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.

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Mothers and Moneymakers: How Gender Norms Shape U.S. Marriage Migration Politics

By Gina M. Longo

Sarasusan, a white divorcee and single mother of two from Virginia, and Hicham, an Arab factory worker living in the desert town of Tan-Tan, Morocco met on MySpace in December 2009, and immediately hit it off.  In June of 2010, Sarasusan traveled to Morocco to meet Hicham for the first time.  Over the course of three years, Hicham traveled to internet cafés daily to talk to his future wife and stepdaughters. In January 2013, she finally could afford to bring her daughters to Morocco to meet Hicham in person. Upon her return to the U.S., she filed for a K-1 (fiancé) visa petition with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

While they began dreaming of the day they could marry, they didn’t realize their nightmare had already begun. After a year and a half, the first petition and subsequent appeal were denied.  At his interview, the U.S. consulate officer in Morocco told Hicham that their relationship appeared fraudulent or strictly for immigration papers. He was given no further explanation.  In July 2015, Sarasusan married Hicham in Morocco, but her daughters, due to high airfare costs were unable to come. Upon returning home, Sarasusan saved money to start a new immigration petition for her husband. Sarasusan began seeking advice from other petitioners online, and crafted her evidence package based on much of this advice.  It was not until September 2016 that Sarasusan and her daughters were able to embrace Hicham on U.S. soil.

Foreign nationals who marry U.S. citizens have an expedited track to naturalization, so immigration officials worry that some will use fake marriages to obtain a green-card.  Early U.S. immigration and citizenship policies addressed these concern by blocking white women in racially mixed relationships. Native-born women citizens lost their citizenship status if they married foreign nationals, and could not initiate immigration petitions for foreign-born husbands. Consequently, this enabled a gendered and racialized citizenship model that defined white, native-born men as full citizens and women as second-class citizens.

Today, these policies have been replaced with preferential processing for immigrants with U.S. family ties.  So, U.S. immigration officials require that “green card” petitioning couples demonstrate that their relationships are “valid and subsisting” (i.e., for love) and not fraudulent (i.e., for immigration papers). Immigration officials warn U.S. citizens in such relationships to beware of red flags, or details about a couple’s relationship that raise suspicions of marriage fraud, such as large age differences, short courtships, or requests for money.  These requirements and red-flag warnings are supposedly gender- and racially-neutral, but migration itself is not.  Thus, like Sarasusan, men and women petitioners with foreign partners from different world regions often seek advice from experts and other petitioners about how to overcome potential obstacles to their petitions’ success.

In my Gender & Society article, “Keeping it in ‘the Family’: How Gender Norms Shape U.S. Marriage Migration Politics,” I used an online ethnography and a text analysis of conversation threads on a large online immigration forum where U.S. petitioners exchange such advice.  I compared two of the sites’ sub-forums, the Middle East/North African forum (MENA), where members are predominately white U.S. women coupled with MENA-region men; and the Belarus/Russia/Ukraine forum (BRU), where white U.S. men pair with BRU-region women, and analyzed how forum-members define red-flag warnings and the requirements for a “valid and subsisting relationship” to label a relationship “real” or “fraudulent.”  These conversations reveal members’ own experiences with immigration officials and their understanding of genuine marriages for immigration purposes.

I found that petitioners connect generic relationship criteria and warnings in U.S. immigration policy with racialized and classed gender ideologies and expectations surrounding an idealized image of the white, Middle-class, “American family.” Women should be mothers and caretakers, and men should be breadwinners.  Both men and women petitioners use sexual and gendered double standards surrounding women’s sexual agency, fertility, and desirability to determine which red flags will concern immigration officials and for whom.  Women’s sexuality and gender differentially structure the process of negotiating red flags for men and women petitioners, and the right to confer citizenship onto a foreign partner. This provides privileges to men citizens, allowing them to pursue of foreign women abroad and to bestow their citizenship status more freely upon their chosen mates. However, women citizens with the same intentions are considered desperate fools, incapable of controlling their emotions or the border. Consequently, citizen-women’s relationships appear more suspect and in need of policing.

