Political Links

The feelings of gender that gave direction to life choices and the experiences that followed from them also informed the attitudes to gender equality we found in women and men of the three generations. Norwegian surveys on attitudes to gender equality show an increasing support along age groups (Hansen and Slagsvold 2012; NOU 15 2012), but are the different generations and genders answering the same question in such surveys? Gender equality is an equivocal concept. It can mean justice—the right not to be discriminated against because of gender. It can mean equality— that gender should be irrelevant to distributing tasks, duties, resources or privileges. It can be about individual freedom—the right to choose how to live one’s life independently of gender. In Chaps. 5, 6 and 7, the attitudes to gender equality were described in terms of different dilemmas: for the oldest generation the gender complementarity model could be interpreted both as an expression of equity between men and women, and a hierarchical social order that cripples justice for women. For the middle generation the model of sharing raised questions about whether equality implies sameness or has room for difference. In the youngest generation it is rather the dilemma between gender equality as an approved norm and the belief in individual choice and freedom that is at stake. There are also differences between and within the generations in terms of in what areas gender equality is seen as relevant. It may concern skill sets and divisions of work, reproduction and parenthood, differences in personality and preferences, sexual norms and behaviour, style and appearances. Differences may be seen as natural or cultural, and as worth keeping or changing. Models of gender difference may survive within a general embrace of gender equality: ideas about fundamental biological or psychological differences between women and men, or that complementarity in some areas of life is practical or desirable. Thus, equality and difference, justice and freedom exist in different dimensions—and they move, disappear and re-appear in different places and different disguises. The positions on gender equality we find in the different generation are based on practices, cultural norms and feelings of gender, and these do not always pull in the same direction.

For the oldest men, modern gender equality is at odds with their own life project since it makes their own form of masculinity—and the sacrifices that came with it—worthless, and moreover makes their idealised wives a target for critique. They are occupied with the crumbling moral order in society and their critique of modern times is condensed in their worry about the increasing number of divorces. They defend the mild and kind motherliness of the feminine carer against new ideas of women becoming like men. For the oldest women, the belief in gender complementarity in work, care, skills and personalities is not so emotionally hard-wired as for the men. Women with agrarian roots rather associate the question with the asymmetries and injustice in the gender order of their childhood. The middle-class women’s focus is on equal capabilities in women and men, which they think ought to be more acknowledged. Whereas the men in this generation are loyal to their trust in gender complementarity, the women are stuck in the tension between, on the one hand, beliefs in justice of gender equality and, on the other, the strong social norm of gender complementarity and gender hierarchy that they have lived with. What women and men in this generation agree on is natural differences in sexual behaviour and that the body is a women’s issue. As we saw, both women and men in this generation adjust their attitudes somewhat to the new practices of their children and grandchildren, but it is not difficult to see the connection between their principal view and their generational feelings of gender.

The idea of gender equality has more emotional appeal in the middle generation, where many of the men want to develop their relational capacities and become more present fathers than their own had been, and many of the women want to get away from their mothers and have a more independent life. The views of the women in this generation vary from a radical stand for women’s right to self-determination and against individual discrimination, to a general support of gender-equality policies addressing social rights on the group level, and to a more pragmatic individual approach, where issues of equality come second to what is convenient or necessary for the family. Whether the fight for gender equality should take place mainly inside or outside the family is also a dividing line. For the men the discourse of gender equality in work and care is a much more palatable idea than the discourse of feminism and women’s rights which puts the blame on them. Yet, the problem of following up the housework in practice and the importance they attach to the sexual gender difference make almost all men in this generation somewhat awkward when they address the issue of gender equality, even though they support it in principle. There is a time lag, but also partly a different agenda between women and men here: for the men gender equality is about getting close to their children and preventing quarrels with their wives; for the women it is about the fairness of sharing and getting the same opportunities as men in the labour market. For the radical women it is also an engagement against the sexualisation and objectification of the female body.

