Blending into Equality: Family Diversity and Gender Convergence

Molly Monahan Lang & Barbara Risman. Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies. Editor: Kathy Davis, Mary Evans, Judith Lorber. 2006. Sage Publication.

Two major trends occurred in gender and families in the last half of the twentieth century in Western post-industrial societies:an increasing diversity of family structures and a trend toward what we call gender convergence between women’s and men’s life patterns, both inside families and outside of them. Economic and cultural revolutions, including deindustrialization and feminist social movements, have led to an increasing assortment and acceptability of family forms, as well as a weakening of previously rigid gender expectations. The trend toward gender convergence can be seen in families headed by two parents or one, gay or straight. It has also been encouraged—and discouraged—by governmental family policies. While these trends are not occurring without controversy, they are expected to continue well into the twenty-first century.


As families change, so does gender. As gender changes, so do families. Two major trends occurred in gender and families in the last half of the twentieth century in Western post-industrial societies. First, there was clearly a trend toward a diversity of family structures. Families now come in a variety of shapes and forms and include married couples with and without children, cohabiting couples with children, single mothers, childless lesbian and gay couples and many with children, grandparents raising their grandchildren, remarried parents with their biological and stepchildren, and many other configurations. Second, there is a trend toward what we call gender convergence between women and men in terms of their life patterns, both inside families and outside of them. Men’s and women’s lives are becoming more like one another as they are less likely to be forced into social roles because of rigid gender expectations.

These trends toward family diversity and gender convergence began in the twentieth century, but we argue that they are progressing and will become even more pronounced in the twenty-first. In the past, people in Western societies were expected to live under parental guidance until marriage, when men were expected to earn a living for their families. Women were expected to focus their primary attention on childbearing, childcare, and running their homes, even if they had to work for pay. Men proved their worth as men by earning a living, while women proved their worth as women by being good wives and mothers (Berk, 1985). They ‘did gender’ by fulfilling their expected family roles. We argue here that the social forces that have led to increased diversity in family structures have also led to more similar expectations for women and men and how they ‘do gender’—in other words, to gender convergence. We also suggest that as women and men do gender differently than before, they further change the kinds of families that come to be accepted in their society and thus further diversify what we think of as family.

We begin this chapter with a theoretical discussion of how the processes of family diversity and gender convergence have developed. We then provide some evidence for gender convergence among heterosexual married couples, single mothers and their kinship groups, and gays and lesbians. In each type of family, we note how the trends are different by class and racial ethnic groupings, if that information is available. We end with a discussion of current social policy toward gender in families in the United States and Western Europe.

The Changing Family

There is no one type of family that has existed throughout history. Families always reflect the technological, economic, and cultural forces in their societies. In a society where women are legally barred from owning property, their ability to survive is based on their acceptance of the patriarchal dictates of fathers and then husbands. As women come to be financially self-sufficient, they are freer to reject patriarchal marriages and either remain single or negotiate more egalitarian partnerships. What we have come to see as a natural division of labor in families is socially constructed and historically specific.

A quick descriptive overview shows evidence of remarkable family diversity in today’s world. At present, one-third of American children are born to women who are not married, and that rate is more than doubled for African American children (Ventura, Martin, Curtin, Mathews, and Park, 2000). Two-thirds of American married mothers work in the labor force. In Sweden, most children are born to cohabiting, not married, couples (Badgett, 2004). In some countries, such as Spain and Germany, children are becoming such a scarce commodity that a pressing social issue is whether or not the society will shrink so quickly that jobs will go unfilled. A new stage of life has emerged, young adulthood, where a majority of women and men in their twenties linger between their parental family and one that they may make. In this new individualist and autonomous moment of life, friends often serve as surrogate family (Furstenberg, Kennedy, McLoyd, Runbaut and Settersten, 2004). Gay and lesbian couples are demanding the right to marry, and an increasing number of children are being raised by gay and lesbian parents.

