How Parents Of Sons (Sometimes) Hurt Equality

All parents want what’s best for their kids. But for parents of boys, does that mean having a personal investment in patriarchy?

The other day I unintentionally found myself in hot water when I commented on Jessica Valenti’s Guardian piece on anti-feminist women. The article was headed by a photo of a stern-looking Sarah Palin, whose anti-woman politics have nevertheless proved insufficient to prevent one of my evangelical female relatives from swearing she would never vote for her because “God would never bless a woman president.”

Palin is joined in the anti-feminist category by women like Phyllis Schlafly, who campaigned against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and more recently wrote that closing the pay gap would prevent women from finding “a suitable mate” and that “the best way to improve economic prospects for women is to improve job prospects for the men in their lives.”

And then, of course, there’s Susan Patton, aka “Princeton Mom,” who advised female college students to forget about leaning in and focus on what’s really important: finding a husband. “If I had daughters, this is what I would be telling them,” she said.

What do all of these women (including my evangelical relative) have in common? They are all mothers to sons.

In my experience in the world of online feminism, this hardly comes as a surprise. I’ve observed before, for instance, how the pop icon Shakira’s attitudes about female independence changed drastically after giving birth to her son Milan. I’ve also noticed that frequent airers of that lazy rape-culture refrain “Boys will be boys” are mothers trying protect their errant offspring from taking responsibility for their sexuality. The men’s activist Hanna Rosin, the author of The End of Men who famously advised feminists to “Accept it: The Patriarchy Is Dead,” also happens to be a mother to three boys.

Let’s say then, that I was surprised at the response to my comment pointing out how some mothers of boys become cheerleaders for patriarchy:


Another commenter said I was “so dumb [she had] no words” and accused me of “dumb whining.” Others demanded to see my non-Wikipedia sources, of which I supplied a great many.

You see, this theory that a child’s gender can affect their parents’ support for women’s equality is not some nonsense I pulled from the recesses of my feminist-indoctrinated brain. Social science is replete with studies confirming this trend—and I am not just talking about the well-documented global son preference underpinning the sex-selective abortions and societal abandonment of women that have created a global deficit of 100 million women.

Some argue that the United States is now free of this sort of son preference at birth (although good research indicates they are wrong), but in fact I’m talking about more insidious ways that parenting a son leads to a greater personal investment in patriarchy. After all, it stands to reason that most parents unequivocally want the best for their children, and if those children are male, the whole apparatus of patriarchy exists to shore up their privileges. It would be more surprising if parents of son weren’t less supportive of gender equality.

Elizabeth McClintock at Psychology Today offers an overview of the research:

In the modern United States, parents—especially fathers—demonstrate a strong preference for sons (Dahl and Moretti 2008). Couples with sons are more likely to marry and are less likely to divorce if married; fathers spend more time with sons than with daughters (Dahl and Moretti 2008; Raley and Bianchi 2006). In addition, couples are more likely to have an additional child if their first-born child is female (Dahl and Moretti 2008).

Another study in the Journal of Family Issues reported that young married mothers report the highest levels of happiness if they have all sons, compared to having both sons and daughters or daughters only. In families with mixed-gender groups of siblings, mothers with more sons than daughters report higher levels of “marital gratification.”

The reason for this, as hypothesized by German sociologist Matthias Pollmann-Schult, is that “if fathers prefer boys to girls, mothers of boys might enjoy higher levels of bargaining power.” His research yields results consistent with the idea that women are more able to get the support they want from their husbands (in his study, a more equitable division of housework) when they have sons instead of daughters.

Luckily, this effect of a child’s gender on support for equality seems to work both ways, at least for men—that is, having a daughter can significantly affect a father’s support for pro-women policies. Last month, a Harvard study found that judges with daughters (particularly male, Republican ones) were more likely to rule in a pro-woman direction in related cases. A 2013 study revealed that male CEOs who become fathers to daughters are more likely to raise wages for all employees, particularly female employees (whereas male CEOs who become fathers to sons are more likely to dock wages for everyone).

Elizabeth McClintock continues:

Among previously-childless men, the birth of a daughter causes a larger shift toward more progressive gender ideology than does the birth of a son (Shafer and Malhotra 2011). The effect of daughters on increasing liberal social-political attitudes has been observed not only in the United States (Shafer and Malhotra 2011) but also in Great Britain and Germany (Oswald and Powdthavee 2010). Similarly, being a father to daughters influences male legislators to vote in support of women’s issues, particularly in the domain of reproductive rights (Washington 2008).

Why am I saying all of this? The response of the Guardian readers who found my comments “dumb” and “disgusting” attests to the fact that this issue inflames nerves for many parents. But I hope no parents reading here will construe my commentary as a personal attack. My point is that patriarchy spawns its own internal support structure for male privilege, including among some women. People are often utterly unaware of the insidious creep of attitudes that prioritize the experience of being male over being female, particularly when it comes to those they love most—their own children.

But the aforementioned research on fathers and daughters offers a beacon of hope. It seems gender equality can be advanced when would-be opponents are induced (by the birth of daughter, or simply by listening to women speak) to do a bit of perspective-taking—that is, to consciously put themselves into the shoes of women and girls.

So for all you parents out there, particularly parents of boys, I ask you to continually ask yourself: Whose perspective are you taking?

Samantha Eyler is a freelance American writer, editor, and translator based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter. 

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