Businesswoman and motherKrista Jenkins, Associate Professor of Political Science at Fairleigh Dickinson University, interviewed mothers and daughters to study how two generations of women interpret the women’s rights movement and perceive gender roles in their own lives. In this post, Krista shares the fascinating results of her research:

The fact that we look to our moms for cues on how to navigate the world around us is not limited to advice on child rearing and cooking, as my research on the political socialization of women shows. It turns out that the old adage “Mother knows best” is proven true when it comes to the kinds of cues that moms send their daughters about gender roles in both public and private life. What does this mean, you ask?

Well, years ago, while I was in grad school at Rutgers earning my Ph.D. in political science, I participated in a research project that involved interviewing mothers and daughters, both of whom had attended the same women’s college a generation apart. The central question was “How did two generations of women, who had been socialized in different eras but who shared family and college connections, resonate to the women’s movement and its call for gender equality?” The moms attended college during the movement’s heyday – the 1970s – when gender equality sounded revolutionary, while the daughters were attending college during what some have dubbed the post-feminist era – when gender equality sounds almost passé.


What I found in my research was clear evidence of a maternal influence when it comes to how young women perceive traditional gender roles. Career choices, childrearing plans, strategies for dealing with the inevitable sexist in public life – they are all areas ripe for maternal influence. That is, how a mother navigated waters rife with gendered expectations is likely to influence how her daughter approaches gender roles in her public and private life.

The women with whom I spoke were all educated and, for the most part, disdainful of any attempts to use gender as criteria for determining one’s lot in life. The moms all worked at some point after college, and the daughters were all contemplating careers in a variety of professions. In short, at least at face value, there was nothing about this group of women that suggested a strong bias against women who worked outside the home, particularly when there were small children at home.

And yet, when I encountered a mom who worked sporadically and took a significant number of years off to raise children, she was likely to have a daughter who planned to do the same, despite choosing a career that was unlikely to accommodate interruptions for maternal duties. To wit, here’s an exchange with a daughter who hoped to pursue a career in the pharmaceutical industry. Her mother stayed home to raise children and worked only when they were older.

A: I would definitely not send them (my children) to day care. I would definitely take time off until they reached school age level, and then resume working part-time.

Q: And why would you definitely not have day care?

A: I don’t know, I think a child should be raised by the mother. I think a lot of problems in what is happening today is kids are not getting the guidance they need, because you need two incomes now.

Q: And what about the father? What should be the father’s role?

A: For me personally, I would want the father of my child to be working. That is what I grew up with, and not to say that is the norm, but I would prefer to take care of my children and he could go and make the money.

The same is true for how mothers and daughters approach questions of sexual harassment and discrimination. How a mother dealt with situations in which she was paid less than an equally trained man, or experienced sexist treatment on the job, seemed to inform how her daughter was likely to approach similar situations, should she experience them in adulthood. If the mother accepted it as inevitable in life, her daughter was likely to say the same and, while being angered by sexist and unequal treatment, was prepared to roll with it.

My book, Mothers,

Daughters and Political Socialization

, discusses the influence of a mom on her daughter in far more detail. But, briefly, the take away for me is this: How we’re socialized to either accept or reject traditional gender roles is shaped as much by the larger social forces that are taking place around us – the women’s movement, or post-feminism, perhaps – as they are by what our moms communicate to us in their everyday behavior.

We’d love to hear from you on this topic: Do you and your mother or daughter have the same thoughts on gender roles? Please leave a comment.