Born around the Second World War: Struggling with Gender Equality

With Monica Rudberg Men's Work and Women's Service

Well, he earnt the money and she spent it [laughs]. Because she never worked, she stayed at home. Most did, back then. But she was the one who took care of everything. She paid the bills and did the shopping. I guess that was pretty common at the time. Especially that one person was at home and the other was at work from early morning till the late afternoon.

Q: Did she have the most say in how to bring up the children?

I guess so. I cant really say, because she was at home and we went to school and came home again, and she was there when we came home and he had already gone when we left; when we got up, he had already gone. And he came home after we did. So automatically it’s the one staying at home who took care of that, yes.

Q: Did you have a relationship with your father or was he a little distant?

Not distant, I’d say, pretty normal. Not that we’ve had any sort of, what do you call it, affectionate relationship. (Arne, b. 1930)

© The Author(s) 2017 H.B. Nielsen, Feeling Gender,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-349-95082-9_6

Arne, born in 1930, grew up urban working class. He is the son of Anton, who dedicated himself fully to his work in order to provide for his wife and children. Anton himself grew up at a smallholding and moved to the city, where he started working as a carpenter shortly after the First World War. From Arne and the others of the middle generation in our sample, we learn how they as children experienced the refined gender complementarity model promoted by their fathers and ambiguously adapted to by their mothers, and what traces it left in their own conceptions and feelings of gender. The main bulk of the 33 women and men we interviewed from this generation are born between 1940 and 1953; seven are born before the Second World War. Most of them grew up in working- class or lower middle-class families in cities, while some came from the upper middle class. A few grew up at farms or smallholdings and describe much of the same rural work patterns between men and women as the eldest generation did. But even in these cases the division urban/rural holds much less significance in this generation than it did in the previous one.

In the cities, the provider/carer model led to more absent fathers and more present mothers, as in Arne’s case. Most of the informants describe the division of work and care in terms of fathers who worked long hours and then fell asleep on the couch with the newspaper over their heads. Some fathers left in the morning before the children were awake, or left after dinner to tend to a second job or to help friends and family with construction work. Social class does not add much variation to this general picture. Dagny’s daughter Drude (b. 1940) remembers that the whole family tiptoed around when her organist father rehearsed. They knew he needed peace and concentration to work. In this case the father worked from home a good deal, but he never took part in any kind of housework or carework and was often served his breakfast in bed. The children of this generation remember their fathers mainly from holidays and weekends when they took them camping, went on walks in the forest or took them to sporting events. This is more fondly remembered by the women than by the men. The women remember how joyful these occasions were compared to their mothers’ preoccupation with her tedious housework. The men stress that these events, nice as they might have been, did not make the fathers sufficiently present in their lives.

In the implementation of the provider/carer model, the work, toil and economic contributions of women—which were stressed by the eldest generation when talking about the families they grew up in—are transformed to female service and consumption, whereas work and money belong to the male world. The distinction between men’s work outside the family and women’s responsibilities at home may resemble what we heard from the upper middle-class families in the previous generation (with fathers sleeping on the couch after dinner and mothers in charge of the children’s upbringing). Supported by the improved conditions of living and the family politics of the welfare state in the post-war period, this family model also became the normal one in Norway from the midtwentieth century in working-class and lower middle-class families (see Chap. 4). However, the stay-at-home mother figure who emerges in the narratives of the middle generation is rarely the educated middle- class mother of the older generation who had maids to help her with the household tasks, but rather is a busy housewife with a limited horizon. As we have already seen in the previous chapter, only a few of the mothers were actually exclusively housewives all their lives, yet most of them are described by their children mainly in this capacity. The pro- vider/carer model seems to have led to such a strongly male-connotated concept of ‘work’ that women’s work became invisible, even when it was done outside the home and paid. Most of the informants say that their fathers did not do anything in the household, some laugh at the very thought that he should, and others remember with some resentment that he never lifted a finger at home and even had to do less than the children. Some of the informants from working-class families with fulltime working mothers briefly mention that their fathers helped out a bit, but what they did in the household is not described further. Kirsten (b. 1953), a working-class woman and the daughter of Karen who took the ‘mommy-shifts’ (evening/night work), does not mention in her interview that her father cooked dinner as her mother did, but rather recalls how her working mother prioritised and spent too much time on the housework. Gunnar, the only man in the eldest generation who said he took part in the childcare, is described by his son Geir as a father who worked around the clock, but Geir also admits that due to his father’s special personality, he was always like ‘a magnet on children . Thus, to some extent it may have been the case that the father’s care was also made invisible within this strict frame of male work and female care.

