Alice Eagly: If it is socially consensual, that is, if people tend to agree on the notion of an ideal woman, then it matters because it affects behavior. The concept of an “ideal woman” can have certain contours that shape the behavior of girls and their goals about education or careers. Not everyone would necessarily accept a particular cultural definition of what an ideal woman is, but it can be powerful if it’s widely shared.
Foran: Do most people believe there are ideal ways, and not so ideal ways, of living up to gender expectations? If so, what are the consequences?
Eagly: Trump may be making a particularly strong statement when he says his mother was an “ideal woman,” but virtually everyone has expectations of acceptable behavior for men and women. There is a shared set of cultural norms that can change over time, and of course they matter. For example, women are supposed to be, above all, nice. We’re supposed to be modest. Men get to be more assertive and confident. If we women do things that are not considered acceptable, such as acting very tough and demanding in the workplace, we might be disliked or even ostracized. It cuts both ways. Men can be sanctioned for being overly nice, for example. If a man is considered extremely nice, accommodating, and sweet, people may like him, but he may not get promoted at work.
These expectations can lead to negative consequences for individuals who step outside of prescribed gender roles, but it is not inherently bad to have social norms. Social norms are an inevitable part of social life and are the glue that holds a society together. And Trump certainly isn’t the only politician expressing ideas about gender norms. Look at Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, who announced recently that he would have a gender-balanced cabinet. When asked why, he said “because it’s 2015.” He didn’t literally say an ideal woman is a career woman, but that’s an example of a politician nevertheless articulating, and acting on, a different notion of gender expectations. In Trudeau’s case, however, the ideal conforms more closely to a 21st century idea of what women should aspire to achieve.
Foran: How much currency is Trump’s articulated concept of an ideal woman likely to have in light of dominant conceptions of gender roles in the 21st century?
Eagly: In the New York Times interview, Trump described his mother as having a homemaker role and being very compliant to the father’s schedule. That was a cultural ideal that was more resonant in the 1950s. The ideal division of labor then was that the man goes out and does exciting things in his career and the woman stays back home to facilitate his work and to have children and care for them.
The housewife notion is no longer a very powerful cultural ideal because most people don’t live it out. Most families can’t afford to have a woman at home all the time because of the financial pressures that families face. Wages are so low for the majority of American men that they need a wife who works for pay too if they want anything approaching a middle class lifestyle. So it is typical now for both partners to be employed, although if anybody works part-time it’s usually the woman. People tend to adjust to the realities of these kinds of economic pressures, to do what they have to do, and then see that pattern as a good thing. The prevailing division of labor influences expectations about gender roles for men and women.