Refining Gender Complementarity
As young couples and parents in the years after the Second World War, this generation chose to organise their lives through a gendered division of work into providers and housewives. This may be seen as a life project of this generation, especially for the men. Most of the men came from smallholder families and became urban working class themselves. Having their wives stay at home was something they wanted in order to spare them the hard toil that their mothers had had to endure, and to secure their children the best possible childhood. They describe it as a deliberate choice and talk about it with pride. It may be seen as a project where their feelings of gender and their reflections on experiences from their own childhood matched the new demands of the labour market, the rise in living standards, family policies and childcare regimes of the post-war welfare state, and the possibility for most families to survive on one income (see Chap. 4). Thus, we may see this as an historical moment where a biographically formed subjectivity, including a specific way to feel about gender, and the economic, structural and political conditions reinforced each other to create a social change in gender relations. But as the women’s feelings of gender did not run parallel to the men’s and as the new model also had a price tag for men themselves, tensions and unrest are built into the new life project from the very beginning. A blind spot in the new gender arrangement is the implication of the move from a rural to an urban context, which was crucial in this generation. The idea of refining gender complementarity had for many been conceived of in a rural context where women’s work did not confine them to the house, but worked less well when put into practice within an urban setting where housewives were expected to do their work within the home. We see these different tensions and problems in the ways in which men and women talk about their married life and their relationships with their children.
All the men we interviewed in this generation became the sole or main providers for their families, and none were divorced. In some cases their wives took part-time jobs—always adjusted to the needs of the families—but this is not an elaborated topic of discussion in the interviews. A few men acknowledge that it did help with the family’s economy, but they stress her contribution within the family much more. The men were prepared to work hard as providers to enable their wives to stay at home, and in this process of refining gender complementarity, women’s work was transformed into care and service. Knut gives this depiction of his own family life:
Well, we got up in the morning, she got up with me. She made my work lunch.
I went to work, and when I came home, what was the first thing I did? Sniff, sniff, what is for dinner today? Because that was exciting. I didn’t know, because she was the one who did all that. (Knut, b. 1925)
He also stresses the emotional services in form of the soothing effects his wife has on his own more aggressive temper:
Oh yes, I can be a hothead and get it out. But then I have someone who has such a soothing effect on me that she calms me down pretty fast. She is my exact opposite, you see, because she is calm. She steadies me if I feel some kind of injustice. Then she manages to quiet me down.
Given the clear identification with their own fathers, it is not surprising that it never occurs to the men that it was an option not to work outside the family. But the accentuation of gender division in the family itself gave the men a strong work identity. In spite of being retired at the time of the interview, they talked extensively about the places where they had worked, how rarely they were absent from work and how well they did:
‘ Yes, I put my job above everything else’, says the working-class man Anton. But this dedication to their work also meant that they did not have much time to spend at home, either to do household work or to spend time with their children. As the Norwegian gender researcher Jorgen Lorentzen has argued, this was a period where the father’s importance to the family was strengthened, at the same time as his importance in the family was weakened (Lorentzen 2012: 83). Most of the men express gratitude to and admiration for their wives’ contributions to the household, including their proficiency as child carers and child rearers. Einar says:
We had three children and it went really well, she was very capable. She was a very clever girl. And there was no flippancy, she was quite grown-up, I must say. Very responsible and such a wonderful mother. I never had to think about the kids. I could work and so on. Never needed to worry ... Could trust her one hundred per cent. She took care of the kids ... Food and shelter and always well kept. And she didn’t have a job outside the house. I wanted her to be home with the kids. (Einar, b. 1923)
However, Einar also worked hard to make ends meet. He worked long hours in his shop as a shoemaker to provide for his family, which was not easy since he was suffering from severe health issues following his war injury:
I managed. Had to go to work. I had dependants and had brought children into the world and one had a responsibility. A huge responsibility. Bringing children into the world, that’s an enormous responsibility. And you can’t give up. You just have to keep going. Even if it hurts a bit sometimes. You get so much joy from it too. You have the joy of coming home. And then it doesn’t hurt as much as it does when you leave in the morning. Then the children come home from school and then there is life and joy. (Einar, b. 1923)
Even if the provider/housewife arrangement seemed to have had the strongest supporters among the men in this generation, it would be wrong to interpret it only as a model privileging men, as has often been the case in feminist analyses of housework (Hartman 1981; Haavind 1982; Oakley 1990). However, the opposite view that men were ‘relegated’ and ‘displaced’ from the family in ‘the golden age of the housewife’ (Lorentzen 2012: 79ff.) make them too much into passive victims of the ideology of the time. From the perspective of the men themselves, especially those who stayed or became working class in the cities, providing for their families and letting their wives stay home was also a gift of love they wanted to give. And it was a way to prove oneself as a grown-up and responsible man. Many of the men convey indirectly the sacrifices this ideal gender order put on them as well, and the losses that came with it. Some of them regret and apologise at the time of the interview that they did not take enough part in their children’s lives, for instance, in their sons’ sports activities, but they basically accept that the consequence of the natural order of things was that the children had a closer relationship with their mothers. As fathers their role was to provide the money and to be the authority, while the mother should give the children love and care. But the price they paid—and were willing to pay—emerges in the striking contrast between the proud descriptions of their accomplishments at work and their replies when asked what have been the most important things in their lives. Einar describes having a family as the high point of his life, and in different versions we find the same feeling expressed by almost all the men of this generation:
Q: what has made you most happy in your life?
