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Feminism’s Loose Ends

Feminism’s Loose Ends

Streisand Professor explores paradoxes of women’s lives

By Katherine Yungmee Kim
December 2005

Scholar Sharon Hays explores “the unfinished business of feminism.” The culture, gender and family specialist’s published work, for example, has dealt extensively with the conflict that arises when a woman is expected to be ambitious and self-interested in the workplace, while nurturing and selfless in the home. In other words, the paradox that arises between “competitive individualism and human ties of commitment and obligation.”

Hays has also explored some of feminism’s unintended economic consequences, such as how the greater equality of middle-class women has come at the same time as increasing hardships for working-class and poor women.

Formerly a professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies at the University of Virginia, Hays joined the sociology department at USC College this fall. On Nov. 7, she was formally installed as the third holder of the Barbra Streisand Professorship in Contemporary Gender Studies.

“We are very fortunate to have recruited Sharon Hays,” said Michael Messner, professor and chair of sociology. “Her award-winning books on the culture of motherhood, and on the impact of welfare reform on poor mothers have established her as a star in American sociology.”

Messner said that her arrival also has solidified the department as one of the very best in the fields of the sociology of gender and the sociology of culture. This fall, Hays is teaching a course on feminist theory, and in the spring of 2006 she will teach a graduate seminar in the sociology of culture and an undergraduate course titled, “Gender, Sexuality, and Power.”

Hays’ first book, The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood (Yale University Press, 1996), delved into the internal tensions for working mothers in our culture, between the “ideology of intensive mothering” — the belief that a mother should focus all her time, energy and money on raising children — and the quest for economic success, which requires a woman to focus all her time on the individualistic pursuit of material wealth. For two years, she examined the lives of 38 mothers from all class backgrounds. The book won the American Sociological Association Culture Section’s Distinguished Book Award, among others, and has been translated into three languages.

Hays spent three years researching her second book, the ethnographic study of welfare reform Flat Broke with Children (Oxford University Press, 2003), in which she followed the lives of both welfare recipients and their caseworkers. This book won the C. Wright Mills Award from the Society for the Study of Social Problems and the Phi Beta Kappa Award from the University of Virginia.

Hays describes herself as someone who studies American popular culture. “But I also study culture in the broadest sense…the values and norms that affect how people behave.” Understanding the family, she adds, is crucial to understanding American culture.

Her work links her to the many professors in the sociology department who are currently working on family issues. Among them are quantitative methodologists Tim Biblarz and his recent research on gay and lesbian parents; Vern Bengtson and his multi-generational study on family methods; Merril Silverstein’s focus on grandparents’ roles in families; and Kelly Musick and her work on marriage, childbearing and cohabitation.

Another new senior faculty hire, Lynne Casper, is one of the top quantitative family researchers in the United States, according to Messner. She also arrived in the fall, from a position at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development where she directed the family and fertility research program and the training program in population studies.
Hays bolsters the qualitative family researchers, who also use ethnographic methods, such as Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, who has studied the use of paid domestic work in families, and Elaine Bell Kaplan, who researches the experiences of African-American teen mothers.

All of these faculty members explore social inequality and families in their work.

Messner said that vast changes within American society, linked to shifting global relations, have led to these changes in family relations. “The idea of the ‘family’ as a nuclear unit consisting of a married male breadwinner and female homemaker/mother, with two or three children, is an ideological construct, based in the ideals of post-war middle class America,” he explained. “It is not the statistical norm.

“What we see today is not ‘the family,’ but rather, an expanding array of families,” he said.

Hays is currently working on a book to be titled Girls Gone Wild: The Gendered Politics of Collegiate Sexual Etiquette. She came to this topic perplexed by the “glaring mismatch” in the way that young women present themselves professionally and sexually. Her female college students were perfect representations of contemporary gender equality — independent, assertive, confident and competent — but then collegiate sexual etiquette seemed to require that they spend a lot of time and energy applying make-up and slipping into sexy dresses, jeans and shoes — all with the aim of “catching a man.”

In the ’60s and ’70s, this sexual protocol was widely recognized as detrimental to the goal of gender equality. So, she said she asked herself, “What’s going on here?”

This behavior in young college women relates to broader concerns of marriage and family. She said some conservative scholars view the sexual “hooking up” culture on today's college campuses as highly problematic in terms of the future of marriage, but Hays sees it as a part of the complicated road to women’s equality and an important issue for today’s young women.

“It is a new world for young women,” she said, adding that there is no question that the ambivalence that young women face between commitments to family and relationships and independence in their professional life is connected to changes in sexual etiquette.

“What are the possibilities for women’s true equality?” she asked. “We have come closer to it than ever seen in the history of the world. Western women take the lead, but it has come with a big package of problems that still need to be resolved.”