Blue Girl in a Red State: Gender Roles in Small Towns

By Kelly Sheperd

As a young woman growing up in Idaho and even as young as a small child, I was told by relatives, friends, and parents of friends that having kids and getting married was going to be the best part of my life. I was told that I would marry young, have a baby and a career (maybe), but mostly, I will be enjoying motherhood.

I remember my aunt Elma coming up to me at Christmas, I must have been about 9 years old. She sat me down on a rocking chair and told me, “Honey, one day you are going to make such a wonderful mother. Look how nicely you play with your baby cousins. You are so good with children, you will be a great mother.”

At the time, I was filled with warmth and happiness knowing one of my elders noticed my good behavior. I had no idea that what I had actually experienced was a harsh reinforcement of gender roles and the societal belief that women are born to be mothers. Instead of approaching me to say, “Honey, you are so good at building blocks. One day you will be a great engineer,” I was told as a small child, not yet fertile, that the best thing I will do in my life was be a mother.

This same thing happened to my brothers as well. As a boy, my youngest brother had the inclination to wear my mother’s heels. He would put them on, wrap a scarf around his neck, hold a purse and strut around the house. My sisters and I would die laughing because he was just so cute. His friends and peers, however, called him horrible, gendered words, some of which are highly offensive.

Soon after the mockery, my little brother stopped playing dress up and began playing with Tonka trucks. He is now a mechanic, getting his hands dirty and upholding his masculinity every day. And he is totally happy. He loves fixing cars, it gives him a sense of purpose.

I can’t help but wonder, though, if he had been encouraged to play dress up (or really anything that made him happy) would he still have become a mechanic? Or maybe he would have chosen fashion school and been a leading designer in the industry. If my brother had been given the same opportunities as my sisters, and vice versa, would we have all turned out the way we did?

Gender Roles in Small Towns

In Boise, though a beautiful and accepting town, men will join the military, men will become hunters, men will drive large pickup trucks, and men will protect their women. In Boise, women often won’t work or will work part time, women will cook the meals, women will do the grocery shopping, and women will rear the children.

Sound familiar? These are the pre-established gender roles that we have been reading about in history books since the time of King Edward. These are the assigned duties for men and women as was seen fit hundreds of years ago, before the advancement of technology, the construction of the Eiffel tower or the introduction of the LGBTQIA+ movement.

Small towns continue to uphold these gender roles, not necessarily out of stubborn-pride or anti-femininity. Small towns simply follow these rules because they haven’t been exposed to enough culture or change to see that there is a different way.

You see, diverse people don’t flock to small towns. Why? Because of the stereotype surrounding them. Small towns are home to suspicious people who don’t like change or strangers. Does this sound like a great place to live if you are freshly arriving from, say, Ghana?

But take a look at big city stereotypes. They are so huge and populated, you can find every kind of food you imagine and can take your pick of the litter when it comes to finding friends. The big city never sleeps, because people work really hard and have epic social lives. This sounds like it would be pretty attractive to any kind of visitor.

Freedom of the Big City

The difference between big cities and small cities are the people. Not just in amount, but in variety. In The Big Apple, you can estimate that you will pass by, sit next to, or purchase goods from any number of people on any number of spectrums. In small towns, this is not exactly true. In parts of Idaho, you have to do some serious hunting and traveling to even see a man or woman of any color or sexual identity other than straight and white. White men and their white families are what flourish here.

Sure, you will see people who represent minorities and intersectionality, but not nearly as prevalently as you would in a city like New York. Not to mention the reality that in small towns differences stick out like sore thumbs. In the big city, it is almost expected of you to fall outside of the norm. You are encouraged to be different, to be special and to make your own mold. In small towns, you are encouraged to follow tradition. And tradition is just a fancy word for rigid gender norms.

According to tradition, every Sunday is set aside for God, women have babies and families continue to grow. But this lifestyle isn’t made for every person in the world. Some people don’t believe in the biblical God, some people want to spend their lives with each other and not have children and some people want to marry someone with the same body parts as them.