In the provider/carer family the work of children disappears too, not only symbolically as with women’s work and with men’s care, but also in reality. Children helping out is irrelevant to a father who works outside home and is to a large extent unnecessary for a mother who has all day to do her housework in a small dwelling in the city. Also in rural areas child labour lost legitimacy during the period of the middle generation. Those who grew up on a farm still see the parents’ work as an expression of skill, but we hear much less enthusiastic reports about helping out and learning from parents than was the case in the previous generation (see also Slettan 1984; Thorsen 1993a). The work of children disappears both for material, political and educational reasons (cf. Chap. 4), and as an effect of the provider/carer organisation of the family that became dominant.

This disappearance creates a generational paradox in the transmittance of the gender order: even though the gendered division of work in the family was much stronger in the childhood of this generation compared to the previous one, they are not themselves as children brought into it as their own parents were when they grew up. As children, most of the girls, but to some degree also the boys, often did some simple chores like setting the table, peeling the potatoes, washing up or taking out the rubbish. Most of the women remember this with resentment, while a few of the men are in retrospect more appreciative because it gave them better qualifications in housework than their fathers had. Children of full-time working mothers or single mothers had to do more, but it did not represent or resemble the transference of skills that the previous generation experienced and talked about with pride for them either. Thus, there is a rift in the social bond between fathers and sons, and mothers and daughters. Children are not part of their same-sex parent’s world as they were in the previous generation. This means less gendering and more individualisation. The obligation in the previous generation, especially for daughters, to put the needs of their families first also disappears with the generation born after 1940. Seen from a generational perspective, the gendered division of work and care in the family by itself contributed to processes of individualisation that undermined the very same gender order. Most of the urban girls and boys attended gender-segregated classes in primary school, but this practice was discontinued in around 1960. So, in spite of still-existing gender-discriminatory practices (more housework for girls, for instance), the housewife-mothers, as well as the teachers of this time, increasingly did not see boys and girls, but children. The focus was redirected to child development and away from conveying norms for behaviour (Rudberg 1983; Myhre 1994; Nielsen 1998).

Education in this generation went from being a privilege of the few to becoming more of a matter of course, as shown by the fact that half of both the men and women in our sample continued to middle school. But there are also visible class and gender differences with regard to prosperity in school and the choice of further education. In general, the women in our sample did better in school and were less dependent on their social background for educational success than the men. Few of the women, however, had any clear goals and direction when they finished school, but since the educational system was there at hand, extended and free, and their parents urged them to get more education, they drifted into further education in a highly gender-conventional way. Ellen from the eldest generation, who had to give up her intense wish of an education, has a daughter, Elsa, a middle-class girl born in 1948, who drifted into library school by using ‘the elimination method in the occupational handbook. She had hardly been to a library, but thought the subject looked OK and then it only took three years. Martha’s daughter[1] dropped out of high school and never got an education; however, as an adult she worked her way up to a very good career. Johanna, who loved doing maths so strongly but never considered it possible to pursue an education, had a daughter, Jorun, born in 1943 at the farm, whose main motivation to finish high school was that it meant that she could move away from the village: ‘it was all about going to school, then you could get away . When she later chose to become a teacher, it was ‘completely unconscious and without consciousness . Most of the women in the middle generation describe their choice of education as more or less accidental, and for many of them the most important consideration was to find a school in the same town as where their fiance went to school. The vast majority of the women in our sample became teachers, nurses, librarians or secretaries, mostly because these jobs were easy to combine with family obligations: ‘I don’t think I dreamt of anything but getting married and having children, and to be a teacher, Helgas daughter Hanne (b. 1947) says. Turid, a working-class girl, also born in 1947, recalls: ‘It was important to get through your education first, and then you thought, you really wanted a family.’ A few of the women experienced serious life crises connected to illness when they were young, and these women talk about a more serious and reflected choice of education.

The men did less well in school, but in contrast to their fathers, they do not deem school irrelevant. They give interpersonal and psychological explanations for their failures in forms of insensitive teachers and bullying, or blame themselves for being too lazy. Nevertheless, since the possibilities in the job market were many in the 1960s, most of the men made satisfying careers through climbing the ladder in the companies they worked for. Their choices of trade were no less gender-conventional than the women’s educational choices, as all of them, except two, went into technical jobs or sales/business. This kind of career, made possible in a context where theoretical qualifications were seen as increasingly important but still attainable through practice due to an expanding job market and new industries (for instance, the developing IT industry), seems to have encouraged the emergence of a new narrative about masculinity and schooling, ‘the myth of effortless achievement’ (Epstein 1998). They made their way anyway and often better than those swots who had better grades in school (female as well as male nerds). They redefine the detours they had to take because of bad grades as strengths and a more creative and non-conformist way to success. Thus, in the educational trajectories of this generation we see a mixture of new individualism and old gender scripts, which also characterised their childhoods.

  • [1] Martha’s daughter was not interviewed, but Martha’s granddaughter Mari was. Information aboutMartha’s daughter is thus gleaned from the interviews with her mother and her daughterrespectively.
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