While there is no one simple explanation for social change, we can look to the economic and technological revolutions that change society and therefore shape the landscape for families. In Western societies, industrialization and urbanization radically changed the lives of families who previously lived primarily on family farms or worked together in family shops (Mintz and Kellogg, 1988). The expectation of father as breadwinner began when work migrated from farms to factories. No longer could fathers work at home alongside their families; now, their main task as providers was to bring home wages. This financial imperative effectively constituted their roles as fathers and husbands.

The notion of separate spheres for women and men that ensued included a cult of domesticity that required women to make the home a welcome and relaxing alternative to the dark, noisy, and dangerous factory. This ideal of femininity was defined by middle- and upper-class wives who could specialize in running their homes, usually with the help of poorer women servants to do the hard labor. While the reality of separate spheres was only possible for the wealthy, the ideal that married women should be shielded from paid labor became widespread. Many poor families could never meet the separate spheres’ ideal; wives of poor men worked at cottage industries in the home or in shops and factories. Yet the desire for domestic wives trickled down from the top (Coontz, 1992). The goal of domesticity for wives became a strong part of the union movement where men fought for a ‘family wage’ to allow working-class women to leave their jobs and become full-time homemakers. The organization of work during the early industrial era created what became known as the traditional family, where men specialize in employment and women in domesticity (Skolnick, 1991).

Economic transitions were not the only social changes affecting families and gender. The industrial era also brought an ideology of meritocracy, a belief that one could change one’s position in life through hard work. Individuals came to see themselves as autonomous actors, beyond the total control of families, free to follow job opportunities. Such ideas spread to women. By the early part of the twentieth century, the first wave of feminism had given women the right to vote. Some women came to envisage a life beyond their roles as wives and mothers. The flapper era of the 1920s began the divorce between sexual pleasure and the marriage bed, at least for the avant garde (Skolnick, 1991). Marrying for love and desire—rather than assuming love and desire would follow marriage—became more acceptable. In addition, divorce rates began the steady climb that would continue for most of the twentieth century. Clearly, the rigid gender expectations of an earlier age were giving way to a greater array of socially acceptable ways to be men and women.

In the United States, the momentous events of the Great Depression and World War II halted—if briefly—the changes that were already occurring in family life. Rather than continuing the trends toward sexual freedom and women’s equality, families reverted to the patterns of bygone eras. Immediately after World War II, the US government accommodated returning veterans (mostly men) with easy access to education and jobs that paid ‘family wages’ (Coontz, 1992). The cult of domesticity had a strong resurgence in the United States, with high rates of marriage and unusually high fertility and low divorce rates. Men felt the pressures of breadwinning as strongly as at any point in American history; indeed, the percentage of all men in the labor force with wives working exclusively in their homes reached its peak in the United States during the 1950s.

Similar patterns were in evidence in Europe as well. After World War II, people began marrying earlier, divorce rates spiked but then lowered, and birth rates began to rise, although without the same kind of baby boom as in the United States. Families headed by men who were the exclusive breadwinners became more numerous. The European families’ return to traditional patterns that had been disappearing in the twentieth century started slighter later than in the United States and ended later as well (Coontz, 2005). After the chaos of World War II, social pressure that dictated one path of gendered expectations returned, if temporarily.

But then came the 1960s, with a faster pace of cultural changes, an era marked by the youth and civil rights social movements. While the US civil rights movement fought economic and racial discrimination that still plagued African Americans, women organized to fight against the barriers that had always been in place but had hardened during the postwar period. Educated middle-class White women in particular fought to enter the labor force because of the problem that as yet had no name—dissatisfaction with lives devoted entirely to small families and lack of access to roles that allowed them to use their educational attainment (Skolnick, 1991). This trend set in motion the modification of appropriate femininity to include employment outside the home for life. The percentage of all women in the labor force in the United States and in Europe has been climbing steadily ever since (Fullerton, 1999).

While feminism was making waves in Western industrial countries, and middle-class women were adopting cultural and ideological views that challenged traditional family life, economic changes were continuing to affect families as well (England and Farkas, 1986). By the 1970s, American men’s wages had stagnated, and deindustrialization processes began as developed countries moved toward the Information Age and service economies. Those blue-collar jobs that had once paid family wages were now being exported to cheaper labor markets. Even when men kept their jobs, inflation rates, particularly for homes, rose faster than wages. Working-class married women, the last to have the opportunity to leave the labor force to pursue the goal of domestic wife, were forced back into the labor force in order to help pay their rents or mortgages (England and Farkas, 1986; Stacey, 1990).

