Gender Contracts and Agency

The changing work and family articulations may be seen as expressions of shifts in broader societal ‘gender contracts’ (Hirdman 1988; Duncan 1995; Hagemann and Amark 1999; Lewis 2001). This perspective aims at grasping the hegemonic normative assumptions about gender relations in a given historical period and place, the underlying norms about what women and men should do, think and be. Such implicit cultural norms feed into state politics and institutions, as well as into regulations of the labour market interpretations and negotiations between individual women and men in the family and beyond (Haavind 1984a, b; Hirdman 1988; Duncan 1995). The Swedish historian Yvonne Hirdman sees the breadwinner/carer family model as an expression of a societal housewife contract that was hegemonic in most European countries between 1930 and 1965, emerging in the wake of the private patriarchy of the nineteenth century. In the following decades she identifies an equity contract that is realised in the full-time/part-time family model, and an equality contract that is the basis of the dual-earner/ dual-carer family (Hirdman 1990). During this process, gender differentiation becomes increasingly culturally illegitimate and socially irrelevant with regard to citizenship in all its dimensions (Hagemann and Amark 1999). From the field of political theory, Nancy Fraser has suggested that different normative visions may be seen as operative in the new gender contracts: in the universal breadwinner model, women are upgraded as citizens and workers on par with men, and care is moved from the family to the market and the state; in the caregiver parity model, care work is kept within the family and normally carried out by the woman, but is culturally upgraded and supported by public funding; finally, in the universal caregiver model, women’s life pattern is also taken as the norm for men so that the couple will share both care and breadwinning (Fraser 1997). What unites the different approaches to cultural change is that they all indicate a normative move away from a gender order characterised by unquestioned differences in norms, rights and obligations for women and men towards a situation where women’s and men’s lives have become more alike and where gender equality has gained an increasing foothold as a common norm. This change in normative ideas does not necessarily coincide with all ongoing practices, instead sometimes disguising them. As the Norwegian psychologist Hanne Haavind’s studies of negotiations in married couples indicate, what was earlier understood in terms of gender obligations may now be legitimised as free choice, loyalty, love, attraction and so on. She says that the essence of the new femininity is to ‘make inequalities appear as equalities’ (Haavind 1984b: 147). Thus, the fundamental tension between the abstract assumption of equality in the public sphere of Western capitalist societies and gender difference in the private sphere is not solved through democratisation and individualisation alone. Gender remains a persistent element of ‘disorder’ in modern society (Pateman 1989; Hirdman 1990; Hagemann and Amark 1999; Solheim 2007; Melby et al. 2008).

The gender contract frames the ways in which women and men are integrated in society. It accentuates the reproductive force in a given hegemonic social and cultural order, working as the unnoticed background against which gender arrangements are negotiated and decided upon. However, the concept may also open up for an understanding of gender arrangements as complex and variable historical outcomes of many interacting societal processes. In this way it also leaves room for agency.[1] As is the case with other social contracts, gender contracts do not presuppose equality between the partners, but a certain amount of voluntariness and active participation without which the concept of agency would lose its meaning. This agency is also present in relationships and practices in daily life, within the varying constraints and opportunities given by class, ethnicity and age at a given time and place (see also McNay 2004 and Adkins 2014b). An important dimension here is the gradual and multilevel reciprocal shifts between women and men when it comes to paid work and care: ‘the process whereby women’s behaviour has changed in recent decades, requiring reciprocal change in men, which in turn will require reciprocal change in women, and so on, in a cycle of continual adaption and change’ (Gamles et al. 2007: 17; see also Thompson 1997). Such reciprocal interchanges in daily life do not only rely upon perceptions and reflexions, but also involve feelings of gender: What kind of personal experiences—understood as feelings, meanings and practices— were behind the increasing support of the change in the gendered division of work in the family and beyond? By looking into how practices, meanings and feelings of gender are reconfigured over time and how such ‘micro histories’ Walkerdine (2012: 86) contribute to the larger history of the development of new gender contracts, we may gain more insight into the mutual dynamics between structural, political, cultural and psychological change. Since the concept of feeling incorporates meaning and process, it may in some respects be better suited to comparison over time and place than more specific and isolated dimensions of behaviour like women’s employment patterns or changes in dominant family models, which say little about the underlying processes or the context of the phenomena.

  • [1] In some versions gender contracts are seen as a reproductive force working along with historicalchange: new gender contracts are basically new expressions of the same underlying, patriarchalgender system, at least until further notice (Hirdman 1988; Haavind 1984a, b). Other versions(Hagemann and Amark 1999; Duncan 1995) find that the value of the concept lies precisely in itsopening up for agency and (real) social change. My use of the concept is based on this latterunderstanding.
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