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.”

Jolie’s revelation prompted an outpouring of anecdotes from other women. In November, television reporter Amy Robach underwent a double mastectomy following an on-air screening mammogram, prompting some to wonder whether American women were getting the wrong message about breast cancer options.

Sex and the College Girl
Wikimedia Commons

The American media remain fascinated with the way young men and women flirt, hook up, and form relationships at college. The biggest stories this year revolved around sexual assault on campus: how to prevent incidents from occurring in the first place (should we just tell female students to stop drinking so much?), and how to make it easier for victims to speak up and seek justice. Whether the need to report assaults, in the interest of campus-wide safety and awareness, outweighs a victim’s desire to move on is also up for debate. Meanwhile, the NCAA was accused of turning a blind eye to Division I programs who set their high school recruits up with “hostesses” on official visits – another sign, according to author Jessica Luther, “that the culture of men’s Division I sports can be harmful to women.

Transgender Issues Gain Unprecedented Mainstream Coverage
Lucas Jackson/Reuters

It’s an encouraging time for queer identities in America—or, at least, in the American media. The story of Chelsea-née-Bradley Manning—and the ensuing discussion of how and when federal prisoners get access to hormone therapy and sex re-assignment surgery—was one of several highlighting society’s shifting attitudes on defining gender. In The Atlantic, a few weeks after Matt Duron explained why he’s okay with raising a “gender-creative” son who wears dresses, Noah Berlatsky interviewed author Julia Serano about gender expression and biology. On Halloween, Duron’s wife Lori wrote about letting their son choose “girl costumes” instead of “boy costumes.”

Meanwhile, Harvard Business School's first openly trans student has been speaking up about why Harvard's progress is a good sign for society at large.

The Great Princess Debate Rages On

In January, Saraswati Nagpal argued that princesses can be heroic role models for young girls, even if they’re not wielding weapons and conquering bad guys. Nagpal pointed to epic mythological tales from India for examples of princesses who display strength in domestic ways. Merida, the spunky red-headed princess from Pixar’s 2012 movie Brave, got a “sexy makeover” this May, which fans of her original personality—“a cross between Annie Oakley and Katniss Everdeen,” a tomboy who might even be lesbian—were not too happy about. The backlash against Merida’s enhanced femininity was maybe too reductive, argued Noah Berlatsky: There ought to be a middle ground between tomboys and girly-girls in princess-dom. Meanwhile, Andy Hinds tried to keep his twin daughters away from Disney’s Cinderella stories, thinking that a video of Sonia Sotomayor saying “being a princess is not a career” would help keep them away from what he called “the Princess Industrial Complex.” To his dismay, one daughter eventually just said: “I don’t want to have a real career.”

Women Who ‘Opt Out’
Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Ten years after Lisa Belkin wrote about “The Opt-Out Revolution” for the New York Times, Lisa Miller penned a cover story for New York magazine about the exact same thing: “Feminists who say they’re having it all – by choosing to stay home.”  Is there anything wrong with highly educated professional women who are more interested in raising their kids than running the world? If the trend is less a reflection of women's preferences and more about inflexible, family-unfriendly workplaces, then maybe so.  Relatedly, however, Emily Matchar pointed out what she calls the “new domesticity”: Mothers from all walks of life are making environmentalist, anti-consumerist political statements by staying home.

In August, The New York Times issued a controversial update on the original Belkin piece: “The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In.” Apparently women who left the workforce for their families are now, whether due to divorce, restlessness, or economic necessity, rethinking the move—and having a hard time getting back into the market. The piece prompted The Atlantic’s daddy panel to protest that there’s no such thing as opting out. “Why did these women think they could get away with this?” Another writer offered the obvious but necessary reminder that “Keeping a Family Together Is Hard, Whether You ‘Opt Out’ or Not.”

The Year in Marriage Advice
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press file photo

Is marriage changing? Earlier this year Conor Friedersdorf said he’s not sure that his own marriage is very different from his grandparents’ marriage. Two things that have shifted, though, according to public opinion polls, are attitudes about cheating and divorce. While divorce is becoming more and more acceptable, along with pre-marital sex and having children out of wedlock, public disapproval for cheating has skyrocketed. The new message, Hugo Schwyzer summarized, is “I’d rather be left than lied to”; that the reverse would have been true forty years ago says a lot about how our views have changed.

How can one avoid an unhappy marriage, divorce, or infidelity to begin with? Researchers have looked to gay and lesbian couples for insights on what strains and strengthens partnerships (as mentioned above). The Dean of the National Cathedral offered his list of twelve things he urges couples to discuss before tying the knot. Eleanor Barkhorn took Vladimir Putin’s divorce as an opportunity to consider the importance of “mutual independence” in marriages. Karen Swallow Prior told readers not to shy away from getting married young, as marriage may make a better “cornerstone” of adulthood than a “capstone.” No matter when you get married, though, one piece of advice surfaces over and over again—the key to living happily ever after is dividing the housework. Even if one spouse ends up doing only 35 percent of the chores, the less ambiguity there is about whose job it is to empty the dishwasher, the better.