These economic and cultural forces worked together to change families, particularly to increase divorce rates. There is ongoing scholarly debate about why divorce rates began to climb precipitously in the 1970s in the United States and Western Europe. We think both economic and cultural changes played a part. Families struggling economically are more likely to dissolve. At the same time, women who can support themselves are less likely to remain in marriages that are emotionally unsatisfying or abusive. Once women are seen as independent actors in the workplace, and not primarily as wives and mothers, men are no longer judged amoral if they delay marriage far into adulthood, choose not to marry at all, or leave their wives when they are dissatisfied with the marriage (Ehrenreich, 1983). Thus, marriage comes to be seen as a voluntary instead of an obligatory relationship, further increasing rates of divorce. In sum, as Roderick Phillips (1988) argues in an expansive history of divorce in the Western world, women’s employment and the increasing acceptance of divorce together are the primary explanations for divorce-prone modern Western societies.

At the present time, divorce rates in Europe and the United States have been stable for two decades, but so high that marriage has come to be seen as serial, rather than for life (Coltrane and Collins, 2001). Serial marriages may benefit economically independent adults, but many children whose mothers are not economically self-sufficient may suffer. More and more poor women who have few prospects of marrying men who will contribute financially to their homes have children without husbands. Just as sexual pleasure was separated from the marriage bed in the twentieth century, it appears as if childbearing and marriage may be split in the twenty-first. This trend has led, unfortunately, to the feminization of poverty in countries where the state does not help support children or ensure that men who can do so contribute to their children’s welfare, as many women still do not earn wages high enough to allow their children to enjoy a decent standard of living on their wages alone. With a high divorce rate, remarriage, and cohabitation, adult wages may have to stretch across several families.

Increasing acceptance of openly gay and lesbian households also adds to the changing face of modern families. Extended kinship networks surrounding a heterosexual couple and their children have been replaced by complex kin and pseudo-kin networks of support for heterosexual and homosexual parents (Gerson, 2002; Stacey, 1990; Weston, 1991). Thus, complex forces, including changing cultural norms, rising divorce and remarriage rates, and shifts in the economy all lead to changes in families, which further change gender expectations.

So is there still an ideal family? Do people choose to live in diverse families because they want to, or are they forced into them by circumstances beyond their control? We would argue that marriage remains an ideal in American society, though this is less clear in Europe. Opinion polls suggest that most Americans want to marry, and the current fierce battle for the right to do so by gay men and lesbians suggests that this desire is not limited to heterosexuals. Similarly, although the majority of poor African American children are born to single mothers, those women and their partners tell researchers that they hope to marry in the next few years, although few of them do so (England, 2004). When American couples do not marry despite the desire to do so, they cite the lack of jobs and financial insecurity as reasons that deter them from making matrimonial commitments. While many Europeans live together without marriage, most eventually marry after the birth of their first child. High divorce rates do not necessarily indicate a desire to live alone, but rather may indicate the importance women and men give to good relationships and the push they feel to finding one, even if it means changing partners.

Family diversity is now the norm (Coontz, 1992). Children live with one or two parents, who may be gay or straight. And most children live through some transitions during childhood, from one to two parents and back again, from living with mother alone to living with mother and grandparents, from being an only child to having step-siblings. Today’s families are best described as post-modern, with new sets of complicated relationships that must be negotiated: step-grandparents, ex-brothers-in-law, mothers-in-law who remain kin even after divorce (Stacey, 1990).

