The Battle of Gender Equality

The middle generation established their own families in the 1960s or earlier, before the Women’s Movement or modern gender equality politics gave words and direction to the discontent they felt with their own parents’ model of gender complementarity. But that a mental change had already taken place is seen in the fact that none of the women imagined becoming full-time housewives as young women, but wanted to combine family and work. They did so by choosing jobs where this balance was easier to accomplish (teacher or nurse), working part-time or staying at home only when their children were young. They wanted to combine a life inside and outside of the family, and they also wanted a more open and equal relationship with their children than they had experienced with their own mothers. Many of the women remember some pressure from parents and in-laws, who were alarmed by their returning to work after maternity leave and who feared the negative consequences for the children. The fact that the women ignored this critique indicates the presence of a new generational project from the women, even though it was not yet formulated in terms of gender, and even less in feminist terms. It appears not to have included much reflection on gender relations in the family either. As we saw in the previous section, the women’s emotional reactions to their childhood family included negative feelings towards the housewife-mother, not towards the working father. This may have made them initially blind towards the fact that a change in the female role in the family also presupposed a parallel change of the male role. The question of what husbands thought about their wives taking up paid work—a pertinent question in the previous generation—does not make sense anymore. The men we interviewed did not seem to have reflected much upon what consequences their wives’ employment would have for their own situation. Many of them said in the interviews that they knew they wanted to be closer to their children than their own fathers had been and to contribute to an emotionally better upbringing. However, this is seldom formulated either as a wish to share the work at home in general or to engage less in work outside the family.

Although the life project of the middle generation is less defined than that of the previous generation, it does have a clear direction, especially for the women but also to some degree for the men, in the respect that it moved towards combining work and care within and outside of the family. This life project met the increasing need for female labour in the expanding welfare state in the 1970s and 1980s, and, as a consequence, gradually also the need for men’s presence in the home. Thus, also in this generation we can see an historical moment where the biographically formed subjectivities, including a specific way to feel about gender, and the structural and cultural conditions reinforced each other to create social change in gender relations. The political structures in the form of kindergartens and family policies adjusted to the dual-career family came as a result of this change during the 1980s and 1990s.[1] This generation started their own families in a political and personal ‘void’—they knew what they did not want, but not exactly what they wanted or what this would imply in practice. Lacking clear alternative family models or new family politics, many of the young couples of this generation soon drifted into a relatively traditional gender practice—albeit with the important change that the women did work on a more steady basis outside the family than their mothers had done and the men did engage more in the daily life of their children than their fathers had done. There are very few men in this generation who do not know how to change a nappy or cook a simple dinner; a huge change from their parents’ generation. Still, the insufficiency of this arrangement, especially when it came to the women’s orientation towards combining work and care and the fact that women, through their paid work, became less financially dependent on the men contributed to a high number of divorces in this generation. In our sample more than a third of the 33 parents were divorced when we met them in 1991.

The majority of the women in our sample had had full-time or close to full-time paid work their entire adult lives, interrupted only by relatively short maternity leave or breaks to pursue further education. This also applies to the wives of the men we interviewed. Some stayed home for a number of years while their children were small, but returned to full-time or part-time work when the youngest child started school. None of the men stayed home, but two middle-class fathers, Trygve and the husband of Vigdis, worked reduced hours in order to take care of their children. In all the women we see a rather strong work identity and a concomitant devaluing of housework. A good deal of the women say they hate housework and that their house is a mess, whereas others say they like some aspects of it, for instance, cooking, gardening and interior decoration, and see these activities as relaxing and de-stressing. From being a female work skill, cooking and other home activities have attained the character of hobbies or creative practices.

