Increasing the Options: Men in a Post-Gender World

Can getting involved in the community or being a stay-at-home dad increase a man’s opportunities?

If the US were to move beyond our current definitions of gender, I think that would provide men with a greater range of options than they have now.  Boys and men would be told and encouraged to be anything they wanted, and anything would truly mean anything.  When I heard that as a child, it meant that I could go into any profession I wanted, but I also knew that some jobs were really for women only.

“Being whatever I wanted” only applied to professional choices.  Not having a profession wasn’t an option.  A few decades after being told I could be anything I wanted, I’ve found a job that lets me study definitions of masculinity.

These days we talk about men being largely defined by their jobs.  One of the ways that men consistently talk about caring for their family is through providing; they earn the money that puts food on the table and a roof over their children’s heads.  For many men, that work is physically demanding and includes the risk of serious injury and death.  But they willingly take this risk, in order to provide for their children, and give them things the men themselves never had .

The idea that a job is central to a man’s identity is relatively new in historical terms.  What we know about America in the late 1800s is that a man’s job was an important part of who he was.  Many men, perhaps most, worked for themselves – on the family farm or in the family business.

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But it wasn’t their only option for defining themselves.  Men had many other ways to develop a name for themselves and show that they were good, respectable men.  Because communities were relatively small and everyone more-or-less knew everyone else, other things “counted” as much or more than work: being a good father and being a community leader were high on that list.  And character was key.

Things started to change in the 1920s due to a variety of other historical changes: large scale  immigration in the prior decades, urbanization, industrialization, mandatory education, and the beginning of the consumer economy.  By the end of the 1920s, more Americans lived in cities than in rural areas, and more people worked for others than for themselves.  And, of course, men held most jobs; teaching and nursing were the only female dominated fields.

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Then came the Great Depression.  Having a job became a lot less common (sound familiar?).  But owning your own property and having a close family member who had a (functioning) farm were also much less common than they’d been a generation before.  Without a job, how could a man care for his family?  At that point, having a job shifted from being one component of a man’s identity to being the central component.

I hope a post-gender world will be one where a man’s identity isn’t based primarily on his job.  Or whether or not he has a job, given the current economic climate.  Perhaps our ancestors from the 19th century were right; there are many things that contribute to our identity as men, and no one of them is the central defining characteristic for all of us.

Maybe  one step towards a post-gender world is to start prioritizing some of those other components, like being involved in your community and genuinely knowing your neighbors.  In some ways, Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” is a plea for all of us to get more involved in our communities.  This would expand men’s opportunities to gain status and become the “go-to” guy; after all, most of us will never own a business or become a senior manager.

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Perhaps we can also start to treat “stay at home dads” as doing something important and valuable.  Fifty years ago, we used to think housewives did something important.  But for many Americans, if it’s not paid, it’s not valuable.  If you’ve raised kids – especially very young children – you know how absurd this idea is.

Today, we have a generation of men that are making a real effort to “be there” for the kids, so they clearly think it is valuable.  And as a country, we’re clear that being an absentee father is generally a bad idea.  We don’t give people money to raise their own children, but perhaps we can give them something else: respect and a meaningful identity that flows from fatherhood.  (And there’s no reason why that should be true for fathers but not for mothers.)  This would also expand the definition of caring for one’s family beyond just providing money.

I don’t know that any of these things will move us to the “end of gender,” but they can certainly expand the options for men.  Given that changes in social norms take decades and generations, I think these would make for a fine beginning.

Andrew Smiler, Ph.D., is a visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His sexuality research focuses on normative aspects of sexual development, such as age and perception of first kiss, first “serious” relationship, and first intercourse among 15-25 year olds. His masculinity research examines definitions of masculinity.  He is the author of the forthcoming Challenging Casanova.

—Photo KLHint/Flickr

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About Andrew Smiler

Andrew Smiler, PhD is a therapist, evaluator, author, and speaker residing in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (USA). He is the author of “Challenging Casanova: Beyond the stereotype of promiscuous young male sexuality” and co-author, with Chris Kilmartin, of “The Masculine Self (5th edition)”. He is a past president of the Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity and has taught at Wake Forest University and SUNY Oswego. Dr. Smiler's research focuses on definitions of masculinity. He also studies normative aspects of sexual development, such as age and perception of first kiss, first “serious” relationship, and first intercourse among 15-25 year olds. Follow him @AndrewSmiler.

Comments

  1. Black Iris says:

    I’d love to see the work of stay-at-home parents more valued. I think one of the really sad things was that as women went into the paid workforce, caring for children or homemaking was put down. So long as we don’t value that work, men aren’t going to want to do it either.

  2. The Bad Man says:

    I don’t think there will ever be an abundance of options for men who limit themselves to being stay at home dads. This is counter to basic biology and evolutionary psychology of men and women.

  3. The Bad Man says:

    The end of men already happened decades ago in the black community.

    For the rest of us non-blacks, we can see our future there.

    • Michael Rowe says:

      I’m sorry—”The end of men already happened decades ago in the black community?” What a bizarre, racist comment. I’d love to see what would happen if you tried to peddle the notion that “the end of men already happened decades ago in the black community” to a group of black men, especially black fathers.

