logoThe Age-old Battle of the Sexes: Gender Role Changes and Relationships in Modern Society

Emily Lenae Gardner

           It is the war of all wars.  It’s lasted longer than all the ancient wars, the world wars, and the civil wars of all nations put together.  The battle lines have been clearly drawn and the two sides have never rested while on the battlefield.  It is the famed “battle of the sexes” and it is anything but resolved.  The war has been happening for a long time, but now it seems to have hit a point where the world wonders what to do now.   This is due to the current changes in gender roles which are manipulating society and changing relationships.  These changes are both negative and positive; many advances have been made with women finding equality with men, but have traditional values been underestimated?  It is a highly controversial and complicated subject that affects virtually all members of society.

           In order to understand some of the opinions on the topic of gender roles and relationships, it is necessary to understand the definitions of some words as they will be used in this essay.  First there are many definitions for the term “gender.”  However, in this paper the words sex and gender will be used interchangeably and refer simply to male and female.  Also important to note is that while society has more options than a male and female relationship, the emphasis in this essay is only on heterosexual relationships and the way they are perceived in society.    By keeping these basic definitions and ideas in mind, one can understand that the word “role” refers to the individual’s place in society and position within a relationship.  Along with this, the “traditional roles” would be defined as women being the homemakers while men being the main breadwinners.  When labeling traditional roles dealing with dating and relationships, the men are expected to pursue women, drive the car, pay for the meal, and initiate physical contact.  Women are thought to have the more passive role of waiting to be asked on a date and being less likely to initiate physical activity, if at all.  

           In the last one hundred years, society has been changing its views and ideas on the place of women in society.  Though this has been viewed negatively by some and positively by others, the fact remains that many women have traded in their traditional roles for careers.  However, this transformation has also lead to changes in the relationships between men and women.  In Coping with Changing Roles for Young Men and Women, author Jessica Hanan states, “People now have more freedom to make choices for themselves and how they want to live their lives.  Sometimes these choices can be confusing” (5).  This quote could be taken as an understatement.  As women have emerged into male-dominated parts of society, they have pushed men out.  Now there are no real rules to dating as the ideas of old fashioned courtship have long been forgotten.  As discussed later in the paper, even the idea of dating has lost its place on college campuses as students lean toward the idea of “hooking up,” instead of going out on dates.  These changes are affecting men and women today and there are three approaches which address the topic of gender roles and relationships: the educated approach, the traditional religious application approach, and modern advice and analysis approach.   Groups of writers within the approaches take various facts, observations, and personal beliefs in order to examine this complicated topic.    

           One way to look at the ever-changing subject of dating and gender roles is through pure facts.  Many people when faced with confusing and conflicting views go to scientific findings to get the basic facts.  In an educated approach, many professors and researchers have attempted to figure out sex roles by using studies and surveys to confirm what current trends people follow and why they follow them.  Also, they try to predict the future trends in gender-related behaviors.  Their works have appeared in many journals of scholarly expertise in areas such as psychology, sociology, and professional counseling.  All of these writers feel that sex roles “affect most, if not all, phases of life,” (Cooper, Arkkelin, and Tiebert, 63) and thus, it is an area of intensive research.  It is interesting to note that the surveys discussed within this essay were conducted on college campuses using college students.  This means that these findings are true of the group most engaged in finding a partner for life in the near future.  What college students are coming to believe, according to the educated approach, is that it is acceptable to challenge conventional gender roles in the workplace, home, and relationships.

           One common thread these writers share is the idea that sex roles are subject to the individual’s viewpoint and beliefs.  Generally the results of the studies had to do with the sex of participants and their life experiences, such as the way they were raised.  These different mindsets play a large role in the findings of sex-role studies in the area of traditional division of work and social spheres.  Overall, these writer’s found, “support of the traditional female role to be stronger among men than women” (Johannesen-Schmidt and Eagly, 322).  These writers generally conclude that women are more open to challenging the traditional divisions of labor than men are, and women are more opt to want an equal distribution of roles within a relationship.  One study states, “Women, on the whole, are more likely to hold egalitarian views than are men” (Wentworth and Chell, 643). Many women are now seeking careers outside the home “as a result of the women’s movement, massive economic changes, and the sexual revolution” (Copper et al. 63) and overall, “women who aspired to traditionally male occupations, such as becoming a physician, did not evoke a negative reaction” (Wentworth et al. 640).  It seems that women are freer today to explore outside the normal boundaries of gender roles, and college students, again more women than men, have a positive reaction to this change.   

