GENDER, SEX, BODIES : THEORIES AND
New fathers and gender equality
In this paper, I have tried to highlight in which circumstances the role of fathers within family
has changed, and what are the implications and consequences of this change in terms of
gender equality. The increasing involvment of fathers on children raise and family matters
might suggests that inequality between men and women regarding the gendered division of
labor fades. However, one can see this “evolution” as a way to keep dominant the traditional
family model (namely, the “nuclear family” : with a mother and a father) based on male
domination. Indeed, considering the father as an essential element for child well-being (just
like mother was until now) lead to condemn the “alternative” families, such as single parent
family or homosexual couple, maintain the traditional model of nuclear family and so is a
brake to gender equality. Secondly, in order to reach a perfect equality, the only way,
according to several authors such as Judith Butler, would be to totaly deconstruct the
traditional model by stoping to dissociate parenthood between women and men, not
dissociate two different behavior related to biological differences. And it seems to be really
difficult to establish, as the familial norm everybody had integrated guide our actions and our
In the past forty years, fathers’ position within the family has changed. It became
more and more common to see fathers with an important implication within their families, and
sharing the caring of children with mothers. An evidence could be seen in social policy
established by governments all over the European Union, such as the recent appearance of
paternity leave, which allows fathers to invest more in child care (main conceptions and
ideologies in a society can indeed be illustrated by the decisions taken in terms of social
policy). But what does this evolution mean in terms of gender equality? If fathers, by their
involvment in family matters, can be seen now as essential within family and for child
development, what one can say about the consequences of such a vision on gender equality?
And how a real equality between men and women can be really reached?
In order to answer these questions, I will present a brief historic of the paternal place
within family to understand better who are the “new fathers” and the new positions regarding
parenthood and paternity especially (which, it must be noted, does not include all fathers,
because the traditional vision of the mother as home’s guardian is still widely spread in our
western societies). Then we will see how the fact to believe to much in the essential place of
fathers in children’s life go against the idea of equality, and moreover, go against new family
forms and change, and especially new family forms like single mothers or gay or lesbian
couples. Finally, I will try to highlight why gender equality is so difficult to reach and what
should be done to approach this ideal.
A NEW POSITION WITHIN THE FAMILY
To have a better comprehension of the current situation, it is, according to me,
indispensable to go back over the circumstances which allowed the new fathers’ position (it
means an often affective involvment toward children and sometimes a share of housework).
That is why I will briefly draw a picture of men situation within the family, from the fifties up
to now on.
From the post-war and during the fifties, the model of the family so-called traditional
family, nuclear and asymmetric appears universal for western people. Men and women
occupy places strongly differentiated: wifes, thought to be sensitive and trying to control their
emotions, as guardian of the home, devoted to domestic activities, education of children,
preservation of the intimacy sphere of intimacy, while husbands are in charge to the triple
task of being the breadwinner (earn money), maintaining the link with the outside world, and
being the guardian of social order. This role division was explained (and is still use as an
argument today) by biological differences between men and women and persistent beliefs
such as the existence of a “maternal instinct” (women would be by nature gifted to raise
children, and would have a special link to them). This idea of a special attachment
child/mother has been widely illustrated and theorized, underestimating or ignoring each time
fathers’ role. We can quote the well known study of John Bowlby, who explained the
psychological disorders of children separated more or less permanently from their parents
during the war as a consequence of early maternal deprivation 1. So the concrete relation
father/child was then reduced to almost nothing. According to the french psychoanalyst
Jacques Lacan, the father played more what he called a “symbolic role”2. The paternal
CLEARY Rose J., III. Bowlby’s theory of attachment and loss. A feminist reconsideration, in Feminism &
Psychology, Vol. 9 (1), 1999, pp. 32-42.
LACAN Jacques, The Seminar, Book III, Psychoses (in French : Le Séminaire. Livre III, Les Psychoses),
1981, Paris : Seuil, 362 p.
position would be characterized by an indirect relationship to the child, as a representative of
law and authority.
The sixties marked a change in education and perception of children. The widespread
idea was that a repressive education was not really the best solution. So, according to Gérard
Neyran3, it contributed to change the image of fathers as just representatives of repressive
Broader changes appeared in the seventies with the increase of feminist movement. In
order to “free” women and obtain rights for them, feminists tried to deconstruct the male
hegemony. In opposition with the natural argument given to explain gendered division of
labor, appeared the concept of a social construction of gender (which means that people
practices are the creation (or artifact) of a particular group, so in a particular social context.