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Why is this important? Although media coverage on U.S. immigration often centers on issues surrounding DREAMRs, refugees, and undocumented people, approximately 50 percent of the one million-plus immigrant visas issued in 2015 (i.e. “green-cards”) were for U.S. citizens’ immigrant spouses/fiancés (Department of Homeland Security 2015). These rates have remained consistent since 1908 (Lee 2013), making these beneficiaries the largest groups of visa-holders with a pathway to citizenship. These immigration cases largely shape the nation and conceptions of citizenship.  Through this online forum, members become unofficial border police before cases ever reach an immigration officer.  Although, discriminatory U.S. immigration and citizenship laws of old have been abolished, I find that when citizens use ideological understandings about gender and family themselves to give each other petitioning advice, explicitly discriminatory policies are not necessary to uphold and legitimize racialized and gendered citizenship hierarchies.  My findings highlight how conversational negotiations in virtual spaces are consequential for re-imagining intersectionally gendered citizenship and the policing of national identities and borders.

For an even further in-depth look at this research please also listen to the recent SAGE podcast on this article.

Gina Marie Longo is a PhD Candidate of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She specializes in the sociology of gender, race and ethnicity, immigration, and digital sociology.  Her current research focuses on how the U.S. spousal reunification system (re)constructs and polices citizenship and nation.

Young Men’s Involvement in Hormonal Contraception: Paradox or Possibility?

By Ann M. Fefferman and Ushma D. Upadhyay

It may seem like a no-brainer that women tend to take care of hormonal contraception.  They should have the right to choose a method, use that method, and manage side effects in a way that works best for them. Women have a wide range of methods to choose from, including the pill, patch, vaginal ring, implant, and intrauterine device. These methods allow people to ditch the condom and enjoy increased sexual pleasure and spontaneity with lower chances of having an unintended pregnancy.

But does the fact that these contraceptive methods affect women’s bodies mean that men don’t see a role for themselves in pregnancy prevention?   No. Some men do see themselves as partners in contraceptive use and management. Our research identifies how young men are involved in contraceptive management in helpful and supportive ways. Our research focuses on young low-income men and women of color and the ways they work together to manage contraception without restricting women’s choices. We show examples of men helping with contraception, such as coming to appointments with their partners, discussing risk of pregnancy with partners, helping to choose a method, and reminding partners to take pills or to remove the vaginal ring. We also note how men and women work together to prevent pregnancy despite the different circumstances constraining their choices, such as immigration laws, gang membership, neighborhood violence, and poverty. In this way, our research works against the stereotypes often applied to young low-income men of color when people talk about unintended pregnancy.

While our research shows these positive examples of how young men can work within or against difficult circumstances to support women with contraception, we also show how they aren’t as “feminist”, or “egalitarian”, as they might think. Even though the men in our study were really involved in choosing and using contraception, they still thought women were the ones responsible for contraception and its effective use. Men were just helpers, much like many men “help” in the kitchen or “help” with taking care of the kids. Men used language that seemed equitable, saying that they were not responsible for contraception because they did not want to undermine women’s ability to make choices about their own bodies. Even women we interviewed agreed with these ideas.

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The assumption here is that men cannot respect women’s bodies and choices while still taking responsibility for the possibility of an unintended pregnancy.  Following this logic, men then can use their secondary place in contraception as a justification for assigning blame or shame to women when contraception fails. We aim to show in our research that m en’s involvement in contraception and men’s accountability for unintended pregnancy are not mutually exclusive. Men can help with contraception and also share in contraceptive responsibly (including when contraception fails). Men and women can work together to change these norms and help sustain a positive, respectful place for men in contraceptive management.

Ann M. Fefferman, MA is a PhD candidate in Sociology at University of California, Irvine. Her research interest focus broadly on gender, masculinities, reproductive health, the family and inequalities.  Currently, she is working on her dissertation, which investigates and compares masculinities in different stages of reproduction, with a focus on contraceptive management, pregnancy intentions, and abortion decision-making. In particular she intends to further her studies in medical sociology.

