Baby Showers: a Rite of Passage in Transition

Eileen Fischer, York University
Brenda Gainer, York University
ABSTRACT - Baby showers are consumption venues distinguished both by their "feminine nature" and their seeming role as a modern-day rite of passage. This paper, based on participant observation in baby showers and long interviews with women recently honoured by such showers, explores the transitions occurring in this rite of passage as the roles women play and societal notions about those roles evolve.
[ to cite ]:
Eileen Fischer and Brenda Gainer (1993) ,"Baby Showers: a Rite of Passage in Transition", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 320-324.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 320-324

BABY SHOWERS: A RITE OF PASSAGE IN TRANSITION

Eileen Fischer, York University

Brenda Gainer, York University

ABSTRACT -

Baby showers are consumption venues distinguished both by their "feminine nature" and their seeming role as a modern-day rite of passage. This paper, based on participant observation in baby showers and long interviews with women recently honoured by such showers, explores the transitions occurring in this rite of passage as the roles women play and societal notions about those roles evolve.

The consumer behavior literature has only recently begun to attend to the gendered nature of many consumer behaviors (e.g. Belk and Coon 1991, Bristor and Fischer 1993, Firat 1991, Firat and Lewis 1985, Fischer and Arnold 1990; Fischer and Bristor 1991; Heisley 1991; Hirschman 1991; Venkatesh 1991) and to the unique forms of consumption associated with women (e.g. Benson 1986; Fischer and Gainer 1991; Gainer and Fischer 1991). At the same time, our field has devoted increasing attention to rites of passage as personal and social experiences which are partially constructed through the use of material objects and therefore offer unique opportunities for research into and understanding of the culture of consumption in which we live (e.g. Schouten l991). This paper focuses on baby showers as a form of consumption that has largely been a uniquely female domain and that appears to have served - and to continue to serve - as a rite of passage for women.

RITES OF PASSAGE

Van Gennep's (l960) conceptualization of the rites of passage that accompany major role transitions as individuals move from birth to death remains the standard interpretation in the field. He argued that rites of passage consist of three stages: (1) separation, in which an individual may be physically "removed" from his or her old life, but which at least carries the notion of disengagement from a former role within a society, (2) transition, a liminal state, in which one passes from one role or state into another one, and (3) reintegration, in which an individual is reunited into an existing group or integrated into a new group, and which is accompanied by the establishment of a new social role or position. Although Van Gennep's work was based on an examination of many societies which were radically different from contemporary European or North American societies, he argued that the same components characterize the rites of passage that accompany major role transitions across societies. Turner (1969, 1974), however, observed that in contemporary societies, individuals dealing with the ambiguities of the liminal state in many role transitions have few supportive rites. The rites of passage associated with childbirth would appear to be among those most robust in the face of modern trends toward social isolation. Baby showers are arguably among these rites of passage associated with childbirth.

Baby Showers as Rites of Passage (?)

Parties held in honour of women who are about to become mothers accompany one of the major role transitions that most women undergo during their lives. As we began our study with an examination of Van Gennep's conceptualization of rites of passage, we encountered some difficulty in mapping it onto the present-day North American baby shower.

If applied literally, the model appears to fit rather badly. The three phases of separation, transition and reintegration cannot be mapped even imperfectly onto the ritual behaviors that occur during a baby shower. For example, although baby showers are usually held near the end of a pregnancy when women could possibly retreat from society, in contemporary North American society they rarely do so and thus the separation phase is rarely observed. When it does occur, it is rarely coterminous with a baby shower. Even in a figurative sense, modern North American women rarely leave their old roles behind when they have a baby; instead they seem to add a new role to those they are already fulfilling.

The liminal state characteristic of the transitional phase could aptly describe the whole ninth months of pregnancy; baby showers may, at most, contribute in a limited sense to this particular phase of the rite of passage which marks the acquisition of the new role of motherhood. Of course, physical transition to motherhood does not occur during showers (at least not if the mother can avoid it), but it may be that baby showers provide a concrete opportunity for the formulation of "possible selves" which are said to characterize the transition phase of a rite of passage (Markus and Nurius l986; Schouten l991). At a baby shower a mother-to-be is provided both with a community of other mothers and potential mothers, and with objects she will use to fulfil her new role. Thus it seems possible that baby showers contribute to the transitional phase of a classic rite of passage by providing an opportunity for a woman to "try out" both the new equipment she will need to care for her baby, as well as to "try out" her role as a mother. By playing this (albeit limited) part in the transitional phase of the rite, baby showers seem to contribute to the eventual reintegration of the new and old selves. Full reintegration, however, occurs only after the baby's birth.