By the repetition of this constructions, they become “normal” for people and are not
questionned). From that, feminists scholars, such as Elisabeth Badinter4 tried to demonstrate
the cultural framework and the contingency of maternal love. She deconstructed the idea of
maternal instinct, showing, based on historical facts, that mothers didn’t always care about
their children, and that “maternal instinct” is a relatively new invention in western societies.
Moreover, she underlined the fact that fathers were put out of the relation parent/child (or
Following this femininist movement creation, women obtained some rights and started
to integrate the masculine paid work world. From a single breadwinner pattern, we shift to a
dual-earner model, which is today widely spread in Europe. This is only with this new
investment of women in work and their claim of autonomy and equality, that appeared a
relative redistribution of education tasks within the family, along with a recognition of a new
fatherhood based on affection.
From there, and especially during the eighties and nineties, more and more scholars
started to study father’s position within family and numerous tests were done to see if they
could be as good to take care of children as women. And the tests shown that they have this
ability. At the same time, started what one call the “family transformations”. An increase of
divorce rates, less mariages (or at least later marriages) and new family forms (gay or lesbian
couples, single parents...). So paradoxically, the moment people started to think about
NEYRAND Gérard, The misadventures of Father (in French : les mésaventures du père), in Sciences humaines,
N° 112, 2001, pp. 16-29.
BADINTER Elisabeth, Mother love (in French : L’amour en plus), 1980, Paris : Flammarion, 372p.
fatherhood was the moment when children were more and more separated with fathers
(because of divorces for example. Indeed, still today, chidren care is often give to mothers).
Nowadays, it exists a consensus between scholars (and non-scholars in a main part) to
say that fathers are important contributors to child outcomes, that children are as attached to
fathers as they are to mothers, and that even if they are not physically present, they may play
an important role in their children’s psychological life5. This change in fathers’position within
their families can be illustrate by the governmentales initiatives to help fathers to involve in
family life, from chid’s birth (one can quote for example the recent paternal leave right,
evocated in introduction).
Thus, in a few decades, fatherhood’s perception changed in our western societies, to
reach an idea of an affectively involved father. After having considered mothers as the
essential presence needed by children (what “forced” her to keep a mother and home’s
guardian role), it is now what is thinking about fathers : they are essential for child’s well-
being. So what are the implications of such a? Is it a step toward gender equality? That is
what it will be seen now.
A STEP TOWARD GENDER EQUALITY?
At first side, the new consideration of fathers as involved in households, and as taking
part of children education could be a revealer of a new balance in couples. Indeed, after
sharing the labour market, which before was exclusively a masculine field, it could be more
equal to share as well the familial field, until now “reserved” to mothers.
However, Silverstein and Auerbach6 shown in the above-quote article how the fact to think
the father as essential in family (such as do those they called “neoconservationists scientists”)
can be an argument to the conservation of the traditional family model and thus, be a brake to
gender equality. Let us see why.
According to the Neoconservationists, fathers are essential for a child well-being and
development. Indeed they argue that a child separated from his father will suffer of a paternal
deprivation (and a parallel can be done with the “maternal deprivation” used in the theory of
SILVERSTEIN Louise & AUERBACH Carl, Deconstructing the essential father, in American Psychologist,
Vol. 54 (6), 1999, pp 397-407.
attachment of Bowlby) which can lead to psychological disorders. Moreover, they see fathers
as models for children, and especially for boys who need a male role model to establish a
masculine gender identity, and think that this essential responsible fathering is more likely to
occur within the context of heterosexual marriage. So in this stance, both men and women
will have different role to play with children, and two gender models to represent. This means
that mothering and fathering induce different roles that are not interchangeable and which are
related to the sex of parents. Indeed according to them, as men and women have biologically
different reproductive functions, they automatically have essential differences in parenting
behaviors. Accordingly , for the children well-being, a mother and a father are needed.
This way of thinking go totaly against the idea of equality itself, because it means that men
and women are biologically determined to play different roles, so they are not equal at all.
What is understandable in this perspective, is that only the traditional family model, with a
mother and a father can allowed children to be balanced and happy.
