In Chapter 3 of The Way We Never Were, Coontz discusses how the foundation of the "traditional" family is the division of gender roles. The family should consist of a heterosexual married couple, where the deferential, nurturing wife is limited exclusively to the homemaking and child rearing realms, while the husband is the protector, wage-earner, and "ultimate source of authority in the household" (p. 43). The social problems we face today result from our society's denial of these "natural" roles.
[S]uch gender roles and family ideals are far from natural and have not always existed. It is worth noting that the word family originally meant a band of slaves. Even after the word came to apply to people affiliated by blood and marriage, for many centuries the notion of family referred to authority relations rather than loved ones. The sentimentalization of family life and female nurturing was historically and functionally linked to the emergence of competitive individualism and formal egalitarianism for men.
Coontz then points out that the Anglo-American idea that a man's dependence on others would be "weak, shameful, or uniquely feminine is foreign to most cultures" (p. 45). In non-U.S. American cultures, and in precapitalist societies, the personal and the public are/were not so severely separated. Coontz posits that the development of individualism and capitalism in the U.S. actually caused the creation of gender roles that seem so natural to many today, especially to white U.S. conservative evangelicals who would fit in the "complementarian" camp.
With the rise of Enlightenment philosophy, free-market capitalism, democracy, individual land-ownership, and anti-monarchical beliefs, the U.S. saw a hyper focus on individual rights, but those rights were acted out best and only by men:
Self-reliance and independence worked for men because women took care of dependence and obligation. In other words, the liberal theory of human nature and political citizenship did not merely leave women out: It worked precisely because it was applied exclusively to half the population. Emotion and compassion could be disregarded in the political and economic realms only if women were assigned these traits in the personal realm. Thus the use of the term individualistic to describe men's nature became acceptable only in the same time periods, social classes, and geographic areas that established the cult of domesticity for women. The cult of the Self-Made Man required the cult of the True Woman."
(p. 53). Coontz continues:
Women began to romanticize love and nurturing as female qualities that compensated for, or even outweighed, men's political power and economic resources. Men began to romanticize women as givers of services and emotions that could not be bought on the open market or claimed as political tribute but seemed to flow from generosity and self-sacrifice rather than from calculation or exchange.
The behavior we now define as "feminine" and "masculine" results from the ways in which our culture has developed economically and politically. In the early nineteenth century, when the U.S. began to see immense change, womanhood began to be defined as "piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity" (p. 58). In contrast, "[m]aleness represents a world of achievement, autonomy, and effectiveness" (p. 62).
This analysis is intriguing in light of the ways that white conservative evangelicals in the U.S. hold up certain behaviors as "biblical," either in terms of womanhood or marriage. The reality is that these behaviors are not rooted in Scripture, but rather stem from a particular U.S. American individualism and capitalism. It appears that those who champion traditional gender roles have uncritically adapted a distinctly U.S. American way of defining masculinity and femininity.
Below is a great example of white U.S. evangelicals' uncritical acceptance of gender roles that actually result from U.S. American capitalism and individualism, but are disguised as a biblical mandate. Those who do not conform are cast as "maligning" the Word of God and as "selfish."