Sociology of Gender Roles

  joan-of-arc hua-mulan

Joan of Arc and Hua Mulan

When I was a kid, household tasks were divided along the gender line. I was given the chore of washing dishes, while my brothers raked leaves or took out the garbage.

“Why can’t I take out the garbage?” I asked, wanting to trade tasks. But I knew why. Because I was a girl.

“How come Dad doesn’t wash dishes?” I asked after dinner one day, still wanting to buck the system. I was not the most compliant child on the planet. Mom just gave me a look.


When I was ten, Mom said, “You’re going to learn to cook.”

“Why?” (See? Not compliant.)

“Because you’ll need to keep house for your family someday.”

Again, my thoughts turned to my brothers. They also had to eat, right? Shouldn’t they learn to cook also, especially since they would eventually grow up and move away from home? But their learning to cook wasn’t on the agenda. So I asked, “What if my husband keeps house?” I thought this was reasonable, since I was not a very good housekeeper. If I mopped a floor, it still looked dusty after I’ve finished. (That aspect hasn’t changed.) Mom laughed at that and said something along the lines of, “This is what women do.” (By the way, my brothers learned to cook when they left home. They cook way better than I do. I’m a pretty indifferent cook—whatever is easiest. Still, I make a mean pot of coq au vin.)

I’m not trying to pick on Mom or diss the roles traditionally given to women. After all, Mom was a stay-at-home mom till I was fourteen. I honor her for the sacrifices she made for us. And she always told me that if I put my mind to it, I could do anything (well, anything except mop a floor well). So I couldn’t help questioning why I was assigned certain tasks or had to avoid others (like playing baseball in the alley) because of my gender.

In college, I took a class on the sociology of gender roles, because I still had questions. While writing this post, I tried to find a syllabus for the class online so that you could see what we discussed. The only one I could find is one for Onondaga Community College, which basically describes what we talked about.

A sociological analysis of male and female sex roles in contemporary American society. The development of sex roles within the individual and within the society will be explored. This course discusses the impact sex roles have on the lives of men and women in the areas of socialization, education, work, marriage, families, and human relationships. Sexual prejudices and sexual discrimination will be explored, including their impact on both the individual and society. The ramifications of changes in sex-role definitions for both the individual and society will also be discussed.

Good stuff. Interestingly enough, the gender roles class happened a year after I decided to major in radio, TV, and film—a male dominated area at the time. You see, the daughter of one of my dad’s best friends had graduated with the same major several years before I enrolled. After graduating, she became a lighting technician in the film industry and encouraged me to pursue this field.

But the professor of my freshman video class was openly hostile toward me and the only other woman in the class. “We’re not going to help you carry the equipment,” he announced in front of everyone. I guess that was the head’s up for any guy who might have been tempted to help little ol’ us drag the heavy equipment around.

“I didn’t ask you to,” I said, giving him a death look. I didn’t get a good grade in that class, but not because of the professor. As much as I wanted to say, “In your face,” to that professor by acing the class, I didn’t have the passion for it. I wound up switching to something for which I did have passion—the writing program.

As often happens, life sometimes throws you a curve. Years after college, I discovered that due to medical reasons, I couldn’t do what most women could do: have a child. I was the only woman in my family—and we’re talking generations of women—who couldn’t. Unless I adopted a child, the role of mother would never be played by me. You know what’s ironic? As much as I tried to buck the gender-based system, I still defined myself by it. I felt like half a woman because I could not have a child. After some soul searching, I knew what I needed: to chart a new path.

With the advent of the feminist movement, gender roles have been challenged by many others who also sought a new path. But I’m not going to go into all of that. I wrote this post, because I think about gender roles whenever I write fiction. Why do people do what they do? How does their gender affect their socialization? Their choices? Do they ever question the status quo? I find these questions fascinating. But I try not to hold to a twenty-first century mindset if I’m writing about a historical time period. After all, gender roles were different back in the day. Yet, I can’t help being drawn to stories of women warriors like Hua Mulan (Fa Mulan in Disney’s Mulan) or Joan of Arc—women who weren’t exactly traditional. (Like me.) They remind me that someone who doesn’t fit a preassigned role still has worth.

Sometimes life shapes you to blaze your own trail. I’m down with that. Just ask my mother.


(No brothers were harmed during the writing of this post.)

Mulan image from Joan of Arc from Washing dishes from Forest path from


29 thoughts on “Sociology of Gender Roles

  1. My career’s officer at school said there were no careers in the arts so I should become either a nurse or secretary: these were both primarily seen as suitable roles for women at the time! I didn’t do either, pursuing a career in the Arts! Good luck!

  2. Thought-provoking as ever. I usually sit down to read through the blogs I follow when I’ve finished writing. Before the never-ending charge of mind-numbing household chores stampede me. (Yes, I’m a writer and a stay-at-home dad, how’s that for multi-tasking!) And I guess my take on the whole gender roles thing is that we can all do each others if we try hard enough or when we really have to.
    As for writing characters… what would be nice is a fantasy female character depicted in a historically male-dominated world, wrestling with thoughts about equality, self-worth and justice. But again, it’s just knowing your character and giving them a full set of emotional and mental tools to write the story with.