Ushma D. Upadhyay, PhD, MPH is an Associate Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco and Director of Research for the University of California Global Health Institute’s Center of Expertise in Women’s Health, Gender, and Empowerment. She holds a National Institutes of Health Career Development Award to study gender-based power among young men and women and its effect on contraceptive use. Her current research focuses on the development and validation of the Sexual Health and Reproductive Empowerment for Young Adults (SHREYA) Scale.

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.

Men and Population Control in Postwar India: The Role of Gendered Knowledge

 

By Savina Balasubramanian

Population control efforts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have typically focused on managing women’s fertility. This is largely the result of longstanding cultural, political, and scientific associations of reproduction with women. Unsurprisingly, when the Indian state instituted population control as a national policy priority in 1952, it centered its initial efforts on women and the promotion of female contraceptive techniques.

A new focus on men

 Yet, from the 1960s through the mid-1970s, the Indian state expanded its efforts to incorporate men and male contraception. This shift was accompanied by efforts to promote the economic benefits of contraception through mass media targeted at men and interpersonal communication campaigns among government fieldworkers and lay male citizens. During this period, vasectomies accounted for the vast majority of recorded sterilizations in the country. Many occurred in government-authorized “mass sterilization camps”—makeshift events in which thousands of men were persuaded to undergo surgery, often under coercive conditions. These camps were highly theatrical and public affairs, involving poster and media exhibits, song-and-drama routines, and interpersonal exchanges among men and government-appointed “motivators” that touted the economic advantages of planned childbearing. Likewise, the Indian government invested in a heavily marketed, government-manufactured condom brand called “Nirodh.” Together, these communication campaigns were termed the “extension” approach: they attempted to use persuasive information to convince audiences of the relationship between planned conception and economic uplift. How and why did the Indian state come to target men’s reproductive decisions and fertility in these particular ways?

Framing men as “decision-makers”

Through qualitative analyses of primary archival materials, my article in Gender & Society argues that this focus on men was linked to the political influence of social scientific expertise on the Indian program and the gendered aspects of this expertise. Unlike their medical and biomedical contemporaries, social scientists in the field of “family planning communications” framed reproduction as a “cognitive” and not merely biological phenomenon—one that involved beliefs, attitudes, and decision-making. In doing so, they argued that population control was a matter of (1) increasing people’s psychological motivation to use contraception, (2) convincing people that childbearing could be manipulated to achieve economic uplift, and (3) using persuasive mass communications to attain these two goals. However, these arguments reinforced prevailing gendered ideologies that associated rational calculation, social motivation and leadership, and economic participation with masculinity. Working under these gendered assumptions, communication scientists maintained that it would behoove the Indian state to target its nascent communications campaigns on the economic virtues of planned conception at men.

Unfortunately, this understanding of men as primary “decision-makers” in the Indian context obscured Indian women’s influential roles in the family, community, and economy. It also reinforced the notion that Indian women were less concerned with rational calculation and economic decision-making than their husbands, which historians of women in modern India have shown was rarely the case. Intriguingly, the sterilization abuses inflicted on men during Indian Emergency Period of 1975-1977 made the promotion of vasectomies politically “unviable” thereafter, which led to a refocusing of the program on women despite their status as parallel targets of state coercion.

Future research on masculinity, science, and reproductive control

My research undercuts assumptions that men are generally precluded from state-led reproductive control. In postwar India, social scientific knowledge—however myopic—about who contributed to decision-making in the family, economy, and community significantly influenced the Indian state’s attempts to shape men’s reproductive practices. Relatedly, it encourages sociologists of reproduction to analyze the role of social scientific expertise in reproductive control. Doing so means expanding the definition of reproductive control beyond medicalized interventions into the reproductive body to include social and behavioral interventions into reproductive practices and ideologies. Examples of such interventions include sex education for adolescents and young adults, male contraceptive marketing, and even “responsible fatherhood” programs in the contemporary welfare state. As in the Indian case, it is worth exploring whether attempts to govern men’s roles in reproduction might in part be driven by enduring cultural and political associations of men and masculinity with calculative decision-making, rational thought, and economic participation.