  4. The Bad Man says:

    “The idea that a job is central to a man’s identity is relatively new in historical terms.”

    That’s incorrect. Being a provider is based in evolution from the earliest days of humanity. Same with women’s hypergamy. This is such a strong biological imperative for men and woman that I am doubtful much can be done to change it substantially via socialization.

    “And as a country, we’re clear that being an absentee father is generally a bad idea. ”

    Of course, but I don’t see many people (certainly not SPSMM or GMPM) doing much to help fathers who are reduced to being a wallet and occasional visitor to their children. Again, the biological imperative to protect women/children has created a system of benevolent sexism that considers fathers to be secondary to mothers and only useful as providers.

    • Andrew Smiler says:

      Hi Bad Man,

      Studies of what we call “primitive” societies – hunter/gatherers, “simple” agricultural communities, and the like – show that women and men provide in different ways but similar amounts (except during pregnancy and the first year after birth). Women of all ages do the gathering, for example, but only the adult males who are in good physical shape do the hunting (those who are hurt do not go out to hunt). Boys through their mid-teens and older men also provide by gathering. Those men – especially the older men/grandfathers – are usually also responsible for some aspects of childcare. From what the anthropologists tell us, men have always been caretakers.

  5. Why do feminists always expect society’s permission to do what the want? Nobody is stopping them from staying home, cross dressing, or whatever else they want to do.

    If they believe that their choices are valid, they wouldn’t need anyone else’s approval. Only the weak-minded need the approval of others to feel secure in their decisions.

    • Andrew Smiler says:

      Hi Eric,

      Thanks for commenting. Only part of this is about society’s “permission”; part of it is about how society behaves. I’ve met a number of stay at home fathers, and they all seem comfortable with their decision. At the same time, the media routinely portrays men as incompetent caregivers and routinely puts down men who choose to do this instead of working full time. While the guys I know don’t need the media to laud their every diaper change, they would like some positive media representation.

      • Andrew – as far as I have seen, the media doesn’t feature very many stay at home fathers, so I’m not sure how it can “routinely put them down.” But, I do agree with you in part.. The media represents men as incompetent caregivers because it represents men as incompetent human beings, the exact opposite of the way it represents women – who must bail men out of their incessant idiocy.

        It would be nice to have some positive media representation in general for a change, including diaper change competency.

  6. ““The idea that a job is central to a man’s identity is relatively new in historical terms.””

    I have to disagree with that. In times past a man’s job was so important to his identity it became his name and a son was expected, nigh demanded, to inherit the job when he came of age and dad was too old to continue. You may as well say the idea that a woman’s ability to bear children being central to her identity as a woman is relatively new (despite the fact that past queens were regarded as only having one “job” bear a healthy son to take up dad’s job of ruling in the future).

    • Andrew Smiler says:

      Hi Eric,

      I think I’m defining “identity” differently than you are. For me, this is about how an individual sees/defines/describes himself (or herself), not just their name.
      Yes, jobs did become surnames or family names, at least in some cultures. Other cultures went with lineage type names (e.g., Erickson, literally for son of Erick). I think that pattern of surnames is limited to the last 300 or 400 years. Most of the European royal history I know, as well as Biblical naming conventions, use son or location, not other names. (But it’s not a historical fact I’m certain of.)
      Inheritance laws in most European countries (and my history is sketchy anywhere outside of Europe) demanded sons because only sons could own property. The job (or property) cemented a man’s position as head of household, but it wasn’t the only way he could make a name for himself.

  7. I really appreciate this article. I hadn’t heard the historical angle on this issue before. I like the idea of a more varied and open concept of masculinity. Hopefully it can become more common in our society and all of these financial struggles families are going through can be viewed more as an opportunity rather than just a struggle.

  8. One of the reasons the women’s movement came about in the early 60′s was because women were not being valued who stayed at home and they didn’t have any options for going back to work.

    I personally have the highest regard for stay at home dads. And I love when I see them not involved with their children but within the community. It’s great to have the choice to be a stay at home dad, but back in the 50′s women didn’t have the choice, and they weren’t respected at all. If you have watched “Mad Men” you will know what I am talking about. So I wish good luck and blessings to any men out there who have chosen to be a stay at home dad. Couldn’t make a finer choice.

  9. Minneapple says:

    I think the “job is central to a man’s identity” is messy because “job” has changed so much over time. The respect, money, narrowness, community of work has changed so much. I think there’s less humanity in today’s jobs (meaning employment) so identity is trickier based on it. There’s so much inequality and a consumer society now. Many jobs today are so socially empty and isolating today unlike former rural small communities.

    But the provider part is pretty solidly constant of course.

  10. Post-gender?

    So there are no men and no women? That is not a free thought. It is tragic and pitiful. It is also false.

    How many men AND women really believe that, or want that – but are so terrified of being politically incorrect that they do not dare say it out loud?

    This site is so PC that there are no dissenting voices at all. The title of the site is a real ‘draw’. But these articles are an avalanche of self-pity and masochistic sentimentality. Is masculinity really THAT bad?

    Have the courage and the courtesy to change the title of this site to reflect the bias and tone and content.

    I am frustrated because I was very hopeful when I saw the title. My mistake.

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