Equality versus Difference

None of the women in this generation are negative towards gender equality. For the majority who had negative or bland relationships with their mothers, their feelings merge with the discourse of women’s rights and modern gender equality politics. For those with more positive relationships, it is rather the compassion with their subdued mothers that feeds into their feminist engagement, as we saw with Olaug, who described how her preoccupation with women’s rights started when she as a seven-yearold saw her mother wear herself out for the family. Most of the women in this generation say that they did not care about gender equality questions as young girls; the engagement came during the 1970s, after they were married and had children. Their positive attitude is not surprising when taking into account how little gender difference appears to be part of their own grown-up gender construction. Why shouldn’t individuals be equals? The views of the women in this generation vary from a radical stand for women’s rights and against individual discrimination to a general support of gender equality politics addressed at a group level, and to a more pragmatic individual approach where justice comes second to necessity. Whether the fight for gender equality should take place mainly inside or outside the family is also a dividing line. Educational level combined with their experiences in marriage influence their stand here.

The overall pattern is that it is the women who share on an equal basis, or who divorced in frustration at not getting the husband to share, who take the radical stand. Many of them are class travellers. They all received higher education and were often radicalised as students. Few of them have been directly politically active; rather, it is the injustices in their daily lives at work and in the family they address, and they have been consciously communicating these lessons to their daughters. Olaug, for instance, has taken care not to make her daughter too good at housework in order to prevent her being stuck with this in her later relationships with men. Hanne says that she and her daughter Hilde fight the women’s struggle all the time’ in the family. In this struggle they have constructed themselves as a new kind of women, different not only from their mothers, but also from traditional norms of femininity. This gives some problems with keeping up the solidarity with women as a group, an issue that will become much more pronounced but also much less guilt-ridden in the youngest generation. As middle-aged, they still identify with women’s rights, but say that they are not as radical today as they used to be. Some of them admit that they became a bit extreme, for instance, in insisting on sharing everything according to a ruler.

Other women in this generation, with or without higher education, but with more traditional gender arrangements in their families, or those who chose to stay in marriages with mixed practices tend towards formulating their support in terms of gender quality politics: it is important and desirable to share the work both within and outside of the family, but this should be applied neither too mechanically nor in a way that ignores taking into account that there are some gender differences in physical strength. Equality in work and care may coexist with gender differences in other areas. Solveig says she actually appreciates men who still open doors and pull out the chair for a woman, and that she cannot see why gender equality should be incompatible with that. Turid and Astrid, who live with a traditional gender arrangement in the family, say that they are interested in gender equality mainly professionally in their work as teachers. Those who are least engaged in gender equality—but not against it—are a group of women with little further education, who share domestic work fairly equally in practice, but without making it a gender issue. They think jobs and work in the home should be divided fairly between men and women, but since they find this is largely already the case, it is nothing to make a big deal about. Gender equality is most important in relation to work and in society at large, but they do not see the point in struggling against gender differences in other areas of life and they distance themselves from what they see as exaggerated gender policies. Like her mother Borghild, Berit is the most sceptical among the women in her generation:

I’ve never been a feminist... this gender equality business. But I can agree that there are many things in society I think that... That revolt that happened a few years back, yes, at the beginning of the seventies, I thought that it was maybe ... if not exaggerated then a bit much at times, that... it went a bit too far, to put it like that, in many ways. (Berit, b. 1949)

Among the men in the middle generation, the distaste for the Women’s Movement is more pronounced. We already heard about Helge’s bitterness about how his wife’s engagement in the Women’s Movement destroyed their marriage. Ragnar is also quite upset on behalf of ‘traditional women . In his account we see a defence for the equity he finds inherent in the old gender-complimentary division of work, as well as an emotional reaction towards the aggressive femininity that emerges as a contrast to the mild and kind motherliness of the feminine carer:

I remember in the worst redstocking[1] period, we went to parties and there were quite a few women in my wife’s circle of friends who were redstockings. And we started talking, and I told them exactly what I thought of them: I think you are ruthless. You’re making these great Norwegian women, who have given their all for their families and society, you’re making them feel really inferior. Just because they haven’t worked outside the home. And that made me furious. That these know-it-all redstocking girls could brand an entire generation like that. (Ragnar, b. 1936)