METHOD

Our study was undertaken with the objects of exploring some a priori themes we identified as being characteristic of baby showers, and of discerning and analyzing new themes which we anticipated would emerge from the research. We chose to use methods which would allow us to capture the complexities of our informants' thoughts and behaviors, as well as the rich details of the social context in which those occurred. Thus our study was based on participant observation in eight baby showers to which we were invited or which were held for us over the past three years. Additionally, we undertook extensive interviews with five recent recipients of baby showers.

Our informants were recruited using our personal networks. We attempted to include women who possessed a range of professional, socio-economic and ideological characteristics. We used a semi-structured interview format based on a standard list of questions we developed. The interview protocol served to prompt general conversations on the subject of baby showers with our informants, and provided "probes" to elicit more specific information on the themes we had identified and which began to emerge during the interview process. In order to test our emerging analysis as we proceeded, we supplemented the information provided by our own observations and by our main informants with short discussions with many more women who had attended baby showers or been the recipient of them.

A PRIORI THEMES

Before we began our research, we identified three a priori themes which we expected to observe in our study of baby showers. All three themes relate to the purposes which the showers serve.

Female Solidarity and Community

Recent studies of gift giving rituals (e.g. Cheal 1988; Fischer and Arnold 1990) indicate that part of the social function that they serve is to create and reinforce the personal relationships which form the bonds of community in which we live. Given that traditional baby showers are exclusively female, we expected they would, like other forms of collective female rituals such as Tupperware parties, foster bonds of sorority in particular (Gainer and Fischer l991).

Loss of Independence/Recovery of Innocence

Standard notions of mother/child relationships include the idea of dependency of the child upon its mother; by logical extension these notions also include the idea that mothers become less independent as they adopt new responsibilities for the welfare of another human being. This loss of autonomy is particularly pronounced in the case of the birth of a first child.

We theorized that this loss of personal autonomy is accompanied by an increased dependence on family and friends, particularly other mothers, who are represented by the guests attending the traditional baby shower. The need for external support as one becomes a mother is not only moral, but financial, as exemplified through the giving of the necessary equipment for raising a child at a shower.

At the same time as a woman loses some of her independence by becoming a mother (and perhaps partially as a result of loss of independence) we expected that - in the eyes of others - she would experience a recovery of innocence. The cultural icon of a mother is of a woman who is devoted, loyal and above all, pure. Despite the fact that the act which creates a child is sexual, the production of a child leads the mother into a role associated with purity and even virginity. This notion was fully supported by the centrality of child-like rituals at traditional showers.

The Expertise of Motherhood

A third theme which we expected to find characterized traditional baby showers was the passing on of knowledge deemed essential for the tasks of mothering. We expected that we would find that much conversation centred on advice to the mother-to-be, as well as on the exchange of information about children among the guests. The choice of gifts, too, was thought to play a part in instructing the new mother in the correct method of caring for and socializing a baby.

Early in our research we discovered that baby showers, to the extent that they constitute rites of passage into the role of mother, are very much in transition. As traditional female and male roles undergo enormous changes, the social rituals which traditionally helped to mark the shedding of old roles and the acquisition of new ones change too. Although we found evidence that "traditional" forms of baby showers continue to take place in the 1990's in much the same form as they did in the l950's, we also identified three new forms of baby showers that seem to be emerging in contemporary North America. In the traditional baby showers we found strong support for our a priori themes. In the emergent forms, we found considerable variation in not only the characteristics of the shower, but in the purposes which the shower served.

THE TRADITIONAL BABY SHOWER

Traditional baby showers are characterized by exclusively female guests lists. Usually the recipient's mother is included, as well as her sisters and possibly some aunts, nieces or female cousins. Typically friends are present, particularly friends who have had babies. While mothers of all ages are therefore included, unmarried girls (sisters, cousins, or nieces) are likely included only if they have reached adolescence. This helps to consolidate the atmosphere which is suggestive of an initiation into the mysteries of motherhood. The atmosphere of initiation and mystery is further heightened because traditional showers are always held prior to the birth of the first baby, unless nature accidentally intervenes. One respondent described as "too bad" a shower held for a friend after a premature birth.

