The Rise of Secular Gender Egalitarianism?

Originally posted on Kinda Kind with Ashley Lauren.

Recently, I’ve noticed two interesting cultural trends in the United States. On the one hand, the U.S. is becoming increasingly secular. That is, a growing proportion of the U.S. population claims no religious affiliation. On the other hand, the U.S. is becoming increasingly gender egalitarian. I’m left wondering: could these trends be related? If so, what might explain their relationship?

The Evidence.

I noticed these trends when digging through data from the General Social Survey (GSS). The GSS contains data that represents the attitudes, opinions, and demographics of the entire U.S. population. The National Opinion Research Center (NORC) has administered the GSS biennially since 1972. During each wave of data collection, the GSS asked respondents if they were affiliated with a particular religion. According to prior research, these affiliations can be roughly organized into the following categories: Black Protestants, Evangelical Protestants, Mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, other religious affiliations (such as Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.), and the religiously unaffiliated. I’ve charted the proportion of the U.S. population that is affiliated with each, from 1977 to 2014 (see below). The chart demonstrates that the population of Mainline Protestants has declined (purple), while the population of religiously unaffiliated individuals has grown substantially (black). Much of this growth occurred after 1991.Chart1

The GSS has also asked respondents a number of questions about the role and status of women in the U.S. Many of these questions were not asked during every wave of data collection. However, four interesting questions were asked during data collection in 1977, and then onward from 1985 to 2014. These questions are: “Tell me if you agree or disagree with this statement: Most men are better suited emotionally for politics than are most women”; “A working mother can establish just as warm and secure a relationship wither her children as a mother who does not work”; “A preschool child is likely to suffer if his or her mother works”; and “It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family”.

In a 2011 study, Cotter, Hermsen, and Vanneman aggregated the responses to these questions into a scale measure of gender egalitarianism among the U.S. population. High scores on the scale indicated that respondents thought women were capable of working in politics or outside of the home, and could do so without harming their children (if they have any). Lower scores represented the opposite. I replicated this scale and charted the average score on it among the general U.S. population and each religious affiliation discussed above. This chart demonstrates three interesting facts (see below).Chart2

First, it demonstrates the U.S. population (blue) has become increasingly gender egalitarian since at least 1977. That is, the U.S. population has increasingly thought that women are capable of the same work as men, and that women can engage in this work without harming their relationship with their children (again, if they have any). Second, this chart demonstrates that the trend toward gender egalitarianism stagnated and reversed during the 1990s, and then regained its upward momentum after 2002. Finally, this chart demonstrates that the religiously unaffiliated population of the U.S. has been characterized by more gender egalitarian attitudes than religiously affiliated populations since at least 1977.


With respect to these trends, I return to my original questions: is the trend toward gender egalitarianism in the U.S. related to the growth of the religiously unaffiliated population? If so, what might explain their relationship?

The evidence present here certainly suggests as much. Indeed, the movement toward gender egalitarianism after the year 2000 is correlated with the rampant growth of the religiously unaffiliated. There is good reason to suspect that this correlation is significant. Sociological research has often demonstrated that religious individuals, particularly Evangelical Christians, are partial to traditional gender norms that place the man at the head of the family, and as the sole breadwinner in the household. Thus, as individuals turn away from religion, they may become more receptive to gender egalitarianism. Nevertheless, further research is necessary to confirm the significance of the correlation observed here. I plan to carry out this research with Dr. Shannon Davis at George Mason University in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I will be posting more interesting data on religion and public attitudes in the U.S.

Stay tuned!


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