Changes in the Flexibility of Gender Roles in Marriage

Until the 1960s, young adults in the US had very set expectations of how their lives should be shaped. Once financially stable and living without their parents, most would marry and have children. The man was the ‘breadwinner’, earning income for his family and the woman in charge of household duties, the children, and accommodating her husband’s needs. The increasing flexibility in marriage due to a rise in educational opportunities for women, the passing of multiple laws, and the acceptance of non-traditional marriages have all contributed to a change in gender roles. As social and legal support for these factors continues to increase, strict gender roles will hold less significance both within marriage, and in people’s everyday lives.

Social attitudes and cultural norms encapsulate various aspects of marriage during different time periods. Evidence for traditional forms of marriage can be seen in publications from the 1960s. An ad from this era displaying Van Heussen ties perfectly encompasses the previously extreme set roles in marriage. This ad depicts a man sitting in bed, in a dress shirt and a tie, with his wife aside the bed serving him breakfast. The description reads “For men only! Brand new man-talking, power-packed patterns that tell her it’s a man’s world… and make her so happy it is.” The ad also positions the man physically above his wife. This placement shows the man’s assertiveness over his wife, as he is the one in work clothes, meaning he is the figure who earns money in the family. The man’s clothes can be contrasted to the woman’s, who is wearing a type of robe, suggesting that she tends to work in the home. Clearly, men were seen as the dominant figure of the household, while women were supposed to succumb to their husband’s needs, complete household chores, and be aesthetically pleasing in the process.

Today, previously set roles in marriage are much less strict. Instead of wives being expected to stay at home and men earn the income, married individuals are allowed to decide which tasks they wish to adhere to. Both of my parents are very good cooks. The difference between the two is that my father enjoys cooking more than my mother. Therefore, it is he who prepares most meals. When guests discover his ability to cook, many are slightly surprised that it was not my mother who prepared the dish. Furthermore, it seems that people congratulate my father more times and with more emphasis than my mother upon uncovering their cooking skills. While this pattern may just be based on our guests’ preferences for the particular meals my father cooked, I believe my parents’ food is about the same quality, but that people are more prone to praising my dad’s meals, as kitchen work continues to be more frequent among mothers. Our guests are not to blame for being taken aback and over-complementing meals cooked by my father, as mothers are currently twice as likely to be involved in cooking than their husbands (Holland). Many gender roles within marriage from the sixties are still present. The difference between now and then, however, is that it is more socially acceptable for married people to fall out of typical roles. In the shift of strict gender roles to a more flexible union, married couples have more freedom to choose which every day tasks they wish to do.

Currently, we are in a time period in which it is acceptable for men to complete tasks within the home that wives traditionally did, and vice versa. However, gender-specific duties still exist due to people’s definitive views on men and women. For instance, 51 percent of survey respondents believe that mothers should stay at home and not be employed, as it makes children “better off,” while only 8 percent say the same regarding fathers (Wang, Parker, & Taylor). A possible explanation for the preservation of such attitudes may be due to the fact that women still earn less money than their male counterparts, on average. A study done by the White House reports that women who work full-time only make 79 percent of what the typical man made working the same amount of time. Furthermore, while women are increasingly seen in higher-paying jobs, most are still in lower-paying occupations than men (Patten). If men and women earned roughly the same income, the common belief that women should stay at home with their kids would likely not be as frequent, as there would be no specific reason for them to do so. Surely, there are still many who view the female gender as biologically more nurturing and caring, and thus that women should be more involved in their children’s upbringing. However, lower earnings by women account for much of the reasoning that many people agree that mothers should stay at home. As an increasing amount of women become involved in higher-earning jobs, the stereotypical roles of women being housewives and fathers breadwinners will lessen, if not die out.

Cooking, cleaning, household repairs, and many other daily duties in a marriage, are now much more interchangeable between husbands and wives. Such tasks are more geared towards one’s personal preference rather than who is “supposed to” complete them. Marriage as an institution is now also much more based on one’s actual desire to marry rather than cultural demands to do so. Unlike the residual period when many felt pressured to marry, people nowadays are able to choose more freely when and with whom they wish to marry; or even if they want to remain single instead. Today, only 20 percent of 18 to 19 year old Americans are married, compared to 60 percent in 1960 (Single By Choice: Why Fewer American Women Are Married Than Ever Before). The current trend of delaying marriage, according to 100 interviewed women, is mostly rationalized by women’s increasing desires to “build up their economic and professional bases” (Traister). This is a significant change from the period when women concluded their educational careers at an earlier age in order to marry and start a family. As women further delay marriage to prioritize educational and employment opportunities, the income gap between mothers and fathers will continue to decrease, and children will also view their mothers and fathers more equally.