Savina Balasubramanian is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Northwestern University. Her research examines the global politics of gender and reproduction, science and technology, race, and law and society. Her previous work has appeared in Political Power and Social Theory and the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.

Watch what you say! How the language we speak affects our gender attitudes

By Sarah Shair-Rosenfield & Amy H. Liu

On October 14, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expelled Harvey Weinstein given the mounting accusations of sexual harassment and assault against him. Yet coverage of this ongoing story has only further highlighted the latent sexism even among those who may not explicitly hold such views. Interestingly, the language we use to describe sexual assault and harassment directly – albeit subconsciously – contributes to a gendered worldview. This perspective places women and men into different categories and subjects them to different expectations. Take, for example, a discussion of “a predator” who harasses or assaults “a victim.” In the English language, neither the word “predator” nor the word “victim” takes a specific gender in linguistic terms. But in Spanish, the words for “predator” and “victim” are gendered: un depredador is masculine, and una victim is feminine. We see the same pattern in French, Italian, and Portuguese. These linguistic structures can perpetuate gender-based distinctions between who does what and to whom.

But these linguistically-driven gender-based power differentials happen not only when we talk about sexual harassment. Instead, everyday language use can easily support how people view gender equality. The word for “worker” – again un-gendered in English – is masculine in Spanish (un trabajador). Admittedly, these references can be modified to reflect women’s occupation of such roles – e.g., una trabajadora in Spanish. However, the reality is that the everyday use of language requires speakers to make such distinctions. Even if individuals choose not to identify female workers as “female workers” but rather as just “workers,” in Spanish women who work are referenced with a masculine term. And this is by no means a Spanish – or any Romance language – phenomenon. We see these distinctions in the Germanic languages (e.g., de arbeider versus de arbeiderin in Dutch; der Arbeiter versus die Arbeiterin in German) and the Slavic languages (e.g., radnik versus radnica in Croatian; pracovník versus pracovnička in Czech).

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This type of constant gender-based distinction implicitly affects how people see the world. When someone’s language is based on a linguistic structure that requires them to always describe the world in a gender-distinct way, it continuously makes them aware of gender differences. This awareness can render it difficult for that that person to think about people in a non-gendered (or un-gendered) way. In our Gender & Society article, we argue that people are less likely to be supportive of gender equality and women’s rights when the language they speak constantly reinforces gender-based differences.

At first glance, our work shows just that. People who speak languages that constantly require them to reference gender – of things, people, etc. – are less supportive of gender equality in political, economic, and social contexts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, countries where the official language (or the most commonly spoken one in the absence of an official language) is one that requires people to speak – and therefore think – in gendered terms are also the countries where women’s rights tend to be lower. In contrast, people who speak languages that rarely or never require them to reference gender tend to be more supportive of gender equality, and countries where such languages are official are inclined to have higher levels of women’s rights.

Yet, we also demonstrate that people can be linguistically primed to deemphasize the salience of gender. We run an experiment on bilingual Romanian (a Romance language with a lot of gender) and Hungarian (a gender-less non-Indo-European language) students. We show that when speakers are asked to engage in a series of questions about gender equality using Hungarian, they are more likely to support gender equality than when the same questions are in Romanian. This tells us that – while the everyday use of a language can reinforce people’s existing gender attitudes – these effects can be muted if the gendered features of the language can be altered to deemphasize gender differences.

Amy H. Liu is an associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin. Her first book Standardizing Diversity (2015: Pennsylvania) examines the politics of language regimes in Asia. She is currently working on a second book manuscript focusing on linguistic repertories among Chinese migrants in Central-Eastern Europe.

Sarah Shair-Rosenfield is an assistant professor of political science at Arizona State University. Her current research focuses on representation and elections, decentralization, executive-legislative relations, and gender and conflict studies, with special interest in the politics of Latin America and Southeast Asia.

Lindsey Vance holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Colorado Boulder. She is Director of Data and Strategy at Teach for America and has worked as a consultant for multiple NGOs developing metrics to assess women’s empowerment and social change.

