Are There More “Nurturing” Women Than Men in Books, And Does It Matter?

Why We Need More Nurturing Fathers in Books

Recently I’ve been reading a number of books and articles about domestic inequality and how women (in particular mothers) do significantly more housework and caregiving than men. All the Rage by Darcy Lockman explores some of the larger societal reasons that this might be the case, and the idea that women are often considered to be “better” or “more natural” caregivers and, therefore, either are given or take on more carework themselves struck me an interesting idea—because I see it often in literature.  I did post in May (around US Mother’s Day) about how a large percentage of mothers in young adult novels are actually dead, so clearly they are not providing any caregiving, but now I am wondering how many characters in books that do include parents or parental figures are women vs. men.

I have yet to make a large-scale survey of my reading (and if someone wants to do their own and post about it, feel free), but I was struck by the absence of involved fathers in the book I happened to read right after All the Rage, which was the middle grade fantasy Briar and Rose and Jack by Katherine Coville.  The book contains three prominent characters who fill the role of caregiver—and all of them are women.

It is worth noting that Briar and Rose and Jack is a fairy tale retelling set in a fantasy world clearly inspired by medieval Europe.  In that sense, it seems fair to me that there are some historically-inspired stereotypical gender roles in the book when it comes to labor: men are soldiers, men do the farming, women run the household, etc.  Protagonists Briar and Rose are independent individuals and take charge of their lives, so it isn’t as if women are passive nobodies, but in terms of actual jobs, the book tends to stick to gender divisions that decently reflect what one might expect from medieval Europe (or a place like it).

However, I found I was bothered by the idea that all the caregivers in the book are women because that is not a distinction about tasks or chores; it’s a perpetuation of the idea that women are the caring, nurturing ones, while men are distant.  The people who care for children, literally and emotionally, in the book are Briar and Rose’s mother, the nurse/fairy godmother, and Jack’s mother.  Jack’s father is dead (we have no idea what he would have been like if alive), and Briar and Rose’s father is so horrid he disowns Briar entirely and then values Rose only for her beauty and political value.  The other prominent adult in the story is the bishop, who tutors the children and seems to despise children in general, though Briar in particular.  There are several examples of nurturing, comforting, actively involved women in the book, but no men.

Is this a problem?  For an individual book, I’d say no, but I am very interested in taking note as I continue to read other books this year of how many female characters in them are “good” parents or parental stand-ins and how many men are.  If books do the work of both reflecting and imparting values of our society, it would be a worthwhile goal to see active, nurturing father characters to help upend the stereotype that women are “better” at caregiving work.

What do you think? Are caring mothers more common the books you read, or are there caring fathers, too?

Briana

23 thoughts on “Are There More “Nurturing” Women Than Men in Books, And Does It Matter?

  1. Mei-Mei says:

    This reminded me of some research I saw awhile back: although male and female MMO gamers are about equally likely to play healers, the healer character avatars are more likely to be female. (This is true for my own characters; I wrote about it here: https://jedibyknight.com/2014/05/14/and-shes-hotter-than-reality-by-far/)
    I think it is an interesting tendency for us to see female characters as the ones to take on the nurturing roles, and something writers should keep in mind. I purposefully wrote a male healer into one of my stories for that reason.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

        I was thinking of this, too, and I think it’s connotation. If you told someone “draw a doctor,” I think a lot of people would draw a man because “doctor” seems scientific. “Healer” could mean anything from using herbs to using magic, and I think because it sounds less rigorous/scientific, that might be why people skew towards thinking of women.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Jennifer says:

          I see that, it seems like the similar kind of reflection of women cooking more at home, but more professional chefs being men. Matches that rigor level again as you mentioned. It seems like women are more in the “softer” versions of roles. Makes sense that this would likely be reflected in books!

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      • Mei-Mei says:

        Interesting point! Doctors have “traditionally” been male while nurses are female. Symptom of the patriarchy, I guess? But just from personal observation (I work at a medical school), I think there are now as many if not more female med students than male.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Kelly | Another Book in the Wall says:

    Great discussion, Briana! The frequent absence of parents and other parental figures in YA literature is upsetting, and I fully agree that in the few instances where there are parents involved, it’s typically the mother. This could be because of this universal idea that women are better caregivers than men, but I also wonder if this could be because of the female-to-male author ratio in YA? I’ve noticed that women authors tend to have a brighter spotlight than men in the Young Adult industry, so perhaps it’s through these women’s books that female characters are being depicted as a more nurturing type. Inspiration from their personal lives as mothers or daughters, maybe? You bring up a lot of food for thought here. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. CHARIS RAE @ charisrae.com says:

    These are some great thoughts here! Something that entered my mind: One of the prominent messages of modern feminists (at least in my experience) is that women don’t need a man and instead should rely only on themselves. Personally, I think this makes a more negative atmosphere or attitude and maybe even creates a kind of stigma against nurturing fathers.

    One of my favorite books with an amazing dad is To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before! I loved Lara Jean’s dad 🙂

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  4. Jennifer says:

    You know, I actually feel like it’s about an even split in the books I read, at least in YA. I’m curious though, and now I might do an inventory!

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  5. DoingDewey says:

    Great post! I’ve also recently been thinking about how problems with representation are often problems of the collection of published works. Certainly, individual books can have bad representation, but I think this is more likely to be obvious and to get called out by the community. The problem with representation within all published works can be subtler, perhaps a case of missing representation instead of poor representation, and certainly harder to measure. I would love if someone put together stats on this particular topic!

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Exactly! I was really thinking about the idea that there’s a social/cultural idea that women are more nurturing, and books seem like an obvious place this idea would be perpetuated. People talk a lot about how media can influence things like how women/girls perceive physical appearance, but I think gender roles also get perpetuated in media. And while people will try to combat obvious ones (like there are a lot of girls in STEM books now), things like this are much more subtle–and they seem more positive. Like, do you really want to complain about good mothers in books?

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  6. 1221bookworm says:

    This is a very interesting observation of the genre, especially one filled with so many absent parents. But it also makes it more clear the gender divide as our “orphan” main characters find their own “mentors” and “nurturers”. At least in Harry Potter, there is Dumbledore, Sirius, and Lupin as “caring” adults in Harry’s life. But, my hands down favorite fictional dad is Colm Fahley (Father of Jesper) from Six of Crows He might not fit into the nurturer category, but has a huge heart anyway!

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  7. La La in the Libraryl says:

    Yes, and yes. We do need more nurturing fathers and father figures in literature. I especially think contemporary literature has a unique way of normalizing things; sometimes bad (the “wanna” “gonna” “gotta” syndrome), sometimes good (girls being good at science and math). 📚

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