Looking to Alternative Futures for Signals of Gender Equality
Envisioning the future with scenarios is how futurists approach most issues. In this article, scenarios about US families in 2025 are used to explore how gender equality might recalibrate under different future social norms. Each scenario reflects an extreme interaction of major uncertainties, a tactic that helps intensify the scenarios and generate urgent implications about women.
Important cultural differences exist between the US and the rest of the world in terms of families. Many of the family forms that could be forecast probably already exist in other cultures. So the scenarios avoid trying to identify anything “new” about families. Rather, the scenarios express the role of foresight studies to raise awareness about the present — for instance, to conduct feminist social critique — while imparting a sense of unpredictable societal change.
The intent of this scenario analysis is to offer insights along the lines of the future of the nuclear family, marriage, childbearing, child-rearing, nurturing and care-giving, and the relationship between paid work and domestic/household arrangements determining the status of women in America.
This analysis draws on four previously published alternative future scenarios. The scenarios are summarized below. (Read the full article “US Families 2025: In Search of Future Families”.)
Scenario 1. Mr. And Mrs. Right Now
Transient relationships and equal economic partnerships between spouses amidst a backdrop of socially recognized non-kin emotional bonds characterize the scenario. There is an emergence of sharing economic and emotional resources to meet familial needs, particularly those of children.
Scenario 2. Marriage Marketplace
A scenario in which contracts, resumes and proven competencies determine partnerships formed for the purpose of reproduction, cohabitation, marriage and child-rearing.
Scenario 3. The New Waltons for the 21st Century
Named for a popular 1970s television program celebrating the “traditional” American family, this scenario observes the extinction of dual-income families and the nuclear household.
Scenario 4. Desperate Housewives
Women’s rights to reproductive freedom, employment and divorce are challenged in this future. Men obtain elevated status based on the number of offspring they claim. Financial incentives for marriage and childbearing are distributed as government stipends; the US childbirth rate explodes.
The original article details which trends, critical uncertainties and emerging issues were taken to extremes to develop these scenarios. For example, arranged marriages emerge in the New Waltons scenario as an expression of economic scarcity combined with stridently orthodox cultural values. Evoking such an unlikely event challenges the audience but also stretches the implications for gender equality in the future.
This analysis of the US Families 2025 scenarios, in terms of the future of gender equality, acknowledges mainly just one feminist premise: women’s reproductive, marital, and domestic roles define her social status. In this analysis, new social implications are drawn out of each scenario under the theoretical lens lent by a given “feminism”. Furthermore, this approach offers the suggestion that new theories of gender equality will continue to emerge and challenge women’s roles in society.
Liberal feminism can be defined as legal equality for women. From this view, the Marriage Marketplace scenario may be most preferable, since men and women have equal access to the marriage and family life of their choice. Family roles are flexible and impermanent, unlike the New Waltons future where matrimony suggests females are the property of men. Similarly, the Desperate Housewives alternative strips women of their right to divorce at will. The harsh economic conditions of Mr. & Mrs. Right Now offer the opportunity to cooperate with male (or female) partners, although there is also the threat of highly competitive conditions emerging.
Utopian feminism maintains that women’s unique characteristics are a form of social power. The potential for all women to express their autonomy is erased by the patriarchal slant of New Waltons and Desperate Housewives. A celebration of feminine qualities is observed in Mr. & Mrs. Right Now, since men and women alike take on child-rearing as a valuable and essential task. The value of nurturing activity, meanwhile, becomes more complicated in the Marriage Marketplace. Marriage and child-rearing are separate roles with different qualifications, and neither may be entered without consent and understanding of the terms under which these roles will be enacted.
Marxist feminism looks upon the US capitalist system as a hindrance to female equality. Mr.& Mrs. Right Now demonstrates a future where capitalism largely suffers, suggesting this as a preferred future for Marxist feminism. Marriage Marketplace is a capitalist haven where women’s authority over their own fate is respected and equal access to capital is the norm. Marxist feminists may not condone the free market approach to gender equality, though. Desperate Housewives and The New Waltons commit women’s fate to reproductive and domestic slavery, thus a far cry from the Marxist school of thought concerning women’s rights.
Postmodern feminism interprets the marginalization of women as a by-product of the worldview where man is “self” and woman is “other”. Only the Mr. & Mrs. Right Now scenario pulls away from this duality by the introduction of communal households and child-rearing. In the Marriage Marketplace, women can slip into commodity status, while the New Waltons and Desperate Housewives futures portray women as little more than baby-making servants. The New Waltons in particular emphasizes the role of fathers in objectifying women by strategically marrying-off daughters to ensure their own social status.
Radical feminism takes the position that women are universally oppressed by virtue of their sex. There is little to be optimistic about in all four alternative futures in light of this view. Radical feminists might highlight the opportunities in the Marriage Marketplace and Mr. & Mrs. Right Now to avoid men altogether by entering all-female domestic arrangements. There is also the potential to enact a revolution in the face of blatant patriarchy evident in the Desperate Housewives future scenario. Women’s complete subservience to men under the New Waltons conditions may also work to emphasize the importance of gender equality.
Feminism in Futures Studies
As assumption that female equality was secured by the women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s contributes to the dismissal of gender equality in mainstream futurist discourse. There is a tendency, for example, to overlook the interaction between family and women’s status and emphasize technological, educational, and employment opportunities as demonstrative of the advancement of women. However, in America, the rights of women are routinely challenged by efforts to restrict reproductive freedom, workplace policies that minimize women’s labor through unequal pay compared to men, lack of a social safety net, and by fringe movements toward returning women to second-class citizenship under the control of husbands and fathers.
For futurists, forecasters, planners, and future leaders of all kinds, a more deliberate articulation of theories of feminism can correct the misconception that women’s equality has already been achieved. Furthermore, it is possible that new theories of feminism will emerge with the application of practical and purposeful thinking about women among more futurists and foresight researchers.
This article is based on a previous publication entitled “US Families 2025: Trends and Alternative Futures.” European Foresight Monitoring Network Foresight Brief №144.