Zsombor Csata is a sociologist at Babeș-Bolyai University and the director of the Research Center on Inter-Ethnic Relations in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. He has conducted several research projects on ethnicity, entrepreneurship and regional development in Central and Eastern Europe. His recent research focuses on the economic aspects of diversity and the economics of language.

“The Gray Divorce Penalty: Why Divorcing Over Age 50 Shortchanges Women”

 By Jocelyn Elise Crowley

The “gray divorce” rate, or the marital dissolution rate among Americans age 50 and older, has recently skyrocketed.  Now, 1 out of every 4 divorces is “gray.”  While liberating for many mid-life women as a chance to start over, such new beginnings also come with a substantial financial price tag that should cause us all to worry.

Several years ago, researchers Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin at Bowling Green State University were the first to document the rising gray divorce rate.  One direct cause has been the aging of the Baby Boomer generation.  The Census Bureau reports that while in 2010, there were over 99 million Americans age 50 and older, by 2050, there will be over 161 million.

Rising life expectancy has also driven this trend.  Men now live to 76.1 years and women to 81.1 years, an increase over time which has exposed both sexes to a greater chance of becoming divorced.

The problem for women facing a gray divorce is that it hits them extremely hard in the pocketbook.  During their prime earning years of their 20s and 30s, many women take time off from the workforce to raise their children.  When they return to work, they immediately find themselves earning less than the men who remained steadily employed in the same jobs.

Wage discrimination and occupational segregation into low paying “pink collar” jobs also depress women’s earnings.  All of these factors mean that women deposit fewer dollars into their savings accounts, put less money into their retirement plans, and make smaller contributions into the Social Security system.

The cumulative effects of these disadvantages are backed up by the stories of the 40 women I interviewed about their own gray divorces in 2014 and 2015 in my recently published book, Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain From Mid-life Splits (2018; Oakland: The University of California Press).  The 40 men I also spoke to—who were unrelated to the women—had very few concerns about their own financial health after their gray divorces.  The women, in contrast, were facing much more difficult circumstances.

Some of these mid-life women, like Theresa, relied on their parents to help them pay their bills after their gray divorces.  At 51-years-old and previously married for 21 years, Theresa recently returned to work as an administrative assistant after years of raising the couple’s daughter.  As she thought about going into her retirement years, she worried, “There’s probably no possible way that I could keep a roof over my head with just Social Security.”

More disturbing were the women with no family safety nets in place.  Janice, 61-years-old, divorced her husband after 36 years.  She had stayed at home many years to take care of their two daughters, and when she returned to work, she made very little money and had no long-term health care insurance policy in place.  She agonized about her health and this made her “panic because I don’t have the money now to get insurance.”

Connie, also 61-years-old, was married to her husband for nine years.  Throughout her career, she had worked as a Head Start teacher and then as a home health aide, both of which were low-paying.  After her gray divorce, she had no savings and qualified for Medicaid.  Connie noted that if she took her “retirement this summer at 62, I get a whopping $695 a month [in Social Security], which means that I will have to continue to work until I can’t, obviously.”

A gray divorce should not spell financial ruin for American women.  Stabilizing women’s economic futures involves a series of protections that should immediately be put into place by policymakers.  First, instructing girls in high school about financial planning for all of life’s contingencies should be a mandatory part of public education.

Second, implementing paid maternity leave, paid sick leave, and increased funding for child care would help ensure that women do not fall far behind men in the workforce due to their disproportionate caregiving responsibilities.

Third, Social Security reform desperately needs our attention.  Overall benefits remain too low, and women do not receive any Social Security credits for the years when they take time off from employment to care for their children.  Raising benefit levels and providing caregiver credits for those “time off” years into the Social Security benefit formula would help raise their standard of living once they retire.  These changes would help guarantee that mid-life women not only survive, but also thrive in the new, post-gray divorce chapter of their lives.

Jocelyn Elise Crowley, Ph.D., is a Professor of Public Policy at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.  She is the author of Gray Divorce: What We Lose and Gain From Mid-life Splits. (2018; University of California Press).