March 06, 2013

Who Makes America?

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

Have you watched the recent television shows on the “making” of America?

The first, The Men Who Built America, has been followed by a second, Makers: Women Who Make America.

Sociologically, these shows are fascinating and highlight many societal issues that we analyze in sociology classes. The content of each provides a window into part of the country’s history; yet the naming of these shows and their specific content highlight how we think about gender.

The Men Who Built America (hereafter referred to as “The Men”) aired on the History Channel while the Makers: Women Who Make America (“The Women”) aired on PBS.

The Men focused on Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Ford, and Morgan, who “built the American Dream” – basically they built industries and made a lot of money. The Women focused on the women’s movement, “women’s history,” and feminism. Women_make_fishing_nets_-_NARA_-_285726.tif

What are the similarities and differences here?  Similarities include a focus in the majority of stories on people in the upper levels of the social class hierarchy.   The two shows have entirely different scopes and approaches, though  . With The Men, the focus is on the entire country and how their wealth ”built” the country and thus, the stories suggest, benefited us all. With The Women, the focus is on how the issues of women were advanced and how different women feel about feminism and the label of feminist. The Men’s story is public and encompasses society, while The Women’s story is private and individualistic.

The Men’s story is celebrated and ostensibly the story of everyone, but The Women’s story is just for women-- and not all women agree with the political viewpoint expressed in the program. Even the verbs used – that The Men Built America and The Women Make America – signifies the more active and important role for men and the more passive and supportive role for women.

Traditional gender roles are still with us and embedded in our society no matter how we live our individual lives.

I do an exercise in my classes where students in groups identify words that correspond to one concept. Each group has a different concept. We then put those words on the board – without naming the concept – and see which ones use the same words as descriptors and thus group together. Most of the time I do this exercise, the concepts masculine, father, intelligent, violent, wealth, athlete, President, and CEO are grouped together, while feminine, mother, poverty, teacher, sex worker, and child care worker make another group.

(I did not invent the basic exercise although I have modified it – the original exercise came from Women’s Studies Professor Jeannie Ludlow.)

When Yahoo’s CEO recently changed a policy to bring at-home workers back to the office, she was roundly criticized for making work more difficult for working parents, specifically, for mothers. This was in the news for several days since it became known that Yahoo paid for day care space to be built for her newborn next to her office.

Family (mother) friendly policies have often included the option to work from home and/or offering day care either on-site, nearby, or subsidized. When Yahoo brings all workers back to the office, will they also get convenient day care space? No mention of that. She is interviewed in The Women and discusses how she does not claim the label of feminist – and sees that as a negative label as many others do.

Many students often think that we have no more gender issues and that equality has been achieved. It’s 2013, for heaven’s sake! Women feel that they can do what they want, especially if they live in a privileged position of our social class hierarchy, and that they are equal humans to men. However, as many elements of society can show, from in-class exercises, to news about CEO policy changes, and miniseries on television, we still have much gender inequality and many gender stereotypes that affect our lives. One can look at the statistics on labor market trends, domestic and interpersonal violence, and other behavioral and economic measures, as we have in many other posts, to get more evidence.

Where else do you see examples of traditional gender norms playing out in pure or contradictory forms?



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Hi Sally.
Point well taken
but which women
would you pick
outside the realm
of the private world?
Plus, moreover, their choice
reflects the practice in celebrating
the people, heroes, who sacrificed for
the equality of oppressed groups

"Family (mother) friendly policies"

I love the point you make here. Many of the stereotypes of motherhood which work against females hurt men in non-traditional roles.

The family court system has made great strides in eliminating gender bias, but there is still prejudice against fathers when it comes to small children.

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