If asked to name some particularly "American" attributes, you might go the old baseball-and-apple-pie route — classic, but not exactly descriptive. But if you dig a little deeper to tap into who, not just what, people see as American, things can get a lot murkier.
It might come as little surprise that people, including nonwhite people, often view ethnic minorities as less American than whites, and minorities recognize that's the case. After all, there's a long history in America of minority groups being socially and politically marginalized. But according to new research, it's not just minorities who are seen as less American — more than half of the American population is. And what is it that makes them less American, according to a recent study?
Sahana Mukherjee, assistant professor of psychology at Gettysburg College, is a co-author of the study. In an email, she said that she and a team of researchers were prompted to study the link between gender and nationalism based on previous research regarding dominant ethnic groups and nationalism, as well as the gender-stratified political arena. She noted that the lack of female political office holders gave the researchers "a natural transition to think about gender and the power asymmetry between two genders and how that plays out in the context of national identity."
To see how gender affects Americans' ideas of nationalism, the researchers conducted two studies. In the first, the study authors asked 259 American men and 123 women to rate how American certain stereotypically male and female traits are, on a scale from "not at all American" to "truly American." They found that men and women equally considered "masculine" traits (e.g., independent, competitive) much more American than "feminine" traits (e.g., friendly, honest).
To explore the association between gender and American identity more plainly, the authors asked participants to define the extent to which masculinity or femininity is important to being American. They found that both men and women explicitly rated masculinity as more American than femininity, with no significant difference in ratings between the genders. The researchers also asked participants to come up with five "exemplary" Americans. The participants chose more men than women: seven times as many, in fact, although women did list more female examples than men.
In the second study, the researchers were curious to know how participants' own gender — this time, a new batch of 192 men and women — played into their nationalism and national identity. In a series of questionnaires, participants rated their agreement with statements on national identity (e.g., "I am glad to be American"), gender identity (e.g., "I am glad to be female") and nationalism (e.g., "To maintain our country's superiority, war is sometimes necessary").
Generally, women identified as less nationalistic than men, and they were less so the more they viewed male traits as synonymous with Americanness. In other words, the researchers said in the study, "women identify with the nation less when the nation is constructed in masculine terms." This was not the case for men. Also, men who more strongly identified with their gender also more strongly identified as American, perhaps because "they feel greater ownership of national material and symbolic resources," the researchers posited. However, the team didn't find any significant gender differences when it came to how "American" respondents felt they were, which Mukherjee says suggests a need for further research.
"Rather than a main effect of one factor (e.g., gender has an effect regardless of race) perhaps we need to explore interactions between race and gender," she says. "I think an important direction for future work is to adopt a more intersectional approach."
It's ironic that femininity is seen as "less American" than masculinity, while women are often dinged for adopting masculine characteristics associated with national identity to survive in the political and professional realms. But shifts in the representation and media coverage of female politicians, and in Americans' attitudes about female-associated traits, could alter feelings about what it really means to be American. Mukherjee says that the team's research could kick-start important conversations and perhaps even changes in U.S. politics.
"While ... this evidence may seem discouraging at first, it can be used to promote social change," she says. "For people to be motivated to engage in change they first need to know specifics about where change is needed."