The Hairy Gender Gap

However hair is styled, it says something about gender. Let’s take a look at recent Western history.

Men and women both have long hair, but…

In the 18th-century men and women both kept their hair long — but women’s stylings were more elaborate and ornate, as with King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (as played by Kirsten Dunst and Jason Schwartzman, pictured here):

Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI

Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI

Around the same time, America’s Founding Fathers and Mothers also favored longish, if more modest, tresses. But still, women’s hair was longer and more ornamented, as with President James Madison and his wife, Dolly.

James and Dolly Madison

James and Dolly Madison


Probably to create greater gender distinctions. At that time women were considered the more leisured and decorative sex, leaving them more time to maintain elaborate hair styles. And, being pegged the passive gender, women needed something to attract men.

19th-century: the gap grows larger

By the 19th century the gender gap had widened as men sported shorter, more practical styles.


Partly, politics.

The French and American revolutions attacked aristocratic snobbery symbolically through plainer dress. Since only men had political rights, they were the ones to take up the symbolism.

A plainly dressed 19th century John Quincy Adams

A plainly dressed 19th century John Quincy Adams

Also, middle-class working men of the emerging industrial age wanted to project a thrifty seriousness.

But women were expected to maintain a sense of style. Especially since women’s role increasingly came to be seen as “a haven from the harsh world” that men could return to after a hard day’s work.

Women kept color and frills in the 19th-century

Women kept color and frills in the 19th-century

But also, women were less in the public eye. When ethnic groups immigrate, men are more likely to conform to the host culture’s fashion style, while women are more likely to wear traditional garb — maybe the sari or hijab, for instance.

1920s: Women’s short, bobbed hair

By the 1920s women favored a short, bobbed hairstyle. This cut accompanied their new right to vote, movement into the workplace, and greater financial independence — at least before marriage. The style symbolized taking on masculine power, and both symbolically and practically bestowed greater freedom.

Short, bobbed hair helped women move, like this woman doing the Charleston

Short, bobbed hair helped women move, like this woman doing the Charleston

From 1940s military to 1960s counter-culture

During World War II men got crew cuts, which many kept after the war.

The crewcut

The crewcut

But styles radically changed in the 1960s, as the younger generation fought the older generation’s support of the Vietnam War.

The Beatles' "mop tops"

The Beatles’ “mop tops”

Young people began questioning authority —and society at large. In a countercultural move men “let their free flags fly” by wearing longer hair — one of the few times that men have appropriated a style associated with women. Message: Age is more important than gender. Short hair on men became a symbol of being under society’s control.

1970s early feminism

Some women embraced 1970s feminism by cutting their hair short — perhaps symbolic of taking on male power, or helping them get in touch with their more masculine side.

The butch look

The butch look

Over time, cultural feminists called for valuing feminine traits that had been denigrated by a patriarchal culture, and celebrated femininity.

Strong and fem

Strong and fem

If a woman feels that a more masculine style best expresses her personality, that’s great. Do it. But don’t assume that things associated with masculinity are better.

As it turns out, a simple thing like hair can hold a lot of meaning!

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on August 5, 2015, in body image, feminism, gender, men, psychology, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. I agree that a simple thing like hair can hold a lot of meaning. I am female and buzzed my head for many years. It was fascinating that my lack of hair was a hair issue for some people. I got a variety of reactions. Any where from anger to confusing to excitement. I got similar reactions from men and women which led me to believe that both genders have strong feelings about hair. They cared so much about what I did with my hair. It did not affect them. Why do they care? Furthermore, why do they feel so strongly about it? I think it disturbed some because it challenged the traditional idea of what a woman should look like, what makes a woman “beautiful.” Women can be beautiful with or without hair. I believe beauty radiates from within, not from what is or is not on your head.

  2. It’s funny that we don’t generally think about the value that society gives to hair until you actually have to sit down and think about. Cutting my hair short was extremely scary and I was so nervous, which is why I wanted to do it. Why is it that we give so much value to something that just hangs on your head? Why was I so scared to cut my hair the same length that my brother doesn’t think twice about when he cuts it that length? As a woman I feel like I have been taught that in order to be sexy or attractive, I have to have long hair, and I really wanted to be freed from that. After cutting it I feel super good about it and it feels amazing! I feel like I am slowly growing into myself and being freed from all the things that I have been taught I need to do in order to be a “proper” or “attractive” woman. Hair doesn’t have gender, and neither does the cloth that our clothes or shoes are made out of, so it is weird that we so strongly associate gender with certain things that are gender-less.

  3. “… long as you’re not yelling at her in the street.”

    insulting remark, indeed.

  4. It’s interesting – I have short hair, and I love it. I feel free, unencumbered and strong with my hair like this. My mother has very long hair and she loves it – she is more herself with long hair.

    • Hair lengths and hairstyles have different meanings for different people and different societies. Sounds like you’ve got kind of a 1920s feel to how you experience your hair.

      • Yes, I suppose I do! I have never thought about it like that before. All I know is, I was 20 when I first got my hair cut short, I have had it all kinds of lengths and styles, and this is the one I like the best.

      • The 1920s sure bob was partly symbolic of women’s new freedom as they got the vote and more financial independence as they increasingly moved into the workplace.

    • “I feel free, unencumbered and strong with my hair like this.”

      Yup! If I saw you walking down the street that is exactly how I would characterize you…I would just add confident too…

      Oops! I hope I am not creeping you out….lol.

  5. In many eras, women were expected to be decorative–and, in the upper classes, there was an expectation that a good deal of energy and time would be expended to maintain the style of the day. Since the beginning of the current economic era (dating from 1973) when women were expected to work a full time job, styles have simplified substantially. Hairstyles now need to be easy to maintain, and more natural. Only the uber wealty can afford high-maintenance “hair-dos.” Peasant women, on the other hand, always had longer hair–the easier to sweep back and tie, so they could get back to work.
    The lyrics quote is “let their freak flag fly…”

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