There is no clear model of family practice in our middle generation. This is telling in itself: the missing model reflects a state of transition and new ways of doing things are learnt along the way, sometimes at high cost. In an historical period where women entered the job market on a large scale and neither clear family models nor explicit norms for how to organise family life were available, it also makes sense that practices were shaped by individual trajectories and experimentation. The majority of the men and women in this generation describe mixed practices in their marriages, with led to much discontent and eventually to divorces.[2] All interviewees with ‘mixed practices’ are born after 1940 and most of them disidentified with the same-sex parent. In these families the woman works on a regular basis outside the home, full-time or part-time, but is also seen as the one who has the upper hand with care and housework. The men take part in the children’s upbringing and describe themselves as much more present than their own fathers were—they talk with their kids daily, are active in driving them back and forth to leisure activities and are also often engaged as coaches. They have different levels of ‘helping-out’ behaviour in the house—some have to be activated by their wives while others have predefined tasks like vacuum cleaning or washing the floors, in addition to gardening, tending to the car and repairing the house. Quite a few men think that they ought to help out or be present more than they actually are, but find it difficult to do it both because they are very engaged in their jobs and because their wives seem so much more competent. The mixed pattern crosses social class and political views. Per, who is modern and politically radical middle class, has a close relationship with his son, but with regard to housework he admits that ‘traditionally my wife has been much more responsible than me. She is better at pure logistics'. The working-class man Geir, the son of Gunnar who had the special ‘knack for caring for children , says that he has been a very involved father to his three sons—from getting up at night with the babies and later paying close attention to their sports activities. He has no objections to taking part in the housework and he finds it quite fair to share as both he and his wife are tired when they come home from work. In practice, however, it is actually his wife who mostly cooks dinner, but from the defensive way he describes this, it is still clear that the norm has changed:

I admit that Im not always that good, but sometimes I get it together ... I think it’s to do with habit. Usually we come home at the same time. Then she usually heads for the kitchen to start making dinner. And I don’t react until Im asked to fry the meat or set the table or something like that. Then I get up and do it. Maybe those are things I could’ve done without being asked ... When it comes to food, when it’s things I know how to do, it’s fine. But I absolutely hate things like cleaning the floors and vacuuming. I can’t remember the last time I cleaned the floors. I’ve passed the task of vacuuming over to Glenn [his son]. (Geir, b. 1948)

The discrepancy between new norms and old practices results in a good deal of what has been described as the ‘in principle men’ of this generation (Jalmert 1984): men who agree that sharing is the right thing to do, but who, unfortunately, do not find sufficient time to do it. The image offered by the Norwegian psychologist Hanne Haavind (Haavind 1987), who investigated work division in families with small children in Norway in around 1980, rings true for most of the families in our sample in this generation: modern fathers have the skills to do all kind of household tasks, but it is up to their wives how much they actually do and ‘everything she has not explicitly delegated to him falls on her’ (Haavind 1984a, b).[3] This also applies to the men who have invested in developing ‘feminine values’ in themselves. Maybe the combination between closeness to their mothers and their attachment to gender difference makes them play both sides? Half of the men who talk about mixed practices are divorced and explain the divorce in terms of both practical and emotional problems. Egil, whose father Einar thought of divorce as an act of irresponsibility, says:

Well, you could say it became very, I felt that it became pretty tiring after a while. It was really rigid, and I guess it has to be when you have, you always have something to do, you have all kinds of commitments. You don’t take time for yourself and each other. (Egil, b. 1949)

These men have experienced conflicts with their former wives about the children after the divorce and regret that they did not fight harder to get custody. They do, however, think that they have managed to preserve reasonably good relations with their children after the divorce.

Among the women who talk about mixed practices in their marriages, we find even more divorces. Some of them give lively accounts of ‘in principle men’, like the middle-class woman Jorun, who recalls how her husband was lying on the sofa reading Marilyn French instead of doing the dishes. The discontent with their husbands’ lack of participation was clearly boosted by their educational experiences and later the feminist movement. Most of them drifted rather incidentally into gender-conventional educations as young women, but the educational experience itself made them discover a larger world than just their own family. When their children were born, they gradually realised that their lives were becoming like those of their mothers and they reacted with shock and divorce. They describe a process where they became more and more conscious of the situation, ‘untilI got so conscious that I got divorced. Nina says that she experienced how ‘the centre of gravity suddenly changed suddenly you were properly trapped. This became particularly clear for her after she and her husband moved to a new town because of his job:

In a way I noticed there that we weren’t equal ... I had better results from university than he did, had more friends than he did, I was the extrovert one,

I was the one making friends for us. There he was suddenly the important one in town, while I was at home and the only thing I had to look forward to was him getting home from work and eating dinner ... That was the first time in my life that I felt... that I no longer was master of my own life. It was a truly terrible time. (Nina, b. 1943)

Nina’s account illustrates how the gendered division of work loses legitimacy when it cannot be connected to complementary skill sets. The orientation towards having a family and the romantic dreams that restricted their choice of education when they were young was not about becoming a housewife.

