Theoretical Framework

Gender competition and family change




Over the last 40 years, the United States and many other Western nations have seen a major economic shift to the service sector, the large scale employment of women, and attitudinal changes, differing across race/class groups, that favour gender equality and individual autonomy. Over the same period, huge changes in family behavior have occurred, including a retreat from marriage, a rise in cohabitation, and an upsurge in nonmarital fertility. Here the argument is advanced that those macro socioeconomic and ideological changes are linked to family changes through the micro mechanism of gender competition, i.e. partners striving for status, power, and control within their relationship. Although complex social changes are the result of many forces, it is argued that (1) alternative explanations of family change are inadequate; (2) gender competition is real, widespread, and a powerful force for change; (3) observed family changes can be seen in terms of the competitive strategies men and women employed in relationships; and (4) in subgroups identified on the basis of class and race, the extent of the retreat from marriage mirrors male/female differentials in gender attitudes.


Robert SCHOEN, Senior Scholar, Department of Sociology; Affiliate of the Population Research Institute, Pennsylvania State University, University Park PA 16802, (USA). E-mail:




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ISSN: 2035-5556

Reg. Tribunale di Roma n. 3321/54