Why do we reflexively include a woman in an artistic rendering of a kitchen?

In this blog entry, Krista Jenkins, author of  Mothers, Daughters, and Political Socialization: Two Generations at an American Women’s College addresses how women’s roles have changed–or not–over the decades.

I’m endlessly interested in the state of gender relations in the 21st century. The women’s movement remains with us, but its revolutionary panache has dissipated as gender equality sounds more passé than novel. Women are encouraged to live lives unconstrained by traditional gender roles, and yet when it comes to who does the lion’s share of domestic work even in households with working moms, it’s the women who remain the go to sex for cooking, cleaning, chauffeuring, school volunteering, and the like. Look at the statistics. A recent Pew Research and American Time Use Survey found that within dual income households, working women spend almost twice as many hours engaged in housework and child care than their spouses or partners.

Not a big believer in stats? Ok, then consider the following: Back in April of 2010, Time Magazine included an article entitled “The Hazards Lurking at Home.” The story was about environmental toxins found in everyday household items, and was accompanied by a drawing of a home. Each room had items to identify its purpose, such as a crib in a baby’s room and television in the family room. The kitchen had the obvious items – refrigerator and sink, for example, but it also had a woman. The takeaway from this? Kitchens are unthinkable without a woman firmly ensconced in its environs.

So, what gives? If we’re almost four decades since the heyday of the modern women’s movement and women can be found in areas of life that were virtually unthinkable a generation ago, why does  a glass ceiling persist? Why are women disproportionately absent from certain high paying and high powered professions? Why do women with ambitious career goals choose to walk away once children arrive?  Why does dinosaur-ish behavior in the form of discrimination and harassment remain a part of the workplace for so many? And why do we reflexively include a woman in an artistic rendering of a kitchen?

To answer these questions, I did what social scientists often don’t do. That is, look at the forces in an individual’s life that are operative at the micro level. “Large N” surveys are the tool that’s most often used to examine the how and why behind a variety of political and social phenomenon. Although an invaluable tool, all too often we overlook what goes on at the micro level which, in the case of my book, means the influence of a mother on her daughter’s political development. Or, more specifically, what I consider in my book Mothers, Daughters and Political Socialization: Two Generations at an American Women’s College is the extent to which a mother influences whether her daughter accepts or rejects traditional gender roles.Mothers_Daughters_sm

My research is based on 23 paired interviews with mothers and daughters, both of whom attended the same women’s college a generation apart. They were selected because 1) their experiences at a women’s college should have made them especially receptive to the tenets of the women’s movement and 2) the mothers came from a cohort who were interviewed 25 years earlier while they were college undergraduates and experiencing the women’s movement during the peak of its heyday.

Ultimately, what I find is that mothers play an important role in how their daughters approach their understanding of gender roles. So, for example, I find a good amount of consistency between how a mother approached questions of professional and maternal responsibilities and how her daughter envisions her own life unfolding. If, despite her early career ambitions, a mother decided that caregiving was preferable for a variety of reasons to pursuing her professional goals, it was likely that her daughter would echo similar sentiments in her long term planning. This is just one of the interesting insights that I discovered through speaking with these smart, engaged, and verbose women.

Also considered is the role of coming of age during different political climates which, for the mothers, was an environment steeped in a revolutionary ethos while, for the daughters, post-feminism reigns. However, a central takeaway from my book is simply this: When it comes to the acceptance or rejection of traditional gender norms in one’s life, the apple doesn’t fall from the tree.

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