Reframing Gender Equality: Explaining the Stalled Gender Revolution

For the past eight years, we have  been working to address an important question: Why has the gender revolution seemed  to stall?  Our review of data from a  range of sources  suggests that during the 1990s, our society’s substantial progress toward general gender equality was indeed slowed, stopped, or even reversed on any number of fronts, including  employment, earnings, occupational and educational segregation, gender attitudes, housework, and political office holding.

We, along with others, have documented and commented on these trends in several places (see links below). One issue we have addressed is the complexity of these trends: While some of the indicators show signs of a “rebound” in the 2000s, other indicators do not.  But what we have struggled with most may well be the timing of these trends. Why did the equalizing trend of the 1970s and 1980s give way to stalled progress beginning in the 1990s?  The pattern is all the more puzzling, in that one might have expected the slowing to have occurred during the Backlash/Reagan-era 1980s rather than the 1990s.

Our first inclination was to look to structural changes –shifts in demand for women’s labor through occupational restructuring, changes in politics and social policy, or shifting family patterns or religious restructuring.  But in most cases the timing of the shifts and even their direction was wrong. The lack of a ready structural explanation of the mid-1990s shift has led us to develop a different explanation –the rise of a specifically antifeminist backlash in the popular culture— as the most likely reason for the shift.

We argue that what has been occurring is not a reversion to the gender traditionalism of the 1950s, but the rise of a new cultural frame that we call “egalitarian essentialism.” This frame combines support for stay-at-home mothering with a continued feminist rhetoric of choice and equality. We believe this cultural explanation is also consistent with the broader pattern of gender changes that also shifted in the mid-1990s. The “egalitarian” part of egalitarian essentialism refers to the ascendant notion that women and men are and should be treated equally.  They should have equal opportunities in education, the workplace, politics, family and so on.  But in seeming contrast, “essentialism” implies that women and men are in some ways fundamentally and inherently different, men being better at some things and women better at others.  Thus, egalitarian essentialism holds women and men should be “allowed” to exercise choices that enable them to maximize their own abilities and potential, but their perceptions of that potential are tempered by essentialist notions.

Egalitarian essentialism represents a melding or synthesis of previously conflicting cultural notions into a single hybrid ideology.  The reaction of the 1990s featured several new themes, a different “package” of ideas that together created a new cultural frame to mobilize anti-feminist forces.  This new frame may have been more effective than the earlier, traditionalist resistance precisely because it combined elements of both traditional familism and feminist egalitarianism.The emergence of this new frame warrants close attention.

During the 1970s and for much of the 1980s, the struggle over gender relations had been shaped in terms of a progressive equality rhetoric versus an older family hierarchy tradition. In the 1990s a third cultural frame – egalitarian essentialism — emerged that proclaimed itself egalitarian and woman-centered but nevertheless opposed some of the structural changes that had moved American society towards a more feminist future. In this alternative frame, equality meant the right of women to choose – so choosing a stay-at-home mother role could represent as much of a “feminist” choice as pursuing an independent career.  While such “choice feminism” has been subject to criticism, most notably by Joan Williams and in a recent symposium in Perspectives on Politics, it resonates strongly with the kind of individualistic rhetoric of freedom and independence that pervades American culture.

In the labor market, egalitarian essentialism operates not only on the side of individuals who “choose” whether to work, and in what sorts of occupations, but also on the part of employers who make choices about which kinds of workers will be better suited to particular jobs.  This means that egalitarian essentialism can have broad effects at many levels. For organizations, egalitarian essentialism provides justification for limited accommodation of work-family conflict, or the funneling of women and men into particular positions within the organizations (as when female managers become prevalent in human resources and public relations).  For institutions, it may mean a shift to legislation based on a “work-family accommodation” frame that bypassed the conflicting “traditional spheres” and “equal opportunity” frames that had dominated much of the 1970s and 1980s.