On each side of this ‘normal chaos of love’ (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 1995) we find some families with a more traditional organisation of work and care, and some families who share more equally. Few in these two groups are divorced. The men in the traditional families identify very much with their work and career, and they hardly participate in the housework. Their workload has also limited how much time they could spend with their children. Ragnar, who is upper middle class, says that perhaps he could have had a bit more contact with his son, but ‘there’s nothing that grates between us ... Absolutely not... He is doing his thing and Im doing mine’. He believes there should be clear agreements between the spouses before having children about who will stay at home and take care of them. He is not against women taking up paid work, but since he was the one who made the most money, it made more sense that his wife was the one to stay at home. The women from middle-class families with similar traditional arrangements are strikingly less content with the situ?ation. They are all full-time working women who are either married to men whose work implies frequent absences from home or who have not succeeded in making their husbands take their share. They have resigned themselves to the state of affairs even though it makes them very overworked and tired at times, and they have experienced intense conflict between their own career and family obligations. In some ways this family arrangement may be seen as a repetition of the middle-class families with educated and working mothers from the previous generation, but with the important difference that housemaids are not around anymore. Turid, who is upper middle class, says: ‘I think it has been working much because of me.’ Her daughter Tonje finds the unjust arrangement ridiculous and Turid tends to agree: ‘I do see that it’s not right that one person sort of goes clear of everything ... Imagine if Tonje married a man like that—it would never work! Clara’s daughter Cecilie, who has the same upper- middle class profession as her husband, struggles hard to combine job and family:

Work takes a massive toll mentally, it does. Then it can be hard to get home and sense ... that the children demand just as much. And a husband who maybe doesn’t understand that you’re tired and have to do most of the work at home, right. Even if he probably understands, but he doesn’t see the problem, because he also has enough on his plate. (Cecilie, b. 1944)

In the few examples we have of working-class families with a traditional organisation of work, both men and women seem to be more content. In these cases it was the woman who wanted to stay at home with the children and the husband agreed to this priority even if it meant a somewhat lower standard of living. In their own experience it is not an exact repetition of their parents’ model: Arne says that he has a closer relationship with his children than his father had with him, even though it is his wife who had most to do with their upbringing. Solveig emphasises that she has not been as occupied with her own home as her mother was, but has taken part in the larger environment in her community, for instance, by being a volunteer in child and youth work for many years. So, in the midst of reproduction, there is also change.

The informants who talk about a more radical gender arrangement share both paid work and care work on a relatively equal basis (and we here generously include the cases where the men’s cooking may most often be for special occasions or of a lower standard than the wife’s— Helge, for instance, characterises his cooking as ‘dad food). The women in these families have strong work identities and most of them disidenti- fied with their own mothers.

For the men, the identifications are more varied.The focus of the men who shared more equally is first and foremost their children, and this is not described in terms of duty, but as a positive investment. They experience good and close relationships with their children today:

It has been very stimulating and interesting to be a stay-at-home dad. And nice. Of course it was terribly tiring when they were young. There’s only two years between the oldest and the twins. So there were days when I didn’t have time to read the paper. But... I have that... I think it has often been more fun to be with the kids than with adults ... It is important not to create anxiety and guilt in the kids. I feel like I’ve got three children who are cheerful and happy and easy to be around, and they haven’t created any problems so far. (Trygve, b. 1919)

None of these ‘new fathers’ talk much about their jobs; it seems that their wives at least in periods have been busier in the world outside the family than them. A combination of experiences in their own childhood and a later life event appears to have been decisive for the choice of becoming an involved father. Trygve says that he would not have had the self-confidence to make this choice as a 30-year-old. Some of them experienced difficult childhoods that fostered in them a strong desire to give their own children a better psychological environment. This has probably made them receptive to grasp later chances in life, primarily in the form of wives who wanted an equal sharing of the care work and an economic situation and a modest lifestyle that made it possible for the couple to choose untraditionally. Trygve was also influenced by the radical discourse of psychoanalysis in the 1930s. Another case is Willy, who is lower middle class and remarried and became a father at a mature age. His second wife suggested that he became the principal care person for their youngest child since she had night shifts. He describes this with gratitude towards his wife, as a gift she gave him, and also how it boosted his skills:

