Asymmetries or Irregularities in the Gender Order?

Variations in feelings of gender difference emerge once more when women and men reflect more explicitly on gender. For most of them, across gender and social class, gender complementarity is so self-evident that they do not have much to say about gender. Answers to questions about this most often boil down to the observation that there are natural differences between man and woman, and that these differences are expressed in the division of work. However, as we have seen, the interviews also convey the informants’ knowledge of irregularities, asymmetries and inherent hierarchies in this assumed natural gender order: irregularities like women who had to work like men or men who got ill from doing men’s work and even died from it; asymmetries in men’s and women’s, girls’ and boys’ work, duties and rights in rural families; hierarchies of what was seen as more or less important or exiting, or who held which privileges. In farmer families the dimension of inside/outside and the access to money and leisure time in particular contain messages regarding the hierarchy implicit in the acclaimed gender complementarity with regard to work.

When asked directly, both genders say that girls and boys were brought up in the same way, but in the women’s narratives this statement is contradicted by the practices described and their ironic or even bitter comments made in relation to these. Rural girls talk about how boys got away more easily because they only helped outside rather than having to do stable work in the mornings and evenings and housework around the clock, like the girls. This meant that boys got more leisure time. Oh, the poor boys!, says Gerd and laughs bitterly when she compares the workload put on the sisters versus the brothers in her family. Karen says about his brother: ‘he had the rights to take over the farm and I did not, but that was how it was back then . Still, she had to help out much more than him with cleaning and milking: ‘he did not care much about those things, no, boys could get out of it, you know, girls had to be there’. Urban girls also remark on this, albeit with more emphasis on their parents’ preferences. Lilly, one of eight siblings and with a self-employed father, says:

I felt like the boys were allowed to do more than the girls were, really. I felt that they had more freedom. And mother really valued her two sons, you know, so ... Many of us felt like we girls weren’t worth much. In some way or other. Because it was they who were ... Well, they were boys, you know. It was such a big deal. Oh, goodness! But they were nice boys. (Lilly, b. 1922)

The women clearly recognise differential treatment, but this recognition is quickly taken back when the interviewer asks about it from a modern perspective of gender discrimination—the women both know and don’t know. Agnes (b. 1912) was the daughter of a wealthy grocer in Oslo and was among the few in this generation who received higher education. She recalls how she encountered gender discriminatory attitudes from adult men, including her own father, with regard to her educational trajectory. But at that time, she says, you were so used to boys and men having privileges that you did not really think much about it. The combination of acceptance and discontent with the gender order may also explain why sibling rivalry is more clearly expressed as anger towards lazy and selfish sisters who took advantages that were perceived to be outside their scope as girls.

In spite of the almost preconscious form of this knowledge, the women of this generation are clearly more aware of structures of gender inequality than the men. What the women sense as power-related asymmetries inherent in the gender order, the men rather tend to see as incidental irregularities to be mended. The men who had seen their mothers and other poor women of their childhood striving understand this as a gender order gone astray. For a man to leave men’s work to his wife is interpreted as a lack of love. Einar, who criticised his father for being afraid of getting dirt on his fingers, says:

I would say that if it were me, then I would’ve done it instead of my wife. I think that’s more of a man’s job, to do those things ... What I find strange is that people who had so much, who depended on each other as much as they did, that they didn’t show more signs of affection and courtesy ... But I guess it was like that back then. (Einar, b. 1923)

Whereas the women implicitly perceive the gender order as unjust, the men’s perspective is instead to fight the irregularities and restore the order. Or perhaps they want to refine the order so that they can make space for more love and recognition than they had seen between their parents? The men are not making a plea for their own privileges as men, but argue for a system of mutual respect, dependency and contribution. Through this effort of restoration, we see a reformulation of the gendered division of men’s and women’s work of their childhood to a more idealised and complementary notion of male work and female care. It is seen in their reflections on gender where they refer to men’s physical strength and role as natural providers, and women’s special ability to care and give love (see Walkerdine & Jimenez 2012). More often than not, their gender ideals are exemplified by their own caring wives and by the indirect descriptions of themselves as responsible adult men. In this model of complementarity, women are strongly idealised, but only in the roles of mothers and caring wives. Compared to the muted idealisation of their own invisible mothers, this restored gender order values and renders visible female care. Martin expresses it in this way:

Then I would say that the woman, she is equal to the man. In all circumstances. Nothing to separate. I almost value her more since I think she has such an important and rich task in life. And she is more caring than we men are. When I think about all the way from birth and the entire ... I would say I respect her more than I respect men. Absolutely. I absolutely value her more highly. And even more because she has more tenderness and is more loving. Soft. (Martin,

b. 1905)

For most of the men in this generation, divorce becomes the ultimate betrayal of the gender complementarity model. It makes a mockery of the mutual dependency and shared destiny between a man and a woman, and is devastating for the children. They become rather upset when they talk about how women and men today go out alone with their respective friends instead of going out as a couple—they would never go anywhere without their wives! They criticise marital infidelity and the decreased work ethic, but most of all they lament the modern divorce rates. They take pride in the fact that they have been married to their wives for more than half a century. The moral decay embodied by divorce is seen in John’s evasive formulations on the topic, the only man in this generation who says that he at some point contemplated divorce:

It went smoothly to begin with ... It was later, yes. But, and then you had to get yourself together because you started to get old, you know, and there was nothing to move out for.

Q: What did you think about then?

Oh, I had a lot of strange thoughts. But, it went away. (John, b. 1919)

In this way, the crumbling gender order of the present becomes the quintessence of the general moral decay for the men in the eldest generation.

We see no traces of such an enthusiastic recommendation to restore the order of gender complementarity among the women, which makes sense in light of their double identifications and their more pragmatic approach to the choice of marriage partner. While pronounced in the interviews with the men, attention to modern divorce rates is more or less absent in the women’s interviews. The women’s understanding of men’s and women’s toil in their childhood is different from the men’s. Some of them rather question the strict rural work division of their childhood and say that work could have been more of a joint venture between husband and wife. Refining gender complementarity does not seem to be an obvious solution here. But as young women they were also so embedded in the gender order of their times that they did not offer any alternative to the men’s project. And compared with the lives of their hardworking mothers, the cultural reformulation of male work and female care also had its temptations. One of them says: [1]

The emotional upgrading of femininity by the men from invisible mothers to caring wives seems to run opposite to the women’s emotional downgrading of masculinity from fun fathers to boring providers.

  • [1] guess there was something implicit, that you didn’t have to struggle so much,because you weren’t going to support anyone ... Back then it was the man whowas responsible for the support... It was alright to be a girl. (Agnes, b. 1912)
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