This position is so a brake to gender equality (because men and women have still a gendered
role to play according to the traditionel gender distinction within the traditional family form),
and discriminate alternative family forms, such as single mother or homosexual couples
(because the best background for children is supposed to be an heterosexual married couple,
neoconservationists go against the lose of the normative family form).
However authors above-named blame the neoconservatists for not having empirical
evidences to prove their arguments. According to them (and they base their analysis on
empiricaly based surveys, that have been done, and that is important, across different
countries.), children need at least one responsible adult “who has a positive emotional
connection to them, and with whom they have a consistent relationship”7. Neither the sex of
the adult nor the biological relationship to the child has emerged in studies as a significant
That said, according to Silverstein and Auerbach, how can be explained the neoconservatists
vision? It can be seen as a reaction against the rapid changes in family life we talked about in
the first part (the arrival of women labor force participation, the decrease of mariage rates and
fertility...), it can also be related to a context of societal anxiety about who will raise the
children (regarding the absence of social policy to help women and men to handle both family
life and career).
Op. cit, p. 398.
As it has been said, the concern about the essential father, who promotes the traditional family
form, can also be seen as reflecting a blacklash against feminist movements (which are in
favor of gender equality and the deconstruction of social roles imposed to women) and
homosexual rights. Moreover, and in a global view, the reaction about gender differences in
parenting can be interpretate as a reaction against the “loss of male power and privilege” 8.
Indeed, the normative model of family is based on male domination, as the main breadwinner
(it means the traditional model already existing in the fifties, as it has been largely developed
in the first part). In other words, according to the authors, neoconservatists perspective is a
true “change-back reaction”.
Thus, what it has been shown in this part, is that the fact to see fathers as essential
within a family, does not mean a disappearance of inequalities between men and women, but
rather encourage to maintain the unequal traditional model, seeing the heterosexual married
couple as the only framework which can assure children’s well development. Mothers and
fathers are expected to play they roles, which are different, interchangeable, and based on
male domination. This a real brake for gender equality, and discriminant against new family
forms. But so, how is it possible to reach a real equality if it is not by considering the father as
essential in children’s lifes, such as mother ? That will be the subject of the last part.
THE DIFFICULT ACHIEVEMENT OF GENDER EQUALITY
To see the new fathers’involvment in family matters (such as children education) as
the continuity of an evolution toward equality between men and women is a lure. Indeed,
from the moment the mate decide to have children, the women are rarely keeping their full-
time job (if they occupated it before) and are more inclined to have part-time (and so lower
wages) employment. This simple example show that fathers are still seen as the main
breadwinner, and his wife’s job as an additional income. According to Julia Nentwich9 it is
the same process about the involvment of fathers within family which is often still as an
addition of the women caring of family. So parenthood is today still divided into two parts :
motherhood and fatherhood according to the traditional way of thinking gender roles. So in
Op. cit, p. 404.
NENTWICH Julia C., New Fathers and Mothers as Gender Troublemakers ? Exploring Discursive
Constructions of Heterosexual Parenthood and Their Subversive Potential, in Feminism & Psychology, Vol. 18,
2008, pp. 207-230.
these circumstances, how equality can be reached? To answer this question, I will refer
principaly to the theory developed by the philosopher and feminist Judith Butler.
In order to understand her point of view, I must to introduce the concept of doing
gender. In everyday life, women and men are playing the mothers and fathers role that society
is expecting from them. And one can ovserve this phenomenon, even in non-traditional family
context. For example, we can refer to the study of Kristin Natalier10 about the share housing
of only men, who are doing gender (it means that they are following the traditionnal men
behavior) even if there are no women living with. Thus, they act as husband, by considering
housework as secundary, by de-prioritizing it, neglecting tasks, rejecting responsability of
that. That show the stable nature of gender in society. All the time, and without thinking on it,
we are doing gender, which means that we are following a social construction which became,
with time, a tradition not really questioned (except by the feminist movement which try to
deconstruct this norms and show the social construction process acting behind).
And it is precisely because people are doing gender and that the roles they are playing are not
“natural”, following biological determinism, than, according to Judith Butler and other
authors, we can change it and try to blurred gender, to reached the ideal of gender equality.
How is it possible?
For Butler, there is no real gender identity, gender is just performative and related to
the normative context, in a specific society background (that is why men and women roles
expected are so different all around the world. Even if one can add that the male hegemony is
a norm almost everywhere). The norm we are following seems normal, we are not
questionning it and this is the repetition of this norm which make it seems “normal”. So to be
able to challenge it, people have to be conscient on this norm and the non-natural character of
the gender role division, and try to go out ot the heterosexual matrice vision.
