Changing Patterns in Gender Identities and Gendered Subjectivities in the Women

The gender identity of the oldest generation of women seems to be more complex than that of the men of the same generation. The women identify with both their mothers and their fathers—the mother’s competence in the household and the father’s knowledge, generosity and connection to a bigger world—but the sociocultural situation does not leave any space for the development of their paternal identifications. This identification is, however, not split off and disowned; it gives them a sense of inequality in their lives and a longing for something else. Their gendered subjectivity appears to be more traditionally feminine in being adaptive to other’s needs and not strong on autonomy. In spite of their longing for a bigger world, many of them retreat from using the few possibilities they actually had to pursue it. In this way their gendered subjectivity fits well with the complimentary gender order, but there are tensions in their gender identity, which are connected to their experience of inequality. The main axis of tension in the women of this generation is found between their double gender identity, their single-gendered subjectivity and their restricted sociocultural possibilities.

The middle generation disowns traditional femininity and identify with culturally defined masculine values in terms of rationality, independence, education and work, but embraces these as degendered qualities. At the same time, their increasing individual exposure in the public sphere as young women combined with their disidentification with their mothers add to their low self-esteem as women. This is seen both with regard to their bodies, the desperate need to be popular with boys and the paradoxical willingness as young women to prioritise the heterosexual relationship in pursuing the independence they want. The problem for this generation is their still quite traditional single-gendered subjectivity: they seek autonomy in the heterosexual relationships and they are dependent on being validated in intimate relations. The tension in this generation of women arises between their partly degendered gender identity and their still quite traditional gender subjectivity. The sociocultural situation gave increasingly support to their degendered identity and this led gradually to more autonomy and a late arrival of a more multi-gendered subjectivity as adults and as new feminists—often with divorce as the price.

In the youngest generation we see the same kind of secure gender identity in both men and women: to be a woman is not problematised, except for when it means unequal treatment. They identify with their mothers’ feminine and masculine sides, and also to some degree with their fathers’. At 18 some of them felt femininity as a threat to their sense of subjectivity, but this is less prominent at 30 and 40, where they seem to find joy in being competent at work, having a family and playing with sexual difference as a sensual and aesthetic dimension. The problem may be that this gender identity is so wide that it sometimes wears them out. Their subjectivity is increasingly multi-gendered, but autonomy must still be guarded with more attention than we see among the men, who take their own individuality and uniqueness for granted. Layton (2004) writes about a tendency among young white high-achieving middle-class women in the USA to move away from a traditional relationship-based femininity towards a defensive autonomy where committing to relationships is seen as dangerous, or where love and work are unintegrated tracks in their lives. In our sample this reaction is visible when the young women are 18, but as adults, love and work appear to have become more integrated for most of them. Layton explains the defensive autonomy she sees in her clinical practice as an adaption to a work environment that is still strongly male. So it might be the possibility to combine a career with family in the Nordic welfare states that gives another basis for integration, in combination with the degendered maternal identifications of this generation of young women. However, the frequency of burnouts they talk about in the interviews at 30 may indicate that not all tensions are gone. The main tension in this generation of women is not between gender identity and gendered subjectivity, but what it is socioculturally possible to pursue.

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