Gender Relations in a Process of Change

The life times of the three generations analysed in this book coincide with huge structural and cultural changes in gender relations in the Western world and beyond. There has been a sea change in the gender-normative assumptions about who ‘cares’ and who ‘works’, who deserves what kind of rights and protection (Kessler-Harris 2003: 159). From the late 1960s onwards, there was a strong increase in women’s education and employment in Europe. From the 1970s and 1980s, women with young children also entered the labour market in increasing numbers, and the percentage of women has increased in higher education, high professional and political positions during this period as well—although with important variations according to the sociocultural context and the kind of political support and interventions seen as advisable and legitimate within these contexts (Walby 1997; Pfau-Effinger 1998; Lewis 2001; Leira 2002; Crompton et al. 2007). Parallel to these processes, but at a slower pace, men’s participation in childcare and household work has increased (Hobson 2002; Brandth and Kvande 2003; Kitterod and Ronsen 2012; Brannen 2015).

All this has had a significant impact on the gendered division of labour in society as a whole, but has evidently not eradicated all inequalities in women’s and men’s responsibilities, opportunities and privileges in work and family. Cross-nationally we find persistent gender gaps with regard to pay, work hours and career tracks (Crompton et al. 2007; Skrede and Wiik 2012). Attitudes to gender equality and actual practices do not always overlap and this inconsistency may be related both to cultural and structural factors (Knudsen and Wsrness 2001; Buhlmann et al. 2010; Usdansky 2011; Hansen and Slagsvold 2012). Thus, the issue of who works and who cares—and more generally of what gender means or should mean—is still filled with unanswered questions, tensions and feelings, something that may be visible in the high divorce rates since the 1970s. The changing gender relations have also increased differences between women. Whereas the majority of women in the Scandinavian countries around the middle of the twentieth century lived comparable lives as housewives, although with different material standards and security, the lives of professional middle-class women and the lives of working-class women, and the few women who still chose to be housewives, have become more differentiated, as have the priorities among women (Melby 1999).

Seen from a bird’s-eye view, these changes in gender relations and family models must be understood with reference to broader historical processes of modernisation and modernity, and the way in which these processes have materialised in different national contexts. Processes of industrialisation, urbanisation, education and secularisation have had a profound impact on gender relations, class relations and generational relations. This development has increased trends of individualisation where the self and society are understood at large as reflexive projects and where ‘standard biographies have become elective biographies’ (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002: 4, 24). On the one hand, this process has amplified individual life choices and social mobility; on the other hand, it has ‘condemned’ people to individualisation within standardised institutional settings and unpredictable and insecure labour markets where people are seen as responsible for their own success or failure. Theories of modernisation and individualisation have been met with questions regarding to what extent detraditionalisation runs parallel to increased reflexivity (Adkins 2004b) and to what degree it dissolves or maybe rather transforms social and emotional bonds between people (Giddens 1992; Jamieson 1998; Morgan 1999; Brannen et al. 2004; Roseneil 2007; Aarseth 2007). It is, however, beyond doubt that processes of individualisation have had a strong impact on gender relations. Gender differences have become less defined and legitimised by religion, tradition and family. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (2002) point to three important trends in women’s lives in modern society: the gradual changes in education, work, and sexuality and relationships. It has not been the major systemic changes, power struggles and revolutions that have changed the ‘new normal biographies’ of women, but rather the many little steps in education, work and the family. It is such ‘trivial matters’ that make history and society: ‘It is perhaps only by comparing generations that we can perceive how steeply the demands imposed on individuals have been rising’ (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002: 76, 4). The Norwegian social anthropologist Marianne Gullestad has described this generational process in terms of a change in the moral imperatives, from ‘being of use’ to ‘finding oneself’ (Gullestad 1996). An example of the intertwinement of individualisation and gender from my study is the shifting relationships between mothers and daughters: as young women, the oldest generation of rural women felt it to be self-evident that their duties to their parents had an absolute priority over their own inclinations to take up paid work.

They would have felt like bad people if they had let their parents down. However, in the middle generation a rural mother who asks her young daughter to stay at home and help out may elicit self-pity or even rage in the daughter, and the daughter does not feel like a bad person at all. She feels she has the right to her own life. In the youngest generation the idea that the daughter should stay at home and help out is close to unthinkable both for mothers and daughters, and therefore not emotionally charged in the same way as for the two older generations. Here the young daughter would instead feel like a bad person if she did not pursue a good education and become independent of her parents, as successful young women should. The example also lends support to the claims that personal bonds are not dissolved, but rather transformed in this process, and that the process is not guided only by reflexive considerations.

Processes of modernisation are dependent on timing and the particular route from agrarian to industrial society, as well as the roles that various social groups have played in this (Duncan 1995; Birgit Pfau-Effinger 1998). The ways in which different national welfare regimes frame family and equality policies have been given particular attention in order to understand different developments in family models and the choices made by women and men in different national contexts and by different social groups (Esping-Andersen 1990; Lewis 1992; Korpi 2000; Leira 2002; Den Dulk and Doorne-Huiskes 2007). Feminist scholars have analysed these welfare regimes with emphasis on gender and unpaid work, childcare facilities, leave arrangements, availability of flexible working arrangements and the ways in which taxation systems encourage or discourage men and women to share paid employment (Lewis 1992; Leira 2002; Den Dulk and Doorne-Huiskes 2007). These structural, economic and political conditions are important framings for changing gender relations; however, they do not by themselves explain the changes or stabilities in these relations. Research has concluded that gender arrangements depend on a complex interplay between structural conditions, cultural values, institutions and agency—for instance, cultural ideals concerning motherhood/fatherhood that are incorporated into existing social policies (Acker 1989; Duncan 1995; Pfau-Effinger 1998; Den Dulk and Doorne-Huiskes 2007).

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