The Great American Gender Debates of 2013

From Supreme Court cases to blockbuster films, these are the narratives on sex and gender that dominated the news this year. 

Some of the biggest stories and debates in the media in 2013 had to do with gender relations—LGBT rights, women in the workplace, parenting styles, and more. Same-sex marriage gained more approval and legitimacy than ever this year, both in public opinion polling and as a matter of federal law. Sheryl Sandberg told women to "lean in" at the office, while the military told women they were now permitted to "lean in" on the battlefield. Bradley Manning became Chelsea Manning. And researchers offered up interesting new studies for individuals seeking a happy home life.

Here are our picks for the most interesting narratives about sex and gender in 2013.  

Gay Marriage Starts to Influence Straight Marriage

Gail Albert Halaban

On June 26, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which had denied federal benefits to gay couples legally married in their states. In The Atlantic’s June cover story, Liza Mundy argued that gay marriage has the potential to change straight marriage—for the better. Mundy pointed to research showing higher rates of satisfaction in same-sex unions. Same-sex partnerships, researchers quoted in the piece suggested, may finally shed light on an old question: How much of the conflict we’ve come to see as inherent in heterosexual marriage is about marriage, and how much of it is about gender roles? Same-sex couples often have different approaches to handling chores, childcare, and intimacy, Mundy noted. Maybe straight couples have something to learn.

Intriguingly, however, it appears there’s one area where gay marriage is reinforcing traditional norms: name-changing.

Marissa Mayer Shakes Up the Work-Life Debate

"Marissa Mayer is a CEO first and a woman second," wrote Anne-Marie Slaughter in February. (Henny Ray Abrams/Associated Press file photo)

Marissa Mayer was already a divisive figure and potential feminist icon when the year opened, having become CEO of Yahoo in July 2012 and taken only two weeks of maternity leave that October before returning to work. In February of 2013, she made headlines again with a controversial ban on telecommuting. Some called Mayer hypocritical for having made life more difficult for Yahoo’s working parents while she, herself, could afford to have a private nursery built next to her office. In April, though, Mayer doubled paid maternity leave for mothers and instituted a new eight-week paid paternity leave to fathers. Critics hailed the move as a first step towards gender-parity in parenting.

Marriage Is Good for Your Career—If You’re a Man


In January, the American Historical Association revealed the results of its 2010 Career Paths Survey. As Alexis Coe reported for The Atlantic, the study showed not only that men progressed quicker from associate to full professor than women did, but also that marriage hastened a man’s promotion, while slowing a woman’s promotion. The difference was attributed, in part, to the support married men get from their female partners, who are more likely to take a leave of absence from their own jobs to aid a husband’s career. Another study Coe covered that same month suggested this isn’t just true in academia: It pays to be a married dad whose wife doesn’t work full-time.

Sheryl Sandberg Tells Women to Lean In

Gregory Bull/Associated Press

March saw the release of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, an extension of her viral TED talk, “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.” Sandberg’s key contribution to the debate was not just to focus on sexism in the workplace: She also challenged women to speak up in the office, and not to check their ambitions out of a premature consideration for the pressures of motherhood.

Was the book too focused on upper-class women? Did it ignore gender differences and patronize “lean back” moms? Some critics thought so. But the book was also well timed. Recent studies had found women less likely than men to behave aggressively in the workplace, particularly when it came to asking for raises. And a study in January revealed that women were less likely even to talk about their salaries. The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta, among others, praised Sandberg for getting the conversation going. Rebecca Rosen pointed to the book’s message for men: Making workplaces and homes more equal not only requires their help, but could also benefit them, as well.

Women Will Fill Combat Roles, and Get Better Procedures for Reporting Sexual Assaults

National Journal

In January, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced, with hearty and unequivocal support from General Martin Dempsey, that the Pentagon would lift its controversial ban on women in combat. "I went back to teach at West Point in 1984 and found the place far better than it was when I had been a cadet,” said Dempsey when a reporter pressed him on how women would affect combat readiness. “I attributed a good amount of that to the fact that we opened up the academy to women." Dempsey also thought greater moves to include women would reduce the military’s pernicious sexual assault problem: "The more we can treat people equally, the more likely they are to treat each other equally.”

Politicians weren’t prepared to wait on that front. Debate over reforms in the military’s sexual assault reporting and prosecution process raged in Congress over the summer. On December 12, the House of Representatives voted by an overwhelming majority to pass the resulting defense policy bill.

Dempsey’s confidence that women could meet the standards required for combat roles got some support this fall: For the first time in history, women are set to graduate from the infantry training course of the U.S. Marine Corps. No allowances or adjustments were made to the physical fitness requirements. Remember those 17 percent of Marines who said in February they’d quit if women were allowed in combat roles? Time to find out whether they were serious.

Angelina Jolie Attempts to De-Stigmatize Mastectomies

Alastair Grant/Reuters

In May, actress Angelina Jolie revealed in a New York Times op-ed that she had undergone a preventative double mastectomy. She chose to remove her breasts, she wrote, after learning she carried the infamous BRCA1 gene. Her mother died of breast cancer. The message? “A woman is still sexy, even after she has her breasts removed and reconstructed,” argued The Atlantic’s Eleanor Barkhorn. “It’s hard to imagine a person who can say that with more authority than Jolie.”

Presented by

Heather Horn & Svati Kirsten Narula

Heather Horn is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic. Svati Kirsten Narula writes for and produces The Atlantic's National channel. 

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