    • Thanks for your comment, John. I know other stay-at-home dads (one of whom also is a writer). Times are a changin’ as the song goes.
      As for the female fantasy character, that would be good. Um, I’ll think about that when I tackle my next book. The character in my current novel just wants to stay alive. 🙂

  3. When I was five years old, my Dad learnt that, due to a worsening disability, his days of going off out to work were over. I think for a couple of weeks he had difficulty coming to terms with this, being of that stereotypical generation:the man goes out to work, the woman stays at home.
    Then there was the acceptance. My Mum went out to work, while he cooked and got my younger brother and I ready for school.
    At this moment in time it is I that cooks and does the school runs, while my wife goes out to work. Things will remain this way until my youngest starts school next November. I have never really had an issue with this, or held any preconceived ideas about what our roles should be.
    I don’t know whether this is due to my own childhood experience or not, it is something I have never really thought about before. Thanks for the prompt!

    • Wow. Your family is awesome, Andy. I’m glad this has never been an issue. Maybe nowadays it wouldn’t be. Here in the States with the unemployment rate at a high, more and more men are staying home with the kids.

  4. Beautifully written, as always. I like to hope that we’re moving beyond that, but there’s still so far to go. I have many friends who think they’re somehow “less than” because they can’t have children, or aren’t married at x-years old, or have no desire to stay home with the kids, and it breaks my heart. I don’t want us to be defined or restricted by our gender, but it still happens in so many areas. Heck, I AM staying at home with the kids, and I still feel like I’m not filling the role I’m supposed to because I’m a terrible housekeeper, an impatient mom, and I don’t enjoy cooking.

    Because I’m supposed to, right? GUILT.

    I’m with you on loving stories about people (especially women) breaking out of the roles set for them and defying expectations. Thank you for sharing YOUR story.

    (PS- my husband grew up the same way– his parents never SAID “men do yard work, women clean the house,” but they showed it. That has carried on in his expectations today, even if he doesn’t realize it. I’m trying to change that with our sons.)

    • Thank you, Kate. Yeah, we put a lot of pressure on each other for no discernible reason. I know many moms who are harangued for not putting their kids in expensive preschools or for not sending them to the right summer camp (also expensive). Some also are nagged for not joining the workforce. I don’t know why we do this to each other!!! Everyone has to decide what’s right for himself or herself. If I could have had children, who knows? Maybe I’d be home with them now (as long as I can write my books :-D).

      I don’t like to be told I can’t do something because I’m female. But I’m also reasonable. I never had a desire to play football nor would I insist on doing so (though I like to watch football). I know there are some gender lines that can’t be crossed. I’m cool with that.

  5. I’ve always been intrigued by the questions you posed, Linda. I majored in Psychology, however I took many Sociology courses…loved them all! Like you, due to health issues, I don’t have children. It’s funny how people, especially other women, will look at you like you have two heads, when you tell them you don’t have children. Great post!

    • Thanks, Jill. Whenever I go to the grocery store, I’m asked about my kids. If you’re a certain age, the assumption is that you have them. I stopped correcting people. Now I’m probably thought of as a heinous mother who runs off and leaves her kids at home.

  6. Very interesting article!

    I won’t lie and say that I’m against gender roles or that I’m a huge fan of the feminist movement. There are many aspects of the feminist movement that I like, but at the same time there are many aspects that I dislike. And in my culture/family, gender roles have been pretty much followed regarding chores and the like. But that’s not to say that women in my family have not gone to college and gotten careers and things like that. I guess a balance is what I like.

  7. Thank you for sharing your experiences (and “no brothers were harmed…” — ha!) I’ve washed dishes professionally and at home as well because no one wants my cooking. And at restaurants, the dishwasher usually takes out the garbage, so I’ve gotten to do both.

  8. I grew up pretty sheltered and never even really considered any of this until I got to uni and took a gender studies course on a whim. I ended up switching my minor to that from French, admittedly partly because, well, the gender courses were conducted in English, but also because I was enjoying them so much. I have realised this year that I don’t think I actually want to have children, despite having always just kind of assumed I would one day because that’s what women do, right?

    In historical fiction, I love characters like Lizzie Bennett (okay, technically not historical fiction, but you know what I mean) who have passion and wit and are awesome but still operate within the status quo of their time. I’ve come across characters in historical settings who want to call everyone out on their sexist bullshit and it just grates on me because it doesn’t gel properly for me.

    • I understand. People make assumptions about childbearing as if it is a given.
      I love characters like that too, Emily. And I also get irritated when characters express viewpoints people have today that they wouldn’t have had then. Like someone taking a stand against arranged marriages when they were in vogue.

  9. I was the youngest of five and the only daughter + we had a stay at home Mom. She tried, she really tried… but I still can’t cook, am horrid at cleaning or laundering and have yet to settle down. I always loved strong female characters in stories… It’s a shame that we try to limit ANYONE with gender stereotypes.

    • I totally agree!! Gender stereotyping never worked with me. Sometimes life hands you a set of circumstances that causes you to defy the stereotypes.
      Wow! You have four brothers???? Wow. The toilet seat must have always been left up! (I used to hate that when I stumbled to the bathroom late at night and nearly fell in.)

      • Haha! Luckily my parents were kind enough to build the house so that all the boys were sandwiched on one end and I had my own bathroom. Of course, the falling-into-the-toilet DEFINITELY still happened– and always when I was half asleep, go figure!

  10. Pingback: The Second Day of Christmas Winner Day Two | The Accidental Cootchie Mama

  11. You know what’s interesting? Watching triplets consisting of two girls and a boy who are given three dolls with strollers AND three firetrucks come up with gender play on their own. (triplets–mine, dolls and trucks–theirs)

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