In the youngest generation the emotional appeal of gender equality has diminished for both women and men, not because they are against the idea, but because to a large extent they find that it has already been achieved with regard to work, care, skills and sexual norms. They feel more like individuals than as gender, and therefore only reluctantly identify with the gender categories that are the foundation of any genderequality policy. But since they believe gender equality is already a fact, they also become quite upset when they realise that this is not always the case. In the context of the workplace this applies to both women and men; in the context of the family the reaction comes only from women. Yet, the women’s critique is often moderated by their own distaste for rigid regimes and their belief that people should do what they are best at and enjoy. This leads to a less ideological but perhaps also more disguised gender battle where, for instance, hiring au pairs and cleaners may help to keep up the belief in modern gender equality in the families that can afford them. The structural levels of gender discrimination are not always addressed or seen as something that is difficult to combat, like the work conditions in the private sector, where more of the men than the women work. Subtle discriminatory mechanisms escape the attention of even the most alert: Hilde and Pia were well aware at 30 that gender gaps in salaries are often a threat to attaining gender equality at home, but they did not connect it to the opposite problem, which they had not experienced at that time, but which Guro and Tonje told us about: that women who make more money than their male partners risk threatening their partners’ feeling of masculinity. This complex cultural web makes gender equality much more of a demanding balancing act for women than for men. This dilemma is further accentuated as both men and women seem to appreciate gender differences in some areas. They tend to see feminists as over-the-top aggressive and ignorant of bodily issues and the pleasurable aspects of personal gender differences. They also tend to find gender- equality policies boring and preoccupied with insignificant details.

The changing feelings and norms of gender are intertwined with processes of social mobility. The least engagement with, or even resistance towards, modern gender-equality discourses is found in the few working- class chains where there is no social mobility across the three generations: the female chain of Borghild, Berit and Beate and the male chain Gunnar, Geir and Glenn. In these working-class families sharing the work is more of a practical matter—which was seen both in the relatively fair sharing of work between Berit and her husband with regard to their work hours, and in Gunnar and Geir’s ‘knack with children’, combined with Geir’s shunning of housework and women’s tedious talk. In the middle-class families it is a more ideological matter and traces of traditional gender arrangements are felt to be old-fashioned and embarrassing, and must either be openly opposed, explained away or disguised (cf. Haavind 1984a, b). It may also be the case that gender differences have a different emotional foundation with regard to class. In the middle-class families in the youngest generation, gender identities are mainly expressed through leisure activities, consumption and aesthetics, whereas work, care and household are losing ground as bases for gender identity projects.[1] In the working-class families, gender identities seem to be more dependent of the work division in the family and this pattern may also continue into the next generation in cases of upward social mobility. This was the case with Kine, who had a high-powered job and fought for gender equality at work, but suddenly, as she approached 40, felt that she had become unfeminine and her partner unattractive as a man, which she connected to their untraditional gender arrangements at home. The Swedish historian Ronny Ambjornsson says that gender often gets in a squeeze in class journeys (Ambjornsson 1996/2005: 27). This may explain the overlaps of feelings of gender between the class of the childhood family and the adult family of a new class. In our sample this overlap seems to be more prominent if both spouses grew up in the same class and made similar class journeys. We also observed this in the oldest generation when a young rural couple settled in the city. In those cases the agrarian culture was more resistant to modern urban culture than in cases where one person grew up in the city and the other in the countryside (Nielsen and Rudberg 2006). Thus, the attitudes to gender-equality policies are connected in complex ways to gender, generation, generational relations, class and social mobility.

Degendering and regendering processes are not univocal; there may be contradictions between practices, norms and emotions. Gender norms may lose credibility, but practice may still be gendered. Housework was an example of this. The housework became less gendered in the middle generation, partly because mothers now combined it with paid work out?side the family and partly because the other family members participated or thought they ought to. This could lead to a masking of still-gendered practices, but it could also contribute to a degendering on a symbolic level when such gendered practices were interpreted as an expression of individual preferences. Yet when work and care are distributed according to individual preferences, they are also often regendered again because of habits, distribution of skills or feelings of gender. Individualistic explanations of gendered choices may be seen both as an unaware reproduction of structures and as producing new understandings that gradually also affect practice. Degendering and regendering may also take place in different areas, such as a regendering of aesthetic imaginaries running in parallel to a degendering of most other areas in life.