The atmosphere is also characteristic of a child's party. Decorations usually include balloons, and often folding paper items such as umbrellas or perambulators. Childish games which involve simple guessing or luck are played. (While the games may be reminiscent of a child's party, they often have an adult twist, such as a case we discovered of a version of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey which involved pinning a decorated penis on a cardboard man). "Childish" food and drink are also served; the drinks are usually fruit punch and/or other non-alcoholic beverages, and sweets comprise a large portion of the food provided.

A special bonnet is prepared for the mother-to-be by attaching the ribbons and bows from the gifts she receives to a paper plate or similar object. After the bonnet is completed, she is expected to don it and often the hostess has prepared special ribbons or tassels with which to attach it to her head. While the bonnet seemed to be the one unvarying feature of the traditional baby shower, the purpose it served or the meaning it conveyed to the participants was elusive. One informant, when pressed, commented that "oh, it's just to be silly together," and then further, "it's just to make her look ridiculous."

In addition to the bonnet, a special decorated chair, referred to by many respondents as a "throne," is often prepared for the shower recipient to sit in as she opens her gifts. The guests all sit in a circle to watch while the gifts are opened ceremonially and then passed around the circle for viewing. An assistant, often a younger sister or niece, usually orders and hands the gifts to the mother-to-be and is responsible for recording who gave what.

At a traditional shower the gifts are from individuals or from groups, and cover an enormous range of values, often at the same shower. For example, one informant told us of receiving a stroller and a crib from her mother-in-law at the same shower at which she received smaller items such as hand-knit booties or vaseline from others. Regardless of the price, however, gifts at the traditional shower are "necessities" for the baby such as baby clothes, toys, blankets, or equipment.

One central purpose which the traditional baby shower serves, then, is to equip the new mother with the clothes, toys, and furnishings she is going to need for the new baby. The gifts serve an economic purpose but at the same time serve to reinforce the new mother's dependence on a community of other women. And this dependence is not only based on financial and even emotional support, but also on the "insider knowledge" which is communicated as each gift is opened.

Thus the shower serves to indoctrinate the woman into the special behaviors associated with her new role in society. It is paradoxical, however, that at the same time as a baby shower seems to mark the transition to full female adulthood/motherhood, it also seems to mark the return to the innocence and purity associated with childhood. While the childish games and the beribboned bonnet infantilize the woman and seem to symbolize this return to innocence, the decorated throne may even more clearly represent a symbolic return to the virginal state associated with Mother Mary, Queen of the World.

Our findings seem to offer support to the themes regarding the woman's transition to a more dependent, but pure, state, and regarding her acquisition of the knowledge necessary to act in a manner consistent with that state. We also found evidence that baby showers have benefits for women other than the guest of honor. The women who act as hostesses, as well as the other guests, also seem to enjoy the re-enforcement of female bonds of kinship and friendship which appear to be a particularly important aspect of a traditional shower. Several of our informants mentioned that a special effort had been made to invite people whom the new mother had not seen for a long time. Two of our informants also described showers that included the women from both the mother's and the father's family, even though it appeared that the two families did not have regular contact apart from the great life passages of marriage, birth and death. One of our informants summed up the importance of this community aspect of baby showers by saying that "it's just a hen party; it's just an excuse to get together with a bunch of women."

EMERGENT FORMS OF SHOWERS

The Workplace Shower

The workplace shower is held outside the home, usually on the work premises. Like a traditional shower, it is held prior to the birth of the baby, but the timing is chosen to mark the occasion of the woman stopping work for her maternity leave more than to mark the approaching birth. The guests at a workplace shower may include men; this seems to depend on the level within the organization of the woman having the baby. If the mother-to-be occupies a clerical or secretarial position, the shower is usually attended by other female clerks and secretaries, but if the woman occupies a higher managerial position, her male co-workers or occasionally her male boss may attend, even if only for a few minutes. Despite the fact that guests may be male or female, the organizers of the workplace shower seem to be exclusively female.