But this is not an easy thing. Indeed, even when fathers decide to stay at home, they explain it
as a “replacement” of mother, as illustrate this poem (found on a website where stay-at-home
dads can express themselves) : “A child is stable only by the love of parent near, so, when a
woman won’t apply, we Men get into gear”11.
NATALIER Kristin, « I’m not your wife » : Doing gender and doing Housework in the Absence of Women,
in Journal of Sociology, 2003, pp 253-268.
O’TOOL Jay, Poetry : I am a stay-at-home dad, Online : <http://www.helium.com/items/908099-poetry-i-am-
Moreover, according to Julia Nentwich, even in alternatives family forms people are still
constructed parenthood along the heterosexual binary that equates women with mothers and
men with fathers (to prove that she quote for example the case of a lesbian mother “drawing
on the discourse of the biological motherhood in order to explain why she works part time12).
So one can see how this situation of the female worker and the stay-at-home father is
seen as the reversal of a natural situation. So fathers even if they admit that they can be at
home as such as mothers, still continue to see the traditional gendered roles’ division for
granted. To “degender”, it is even not sufficient to live in alternative family forms to escape to
this tradional way of thinking parenthood and gender different roles
So to blurred gender, people have to stop taking for granted the role of mothers at
home, and fathers at paid work, and see parenthood as a whole, within each men and women
can assume all the tasks. But as one can easily see, it is really difficult to do (let us note that
even me in this paper about gender equality, I employed the term father and, naturally,
connected it in my mind with heterosexual couples).
New fathers’position within the family is linked to the feminist struggle concerning
gender equality, which is seen as a positive thing at the first part, because one can see more
and more stay-at-home dads, what is would have seemed impossible two decades ago. One
can note that it is in the more equals countries in terms of men and women labor participation,
than fathers’involvment in families is the most important (for instance, according to a
SOFRES poll, 80% of swedish fathers profited from their parental leave in 2004 against 60%
in France, where leaves are shorter). This evolution in father’s involvment in family matters
could so be seen as a new step toward gender equality. However, it has been shown in this
paper that if one consider father (or mother actually) as essential to children’s development, it
means that one still equates women with mothers (linked to a socially constructed role) and
men with fathers, and it not only go against this idea of gender equality, but also incitate to
see the traditional women/men parenthood as the only one available for child well-being and
balance, and so discriminate other family forms. The second thing I wanted to highlight in this
paper was the almost insurmountable difficulty to “degender” our visions (and actions) of
Op. Cit. NENTWICH Julia C, 2008, p.226.
parenthood and gender roles. Indeed, to blurred gender, we should deconstruct all perceptions
we have integrated about gender, which means analyzing the social construction of these
roles, be conscient on it all the time and trying to learn of not being influence by this thoughts.
In front of the difficulty of such an approach, one can ask if the ideal of gender equality could
really be achieved one day, and that this way of seeing women and men could be the norm of
- BADINTER Elisabeth, Mother love (in French : L’amour en plus), 1980, Paris :
- CLEARY Rose J., III. Bowlby’s theory of attachment and loss. A feminist
reconsideration, in Feminism & Psychology, Vol. 9 (1), 1999, pp. 32-42.
- LACAN Jacques, The Seminar, Book III, Psychoses (In French : Le Séminaire. Livre
III, Les Psychoses), 1981, Paris : Seuil, 362 p.
- NATALIER Kristin, « I’m not your wife » : Doing gender and doing Housework in
the Absence of Women, in Journal of Sociology, 2003, pp 253-268.
- NENTWICH Julia C., New Fathers and Mothers as Gender Troublemakers ?
Exploring Discursive Constructions of Heterosexual Parenthood and Their Subversive
Potential, in Feminism & Psychology, Vol. 18, 2008, pp. 207-230.
- NEYRAND Gérard, The misadventures of Father (In French : les mésaventures du
père), in Sciences humaines, N° 112, 2001, pp. 16-29.
- O’TOOL Jay, Poetry : I am a stay-at-home dad, Online :
- SILVERSTEIN Louise & AUERBACH Carl, Deconstructing the essential father, in
American Psychologist, Vol. 54 (6), 1999, pp 397-407.