What we see as the continuing and emerging changes are that women, and increasingly men, will not remain boxed into traditional gender norms, either doing all the housework because they are expected to, or shouldering the entire burden of supporting the family. This is the social landscape we see creating the historical trend toward gender convergence. In the following section, we provide evidence, and when appropriate, counter-evidence, for the trends toward gender convergence in attitudes and behavior in family life. We begin with a discussion of heterosexual couples. Here, the trends differ tremendously by social class. It is unclear to us whether trends differ by ethnicity within social classes, although some have argued that they do. We then discuss whether convergence applies at all to single mothers who are raising children alone or with the help of kin. And finally, to conclude this section, we discuss how gender convergence is applicable to gay and lesbian couples.

Gender Convergence among Heterosexual Couples

The trend toward women entering the labor force is far advanced in the United States and most European countries. There is a convergence in labor force participation rates between husbands and wives and an increase in women who are co-breadwinners of families (Gershuny, 2000). There are important national variations, however, as mothers in some countries, such as Sweden, are likely to work part-time, while in other countries, such as in Finland and the United States, mothers working full-time have become the norm. Married women in the Netherlands work only half as many hours as their husbands, while Finnish wives work nearly the same hours (93 per cent). US couples fall somewhere in the middle, with wives working 80 per cent, on average, of the hours husbands work (Jacobs and Gerson with Gornick, 2004).

While men’s roles in families have not changed in any way commensurate with this massive entry of wives into paid labor, there is no doubt that the roles of father and husband have grown to include more involvement in childcare and housework than in eras past (Coltrane, 1989). Studies of the division of household labor in the United States and elsewhere show a trend toward equality. In a study of men’s roles in family life, Scott Coltrane (1996) suggests that as women move into jobs that require uninterrupted career commitment, and their families come to rely on their income, more participation of men in domestic work and childcare is likely. Recent cross-national research shows that as women’s education and income increase, so does their husbands’ participation in household labor (Davis and Greenstein, 2004). The goal may not be gender convergence, but that may be the eventual outcome.

These trends do not mean that men and women are now free from traditional gender expectations. Though we are experiencing a trend toward gender convergence, it is not at all a full reality, nor may it even be desired by two-job families. Women are still expected to do the bulk of caring work in society, and nurturance is not yet a fully acceptable activity for men (Cancian and Oliker, 2000; Davis and Greenstein, 2004). Dominant definitions of masculinity are still tied to breadwinning and are uneasily stretched to include housework and childcare. These connections—between femininity and nurturance, between masculinity and work outside the home—are centuries in the making and will not be dissolved entirely any time soon. Change is slow and sometimes painful. Couples who believe in equality but have yet to put it into practice may feel conflicted and at odds about sharing the second shift of domestic labor (Hochschild, 1989). Indeed, changes in gender expectations may lead to the dissatisfaction that causes marriages to dissolve. But today’s families do not feel as bound to these traditional definitions as in the past; there has clearly been a shift in attitudes and behavior.

One study suggests that among middle-class families, Black men contribute more to family work in the home than do White men (Landry, 2000). Black middle-class couples may have developed a gender-converged family structure because the pattern of wives working for pay is more established in African American culture. Shirley Hill (2005) argues that men’s participation in household work is greater primarily among African American couples who themselves grew up in middle-class homes and thus are comfortable with their middle-class status. Hill’s research suggests that first-generation middle-class African Americans often hold to very traditional gender norms in order to lay claim to their newly acquired class status.

There have been several small qualitative studies of families where husbands and wives intentionally share parenting and organize their family life without concern for traditional gender expectations (Coltrane and Collins, 2001; Dienhart, 1998; Risman, 1998). Most of the couples in these studies are privileged heterosexual professionals who have the labor force power and financial means to choose flexible work schedules. It appears that for full gender convergence to succeed, the institutional barriers of inflexible full-time work schedules must be overcome, and both partners must share an ideological commitment to equality. Although we have focused thus far on gender convergence in families with couples including one man and one woman, this pattern is also apparent, though in a slightly different fashion, in both single-parent and gay-identified families.

Gender Convergence among Unmarried Parents?

More and more families are headed by single parents, at least for a time. While more single fathers exist now than in the past, the substantial majority of single-parent families consist of women and children. Single parents, as a group, are less well-to-do than couples (Coltrane and Collins, 2001). Single parents have often been both mother and father to their children, and in that way are perhaps the first and most appropriate model for gender convergence. Some single parents do very well economically, but many more struggle.