It must have been when I became a father, I have to say. That has been my everything. I have to explain: when you have children and when you get that responsibility and have a home and so on. Having my own home, that was great. I thought that was lovely. (Einar, b. 1923)
As young men, creating their own family and home was an important part of their dreams. This appraisal of the family and emotional bonds may also have been strengthened further in this generation of men because of the experiences of the Second World War, as is clearly the case with Einar.
It is remarkable, though, how often feelings of guilt pop up in connection with gender among the men in this generation. There are traces of guilt in their compassion with their mothers, with regard to sexuality, in their absence from their children’s lives and even when it comes to work. John, who held blue-collar jobs all his life, says: ‘I have worked my entire life. If I was idle for two to three minutes, I felt bad,. Furthermore, the strong idealisations of their wives and their sentimental depictions of ‘good’ femininity sometimes bear traces of guilt. Altogether, this indicates that the gender complementarity model also created problems within masculinity.
An indication of this possible connection between gender complementarity and masculine guilt is the fact that we find the least of these tensions among the few men who spent more time with their children, even if they also had wives who stayed at home. An example is the working-class man Gunnar, the son of the sociable tailor who lost his wife early and had to manage his ten children with the help of his eldest daughter. Gunnar is the only man of this generation in our sample who says he took part in the care of his children from early on. He says he had a special ‘knack for nursing children . He pushed the pram and changed nappies and helped wash them, remembering this as very unusual for the times. He also took a lot of photos. Gunnar’s love of his father encompassed more than the father’s social position, as he also depicts him a unique and mild man who loved cats and people, and was generous to everybody without expecting anything in return. Thus, it may be that this father came to represent care, but without jeopardising his position among other men.
Martin and Harald, who are among the oldest men in the sample, could also spend time with their children as they continued a rural gender order by having their jobs close to the home. Martin was educated as a gardener and eventually became the manager of a nursery, which included a house for the family to live in. His wife was in charge of the home and the children, but he could drop by during the day and, for instance, help the children with their homework. Harald took an unusual route for an upper middle-class boy and became a farmer, with his father’s help and consent. He emphasises how lucky he was in the choice of his loyal and hardworking wife:
Well, I have said that they mostly have their mother to thank for their upbringing, since I had the farm work. And in addition to that I got quite a few positions of trust by and by. The main thing was that we worked for ten hours a day back then, from 6 am or 6.30 am. Then we went inside for food and out again afterwards. And if you had meetings at night, there wasn’t much time left for the children. So it was my wife who took care of that. (Harald, b. 1899)
However, as a farmer he had the opportunity to spend more time with his children than the working-class fathers did, especially with his sons as they started to help out on the farm when they came of age. It is noteworthy that both Martin and Harald saw their mothers as strong and capable and thus do not associate gender complementarity with female weakness.
