences. Kjerstin Gruys performed participant observation at a plus-size clothing store, “Real Style,” where she was an employee. Maddie Evans conducted an ethnography at a high-end bridal boutique, “Elegant Bride,” and also interviewed brides and shop employees.

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Elegant Bride. Photo by Maddie Evans. Photo depicts a bridal shop with dark brown walls and racks of white wedding dresses. An elaborate chandelier hangs overhead. In the foreground is a seating area with a couch, cushioned chairs and coffee table.  

Integrating data from three studies was uncharted—and fruitful—methodological territory for us. Bringing together our separate studies allowed us to examine the clothing shopping experiences of women with a range of body types, and women’s experiences shopping for both day-to-day clothing and clothing for special occasions.

What We Found

We found that women performed what sociologists call “identity work” and “body work” in relation to size categories. They did “identity work” by using these categories to make claims about themselves. For instance, women disputed employees’ assessments of their size when these assessments were unexpected or undesirable, insisting upon their “true” size. Such disputes were common in the bridal shop (where sizes ran smaller than most everyday brands) and the specialty bra shops (where employees used “alternative” sizing practices). Women on the edge of Real Style’s size range sometimes chose to shop elsewhere in order to avoid being categorized as plus-size. The inconsistency of size categories made such identity work possible. That is, because size 14, for instance, has no absolute meaning, women (particularly those near the plus-size/standard-size boundary) could use size categories to define themselves in desired ways.

In other cases, women altered their bodies to fit into particular size categories. Several brides lost weight to avoid wearing “plus-size” dresses; no longer needing to shop at Real Style was often interpreted as a positive outcome of dieting; and wearing larger bra sizes contributed to women’s decisions to pursue breast reduction.

Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump - Arrivals
Popular comedian, Amy Schumer, who jokes about Hollywood’s narrow standards, sparked public debate when she objected to her own inclusion in  Glamour magazine’s plus-size edition. Photo depicts Amy Schumer, a white-appearing woman with long, wavy blonde hair. She is pictured from the waist up, wearing a shiny black dress, and poses in profile-view with a slight, toothless smile. Photo by Mario Santor.

We grappled with the counterintuitive fact that women cared deeply about clothing size categories, even when they knew these categories were inconsistent. Because women’s worth is conflated with their body size and shape, we theorize that women desire external markers that their bodies conform to cultural norms, however tenuous these markers.

The organization of retail spaces is one everyday means through which women are confronted with the hierarchical divisions between body sizes and shapes. For instance, plus-size stores are labeled as such, implying that other, unlabeled stores carry more “normal” sizes—even though most American women wear plus sizes. Conventional bra retailers, as opposed to specialty shops, offer limited size ranges, implying that sizes beyond these ranges are “abnormal.” The bridal shop penalized larger brides through charging a fee for plus-size gowns, and stocking sample sizes only in smaller sizes.

What We Would Like to Change

As body-positive feminist scholars, we seek not only to understand women’s experiences with clothing size, but to foster body positivity. We believe that clothing retailers could help to mitigate some of the inequalities reproduced through clothing size categories by heeding activists’ calls to eliminate labels such as “plus-size,” and by making clothing of varied styles available in a wider range of sizes, and readily accessible, economically and otherwise. We acknowledge, however, that consumer-oriented solutions present limitations, and we support broader efforts to create a culture that values bodies of all sizes and shapes, and in which women’s worth is not reduced to their bodies.

*Captions are intended to provide access for the visually impaired.

Katelynn Bishop recently earned a PhD in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research interests include gender, embodiment, and consumerism. Her dissertation and current book project, Imperfect Fit: Bras, Embodied Difference, and the Limits of Consumerism, focuses in part on the social constraints generated by expanded consumer choice. She has been published in Body & Society.

Kjerstin Gruys is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her research focuses on how intersections of gender, race, class, and embodiment affect social inequality. She is writing a book tentatively titled True to Size?: A Social History of Women’s Clothing Size Standards in the U.S. Ready-to-Wear Fashion Industry.

Maddie Evans holds an MA in sociology from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and is currently pursuing a career in medicine.