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Gender Roles - Exhibit

One of the most persistent patterns in human society across cultures is the coding of certain occupations or traits as "male" or "female." The museum uses toys, household products, and other items to show the ways that objects are used to socialize children and reinforce gender roles in the adult world.


Gender Norming through Childhood Games

Some are old, some are new, but the messages are consistently the same… girls are destined to grow into women whose primary purpose is within the domestic sphere. Boys are expected to become doctors, scientists, and young executives.

Others toys such as “What Shall I Wear?” and “The Popularity Game,” and Barbie dolls create the impression that women and girls should direct large amounts of time and money into creating the “right” image.

Happy Housewife

The Happy Housewife

Artifacts showing women in the home environment can create the impression that cooking and cleaning should be a woman’s primary occupation. Women’s labor in the home is frequently devalued because it only serves those in her immediate family. These portrayals can also lead to the unequal distribution of household labor even when both husbands and wives work outside the home.

These images are calculated to place women in a dependent position in relation to men. Even in their domestic sphere, where they are expected to be competent, they are frequently portrayed as unable to do the simplest things, such as opening ketchup. They are also presented as having their self worth based upon a husband's approval. For example, one woman drives away her husband with bad breath while another is warned that runs in the stockings will make her husband stop loving her.

The Good Wife

The Wife

Defining women in terms of their relationships with men, the good wife, the trophy wife, and the ex-wife all locate identity in terms of proprietary relationships.

Mother In Law

The Mother

Throughout history and across cultures mothers have played a vital role in the survival and success of their children. In patriarchal societies, women gain status and respect when they “give” children to their husbands. During the 19th century and the subsequent rise of the middle class, the “cult of motherhood” in Europe and North America created a culture in which raising children was presented as a woman’s highest calling. Upon marriage, a woman was expected to leave the work place and focus her energies on nurturing children and creating a happy home. Many women today still feel these expectations.

The esteem of the motherhood role can come at a high price, however, as women were expected to put their needs last as they cared for their children. Their unpaid labor in the home made them seem as “takers” and not “providers” within the household economy. If she did work outside the home, she was seen as a “bad mother” who “neglected” her children. In the case of divorce, she had to leave her children behind, as they were seen as her husband’s property.

In today’s world, divorce laws are more egalitarian, even if unevenly applied. However, negative stereotypes of mothers, such as “stage mothers” and “Jewish mothers” show women who control their offspring and live their lives through them. Across cultures, the “mother-in-law” stereotype also presents women who meddle, who desire power and control, and who advocate for their own offspring over others.

The Good Girl

The Good Girl

Popular images, fairy tales, and folk tales often idealize young girls as sweet and naïve. These romanticized images can result in unrealistic expectations about what adulthood will bring.

The bad girl

The Bad Girl

Even children can be dressed up in stereotypical "bad girl" clothing. Many of the artifacts in this section show women as oversexed and on display for the male gaze.

Secretary Swatter

Women at Work

In many cases, women at work are looked at as sexual objects rather than as equal members of the workforce. They are often expected to flirt, act as if they are sexually available yet be loyal to the company, and cater to the egos of men. Performing trivial tasks and are limited by "glass" and "concrete" ceilings and "sticky floors." Strong women in the workforce can be perceived as "bitchy." Older women are often expected to fulfill motherly roles by taking care of the men around them.