In the United States, single-mother households are particularly common among poor families, and so we need to focus particular attention on their families. Single African American women and their children are most likely to be living near or below the poverty line (Aulette, 2002). Indeed, African American femininity has never protected women from labor (whether in the fields, the factory, or elsewhere) the way that traditional notions of femininity have protected middle-class White women. Single mothers, including a disproportionate number of African American women, have always had to take on the task that has traditionally defined men’s family roles—breadwinning. In the past, single mothers often had strong kinship groups who helped to share their childrearing responsibilities (Stack, 1974), but current research suggests that such extended family support is rare today (Hill, 2005). Not only have single mothers been living this gender convergence longer than other women, but today, they often do so alone, without strong kinship groups or much help from men who do not live with them.

Where do the men in these poor single mothers’ lives fit into this scheme? Economic and cultural factors have combined to discourage gender convergence among this group. The shift away from a manufacturing-based economy and the movement of jobs out of the inner cities in recent decades have packed a dual punch for these men (Wilson, 1996). We believe that gender convergence is much more likely to happen from positions of strength. When women or men can take for granted success at traditional roles, they are freer to envision moving toward non-traditional behavior. Without stable and legitimate employment (the signature of the traditional breadwinner role in families), men cannot envision sharing more feminine tasks, such as childcare and housework. Indeed, urban, poor men often adopt cultural expectations that highlight tough hyper-masculinity, perhaps to offset the inability to find jobs that could provide economically for their children. They fail at the traditional male family role and so prove their maleness in other ways, such as an increase in display of physical aggression or toughness. For them, the movement toward gender convergence is unlikely (Froyum, 2004).

Not all single parents are poor or struggling. Single mothers who can be the prime parent and also support their children by themselves are proof of the possibility of successful convergence of traditionally male and female responsibilities in one woman’s roles. For the small but growing number of men who share the physical custody of their children after divorce, gender convergence is evident in their lives as well. Some fathers who are not married to their children’s mother are primary parents. While still a minority pattern, a growing percentage of men are either the primary parent or share physical custody. Research suggests that when they have to, men can be effective nurturing parents—good ‘mothers’ (Risman, 1987; 1998). In fact, being a single parent seems to increase a man’s self-image as a caring, warm, and nurturing person. When men take care of their children after divorce, they behave more like women—gender convergence in its purest form.

Gender Convergence among Same-Sex Couples?

The increasing visibility and acceptance of gay and lesbian families also shows that modern societies are becoming less rigid in gender expectations. There is growing acceptance of the idea that two men or two women can effectively perform all the family tasks (Stacey and Biblarz, 2001). However, they do not necessarily interchange duties, but rather often split them along domestic-breadwinner lines. Christopher Carrington’s (1999) research on gay and lesbian households suggests that economic factors explain who is responsible for home-making in the absence of gender difference. People with higher wages avoid cleaning toilets whether they are in a gay or heterosexual couple. Although these couples exhibited gender convergence in their behavior—a man was doing the family work in gay couples, a woman was doing the breadwinning in lesbian couples—the family structure was tacitly heterogendered. Ironically, the couples were likely to insist that the family work was evenly divided because that is the expectation in gay and, especially, in lesbian households.

If heterogendered couples adopted a financially pragmatic division of labor, women in high-paying, high-powered jobs would be the breadwinners, and men with lower pay would be stay-at-home or part-time parents. Currently, women still do not ‘marry down’; career-committed women are often married to career-committed men. When they come under pressure from competing commitments, they are likely to give in to the moral imperative that women are mothers and cut back on their work lives (Blair-Loy, 2003).

Social Policy and Families

Family structures and the potential for gender convergence are significantly influenced by government policies. In welfare state economies, families are the direct beneficiaries of child allowances, subsidized childcare, and paid parental leave. Many countries with extensive government-provided services employ women professionals and administrators, and so their policies on work-family balance can become a model for private work organizations. In free-market economies, taxation policies are important instruments, fostering or discouraging marriage and having children. However, families often change without government support, even in the face of government hostility, as in the case of gay and lesbian households.