Compared to the idealisation of female care and the gratitude expressed by the men towards their wives, the silence on these matters from the women we have interviewed is more than striking. They seem to share the view that they, as women, had the main responsibility for home and family, and with no public childcare available, they did not have much choice in the matter. They tried to be more caring mothers to their children than their own hardworking mothers had been, for instance, by having fewer children, more time for them and being less strict. In this way they are clearly complicit in creating the new family model, but they definitely do not describe it as ‘a golden age’ Lorentzen (2012: 79) like the men do. They idealise neither their own nor their husbands’ contributions. Hardly any of the women express the kind of admiration for men’s efforts as providers or their own husbands’ personal qualifications as the men do towards their wives. If the refined gender complementarity was given as a gift of love from the men in this generation, it does not appear to have been received as that. The idealisation of gender complementarity belongs to the men; the women made the best they could out of it. Maybe the women’s small critical remarks of the asymmetries in the gender complementarity model gradually fizzled out? The times were definitely on the men’s side in a period where it was both ideologically and economically arranged for married women to stay at home. The women adjusted to realities and also complied through their sensible choice of marriage partners and because of the benefits they gained. For many women of this generation, marriage and establishing your own home was the main route to freedom and independence from their parents. Ingrid, who spent her youth working in her mother’s shop, felt that she finally was set free when she married: ‘No chance, back then you got married, and then you had a man to take care of you. Helga, the farmer girl who married a hardworking and successful contractor and who helped out with the company’s accounting at the kitchen table, says as she looks back: ‘At least I have tried to be loyal and kind... I feel like I have stood by him all these years.
The lack of enthusiasm is understandable in the light of their double and more ambivalent gender identifications, including the split between boring husbands and fun fathers. It may also be seen in light of women’s double burden of work that gradually found its way into the gen?der complementarity model. The vast majority of the women remained housewives after they married, but most of them kept occasional parttime jobs outside the family if it was necessary or compatible with their responsibility for the family, and if they had their husbands’ consent. A few of the women we interviewed had worked outside the family most of their lives. Agnes, who worked as a doctor, could hire nannies and housemaids to make things go around, but this came to an end when she divorced and drastically had to reduce her spending. Another example was the working-class woman Karen, who kept her paid work after she married because she liked it and because the family needed the extra money. Only in Karen’s family do we find a husband mentioned for taking part in the household work, for instance, by making dinner on the days Karen did the ‘mommy shift’ (evening/night work). But she made sure she neglected nothing just because she had chosen to keep her job. The minute she was home from work, the potatoes were on the stove and the wash bucket was at the ready.
Even though they agreed to become and stay housewives, the women are much more critical in retrospect of this way of organising life than the men. It is hard to imagine that their husbands would not have been aware of this discontent, but the men in our sample never mention it. This may indicate that the men’s idealisation of their wives could also be a retrospective account where idealisation works as a defence against accepting the problems their life projects ran into.
It is the women who grew up middle-class and those who received or had wanted to receive higher education who most openly express their discontent in the interviews. Some of them felt overqualified and frustrated. ‘I was of no use at anything, says Dagny, who was not able to use her law degree in the small town where her husband got a job. Ellen, who had to postpone her strong dream of an education first when her father died when she was 16 and then because the school was taken over by the Nazis during the war, finally gave in when she married: ‘ then it was natural to quit, and to be at home—that was as it should be’. But in hindsight she thinks it would have been better for her to get out more:
You use yourself differently than when you’re at home, you know ... Yes, a little shut in. I don’t know if my children really benefited that much or understood why
I was at home. All these years, I was always at home when they came home, and so on. I don’t think that.... , if I had been out, I think they would’ve been just fine. I think I’ve done a lot more for them, really, than I had needed to do. And that I don’t... I don’t think they have noticed or appreciated it. (Ellen, b. 1923)
Clara, who became a nurse and divorced before her child was born, is clear on the advantages this difficult choice of divorce gave her: it was a challenge to be a single mother in the 1950s, but it also meant that she had to learn a lot of the things that a husband would otherwise have done. She believes this has made her very independent, as well as allowing her to travel as much as she wanted—‘and I hadn’t done that if I had been in a marriage’. Many of the women from farmer or working-class families, who had less education or educational aspirations, also say that they would have liked to experience the world a bit more or to have learnt more. Some say that their husbands worked too much and were at home too little. Some reproach themselves that they were not curious or courageous enough, or that they were too frugal all their lives. There are some unsettled matters here, but it is important to be aware of the retrospective perspective: at the time of the interview, they knew how radically women’s lives had changed in their daughters’ generation. In the end, the vast majority of them conclude that they have been very lucky in life and have no reason to complain. They used the skill sets they had learnt from their mothers and became effective housewives—although some of them felt that there was little to do in a small apartment in town compared with the bigger rural households that their mothers had been in charge of.