Gender Roles in America
by Leslie Cancelliere
Across America, young children have dreams of holding the highest office in our country as President of the United States. Parents encouraged these thoughts because young children are told they can accomplish their dreams. But as they grow older and enter more societal structured industries such as traditional schooling, young girls can see that all of our nation’s presidents have been of the male gender with a woman at their side with the title of First Lady of the United States. Suddenly, without awareness of it happening, they are gaining an understanding of our cultural gender roles. Even with great strides being made in the can-do-it-all culture of today’s youth, this archetypal ideal of women remains evident in the highest form of government. This paper will use past and present First Ladies with research on traditional gender roles and how Generation Y is either knowingly or unknowingly going against this grain. From a young age, females and males alike are encouraged to sway towards their specific gender role, told that if they work hard they can accomplish their goals, but within our own government, gender roles remain evident through incredibly public figures such as our First Lady.
Arguably, the First Lady is the spouse of the most powerful person in the world. With this, one would think this comes with great responsibility. In each of her husband’s terms, the First Lady endorses and promotes a particular cause for legitimacy purposes to not appear as just a figurehead. Michelle Obama, current First Lady, is notoriously known for fighting childhood obesity through her Let’s Move campaign as provided by the official White House website (2015). While Laura Bush was in term, she lead the Helping America’s Youth Initiative to ensure young people have a positive role model in their life to stray from “risky” behaviors (laurawbush.com). Where these causes become a little more interesting is when Hillary Clinton decided to work within legislation on Health Care Reform. Taking on a cause that was less frilly than those before and after her caused a bit of controversy, but she continued to work until the Children’s Health Insurance Program was passed (whitehousehistory.org). In the 1920’s and on, men strayed from the concept of a strong woman for reasons that can only be assumed. After entering the presidency in the 1920’s, Calvin Coolidge feared that an outspoken and opinionated woman could harm his image in the White House. He held strong traditional beliefs about a woman’s role in the family (Finneman & Thomas, 2014).
Subtly displayed in our government, our society can see that a position that is put so highly on a pedestal for women has become the American standard for women. The First Ladies are expected to have well behaved children, aesthetically pleasing appearances, and promote for greater good generally surrounding women and children. They can have it all, but within strict limits to prevent conversation that may stray from her husband’s work. The press has a tendency to heavily report on clothing choices, how she decorates, and her maintenance of holiday festivities, similar to the archetypal 1950’s housewife. As civilians, we do not see the passions that run through her mind due to media training and the age of being politically correct. As well educated and intelligent women themselves, we seldom see this with the exception of Clinton.
Traditionally in the US, women were homemakers taking care of the children, cleaning the home, and appeasing their breadwinning husbands. On a smaller scale, it can be seen in an everyday household. Colaner & Rittenour (2015) exclaim that girls receive positive reinforcement for playing with dolls, kitchenware, and archetypal housewife objects, while boys are praised for playing with trucks and tools. Although raised with these reinforcements, the Y generation, which settles roughly between 1980 and 2000, were raised with a new set of goals than generations before them when it comes to home dynamics (Wood, 2010). This generation of women believes they can do it all. The term encompasses accomplishments such as earning a college degree, have children, a husband, and a high paying job with benefits. Generation Y was raised by women who received and completed limited higher education. Breaking that mold that was set by their own mothers, their was a knew hope instilled within them to raise a more outspoken and driven version of themselves.
Although an excellent concept, there is a flaw in this concept. To reap the benefits of these goals, one has to physically do the work, cannot just have it all. In a realistic sense, there are many obstacles that a female in the workplace has to endure that her male counterpart would not. Wage gaps aside, socially women are treated differently and it still becomes a headline when a woman takes on a position of high power. In America, this does not appear to be a cultural norm. In books such as Lean In, the concept of possessing a man’s aggressive and risk taking leadership style seems to be common (fortune.com, 2015). Having it all could risk losing ones sense of self by not choosing a leadership style, or parenting style, that feels most effective and honest to that person. With a movement of more women leaders, logically it would make sense to see more of these supposed can do it all women at the top of our government, yet there are few and highly criticized. In present day, Clinton has diminished her role as First Lady and gears up for her own presidential election. What has not been discovered yet is what a First Gentleman’s role would be in the White House. Would he take on a campaign that is less fluff and more similar to the work typically seen in a President is a question that will remain unanswered until those grounds are broken. The First Lady maintains the artwork and aesthetics of the White House, but if a gentleman were in her place, another staff member of the female gender may take on those particular tasks that are gender biased. Until this happens, Generation Y’s can-do-it-all super woman, can further be analyzed due to the high amount of publicity and press. This would be the ultimate swap of gender roles to observe and research. Leadership styles can be analyzed as well as crisis management. If a female were in this position, questions will be asked about balancing her home life, which reporters never seem to speculate about any man with a high power position. Culturally, these traditional roles continue to follow men and women despite great accomplishments and strides women have made in our country.
In order to break these misconceptions, it needs to start from the top down as opposed to traditional methods of bottom up. At the top of our government is where we see the most insight into the roles we all play in both the home and the workplace. Once the concept of specific ideals set straight, parents can more plainly see that encouraging children to entertain subjects and ideas they are passionate about instead of entertaining what society has claimed they should be. Then, in time, the can-do-it-all culture will not only be instilled in young girls, but young children in general. Attainable and realistic goals set and achieved will build confidence to promote strong people in our society and not just a strong woman or a strong man. Parents are the first influence on a child’s ideas as well as the media parents allow their children to absorb. With this knowledge and as more studies and research comes out on the issue, our generation will be better informed as to how to create a better environment for developing minds. This domino effect has already begun and, in time, we will find that the concept of a female President may not seem to be a journey fighting against men, but just other candidates.
Colaner, C.W. & Rittenour, C.E. (2015). Feminism Begins at Home: The Influence of Mother Gender Socialization on Daughter Career and Motherhood Aspirations as channeled through daughter feminist identification. Communication Quarterly, 63:1, 81-98. DOI: 10.1080/01463373.2014.965839.
Finneman, T., & Thomas, R. (2014). First Ladies in Permanent Conjuncture: Grace Coolidge and “Great” American Womanhood in the. Women's Studies in Communication, 220-236.
First Lady Michelle Obama. (2015, January 1). Retrieved March 18, 2015, from https://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/first-lady-michelle-obama.
Laura Bush. (n.d.). Retrieved March 18, 2015, from http://www.laurawbush.com/about.
White House History | First Ladies: HILLARY CLINTON. (n.d.). Retrieved March 18, 2015, from http://www.whitehousehistory.org/history/white-house-first-ladies/first-lady-hillary-clinton.html
Women shouldn’t have to lead like men to be successful. (2015, February 12). Retrieved March 18, 2015, from http://fortune.com/2015/02/12/women-shouldnt-have-to-lead-like-men-to-be-successful/.
Wood, J. (2010). The Can-Do Discourse and Young Women's Anticipation of Future. Women & Language, 33(1), 103-107.