Family Leave

The trend toward gender convergence in the United States cannot be said to be the result of government policy. Indeed, it appears that this trend has been occurring despite the US government, as there is not yet any national systematic policy to help solve the dilemmas that accompany the reality that more than half of mothers of infants and toddlers work in the paid labor force, and yet there are no public accommodations for their children (Williams, 2000). The sole US federal policy that addresses the struggle of combining work and family is the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993, which does not include wage replacement. Its qualifying conditions—limited to those in firms with fifty or more employees who have worked 1,250 hours in the previous year—result in almost half of US workers lacking coverage. Even among those who are covered, usage has been sporadic at best (Waldfogel, 2001).

Rather than seeing work-family balance as something that should be addressed at the national level, the US government has left it to individual employers in the private sector. Some employed Americans work for a few major companies that have generous work-family policies, but most families struggle to patch together their own strategies. The trend toward combining full-time work with childrearing continues to gain speed among women and men, suggesting that the changes in families will continue to require changes in other institutions. To the extent that gender convergence continues, and both women and men struggle to combine family and caretaking work, the demand for government policies that help organize family-friendly workplaces will grow stronger.

European countries, on the other hand, have a longstanding tradition of offering paid leave and financially supporting care giving as part of health and social service programs (Waldfogel, 2001). They vary in the types of benefits offered, however: universal or means-tested; parental leave, childcare, or both; and level of generosity. The package of policies offered by each country indicates their cultural encouragement of, or opposition to, the trend toward married mothers’ employment outside the home (Henneck, 2003).

In some European countries, for example Switzerland and Portugal, policies indicate a discomfort with full-time employment of married mothers. Their policies encourage women to focus on care giving in the home and men to concentrate on employment. Germany is an example of a country that offers particularly generous parental (read maternal) leave with fourteen weeks at 100 per cent of earnings and the possibility of three years at an income-tested rate, but little public support for childcare. This type of policy maximizes the amount of time a mother can spend with her children, as it gives women an incentive not to return to paid employment (Henneck, 2003). The inadequate provision of childcare creates significant conflict between short school days and long work hours. These policies decrease gender equity because if women do return to paid employment after several years, they have lost a great deal of experience and seniority. The stated intent of such policies has been to increase the numbers of children born, but the opposite has often occurred. While women who remain unemployed have large families, growing numbers of employed women decide not to have any children at all or to have only one. In addition to the unintended consequence of low national fertility, such policies discourage couples from pursuing gender convergence.

At the other end of the spectrum are Nordic countries such as Sweden and Norway, whose policies indicate a clear desire to encourage mothers to stay in the labor force (Jacobs and Gerson with Gornick, 2004). By default, they also encourage an increasing convergence in the family behavior of men and women. The social welfare system in these countries provides a comprehensive array of universal benefits and services to families, from birth payments and monthly child allowances, to childcare centers and extensive parental leave (Henneck, 2003). Benefits in these countries were originally gender-neutral, so that either men or women could take advantage of parental leave and subsidized childcare, but research showed clearly that the leaves were used more by mothers.

Structural shifts in women’s labor force participation and ideological shifts toward the belief that both men and women should contribute to childrearing equally have not yet led to full gender convergence, even in countries like Norway. In 1999, only 3 per cent of Norwegian couples had ideal work schedules for shared parenting. The most common pattern was for women to work fewer hours for pay than their husbands. Still, the average Norwegian wife works almost as many hours a week as her husband (Jacobs and Gerson with Gornick, 2004). Recently, however, Norway has implemented a ‘daddy leave’ opportunity to close even that small gap in working time. A ‘daddy leave’ reserves some parental caretaking time for fathers only (Cancian and Oliker, 2000). It is a purposeful attempt to redistribute the caring burden between men and women in families. Sweden, too, has recently implemented leave policies focused on men because the earlier gender-neutral policies had not led to remaking families as much as the feminist policy-makers had hoped. The new ‘daddy month’ off was pushed by men, instead of by women. This new daddy month can, however, be spread over several years and is often used to expand holiday weekends and vacation times rather than to intensively bond with a child.

