Are Traditional Gender Roles Obsolete?

An Analysis of the Relevance of Traditional Gender Roles in our Homes, Governments, and Businesses.

Is traditional marriage dead?  Having been raised by a feminist mother of the 60’s, I have often asked myself this question.  My marriage is definitely a contemporary one-my husband and I both have careers, we split the bills, and keep our finances separate.  My mother raised me with the ideals of education, self-worth, and independence. “Never be dependent on a man,” she would often say. “Because you never know when he might leave.”  As a result, I married later in life, and the traditional homemaker gender role is not one that I have embraced-at all. In fact, all of the household chores have been delegated to others, so my husband and I can focus on our careers.

As I perused around Paris with my 9-year-old niece, the fate of Marie Antoinette weighed heavily on us.  Her ghost could be felt everywhere-from the Conciergerie, where the revolutionaries held her, to the Place de la Concorde, (previously the Place de la Revolution), where she died at the blade of the guillotine.  “Why did they kill her,” my niece asked, over and over. “What did she do? And why did they throw eggs at her and her children”

As I researched the fate of the last Queen of France before its first revolution, I became struck by the lack of control she had in her life.  Forced to marry the King of France by her mother, Marie Therese, Empress of Austria, Marie Antoinette did not reign herself. Instead, she filled the position of Queen consort, or wife to the king, and mother of future heirs.  A foreign royal of Austrian descent, the French viewed her as an outsider, and worse, a traitor providing information to one of France’s main enemies. Nevertheless, she relished her life as a wife and mother and did her duty giving birth to two beautiful children.  While arguably in an often difficult position, Marie Antoinette could at least find solace in her traditional gender role.

As the winds of revolution blew into France, Robespierre, a leader in the movement, proposed the new idea of a “Constitutional Monarchy.”  In this scheme, traditional gender roles arguably came into play- with the proposed elected parliament operating as “the husband,” and the hereditary monarchy operating as “the wife.”  In such a proposed government, Robespierre advanced that the Parliament would serve at the pleasure of the King officially, with the King offering advice, support, and influence. Additionally, the King would remain a figure beloved by the people, providing future monarchs for the continuation of the government.  Essentially, the people would view the King as a loving parent, and the prime minister as the disciplinarian. While to many this proposed government sounded fair and reasonable, Marie Antoinette felt it made her position redundant. As the spouse of an absolute ruler, she enjoyed the position of consort or wife to the Monarch.  Under this new government scheme, Marie Antoinette would become “the wife of the wife.” Already despised by the people of France, Marie Antoinette would accept a feminine gender role for herself in her marriage and in a traditional monarchy, but would not accept a feminine gender role for her husband in a new government. With her traditional role being usurped by her husband, her position disappeared altogether.  Of course, Marie Antoinette could not accept this. She encouraged her husband to reject this “unholy idea,” and the royal family tried fleeing to Austria, in an attempt to gather Austrian forces and retake absolute power. Along the way, revolutionaries intercepted the family, betrayed by their lack of cooperation in the development of “a new France.” Ultimately, the entire family died at the hands of the revolution, save the daughter, who lived out her years in Austria.

In America, royal families are simultaneously celebrated and ridiculed.  It is argued that they are not elected, and they don’t deserve it. In the UK, one could argue that Parliament is the husband, making laws, acquiring funds to run the country or the larger family of England, while the Queen is the one people love, offering counsel, advice, and support to the Prime Minister.  She must sign off on all laws before they are implemented and she is technically “the boss,” but her significance is primarily one of national pride and influence.

The American revolution paved the way, not only for a new government, but also for a new business structure.  With the people having lost confidence in their King, the new United States threw out the entire royal family and parliament, replacing it with what one could call a delegatory form of government.  With a Commander in Chief at the helm of government, the judicial and legislative chores became delegated. In businesses, the CEO also delegates authority to a COO, a finance department, and a human resources department, amongst others. Traditional gender roles in this government or leadership structure are gone, allowing for either a male or female to play the lead role, while delegating responsibilities,  without a spouse to provide balance. As Americans, we prefer this structure in our government and in our businesses, but does it work at home? For me in my marriage, it does. Yet, as an Anglican, I love and admire the Queen, as well as the role she plays in the UK’s larger governmental structure. I can’t imagine an England without her. The Queen’s influence is constantly felt, and her consistent presence is highly valued.  While raised a feminist, I rather like the idea of a constitutional monarchy. Is the female gender role relevant anymore, in a modern government, business, and families? For that matter, are gender roles relevant at all? When Marie Antoinette tried to retain her wifely role, she lost her head. As women, do we need to move forward and shed our feminine personas, or risk becoming redundant? I am unsure, but while I am a traditional feminist, I still feel comfortable in saying, ‘God save the Queen!”   As we embark on this new world, the gender roles of women will continue to evolve, as we reach outside the traditional confines of marriage, and pave our own ways in government, business, and our own homes.