Currently, both men and women work outside the home in 60 percent of marriages, as opposed to 31 percent of marriages in 1970 (Graf). Instead of strictly seeing their mothers performing tasks within the home and barely seeing their fathers, frequently the only employed parent, children today are exposed to both parents providing income for the family, and both tending to household chores and childcare. The increasing balance of responsibilities in marriage lessens strict gendered roles, previously seen in the sixties. Parents’ actions heavily influence their children, as they serve as primary role models. If children see that work inside and outside of the home is shared equally between their parents, their ideas on gendered labor will also be decreased.

Many women’s attitudes and roles in marriage have changed drastically over the last fifty years. As the shift from the typical housewife occurs, marriage roles among men are altered as well. According to the US Department of Labor, two million fathers were stay-at-home dads in 2012. A decade prior to 2012, less than one million fathers were the primary caregiver. This new social construct has led to a legislative change in multiple states. California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island are the only states that offer paid paternal leave (US Department of Labor). When fathers are able to take time off of work, they are also able to balance duties in the house with their significant other, such as taking care of the children and chores in general. Paternal leave laws allow for a more equal share in childcare and chores, which was previously unseen in past years, when it was uncommon for men to assist their wives with in-house labor. However, there is still a stigma attached to men taking work off to attend to demands at home. Another study by the Department of Labor shows that a substantial amount of employed fathers who have access to paid leave “took less than the full amount of paid leave available.” The main reasons that explain this trend, according to these fathers, were high demands at work and the fact that it is somewhat rare for fathers to take the full amount of paid leave offered to them (US Department of Labor). Even though marital roles are shared more frequently, the pressure of fathers being the main source of income is still very present, as shown by the men’s attitudes towards Paternal Leave. As more states create laws to assist fathers in being more involved with their families, chores in the home will continue to be increasingly gender-equal.

New laws such as Paternal Leave further validate and allow for the movement towards more balanced roles in marriages. However, as previously mentioned, paid leave for fathers is only offered in three states, limiting the social acceptance of men who take care of the children. Legislation strongly defines marriage, as seen by Jim Crow laws that prohibited interracial marriage, and by the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage in all states in June of 2015. The Supreme Court’s decision of expanding marriage outside of strictly opposite-gender legal unions had a massive impact on the institution of marriage. The day this law was passed, many in support for gay marriage expressed their enthusiasm with the statement “Love Wins.” This simple saying encompasses the change in marriage’s purpose, as well as how it is regarded. “Love Wins” represents the developing view that marriage should only be founded and defined by the love between two people. It is clear that the new definition of marriage is still emerging, as shown by 73 percent of millennials’ approval of the legalization of same-sex marriage, compared to previous generations’ lower endorsement of the recently passed law (Masci & Motel). However, as more millenials begin to have children and spread their views on same-sex marriage, the acceptance for gay marriage will continue to increase.

An unwanted question many gay and lesbian married couples receive is “Which one of you is the mother/ father?” This query shows that marriage today is still very much based on having two separate roles. In same-sex marriage, separated and rigid roles are uncommon. Instead, such couples tend to have more egalitarian relationships (Pappas). Since more same-sex parents share duties fairly, in contrast to many opposite-sex marriages, children of same-sex parents grow up being less familiar with strict gender stereotypes, according to a Live Science research study. The legalization of gay marriage further shifts marriage away from its traditional context, both in the broadening of who can get married, and in making gender roles more flexible.

Marriage has changed drastically from the 1960s to the present. In the sixties, marriage was seen as another requirement in one’s life, and it included very strict gender roles. As economic opportunities for women have grown, and new laws such as Paternal Leave and the legalization of same-sex marriage have taken place, gender roles have increased in flexibility. Yet, in 2016, most husbands continue to be the more common source of income, while mothers still tend to take care of the children and household duties. However, as the pay gap between men and women tightens, as marriage becomes increasingly based on love, and more same-sex married couples become parents, children will be more frequently exposed to seeing a balance of duties between their parents, leading to overall less strict gender roles in an institution which previously endorsed gender differences.




Graf, Nikki. “Most Americans Say Children Are Better off with a Parent at Home.” Pew Research Center RSS. N.p., 10 Oct. 2016. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.

Holland, Kelley. “Who’s Winning the Chore Wars among Working Parents?” CNBC. CNBC, 28 Apr. 2015. Web. 02 Nov. 2016.

Masci, David, and Seth Motel. “5 Facts About Same-Sex Marriage.” Pew Research Center RSS. N.p., 26 June 2015. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.

Paternity Leave: Why Parental Leave for Fathers Is so Important for Working Families (n.d.): n. pag. United States Department of Labor. Web.

Patten, Eileen. “On Equal Pay Day, Key Facts About the Gender Pay Gap.” Pew Research Center RSS. N.p., 14 Apr. 2015. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.

“Single By Choice: Why Fewer American Women Are Married Than Ever Before.” NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2016.

Wang, Wendy, Kim Parker, and Paul Taylor. “Married Mothers Who Out-Earn Their Husbands.” Pew Research Centers Social Demographic Trends Project RSS. N.p., 29 May 2013. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.

“Your Right to Equal Pay – Understand the Basics.” The White House. The White House, n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2016.

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