Clearly, changing the gendered expectations for parenting is harder than simply dictating new government policy. The structure of jobs, the definition of a good worker, and cultural beliefs about parenting must all change in addition to government policy. Gender convergence is far from complete, even in countries where it is a social goal. In a recent comparative analysis of social policy, Janet Gornick suggests that there is an apparent contradiction between family policy designed to reduce the stress on dual-earner families by subsidizing women’s time off from market work and policies that support gender equity and convergence (Jacobs and Gerson with Gornick, 2004). Following Arlie Hochschild’s (2003) suggestion of a ‘warm modern’ approach, we advocate a shorter work week that is as flexible as possible in terms of how and where those hours are completed, coupled with both parental leave and a commodification of further services from which to choose. Such policies would promote both gender equity and gender convergence.

Single-Parent Poverty

There have been, and will continue to be, divergent views on how to respond to the poverty that accompanies much single parenthood in the United States, which is one of the few post-industrial Western nations that does not provide government support for childcare or a generous safety net for those unable to work full-time. Many social scientists suggest that economic changes such as job creation and living wages for low-tier employment would enable more women and men to be gainfully employed. They argue that there will be greater commitment to families and that the families will be more gender-equal if both women and men have jobs that pay a living wage. Conservatives and functionalist social scientists, on the other hand, counter that cultural changes are essential for encouraging men to stay with families out of a sense of financial and moral obligation, thereby contributing to the stable (and more traditional) functioning of families.

Preliminary results from the first national study of unmarried parents and their children in the United States—the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study—confirm that such couples are more likely than married parents with children to live near or below the official poverty line (see England, 2004; Parke, 2004). Contrary to stereotypes, the great majority of unmarried parents in the study were romantically involved at the time of their child’s birth. Although most value marriage, they are not likely to marry unless numerous financial and relational obstacles are first overcome. Rather than seeing the presence of a child as the primary reason for marriage, these couples tend to want long-term financial security and assurances that the quality of their relationship is high enough to be maintained. They see both maternal and paternal employment—an important part of gender convergence—as important prerequisites for a marital commitment.

Right to Marry

Gay men and lesbians are increasingly demanding full citizenship rights, including marriage. In Europe, a kaleidoscope of laws permits legal same-gender unions. Scandinavian nations have what are called ‘registered partnerships’ for homosexual couples, where they receive virtually the same rights as married couples. The Netherlands and Belgium opened marriage to same-gender couples in 2001, and Spain did so in 2004, generating discussion of the effects on heterosexual marriages (Badgett, 2004).

In the United States, the issue is being battled out in the states and in the federal government. The Supreme Court in Massachusetts declared it unconstitutional to deny marriage rights to same-gender couples in 2003; previously, the state of Vermont granted homosexual couples the right to state-recognized civil unions. Civil unions are now widely considered a conservative compromise in the United States, allowing each state to legally recognize (or deny) homosexual relationships without legalizing same-gender marriage. The issue is highly contentious, as the US 2004 election showed, when every state that voted on the issue banned marriage between two people of the same gender, and some have banned even civil unions. They may, however, have to recognize domestic partners with legal unions from other jurisdictions. Few gay men and lesbians in any Western society appear to be willing to settle for the second-class citizenship offered by ‘unions,’ as the fight for the right to marry indicates.

Family Diversity, Gender Convergence, and Feminist Theory and Politics

We have suggested that economic and cultural forces have created a diversity of family forms and a trend toward gender convergence in men’s and women’s family responsibilities. We see no reason to expect these social forces will shift direction or lose strength. Social forces, however, do not mysteriously change people’s lives but create conditions for change. Women have mobilized in feminist movements all around the world to demand more equal rights, both inside their homes and outside of them. Women and men are choosing possibilities created by economic and cultural changes. Women’s labor force employment appears to be moving more towards men’s patterns, with fewer interruptions for childcare. Men, at least in survey data, appear to desire fewer hours in the labor force and more time for their family duties (Williams, 2000). While women do more household labor and childcare, the long-term trends are clear: they do less every generation and every decade (Sullivan, 2004). As women have more economic clout and more education, men tend to do a higher proportion of family work (Davis and Greenstein, 2004). We expect these signs of gender convergence in heterosexual couples to become more apparent as we move further into the twenty-first century.