The men who shared childcare and domestic work and were not divorced also thought the feminist rhetoric of the 1970s was over the top. Their distaste for radical feminism also has to do with their preoccupation with preserving sexual and psychological gender differences. The idea of equality in sharing the work within and outside of the family in a fair way is a much more acceptable idea than feminism and women’s rights. In contrast to the women, educational level does not interfere much with their standpoint on gender equality; rather, it is the practice in their own family that guides their view, in addition to a relatively close match with their parental identifications. Those who had positive relationships with their mothers are in most cases positive to the idea of gender equality, although their practice may lag behind, and those who have daughters are even more so. The men who have traditional arrangements in their marriage have the least to say about gender equality. The upper middle-class men Ragnar and Magne say that this is not an issue that engages them much or that difference is exactly what they find attractive about the female gender. This emphasis on sexual difference does not necessarily lead to a negative stand to homosexuality. Two men, both with traditional gender arrangements in their families, make references to homosexuality. One is Magne, who says that he believes more diverse sexualities will become a normal thing in the times to come:[2]

Gender roles are more or less indistinguishable now. There aren’t housewives who stay at home and the roles at work are mixed as well, so why not sexually too? So I don’t disregard the possibility that they’re having sexual interaction with both boys and girls. And I’ll say that’s almost natural, the way they grow up today. Im not saying it’s necessarily natural, natural is a relative term, but naturally in relation to your environment and the times you live in ... You cant judge, I think it’s got a lot to do with our environment. That’s why I really like having diversity ... What Im trying to say is that things are getting more equal. But a lot of what makes a woman attractive, and now Im talking about myself, is that she’s different from me. (Magne, b. 1938)

The men who have mixed practices in their marriages think that sharing housework is OK and they are quite positive towards gender equality in the workplace. The working-class men Geir and Jan feel that companies with no women are ‘old-fashioned’ and that men who cannot bear that women surpass them in position and salary are pathetic. However, they react negatively towards the idea that gender equality should make women into men, including the negative aspects of masculinity. In addition, the middle-class men who want to reform masculinity by embracing more feminine qualities are aware of the danger that too much equality could threaten the difference that makes women attractive to them and talk about women’s biology as special and unique. Only the two still-married men who share work and care with their wives are unconditionally in favour of gender equality. They support women’s rights (although they also share the aversion against what they see as the exaggerated feminism of the 1970s and 1980s) and want their wives to be partners in all areas of life. Trygve thinks that too many women have a double burden today because many men are shirking their responsibilities. Willy says that there should not be any ‘class difference’ within the family. But even for these gender equality-embracing men, the worry is that too much similarity may come at the expense of femininity, romance and sexuality. The discomfort of being the criticised gender, the effort it takes for some of them to follow up housework in practice, and the importance they attach to sexual gender difference make almost all men in this generation somewhat awkward in the way they address the issue of gender equality, even though they support it in principle, especially at work or on behalf of their daughters. Gender does not represent an economic role or a moral order as for their fathers, but a fact of life that must also be taken into account in the struggle for gender equality. The men’s road to gender equality could initially be said to have been less personal, for instance, more connected to gender equality politics at their jobs. However, their increased presence in childcare and their experience of strong attachments to their children gradually also gave them a personal engagement. This seems to be the most important emotional link to gender equality for men in this generation, but it came later than that for the women. There is a time lag, but also partly a different agenda: for the men, gender equality is a care project, while for the women, it is a project of sharing more equally both care and domestic work. For the radical women, it also entails being involved against the sexualisation and objectification of the female body. For the men, the experience of being more actively participating fathers raises the question of gender equality from the men’s perspective, especially in connection with divorce and child custody. In the account of Egil, we can see how the intensity increases as he moves from talking about women’s rights at work to men’s rights after divorce:

Girls can do a lot of jobs just as well as boys, and I guess I think there should be gender equality in that regard and that there should be equal pay for equal work.

I think that. But I don’t think one should strive towards becoming the same. I think there should be differences between boys and girls. And if we’re talking about these things, what annoys me the most about the things to do with gender equality: those girls whove worked hard to show the places they’ve been treated unfairly, but they’ve probably been aware of places where men have been treated unfairly too. But I don’t think many women have fought for that, in the situation of separation and divorce. It’s clear who the loser is there. I don’t think many of those working with gender equality have cared about that. (Egil, b. 1949)

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  • [1] In Scandinavia the word ‘redstocking’ is often used as a popular and sometimes condescendingreference to feminist activists in the 1970s.
  • [2] The other is Arne (b. 1930), who espouses the opposite view by saying that he thinks that gaymen are not ‘proper men’.
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