The tea towel is beside the point. “Why am I the one who knows which cloths are for hands and which ones are for cleaning?” she asked. “How did we get into me making all household decisions—where the spare diapers are kept, what juice boxes to buy for a party—and I’m the boss of the household who dictates instructions, and then he gets it wrong, and I get mad?”
First Comes Love
Well, we might have an answer: Two studies recently conducted by Ellen Lamont, a professor of sociology at Appalachian State University, indicate that the gender roles heterosexual couples establish while dating are the gender roles they’re likely to continue in marriage.
Dr. Lamont interviewed 38 young, heterosexual or bisexual women and 31 young heterosexual men in San Francisco about their “courtship rituals”; specifically, who’s doing the asking, the pursuing, and the paying in the dating stage of a relationship. Even though nearly every participant in the studies—including the men—identified as progressives and feminists, most expressed a preference for the conventional dating script: They expected that the men would ask the women out, pay for dates, and eventually propose marriage.
But the big surprise was this: The women generally enforced these conventional dating rituals. They waited for the men to do the asking, and while they would offer to pay for a first date, the man accepting the offer was a demerit in the women’s eyes. They hinted at, and even engineered, marriage proposals, but would not do the proposing themselves. The women believed that if they were to step out of their passive roles, to, say, ask men out, pay for early dates, or otherwise be the aggressor, they would appear desperate and would be “sanctioned,” or somehow pay a penalty in the dating market. The men, for their part, continued with these gender roles because they believed that this was what the women wanted—and they saw adhering to these roles as respectful of the women’s preferences.
Dr. Lamont said in a phone interview that most of the women held the prevailing cultural belief that men resist commitment and that women are desperate for it—even though many of the men in the studies reported being eager and willing to marry, and many of the women were hesitant to declare commitment too early.
Why is this? Well, good old gender essentialism: A good number of women expressed beliefs about what men “naturally” want to do in courtship rituals—that men prefer to be the aggressor, that men like the “thrill of the chase.”
Many women engineered their own marriage proposals, but the “public” story of the engagement was that the man surprised the woman on bended knee.
But here’s the thing: The women did want to have agency in their romantic lives, but they believed they would pay a social penalty if they were overtly aggressive. I asked Dr. Lamont in a follow-up email: Is there a social penalty for being aggressive? Maybe women don’t do the asking or the paying because they’ve found that it doesn’t get them the outcome they want.
Dr. Lamont wrote: “Kathleen Bogle wrote a book called Hooking Up, which discusses how men don’t see women as potential serious partners if they hook up too quickly and step out of prescribed gender norms in that manner, but I don’t think she discusses assertiveness. I cannot say definitively if the sanctions actually occur. I can say that some of the women felt that they were more often rejected when they did the approaching. I can also say that many of the men said that they had no problem being approached and asked out by women, but that when it happened, it was never the ones that interested them. I speculated that either they do find it a turn-off and are just not self-aware enough to realize it, or that the most conventionally attractive women have the privilege of sitting back and letting men come to them, thereby leaving other less conventionally attractive women to do the approaching.”
But even given these perceived or real sanctions, the women weren’t actually passive—they just had to pretend to be passive. They would indicate their interest in a man by saying things like “Hey, I’ll be at this party later, you should come by,” which allowed them to indicate their interest while still protecting themselves from the blowback that might come with subverting traditional gender norms (and from rejection!). Many women engineered their own marriage proposals, for example: selecting a ring, raising the subject of marriage, or issuing an ultimatum, but the “public” story of the engagement was that the man surprised the woman on bended knee.
The women jumped through these hoops to accommodate what they thought were men’s “innate” needs. Lamont notes, “Women believed they must adjust their behavior to men’s natural, unchanging desires.” Women also believed that men didn’t really want to be in exclusive relationships or to marry, so seeing the men jump through certain courtship hoops meant that they, the women, were valued. Women also often agreed to exclusivity before they were comfortable because they believed that a commitment-ready man was hard to find. Lamont notes, “As a result, women frequently ended up prioritizing men’s desires.”
However, and this is important, Dr. Lamont said that perpetuating these gender roles was often framed as personal preference rather than a cultural directive that they were continuing. “Women would say things like, ‘Oh, it’s just my personality that I like to be the one asked out, I’m shy.'”
Then Comes Marriage—With Many, Many Years to be Pissed off About the Dishes
While most of the women wanted—and even engineered—conventional courtship rituals, they all expressed a desire for a marriage in which breadwinning, child care and housework were shared equally. The men, self-identified as progressives and feminists themselves, also professed to want egalitarian marriages. But once married, the couples fell into conventional roles regarding cooking and housekeeping.
“In fact,” said Dr. Lamont said, “many of the men who expressed a strong commitment to feminism twisted themselves in knots trying to justify an unequal division of household labor. They would say things like, ‘Oh, cooking’s her thing. It’s her hobby.’ Or, ‘doing dishes is her thing. My thing is… sitting on the couch, not doing dishes.'”
Again, this was framed—by both the men and the women—as a personal preference: The woman just happens to like a clean house more than the man does; having clean laundry just happens to be more important to the woman than to the man. Participants were unable to see the structural, cultural edifices behind their behavior, believing that everything they did was just the result of individual quirks. Like the quirk of enjoying a clean kitchen and a hot meal every night.
“Women were left waiting around and subverting their own goals or creating narratives that hid their agency.”
Lamont writes that “privileged men continue to ‘talk the talk,’ but fail to ‘walk the walk.’ The women, who also insisted that these entrenched gender roles are a matter of personal choice, were both victims of and perpetrators of gender inequality.”
Lamont concludes, “Internalizing the belief that proactive behavior would make them a less worthy partner, [women] either policed or concealed their behaviors in an effort to conform to the presumed needs and desires of men, revealing just how constrained women continue to be in their romantic relationships, even as they appear to take genuine pleasure in these conventions. This approach benefited men at the expense of women, as women were left waiting around and subverting their own goals or creating narratives that hid their agency.”
Lamont also notes that this makes things worse for women in positions of less power than the study’s middle-class sample: “Unfortunately, this approach not only limits the options for more privileged women, it also reinforces norms for women whose limited resources provide them with fewer opportunities to challenge gender inequality.”
So while we might understand from these two studies that both men and women are perpetuating conventional gender roles in romance—it’s the men who are benefitting from them. By sticking with the rules of traditional courtship, which are often unspoken, privilege accrues to the men in heterosexual relationships—the privilege of having agency in one’s dating life, the privilege of watching the Yankees while someone else puts away the groceries. The privilege, in my friend’s husband’s case, of not knowing where the cleaning rags are.