Like the traditional shower, the workplace shower often has thematic decorations, and a decorated "throne" is prepared for the mother-to-be. The gifts are opened ceremonially and passed around if there are several, but at workplace showers gifts usually tend to be presented on behalf of a group of givers and tend to be major items such as a stroller, a high chair, or a car-seat. Occasionally smaller group or individual gifts of clothing or toys may be given, although these gifts seem to be more characteristic of an all-female shower (for instance of office support staff) where the guests tend to be closer friends. The games and the bonnet seem to be characteristic of these "all-female" workplace showers as well.

The workplace shower is the only type we identified which seems to mark the "separation" phase of a classic rite of passage. The pregnant woman does disappear from her workplace after the shower, and reappears later once she made the transition to motherhood and has achieved the integration of her new role as mother and old role as worker. The workplace shower serves to mark the status of the woman in the workplace; it seems to celebrate her transition to motherhood in a perfunctory way while emphasizing much more clearly her responsibilities within the work community. The workplace shower thus marks the blurred boundary between a woman's public and private lives, roles and communities.

The mix of public and private lives in the workplace shower seems often to lead to tension, however. One of our informants described the self-consciousness she felt at being singled out for this reason in the context of her work. Another informant described a workplace shower as being relatively meaningless, since "it was very formal, and [she] didn't know anyone very well." Another workplace shower in which one of us participated was characterized by a vague sense of embarrassment on the part of non-parents as tiny clothes for vulnerable babies were opened and displayed. Thus, while the workplace shower may serve as an attempt to merge professional work roles and intimate family roles, it may achieve a rather uneasy alliance of the two.

The Mixed-Sex Shower

This type of shower, like the others, is held before the birth of the baby. Both male and female guests attend a mixed shower, but, unlike a workplace shower where a pregnant woman is honoured before departing on her maternity leave, both the mother and father-to-be are the guests of honour. The guests are usually couples, and typically friends or work acquaintances attend. Relatives are usually not invited to mixed showers. The parties are typically organized by another couple, often fairly close friends of the parents-to-be, and are held at a friend's home, usually in the evening.

The atmosphere at a mixed shower differs radically from that at a traditional shower. Alcoholic beverages replace the sweet punch and soda drinks, and the food is more typical of other adult parties, being less dominated by sweet items. The child-like games, decorated "throne," and beribboned bonnet are not part of the mixed shower. Gifts are, however, opened ceremonially and (if there are multiple gifts) passed around for inspection. Gifts range in value from shower to shower, but seem to be of more uniform value within the same shower than is the case in a traditional shower (possibly because of the absence of kin, who are often the donors of the very expensive items at a traditional shower).

One of the purposes the mixed shower serves is to signal the transition to parenthood of both parents. It thus reflects modern gender role attitudes about fathers having a role to play in caring for children, as well as the realization that a man's life is profoundly affected by having a child too. The shower not only reflects these attitudes, but serves as a showcase for demonstrating them by making it clear that "hen" parties, not to mention the activities that characterize them, are for those with old-fashioned values.

In addition to extending the transition phase of the classic rite of passage to men as well as women, the mixed shower also serves to reinforce the bonds creating the social world in which the couple, as opposed to the woman only, live. A specialized form of the mixed shower often includes guests from work, and may be a substitute for a workplace shower. Occasionally it is even held at the man's workplace. This suggests that for those with modern gender role attitudes, the mixed shower may be the male equivalent of the workplace shower for women. "Male" showers in this sense are still based on couples, however, since women continue to organize them and buy the gifts which are presented by the work group.

The Feminist Shower

The feminist baby shower is, perhaps ironically, the one closest in form to the traditional baby shower. It is held by a close female friend or by a sister, and is attended by relatively close female friends only. Female relatives close to the same age may be invited if they are close to the guest of honour, both emotionally and in terms of sex role attitudes. While the organizer tends to be a friend who is a mother herself, feminist showers are sometime organized by a childless friend or relative.

Although the guest list of such showers resembles that of traditional baby showers, other aspects of the feminist baby shower are quite different. The paper decorations and balloons are not used, and the women attending do not play child-like games. The mother-to-be is not presented with either a decorated throne or a bonnet. Alcoholic beverages are usually served, and the food often tends to be quite sophisticated.