These 1990s popular culture themes of intensive mothering and women’s career stress supported some traditional gender roles by justifying women’s decisions to forego careers and stay home to raise their children.  But the traditional stay-at-home role was justified not for the sake of their husbands’ careers but for their children’s advancement and for their own mental health. Thus, the new gender frame could still be technically egalitarian between husband and wife and even emphasize the importance of women’s autonomous choices, but nevertheless support what still looks like a traditional gender division of labor.  This new frame would be most persuasive for those households facing the strains of work-family conflicts, that is, for parents and for households with working women – precisely those households that had the strongest turnaround in attitudes during the 1990s.

But while the new frame may be most pronounced among particular subgroups, we believe it represents a shift in the national culture –a response to the rise of intensive parenting that resonated with working mothers in particular, because of their work-family conflicts.  That is, the cultural explanation has to be a macro-level cause: it is not just the particular families who experienced this time bind that changed their attitudes; everybody’s attitudes were affected by the popularity of this new cultural frame.  The origins of the new frame might be found in conditions that affected the dual-earner middle-class family most strongly, but its consequences were universal.

Below are some resources that may be of use to scholars interested in this line of analysis.

End of Gender Revolution?,
The Gender Revolution: Uneven and Stalled
What Trends? Whose Choices?
Beyond the Stalled Revolution,
Women’s Stalled March to the Top,
Gender Integration’s Lost Decade

6 comments
  1. dontd said:

    I certainly agree that the gender revolution is petering out. My estimates with Kevin Stainback on white male-white female private sector workplace segregation showed a slowing down in the 1990s and flat lining after 2000. But, black women’s integration flat lined as far back as 1980.

    Gender essentialism might be the answer to the stalled gender revolution, but Kevin Stainback and I have a different interpretation. It is not the rise of a new cultural frame that created a stalled gender revolution, but the revolution itself was, like all revolutions, a political product. What stalled was the political pressure for further change. For black women and black men the civil rights movement was effectively dead by 1980 and no further progress, at least in private sector employment occurred. For white women political pressure continued through the mid-1990s, but has since become so weak that it no longer produces further employment progress. Gender essentialism was always out there, but for a time it had to compete with political pressure for gender egalitarianism. The gender essentialism is old, not new. What is new is the absence of political pressure to counter the forces promoting white and male privilege. Gender is different from race, only in that political momentum started and ended later.

    • Thanks for your incisive comments Don. You may well be right – it may be that the shift in political pressure brought about by movements and counter movements led to the slowing of the gender revolution – and perhaps to the emergence of the new gender frame of egalitarian essentialism. This is what we were trying to get at in the blogpost when we talked about the conflict between traditionalists and egalitarians. Clearly the movement towards gender equality ran up against some substantial resistance and legislative/judicial failures and frustrations. Similarly counter-mobilizations also had some effect, as may have a general fatigue, and a sense of having “come a long way, baby.” But, it may also be that new cultural frame emerged which justified and motivated “new” quasi-traditionalist sets of actions and choices. This drew on and combined extant streams of beliefs and values about both essentialism and egalitarianism.

      The problem for all of us right now is how to devise compelling empirical tests for these interpretations.

      • I think our intuition about what is a compelling empirical test are often strongly tied to when we encounter a process or puzzle. In our case we asked where did the original trajectory come from and saw politics as the causal force fostering change. As that force weakened so did the change trajectories. Our thinking is that racial and gender politics in the last century fundamentally disrupted the strongly institutionalized versions of racial and gender inequality, making room for locally negotiated and contested racial and gender regimes. For example, if one carves the world up into industries with continued within workplace desegregation between white men and white women the modal pattern remains desegregation, although many industries are at equilibrium and some are resegregating. For black men the dominant pattern across industries is a new equilibrium, for black women the dominant pattern is increased segregation from white men and women. There are a handful of industries where all three groups are prospering (Miscellaneous manufacturing, Membership organizations, Banks, Social services, Railroads, and Miscellaneous services) strongly suggesting some institutionalization of an equal opportunity principle or wages so low that white men don’t care.

        So if one want to contrast a local political with a national cultural explanation the empirical test might be to explain local variation rather than national trends?

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