The Female Experience: For Women, Modern Gender Roles Continue to Evolve

Female gender issues have surfaced in the past several years. They mingle with the role females play in everyday society. It might even be safe to say feminism is becoming an ascendant force in America. Even with the view of female gender roles constantly evolving, there is still a struggle for power.

Shelley Carroll is a wife and mother of two daughters who are now both in college. She grew up in what could be defined as a strict religious household.

“I was raised in a religion that believed women were to be at home as a wife and mother. I desperately didn’t want that for myself but eventually gave myself over to what I knew was expected of me.”

Often the Christian faith follows along a path of partnership in marriages and relationships. Instead, Carroll was subject to degrading stereotypes and wasn’t allowed to dream. 

“As a young girl I silently dreamed of being a trader in the New York Stock Exchange. I was a good student in school and dreamed of a corporate career and business leader. Of course, I wasn’t aware that the stock exchange is male dominated and only this year did they hire their first female floor trader and named a female president!” Carroll said. “I never voiced my dream because I knew it would be met with laughter and scorn.” 

Bible verses, such as first Timothy, told Carroll the only reason she is on this earth was to serve males: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”

An article posted by the U.S. National Library of Medicine asks, “when do children develop a sense of male privileged status and when do they form negative attitudes about the other sex?” The article notes that even before a child is born, the process of gender socialization begins. This process of learning how to interact and treat different genders will continue to develop throughout childhood and into adulthood.

“I was raised with a different set of standards than my brothers that bred contempt for women. My brothers were taught that women were there to serve and not have an opinion.” Carroll said. “They were also taught that when a woman showed emotion she was just trying to manipulate a situation.”

This constant continuation of female gender scrutiny causes ruthless anxiety and rises stress levels. “These ideas that women were below men didn’t teach me and my brothers to love each other. They disregarded me because I was a female, and in return I felt anger toward them for disregarding me. It wasn’t healthy,” she said. “There was a large chasm in our home between the genders. Unfortunately it carried over into our adult lives and we have had to work hard to respect and love each other.”

A report from Universities of Hertfordshire and Sheffield  said ideas about gender difference were derived from classical thought, Christian ideology, and contemporary science and medicine.

During the eighteenth century, men were thought to be stronger, wiser, and more courageous. Women in the eighteenth century were looked at as being the weaker sex because our actions are driven by emotion. This ideology has been carried over from centuries of outdated thinking into current day living.

By the time the nineteenth century rolled around, female roles changed drastically. All aspects of public life now belonged to men. Females were strictly the homemaker and breed for motherhood. Ideas about the female gender changed, as women were no longer perceived as emotionally driven but rather virtuous. If women did not live up to the expectation of virtuism, they were labeled as ‘prostitutes’ and told they were acting on uncontrollable sexual desires.

As history repeats itself, women have primarily been to blame for accusations of sexual assault. We’ve witnessed the history book of innocent women being to blame. The law did little to protect because it was the woman’s fault for being to promiscuous. Not until 1980 did the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission finalize guidelines regarding sexual harassment as a form of discrimination.

“My father was an angry man who was emotionally, verbally, and physically abusive. As an adult I realized that he fit the definition of a narcissist.” Carroll said. “He was an extreme chauvinist and raised his five sons with a different set of standards than he raised his only daughter with.”

Around age 15, she was molested by her father. “Touching that was against my wishes,” she said. “It makes me physically sick to think about it. He tried to control me and would guilt me into showing I cared about him by saying he was going to kill himself to see how I would react.”

Carroll said she hates everything about her father. “He made my life a living hell in so many ways. I knew I was trapped under his control and in desperation I planned an escape one night. I crawled out of my window with my clothes in trash bags at the age of 18 when I should’ve had the freedom to come and go as I pleased.”

She said her father found her the next day and bribed her to get in the car under the assumption the two would just talk. Instead, he had different motives. “He took me home and informed me I would never leave the house again and he would have my brothers guard the doors and windows so I couldn’t escape. Again, I was a legal adult at this age!”

Data shows that sexual assault may trigger severe depression and even suicidality. Survivors may suffer from rape trauma syndrome, which presents with a pattern of symptoms that are similar to posttraumatic stress disorder.

Carroll said she felt trapped and even still often has nightmares about being trapped with her father. She said it has taken years to let go of the hate she has for him. Yet sometimes she is reminded of how miserable he made her and has to fight the anger all over again.

“I wasn’t heard or believed what my father had done to me because I was the only girl in a family of boys being conditioned by a chauvinist. Any emotion I showed was me being a girl. I was labeled “hysterical,” “dramatic,” “overly sensitive,” “manipulative,” and the best one that they always threw my way was “oh that’s just Shelley being a girl.”

Carroll said she developed extreme anxiety and depression from the traumatic interaction with her father. “I began to have what I would call panic attacks. I would feel like I couldn’t breathe which would cause me to hyperventilate and then cause my body to go into spasms that resembled a seizure,” she said. “These episodes made me feel even worse about myself. It made me feel weak and I knew that behind my back people were saying I was only having these attacks to garner attention.”

