Volume 36 - Article 6 | Pages 173–226  

The forest and the trees: Industrialization, demographic change, and the ongoing gender revolution in Sweden and the United States, 1870-2010

By Maria Stanfors, Frances Goldscheider

This article is part of the Special Collection 20 "Finding Work‒Life Balance: History, Determinants, and Consequences of New Breadwinning Models in the Industrialized World"


Background: The separate spheres, in which men dominate the public sphere of politics, arts, media, and wage work and women dominate the private sphere of unpaid production and caring, is a powerful configuration in much social theory (including Parsons, Becker, and Goode), which posited that with industrialization, family structures and activities would converge towards the nuclear family with strict gender roles.

Objective: This paper examines the major trends unraveling the gender division of family support and care that reached its peak in the mid-20th century, often called the ‘worker-carer’ or the ‘separate spheres’ model, by comparing the experiences of Sweden and the United States.

Methods: We use data that includes time series of macro-level demographic and economic indicators, together with cross-sectional data from censuses and time use surveys.

Results: The unraveling of the separate spheres began with the increase in the labor force participation of married women and continues with the increase in men’s involvement with their homes and children, but its foundations were laid in the 19th century, with industrialization. We show that despite short-term stalls, slowdowns, and even reverses, as well as huge differences in policy contexts, the overall picture of increasing gender sharing in family support and care is strongly taking shape in both countries.

Contribution: By doing a comparative, in-depth analysis, it becomes clear that the extreme role specialization within the couple that divided caring from ‘work,’ though theoretically important, applied only for a limited period in Northern Europe and the United States, however important it might be in other regions.

Author's Affiliation

Other articles by the same author/authors in Demographic Research

Attitudes toward work and parenthood following family-building transitions in Sweden: Identifying differences by gender and education
Volume 49 - Article 30

Introduction to the Special Collection on Finding Work-Life Balance: History, Determinants, and Consequences of New Bread-Winning Models in the Industrialized World
Volume 37 - Article 26

Fertility and the fast-track: Continued childbearing among professionals in Sweden, 1991-2009
Volume 31 - Article 15

Domestic gender equality and childbearing in Sweden
Volume 29 - Article 40

Family life in power couples.: Continued childbearing and union stability among the educational elite in Sweden, 1991–2005
Volume 23 - Article 30

Reconciling studies of men’s gender attitudes and fertility: Response to Westoff and Higgins
Volume 22 - Article 8

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