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Women, Thanksgiving and Gender Roles - The Thanksgiving Gender Divide

So Many Women, Men Assume Traditional Gender Roles at Thanksgiving - Here's Why


Women, Thanksgiving and Gender Roles - The Thanksgiving Gender Divide
© Getty Images/Tom Kelley Archive
Updated November 24, 2011
What holiday finds men in front of the television and women in the kitchen? If you've grown up in the United States, you'll probably answer "Thanksgiving." Thanksgiving celebrations revolve around family, food and hospitality -- all three typically the purview of women -- and despite the progress of women in society, the holiday always returns us to stereotypical male/female roles and the worst of gendered expectations.

Although the "women cook, men watch TV" description may be a gross simplification of the rituals of Thanksgiving, it highlights a significant but unspoken aspect of the holiday -- the gender divide that arises when having a "traditional Thanksgiving dinner" is the primary focus of the day. For women it's a day of work. For men it's a day of leisure. This assessment may characterize Thanksgiving with a broad brush and ignore those families and groups that share the labor more equitably, but no one would ever hold Thanksgiving up as stereotype-busting example of women's gains over the decades. Just like our mothers and grandmothers, most of us don't sit down until the meal is on the table.

Discussing the Thanksgiving gender divide may be tantamount to telling a four-year-old about the harsh living conditions at the real North Pole. Few of us want to destroy the fantasy with the reality. But it's a given that most women typically do the cooking, cleaning, shopping, planning and preparation, while most men -- in comparison -- do significantly less.

Although this fact is playfully discussed in women's magazines and websites and alluded to in shared anecdotes and conversations among women, you'd be hard pressed to find a serious consideration of this issue anywhere. If women complain, they do so jokingly and mask any signs of bitterness or animosity.

The rehabilitation of Thanksgiving has never been a cornerstone of either the first-, second- or third-wave women's movements. There are no rallying cries of "I won't be a slave to Thanksgiving!" even among die-hard feminists. It's as if the portion of the female brain that recognizes gender inequity goes to sleep during the week preceding Thanksgiving in the US, leaving women happy to function as Stepford wives on this particular day of the year.

The willingness of the average American female to give over her entire day to feeding and satisfying her family on Thanksgiving has been referenced by those who study consumer habits and human behavior. Articles in scholarly journals indicate that an important quid pro quo occurs on Thanksgiving, when women's labor -- typically invisible -- is at last recognized and applauded this one day of the year.

Consumer research experts Melanie Wallendorf and Eric J. Arnould -- whose combined academic careers span the fields of marketing, sociology and cultural anthropology -- collaborated on the definitive study, "'We Gather Together': The Consumption Rituals of Thanksgiving Day" published in the Journal of Consumer Research. The pair conducted in-depth interviews, performed surveys, and gathered participant observations of household dinners.

What most women know to be true through personal experience Wallendorf and Arnould validated in their research:

Although regarded as a day of rest by men, in most households Thanksgiving Day is a day of both ritual and physical labor for women.
Yet even the experts encountered a sad truth -- the individuals surveyed frequently did not fully report the toll that Thanksgiving takes on the women overseeing the festivities. In his book Red, White and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar, University of Oregon history professor Matthew Dennis notes:
[Wallendorf and Arnould] found that their surveyors often overlooked or underreported the fact that the meal's female host -- often the presiding mother -- seldom sat down. Numerous photographs nonetheless documented (by her absence) the missing matriarch. Moreover, recorded comments like, "we all sat around [after the meal] and talked," did not always reflect the fact that some sat and talked more than others, or that such conversation and relaxation was gendered.
The gendered nature of Thanksgiving celebrations is an accepted part of our society. While modern women might rail at the idea of males and females attending worship separately or dining separately due to cultural considerations, we don't think twice about parting ways once we arrive at the home where the dinner will be held. We even look forward to the spending time together in the kitchen as a way to catch up and enjoy female intimacy while we undertake meal preparation. If we are in fact enslaved by tradition, very few of us know it or are concerned by it.

In her book ‪Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture, and Family Rituals‬, Elizabeth Hafkin Pleck describes the social strictures in the two distinct worlds of male/female living room/kitchen:

There had always been gender segregation at the Thanksgiving meal, with men talking to other men and women conversing with women both before and after the meal....[W]omen would wash dishes in the kitchen, mixing gossip and housework in an activity that provided pleasure. The spheres were physically separate, and permeable, but only in one direction. It was easier for a woman to enter the living room where men were listening to the game than for a man to don an apron and help in the kitchen.
In a separate article on the history of Thanksgiving in the US published in the Journal of Social History Peck alludes to the increased attention women's work garners on this particular day:
[O]ne could recognize that women (willingly) gave up their leisure, and that men and children benefitted from female sacrifice...Middle-class women found the idea of the domestic occasion an affirmation of their nurturing role in the family, and an opportunity for kin to reunite. The compliments called out to them for their mince or pumpkin pie usually compensated for the burdens of cleaning and cooking.
While working women typically come home and begin the "second shift" of caring for husband and children, that type of off-hours labor is taken for granted. But when a woman spends her leisure time "working" on Thanksgiving preparations, her efforts are deemed meritorious. I's her chance to take control and shine in the spotlight.

Peck reiterates this theme in Celebrating the Family:

The Thanksgiving holiday was a woman's crowning achievement, designed to cement and affirm her skills as a cook and kinkeeper. From all the effort came a form of recognition, applause and domestic power. Thanksgiving furthered the reordering of the family as the distinctive sphere of women.
Not every woman believes that the Thanksgiving trade-off is worth it. Referencing Wallenbeck and Arnould's work, Dennis cites one woman's frustration with the inherent unfairness of the situation:
One female participant-observer wrote, "By the end of our meal I was completely exhausted and full of thoughts and ideas....I wish I could be like my brothers. They don't have a care in the world today. They haven't done a thing all day long and I resent that."
Despite Wallendorf's argument that Thanksgiving is a holiday in which gratitude for women's work is clearly expressed, Dennis takes a different view, acknowledging that to be a fully egalitarian celebration, it still has far to go:
[C]learly Thanksgiving, even when offering women recognition for their uncompensated household and family labor, is seldom a feminist festival, one in which liberation of women is heralded or promoted. Thanksgiving, like other American holidays, is a work in progress....
Clearly we’re not there yet. However, now that half the workforce in the US is female and more and more women are ascending to upper management, will it happen in our daughters' and granddaughters' lifetimes? Could a holiday so clearly rooted in patriarchal traditions ever evolve into a more gender equitable celebration? And would the rituals of Thanksgiving have less impact or lose their meaning if we reconfigured the burdens of labor?

Someday, if the image ever reverses itself to "men in the kitchen, women in front of the television," think of all that women will have finally achieved and imagine how much we’ll have to be thankful for.

Dennis, Matthew. ‪Red, White, and Blue Letter Days: An American Calendar‬. Cornell University Press. 2005.
Pleck, Elizabeth Hafkin. ‪Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture, and Family Rituals‬. Harvard University Press. 2000.
Pleck, Elizabeth. "The Making of the Domestic Occasion: The History of Thanksgiving in the United States." Journal of Social History, George Mason University. Vol. 32. Issue 4 Summer 1999.
Wallendorf, Melanie and Eric J. Arnould. "‘We Gather Together': The Consumption Rituals of Thanksgiving Day." Journal of Consumer Research. 18 June 1991.
Wells, William D. and Qimei Chen. "Melodies and Counterpoints: American Thanksgiving and the Chinese Moon Festival." Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, Association for Consumer Research. 1999.

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