Across the generations it emerges that positive attitudes to gender equality understood as equal treatment and equal possibilities are for the women in all three generations closely linked to higher education and often also to encouragement from their mothers to get an education, in addition to experiences of injustice in their lives. For the men in our study the link to education is not as clear. Here a positive identification with the mother, the division of work in their own marriages and whether they have daughters seem to be more crucial. Gender equality is not as pressing an issue for men as it is for women; they go along with it if needed or if they see their interests in it. However, as we have seen, practice has in itself a transformative potential: the more men participate in childcare and household tasks, the more skills they gain and the more they tend to enjoy it. Helene Aarseth’s longitudinal study of families sharing a gender-equality project indicates a dynamic process: it may start as a morally driven project about equality and justice, but eventually develops into a project of joint engagement and individual desire—and in this process the different tasks that are undertaken in the family are also increasingly degendered (Aarseth 2009b; see also Plantin et al. 2003). Aarseth’s point is that real change happens only when the project has moved from being an external demand to being an internally driven project that feels emotionally meaningful to the participants. This point echoes Raymond Williams’ words that ‘the absolute test by which revolution can be distinguished, is the change in the form of activity of a society, in its deepest structure of relationships and feelings’ (Williams 1977: 420). However, it also implies that feelings of gender may sometimes delay the revolution or that new feelings may be produced at a different pace and through different types of situations than political identities.

What is striking when we look back at the interviews with the youngest generation at 30 is that many of the gender issues raised here received increasing public and political attention in the following years. In the first decade of the new millennium more attention was given to the unsolved problems or unintended negative consequences of the official gender- equality policies (NOU 15 2012): that life in the dual-earner/dual-carer family had become too stressful, that women’s own priorities also contributed to the lack of equality, that there was too little focus on men’s situation, that more attention in society should be given to care values and not only to what is profitable, and that gender equality in work and care could be combined with an appreciation of gender differences in other aspects of life. In different ways, our youngest informants voiced the demands of their generation for more personal choice and differentiation in gender politics already in 2001 (Melby et al. 2008; Nielsen 2004). Among the men, the wish to be at home and take care of their children or the insistence that gender equality should ‘go both ways’ was already present in many of the interviews at 18. Thus, these issues seem to emerge from everyday experience and this may be seen as one of the conditions for their political articulation. Political identities are also based on feelings of gender. It is not possible from our sample to decide whether there was a similar psychological readiness for new policies in the two older generations. However, from what we know of their life experiences, it seems more than likely that the educational policies in the 1960s and 1970s had a clear emotional appeal in the older generation, particularly for the women. Correspondingly, the gender-equality policies introduced in the 1970s and 1980s had a similarly strong emotional appeal in the normal chaos of love that we described for the middle generations as adults, including the men’s emotional readiness to become more present fathers.

As we saw in Chap. 9, the three generations reflect the theories of gender psychology of their respective times. The same could be said about the women and the different historical approaches of feminism. With their emphasis on justice, equality and freedom, there is an affinity to the three ‘waves’ of feminism: from liberal and social feminism in the first-wave Women’s Movement, to radical feminism in the second wave, and the post- or individual feminism in the third wave (Holst 2009). What the study of the three generations shows is that the influence may go both ways. Political mobilisation is not necessarily prior to processes of mental change in a population, but the political articulation can catch and help articulate vague feelings. The difference between the women in the oldest and middle generations illustrates this: there was no political movement to catch the discontent of the older women, positioned as they were between the first and second waves of feminist articulations (and, from what we know, none of the interviewees read The Second Sex, which came out in 1949). In contrast, the family policy of the time helped the men articulate their feelings of gender in a way that silenced the women and made them express their discontent in bitter remarks or in their unenthusiastic complicity as housewives. In the middle generation the Women’s Movement helped articulate the frustration of the women and gave it direction. And this point of intersection between feelings and politics was again framed by economic structures of increased wealth and expanding higher education. The sensation of new normalities was based in politics, structures, feelings and everyday practices.

  • [1] A pertinent question is whether gendered work and care are actually gaining ground again in thenew reincarnation of stay-at-home mothers, which has become a media hype in recent years. So far,however, it seems in practice to be only an upper-class phenomenon in Norway (see Aarseth 2015)and is not visible, for instance, in terms of changes in figures of women’s employment. At any rate,this idea did not seem to have any appeal among the informants we talked to in 2011.
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