From a feminist point of view, these trends point to greater gender equality. As feminist scholars, we argue that both men and women should be expected to contribute to the family income, engage in housework, and provide care. Not only would this lead to more fulfilling partnerships, where deep friendship is truly possible (Schwartz, 1994), it would undo the harmful and unnecessary value distinction between paid and unpaid contributions to society (Cancian and Oliker, 2000). As feminist proponents of gender convergence, we suggest that what matters is how families operate, the process and interaction between members, and not whether the parents are traditionally gendered, or even whether the parents are the same or opposite gender. In this view, kinship is about mutual care and commitment through illness and death, and families of all kinds can provide this emotional support for one another. In this model, family process counts far more than family structure, and feminist policy recommendations focus on changing economic and political structures so that families of any form can function better (Cherlin, 2002). At the very least, government policy should insure that women and men have the right to equal status in the labor force and the right to devote time outside of paid work time to childcare and other family responsibilities.

The trends for gender convergence evidenced by single-parent families are more complicated and less symmetrical for women and men. Single mothers have long shown they are capable of childcare, domestic work, and earning a living. By breadwinning and nurturing, they have long since shown the logical possibility of gender convergence, especially where governments supply support for childcare and schooling. Single fathers taking primary care or sharing the custody of their children also show gender convergence in action. Most single men, however, are totally removed from any of the caretaking work that children involve and are less likely even to take good care of themselves (Waite and Gallagher, 2000). Unemployed single men, in particular, appear to adopt hyper-masculine identities that are opposed to moving toward incorporating activities traditionally identified as feminine. We have suggested that gender convergence depends on success at traditional roles and then expansion to those of the other gender. We therefore suggest that unemployed poor single men are not likely to move toward gender convergence unless they move into good jobs and feel successful in traditional masculine territory. The best policy for supporting gender convergence among heterosexuals who live in poverty is to provide a living wage to both women and men, so that each will be better off single or partnered.

Homosexual couples appear to break down many stereotypes about the gender appropriateness of social roles. As they become more visible in our societies and more accepted, their very existence contradicts the logic of gender dichotomies, at least as they relate to differences between women and men. Two mommies or two daddies cannot rely on gender differences to organize their family life (Sullivan, 1996). They may not be equal sharers of domestic and paid work, and their family structure may look like mother/ wife, father/husband in a gendered world, but it is a model for gender convergence. They have led the way in providing evidence that gender does not necessarily predict social roles. Future research should pay more attention to gender performance of such couples as they provide much information to heterosexual couples moving toward gender convergence.


We have argued that the movement of women into paid labor and the cultural shift toward individual rights for women as well as men have led to more diverse families and a trend toward gender convergence within families. These social forces provide the opportunity for such changes, but social movements such as feminism and gay rights are the catalysts for the speed of such transformations and for their acceptance as lasting changes. The acceptance of diverse families in Western post-industrial societies and the movement toward gender convergence depend not only on structural social forces, but also on the actions of social movement activists and their supporters.

As feminist sociologists, we see our role in the feminist movement toward equality as providing analytic tools in order to help shape a more just world. In our view, the only path to a more just world for women and men is gender convergence. At the present time, we are in a moment of change. While some countries are more in flux than others, the direction of change toward convergence and equality seems clear. But we have far to go. In a just world, women would not feel guilt over childrearing if they did it less intensely than as a full-time occupation. And men would feel much more moral responsibility for the daily caretaking of their own offspring. We will know we have arrived at a just world when hearing that your baby ‘is a girl’ does not give you any different image for her future, than if the new human being is a boy. As Judith Lorber (2005) and Barbara Risman (1998) have argued, a world beyond gender is a world where women and men can be equal.