Carroll said she didn’t know how to handle the situation. She was confused and didn’t know how to deal with the stress. “Almost like my body and mind were saying I can’t deal with this anymore, I’m shutting down for a while.”

Carroll said she often had episodes of panic when she would be interacting with large groups of people. She felt judged and condemned because she knew people were labeling her as an attention seeker when instead they should be asking what is causing her to have this reaction to stress.

“To say I didn’t feel loved and felt alone was an understatement. Not only was my home life toxic, but so was my church life. I didn’t feel safe in either,” she said.

Through her early teenage years, Carroll constantly battled with herself over what had actually happened that night when she was 15 years old. In large part, she blames the church she grew up in for how the incident was handled, or lack thereof.

“I battled my memory of the situation for years thinking I had embellished or imagined what happened. There was times I was convinced I was crazy.” Carroll said. “I battled with my memories and whether God would hold me accountable if they were not accurate. It made me crazy.”

In part, Carroll blames the church she grew up in for their distorted version of how a woman should represent herself. “It’s just all so messed up because of our church background,” she said. “I remember being at a church camp during the winter time. I went to pieces. I couldn’t stop crying. I would say it was close to a nervous breakdown.  I was so unhappy. I felt so alone while my friends carried on with their lives.”

Carroll said her parents pulled her aside from the camp and demanded to tell them what was wrong with her.

“Of course my father knew. I finally told him to tell my mom what he had done,” she said.

Her mother reacted the way a mother should. She took Carroll home to rest and told her if her father ever did anything like that again to tell her. “That one morning when she told me to tell her if he ever did anything again I felt her support. But then later she changed her tune. She told me it was something I had imagined due to things I had read in the newspaper,” Carroll said. “It killed me, if my own mother didn’t believe me, maybe I had imagined it. It made me feel shame and guilt.”

She said she was angry with her mom for years. That anger lasted up until a few years ago. “I couldn’t imagine how a mother wouldn’t protect her child from an abusive father. She had to choose her marriage or my story,” she said.

Now, Carroll knows her mother is not to blame. “To better understand my mom you need to know that she has suffered through multiple infidelities and didn’t have the option but to stay in the marriage because our religion did not support divorce,” she said. “I think she had to choose to believe this to be able to continue in her sham of a marriage.”

Because of Carroll’s experience, she now says she will always campaign for girls to be independent before getting into serious relationships. “She [Carroll’s mother] couldn’t have left my father with six kids to feed and take care of. She had to accept his abuse and infidelities because she knew she couldn’t take care of us without him there to provide financially.” 

Carroll said it wasn’t until she had children of her own she was able to let go and realize she was the victim and should harbor zero shame or guilt over what happened. “Growing up with the female gender role that was placed on me made me angry, but because of our religion that taught women were to be subservient to men, I felt guilty for my anger,” she said. “After I got married I realized it was a male character flaw to demand authority and control over women and it didn’t have anything to do with me.”

A study done by Amy Blackstone at the University of Maine indicates that gender is a concept humans create socially, through their interactions with one another and their environments, yet it relies heavily upon biological differences between males and females.

“The social construction of gender is demonstrated by the fact that individuals, groups, and societies ascribe particular traits, statuses, or values to individuals purely because of their sex,” the study said.

Many would argue that men have historically been the leaders of society, feminism is making a gigantic leap. “I’m really glad that female gender roles have evolved into a more equal role,” Caroll said

Even more traditional roles between male and female appear to be changing. Data from the Pew Research Center shows the number of stay at home dads has risen to two million since 2012.

Carroll said, “I don’t believe that men should be exempt from helping with household chores such as doing laundry, cooking, cleaning up, and helping clean the house.”

She believes this role goes both ways. “I also believe that women should be adept at yard work and maintaining their vehicles even if that means just taking it to the mechanic,” she said. “I’m a proponent of whatever role a man and woman want to take in their relationship as long as it’s been discussed and agreed upon by both parties. I think the younger generation is modeling the idea of both partners being equal whereas the older generation is still very much stuck in gender specific roles.”

Gender roles evolve from cultural and social traditions. Today there is a much more relaxed version of gender roles in society largely due to media influences. Although males in media are still predominantly portrayed as the strong, and brave hero. Women are beginning to see a larger increase of strong, independent female movie and television leads.

“I want my daughters to be happy with themselves and not attach their happiness to whether they have a man in their lives or not,” Carroll said. “I want them to be independent of needing a man to pay the bills and support her financially. I want them to be empowered to be able to stand on their own whether it’s emotionally or financially. I want them to know that they’re okay by themselves.”

Carroll tells her daughters all she wishes from them is they rely on themselves before they depend on anyone else.

“They can bring a confident, strong, and independent woman into a relationship with a man who respects who and what she is. There should never be a relationship that is one sided. It should be equal in what both parties bring to the table. I want my girls to be so confident in themselves that they would rather stay single then to be with the wrong guy,” she said. “There’s way too much power wrapped up in a man when he is the one to provide your physical needs.”

The position women play in society has come a long way from stereotypical gender roles. Society is constantly evolving, but it still has a long way to go.

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