The world is no longer fit for tradition. It is too big, too diverse, and too troubled by the faults and failures of the people of our history. Next time you pass through your capitol building, check out the images of your past governors and mayors. In New York, there will be men, women, black, white, hispanic, you name it. In Idaho, there is white, white, straight and white, and also white men. This is a reflection of the severity of antiquated gender roles happening in small towns throughout the US.

How Gender Roles Harm Women   

In small towns like Boise, gender roles are taken so incredibly seriously that they actually cause problems between women. Women bashing is common in small towns because of the abnormally high dependence people have on “tradition” or gender roles. Women who follow tradition shame women who don’t because traditional women believe in the roles they are playing and the value they add to culture. Of course, so do non-traditional women, but this is a difficult point to make in the face of a traditionalist.

In Boise, over 30% of women begin having children between the ages of 25 and 29. That means, if a woman is lucky, she can attend college, graduate with a degree, and work for a couple years before having to move work to the back-burner in order to raise children. This, of course, doesn’t take into account the percent of women who actually went to school before getting pregnant.

In Idaho, education, like progress, is not a high priority. The number of students dropping out of high school and college or refusing to seek higher education at all is egregious with less than 50% of Idaho students moving on to college. Less than half of them are women.

I will argue this: education is the single most important gain for a woman if you hope to escape the boundaries of stereotypical gender norms. College can act as a catalyst for young women, giving them purpose and power to go out into the world feeling like they have something unique to offer it, rather than feeling like the only thing they have to offer is a womb.

I will argue again that one of the leading causes of women not seeking higher education is upbringing. If a woman is brought up thinking of herself as more than a dairy-production vessel for future sheep, the likelihood of her finding value in her mind and her education increases. If a woman is raised believing that motherhood is the ultimate peak, the highest summit of life, then college becomes little to them except a place to find a proper mate.

Women’s education also plays a big role in the democratic processes that unfold in small towns and red states throughout the country. Voter education is crucial in creating a democratic election process that leans favor toward the people and their voices. Uneducated women tend to have limited knowledge of voting, which leads to decisions ultimately being made by their white, male counterparts.

According to a voting study performed by the Center for American Women and Politics, women have been turning out to vote more frequently than men since 1980, with approximately 1 million more women voting compared to men in 2016. Women have truly found an opportunity to represent their voices in legislative procedures to affect change for all people.

Unfortunately, with government offices like the Electoral College and the Senate, women are still outnumbered and cannot affect change from a higher scale, limiting the opportunities for legislation to pass in favor of women’s rights and gender equality. Small towns are severely impacted by this example of gender roles, which continues to archaize them and make women’s role obsolete.

How Women Thrive Despite Gender Norms

Despite the constant pressures of gender norms that women in small towns face, there is a some sign of light and change on the horizon. Women are making names for themselves in every known industry from fashion to technology, from engineering to healthcare. Women, despite where they may have grown up (small town or big) are making and taking opportunities for themselves and for their sisters.

More than ever, women are becoming entrepreneurs as banks begin supporting female leaders with business loans. Women are seeking higher education at quicker rates than they once did. More women than ever are joining the Armed Forces to protect and serve their country. The rate at which women are having children also continues to drop.

Despite the constant subjection of gender norms that women are put through, they continue to thrive and grow and challenge expectations. Women must no longer sit idly by as men soak up the opportunity that many of them were born with. Women are worth more than what the media and stereotypes portray us as.

Women are not solely a vessel for population growth. We do not simply become mothers and that’s it. Women are complex, complicated individuals who have so much to offer.

Now is the time that women, especially women in small towns, begin to challenge the gender roles they are having pushed on them. Challenge the expectations that your city has placed on you and aspire to do more than what society thinks you can. If small towns can jump on the bandwagon for change, the world will become closer to the utopia it has the potential for.

Kelly is a writer from Boise Idaho. She enjoys writing about the outdoors and her dog, Cassius. In her spare time she writes captivating fiction and confusing poetry. Follow her @kellyshep14 on Twitter!