“Hidden” Gender Power

By Veronica Tichenor

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

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

Can U.S. Government Marriage Education Programs Promote Gender Equality?

By Jennifer M. Randles

Since 2002, federal and state governments in the United States have spent over $1 billion from the welfare budget on marriage and relationship education programs through the Healthy Marriage Initiative. This federal policy seeks to encourage marriage and the many social and economic benefits the government claims are associated with it—less poverty and domestic violence, better physical and mental health, higher academic achievement—by helping couples develop relationship skills focused on improving communication and resolving conflict. The federal agency in charge of overseeing healthy marriage funding recommends that curricula used in marriage education programs address how couples think about gender, specifically their beliefs about differences between men and woman and what they expect spouses to do based on gender. Many marriage education curricula address these topics because gendered expectations often influence how couples experience marriage and what they commonly argue about, namely housework, childcare, and earning money.

To understand how marriage education programs funded by the government teach about gender, communication, and power within marriage, I analyzed twenty curricula approved for use in healthy marriage programs and participated in a training session, workshop, or class for eighteen of these same curricula. I specifically wanted to know if and how the curricula reinforced or challenged stereotypes of gender responsibilities—such as the beliefs that women should be caretakers and men should be family breadwinners—and whether the programs taught couples about how social inequalities between women and men shape couples’ abilities to share power and family labor. Continue reading “Can U.S. Government Marriage Education Programs Promote Gender Equality?”