I had taken care of the other children too. But not quite as consciously and wholeheartedly as I did with Vegard. Then I really consciously went for it. Kept her away from the care work. And I cared for Vegard and I washed diapers and I cleaned him and even mended his clothes. For 17th of May [the national day of Norway] I even made him a new suit. Everything like that. (Willy, b. 1925)

The last hands-on father is Helge, the son of the upper-class boy Harald who chose to become a farmer. Helge, who is upper middle class himself, resembles the few men in the previous generation who identified positively with both parents and were closer to their children than other men of their generation. However, Helge criticises his own parents’ gender complementary marriage and says that from early on he knew that he did not want to marry a ‘house-keeper, a way to describe his parents’ marriage. This decision was then radicalised when he married a woman who became a feminist around the time of the birth of their children. While she was busy with feminist politics, he stayed home and took care of the kids:

Well, she was, she lived in so many milieus. She was so engaged in so many other things. And was out flapping in all directions and then it was me who was home to care for the children and the house too, when I came home from work.

I worked all the time. And we had a nanny. When we came home we made dinner and tended to the children and put them to bed and so on. I did most of it, I’d say ... But then Women’s Liberation came along and then everything turned around ... She thought she had sacrificed herself terribly to be home with ... I thought that was completely grotesque. (Helge, b. 1938)

This marriage ended in divorce. Helge appreciated getting rid of all the nagging and he is glad his new wife has managed to become liberated without being a torment to others. When he met her, he felt the joy of ‘embracing a woman who is a woman and not a Protestant. Helge blames the Women’s Movement, but does not regret that it led him in to a different kind of father role. For him, as with the majority of men in this generation, the increased presence in childcare also led to an experience of strong attachments to the children and to a questioning of the mothers’ custody priority in case of divorce. Helge achieved an agreement with his wife of shared custody.

The stories of the women with more radical patterns of sharing are less dramatic or spectacular. It is not a single biographical event that led to their practice, but rather a gradual development that came with their increased engagement in education and work, and their partner’s positive attitude to sharing. They describe the sharing at home either as something principally important for them (middle class) or as a matter of practicalities (working class). These women also experience conflicts between work and family, but more in terms of feeling guilty for maybe having let the children pay the price for a dual-career family: ‘ Torn in all directions. Feeling inadequate. Feeling guilty is the way Vigdis summarises it, the only woman in this generational sample who had a husband who worked part-time in order to take his share at home.

The gender battle in this generation reflects the gradual change of what gender meant for men and women over the course of their lifetimes. For the women, it was an often paradoxical appropriation of autonomy, towards more individuality and less gender. For the men, it was an often reluctant appropriation of intimacy, but without giving up the importance of gender difference. These different trajectories created much emotional and practical turmoil for this generation, but it is worth noting that the experience of divorce radicalised both genders’ support of gender equality. For all in this generation, the battle of gender equality also shaped them as a different sort of gendered parents to their children.

  • [1] Family research indicates that the change in Scandinavian fathers’ participation in childcare camefrom the 1980s onwards (Brandth and Kvande 2003; Lorentzen 2012). Thus, our middle generation who had children in around 1970 represents a generation in between traditional and modernfatherhood. The mixed practices we find in this generation in our sample probably reflect thistransition in daily life. That a transition took place during these years is also reflected in the statistics of how many people in different cohorts supported the idea of equal sharing of housework andchildcare at the time of our interviews (see Hansen and Slagsvold 2012).
  • [2] It is important to remember that what we know from the interviews are the subjective experiencesof the general arrangement in the family and whether it is felt as satisfying or not—we do not havedata on the actual division of work. It is also important to keep in mind that the men and thewomen are not couples (see Chap. 3). It is an established fact that men and women report differently how housework is shared, both tending to overestimate their own contribution (Kjeldstadand Lappegard 2009; Dworking and O’Sullivan 2007).
  • [3] Holter and Aarseth offer another interpretation of women’s activity and men’s laziness with regardto housework in this generation where everybody agrees that work should be shared equally: it is lessthreatening to masculine identity to say that one is lazy or does not have the time than to displayone’s lack of skills and submission to the still-dominating female standard of how houseworkshould be done (Holter and Aarseth 1993: 164).
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