           As the educated approach looks deeper into the issue of relationships, these studies have come to similar conclusions.  To see the changes being made in this area it is essential to understand that, “social role theorists contend that sex differences in the characteristics that people prefer in their mates result from the tendency of men and women to occupy different social roles” (Johannesen-Schmidt et al. 322).    However, one study found that of 120 college juniors and seniors, 90 indicated they would prefer a dual-career home, while only 23 wanted a career-home marriage (the rest of the participants fell into a career-job category) (Cooper et al. 65).  It was also reported that, “Those preferring a dual-career arrangement…have an additional strong value on equity in their relationships” (67).   This fact points towards a change from the traditional view among many college students to a more modern approach to relationships and marriage.  On the other hand, when examining the roles of housewife and househusband it has been concluded that, “U.S. culture currently does not fully support those men who choose to assume the househusband role” (Wentworth et al. 643) and, “when men assume more traditionally feminine roles they are more likely to be viewed as homosexual” (Wentworth et al. 640).  Along with this, men who did assume the role of homemaker “report[ed] a sense of isolation associated with their situation” (Wentworth et al. 641).  These findings show that while men are moving away from their traditional roles, it is much easier for women to the make the crossover and be accepted socially.  Additionally, it is interesting to note the negative response of men with their sense of isolation and fear of what others might say, as compared to the positive reaction of society to a woman who is a professional in the traditional male role. 

           While the educated approach takes a deeper look into the current thinking of society on the topic of gender roles and relationships, another approach takes a more conservative view and looks to the past for conclusions for the future.  The traditional religious application approach is taken by authors of a predominantly Christian background and uses the Bible as the main authority on gender issues.  While it may be the most traditional and conservative of the gender studies, the writers in the traditional approach try to apply biblical values to today’s society when dealing with relationships between men and women.

           These traditional religious writers’ main claim is that couples have lost touch of what it means to be male and female, and that “roleless” relationships are not only not possible, but not desirable.  In Rocking the Roles, the authors state, “Despite twenty or more years of positive press and experimentation with that model, couples don’t appear any closer to achieving ‘equality’ in their relationships than before.  Instead, I find a lot of confusion, heartbreak, frustration, and denial” (Lewis and Hendricks, 20).  Consequently, the authors focus on the tendency of society to “minim[ize] the unique significance of our maleness or femaleness” (Piper, 14).  With this in mind, the religious approach attempts to define masculinity and femininity, and most importantly how these relate to each other in a relationship.  Renowned women’s speaker and author, Michelle McKinney Hammond claims that there is great power in femininity which the modern woman has lost hold of, she says, “being a feminine woman is not synonymous with being a weak woman.  Femininity has gotten a bad rap in recent decades.  When women started burning their bras…and screaming about equality, we lost something valuable—we lost sight of treasuring who we were and delighting in all we had to offer” (41-42).  Similarly, the definition of womanhood according to one writer is, “a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men” (Piper 35).  In the same way, the definition of manhood is, “a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women” (Piper, 19).  These ideas tend to revert back to a time when men worked and women stayed home to care for the children, and these authors feel this is an arrangement that should not be looked down upon.

           While this view is traditional, it does search for a way to apply its values to modern times and it is not meant to be suppressive to women.  When looking at roles in a relationship between a man and woman, it is important to see that this approach “does not mean that one [role] is superior and one is inferior.  Both are of equal value and importance” (Lewis et al. 49).  Since the roles are equal in importance, it is vital that both partners assume their role and, in return, each gets their desire for love and acceptance fulfilled.  Men are meant to be the leaders and women the nurturers.  In order for man to be successful the woman must be supporting him and for the woman to want to support the man he must offer leadership and protection for her.  It is a mutual exchange serving both sexes’ interests (Lewis et al. 51-54).  Though the woman’s role may seem to be the weaker, it should be thought of as “strength under control” and, “strength wrapped in a velvet glove” (Hammond, 43).  These authors would agree with the thought that “behind every great man is a great women.”

           Moving away from a religious viewpoint, the largest group of writers is in the modern advice and analysis approach.  Unlike the first two approaches, the modern approach leans on individuals’ opinions and personal life experiences as the authority for advice.  While religious views and scientific studies may influence these writers, they use their own opinions as the basis for all analysis and advice on the topic.  Also, this approach seeks to give advice to men and women from both negative and positive viewpoints.   Therefore, within this approach are two basic opinions: those leaning toward the idea of the negative effects of changing gender roles and those leaning toward the positive effects.  While many authors are not only negative or only positive, most tend to view the transition to modern gender roles as helpful or hurtful in the area of male\female relationships. 

           First to look at the changes in women’s roles, many writers feel that women have become more liberated and this is a progressive, good change.  “A major longitudinal study that tracked 427 married women with children…found that from 1956 to 1986 found that those who took on multiple roles…were most likely to remain in vibrant good health…and longer longevity” (Hales, 275).  Women who move from being a homemaker are no longer an exception, but the rule.  Some of the writers in this approach encourage women to embrace the change in their place in society.  Along with this, women have become more sexually free and this is most evident on college campuses.  The common trend of “hooking up,” meaning casual sexual encounters on a “one night stand” basis, is the norm for not only men but now women.  It seems that college women do not have much of a choice when it comes to dating, “the choices for women boil down to hooking up, hanging out, or flying into full-fledged commitment” (Mulhauser).  This change is often where more negative views come into play.  Though women are just as capable as men at initiating physical relationships, “women continue to want an emotional commitment from their physical encounters.  The same cannot often be said of young men.  Consequently, the ‘hook-up’ ritual leaves many women saddled with emotional confusion and disillusionment” (Williams).

