A Boy among Girls

by Nicholas Frankovich

Men who grew up with more sisters than brothers are disproportionately conservative, according to a study released on Tuesday and slated for publication in The Journal of Politics. Authors Andrew Healy and Neil Malhotra say that they were surprised by their finding. “We might expect that boys would learn to support gender equality through interactions with their sisters,” Healy says. “However, the data suggest that other forces are more important in driving men’s political attitudes, including whether the family assigned chores, such as dishwashing, according to traditional gender roles.”

The authors home in on four kinds of household chore for their explanation of why a boy who has more daily interaction with girls (his sisters) is more likely to grow up to be Republican and retrosexual: Does the child straighten his own room? Does he keep the rest of the house clean? Does he do the dishes? Does he cook?

A boy is less likely to do any of those things if he has sisters. Healy and Malhotra conjecture that his gendered modus vivendi in childhood imprints on his developing psyche a lasting notion that the drudgery of housekeeping is women’s work — and that, if you follow their reasoning, makes him conservative, although they graciously add that his “political and social attitudes related to the role of women in society” do not “apply to men’s empathy toward women more broadly.”

Is that boy taking out the trash, though? Doing yard work? The authors don’t say. They do say that “girls tend to be assigned feminized chores and shielded from masculine chores regardless of the gender composition of the household.” Ah.

And notice the asymmetrical language — masculine chores are masculine chores, but there are no corresponding feminine chores, only chores that have been “feminized,” meaning that they’re not inherently feminine but only stereotyped as such. Presumably, then, they’re neuter and should be shared equally by both sexes. It’s unclear whether the authors think that “masculine chores” (which they don’t specify) should be shared equally too. Or do they assume that it’s inappropriate for girls to be made to do any heavy lifting?

While this is helpful, this consideration of how a man’s politics may be influenced by his sisters’ doing housework that they might never have thought to invite him to join in on, at some point a focus becomes a fixation. A boy’s experience of being a boy among girls involves more than watching them bond over the kitchen sink. It involves the experience of being excluded generally, and that in turn tends to sharpen his awareness of the difference between them and him. And if you think that a heightened awareness of the difference between males and females is good, that makes you a conservative in that department, at least by contemporary standards.

Healy and Malhotra report that the boy in a sister-intensive environment is more likely to agree with the following question when he grows up: “Mothers should remain at home with young children and not work outside the home.” The odd syntax obscures what common sense dictates the authors must have been asking: “Should mothers with young children remain at home?” In any case, agreement with the idea however it’s expressed is obviously countercultural and not something most people would admit to in polite company, although the percentage of people who agree — secretly, not openly — with that particular vision of femininity and domesticity may be higher than will ever be captured by surveys that rely on self-reporting. More to the point, you can disagree with the statement strictly interpreted but agree emphatically with the worldview that the statement is assumed to represent. Complementarity between the sexes in all dimensions, social and economic as well as biological, exists. Some would go so far as to say that it’s natural and should be cultivated, not repressed.

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