           While the “hook-ups” run wild every weekend on campus, the vital heterosexual relationships are going downhill.  What the modern approach looks at is why.  They ask what has changed to make the roles so new and undefined.  Unlike the other two approaches, these individuals lean on their own observations for evidence.  As they question what this means for society they give critical advice for confused people.  Looking into the differences of men and women is a large part of this approach.  Robin Bowman claims in her book Escaping the Venus Trap, “There seems to be conspiracy to maintain a sharp division between men and women” (121).  What's more,  in  Just Like a Woman, Dianne Hales sees not a difference in basic emotional qualities, but the expression of those qualities, “Emotions know no gender” however, “women reported more intense emotional experiences” (261-262).  Taking these findings into consideration the misunderstanding between men and women resulting from the sex role changes is explained.  One example follows: “An argument that seemed nothing more than a fleeting squall to a husband may echo like thunder through a woman’s psyche” (Hales, 268).  On a college campus the confusion may look something like this.  A boy wants to ask out a nice girl, but should he.  He doesn’t want to imply that she is in need of being asked out.  A girl wants to be asked out by a nice boy, but he never comes up to her.  She wonders why.  One college student, William DeMartine, comments, “You can’t even try to meet girls, because when you try to meet them they’ve already put you in your place” (qtd. in Williams).  With the changing of traditional roles in dating, this reaction is common among men, and women are feeling unfulfilled as men become more and more passive.  This is the central issue concentrated on in the modern advice and analysis approach.     

           The complicated dating scene, the clubs, the parties are all realities for college students seeking to find “the one.”  In fact, it’s said “about 60 percent of them [women]…want to find a husband during college” (Williams).    However, as the “battle of the sexes” rages on, many have hit a brick wall as the issue of changing gender roles complicates relationships.  The groups, seeking to find answers to these questions range from the educated approach, to the traditional religious approach, and the modern advice and analysis.  The opinions about how to react to changing gender roles are as many as the stars in the heavens.  Author Michelle McKinney Hammond comments, “This is where true femininity emerges as a clear victor.  It triumphs over the barriers of misunderstanding.  It disarms the hard of heart.  It gently leads to a better way.  It repairs the breach between those who have and those who want” (211).  In truth it seems this war of the sexes has been happening since Eve gave Adam the apple.  When it comes to gender roles and their effect on relationships, one can only hope to find some answers to sort out the complications on the battlefield; the good news is there are plenty of people willing to share their advice and findings on the topic.        





Works Cited


Bowman, Robin.  Escaping the Venus Trap.  Oregon: BookPartners, Inc.,          1996.


Cooper, Stewart E., Daniel L. Arkkelin, and Marla J. Tiebert. “Work Relationship Values and Gender Role Differences in Relation to Career-Marriage Aspirations.”  Journal of Counseling & Development 73 (Sept/Oct 1994): 63-67. Academic Search Permier.  EBSCO Publishing.  Colorado State University Lib. Mar. 2003  <http://lib.colostate.edu/databases.>  


Hales, Dianne.  Just Like a Woman: How Gedner Science is Redefining What Makes Us Female.  New York: Bantam Books, 1999.


Hanan, Jessica.  Coping with Changing Roles for Young Men and Women. New York: Rosen Publishing Group Inc., 2000.


Hammond, Michelle McKinney.  The Power of Femininity: Rediscovering the Art ofBeing a Woman.  Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 1999.


Johannesen-Schmidt, Mary C. and Alice H. Eagly.  “Another Look At Sex Differences in Preferred Mate Characteristics: The Effects of Endorsing the Traditional Female Gender Role.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 26 (2002): 322-328.  Academic Search Premier.  EBSCO Publishing.  Colorado State University Lib. Mar. 2003. <http://lib.colostate.edu/databases/>


Lewis, Robert and William Hendricks.  Rocking the Roles: Building a Win-Win Marriage.  Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1991.


Mulhauser, Dana.  “Dating Among College Student Is All But Dead, Survey Finds.” The Chronicle of Higher Education Aug. 10, 2001: 51.  Academic Universe.  Lexis Nexis.  EBSCO Publishing.  Colorado State University Lib. Apr. 2003 <http://lib.colostate.edu/databases/>


Piper, John.  What’s the Difference?  Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible.  Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1991.


Wentworth, Diane Keyser.  “The Role of Househusband and Housewife as Perceived by a College Population.”  The Journal of Psychology 2001 (135): 639-650.  Academic Search Premeir.  EBSCO Publishing.  Colorado State University Lib.  Mar. 2003 <http://lib.colostate.edu/databases/>    


William, Armstrong.  “Colliding Bodies.”  The Washington Times Aug. 11, 2001.  Academic Universe.  Lexis Nexis.  EBSCO Publishing.  Colorado State University Lib. Mar. 2003 <http://lib.colostate.edu/databases/>