The gifts are opened ceremonially, although not usually passed around the circle of guests. The gifts at feminist baby showers tend to be relatively small, or if they are group gifts (which are quite common), to require modest dollar contributions. The nature of the gifts sharply differentiates the feminist shower from the traditional shower, for they are rarely for the baby and usually tend to be a personal, sensual gift for the mother. Common gifts are soaps and toiletries, massage certificates, or in the case of one shower we attended, a day at a spa.

The gifts at a feminist baby shower may serve to reaffirm the woman in her former role as an independent, professional adult. We suspect that the restricted range of gifts reflects the deep tensions about the transition to motherhood felt by many liberal feminist women. The choice of gifts seems to reflect the participants' desire to deny that becoming a mother will change a woman substantially, and certainly to deny that she will abandon her role as an adult and a sexual being. Moreover, as one woman said, the gifts also seem to serve as a signal that the birth itself "would be a messy and physically undermining ordeal."

We found other signs of the tension liberal feminist women feel about engaging in activities associated with more traditional feminine gender role attitudes. A feminist baby shower seems to be held in spite of concern about the image of attending a "hen party." For example, guests were invited to one shower we attended in a humorous office memo which explicitly described it as a "feminist baby shower," and then queried whether such a notion was oxymoronic. In another case the hostess of a shower for a feminist friend apologized for the invitation and added "I hope you don't mind, but I thought we should have some kind of a celebration."

The fact that these showers are held despite concern about the image of traditional baby showers indicates that they reflect a more contemporary version of feminism (and gender role attitudes) than the mixed shower, for example. Whereas mixed showers attempt to de-emphasize the differences between men and women, feminist baby showers attempt to celebrate them. In fact the word "celebration" surfaced often among our interviews with the recipients of such showers. As in the traditional shower and the mixed shower, joint participation in a social ritual served to reaffirm the bonds which integrate the woman into her small world.

THEMES EMERGING IN THIS RITE OF PASSAGE IN TRANSITION

One theme which emerged in our study of the new forms of baby showers which are evolving is the tension between public and private lives. In a traditional baby shower this tension is missing, because the traditional view assumes that a woman does not have a public life, or at least, does not play a public role that is significantly different from the one that she will play after becoming a mother. At a traditional shower, the emphasis is very much on community support for a personal, private transition from wife to mother.

The new forms of baby showers, however, all suggest somewhat more modern gender role attitudes on the part of the participants. While each new form of shower signals recognition that a woman is about to become a mother, the structure of each also reminds participants of the woman's other, potentially conflicting, roles. The workplace shower is the one where this tension is most noticeable. As the mother-to-be becomes more and more visibly pregnant at work, her normally invisible domestic and sexual lives become increasingly difficult to bracket. At the shower, these aspects of her life - and their conflicting demands upon her - must be acknowledged. At a mixed shower the relationship between public and private lives is addressed by bringing the celebration of a woman's transition to motherhood out of the traditionally private world of women into a "public" world where men participate. Although a feminist baby shower retreats again to the "private" world of women, participants are clearly uneasy about their apparent support for a traditional ritual associated with the relegation of women to the private sphere. The gifts at these showers seemed to be chosen to demonstrate that the visible effects of this physically ruinous venture can be erased when the woman returns to her public role.

This tension between the public and the private leads to a second theme we have identified in the new forms of showers, which is an emphasis on "professionalization" in the lives of women. The workplace showers are explicitly informed by the woman's professional role in that her status within the organization determines who will attend and give gifts. At some level, these showers even serve as a signal to the woman that she is expected to return to her professional role after her maternity leave. At workplace, mixed sex and feminist showers, much of the conversation focused on how long a woman planned to be away on maternity leave, and what childcare arrangements she proposed to make when she returned to work. One of our informants said these questions were so frequently asked that she wished she had had a t-shirt printed up with the answers.

Even when a woman has decided to abandon her professional career temporarily in order to raise children, participants in the new forms of showers seem to recognize this as a career choice-that is, that she has changed careers in order to become a professional mother. Gifts choices in such a case reflect the professionalization of motherhood. For example, at a mixed shower one of our informants received the necessary "manuals" for her new work, Dr. Spock and a book on children's sleeping habits. At another shower held by professional women who had all given up their careers for motherhood, the conversation as each gift was opened seemed to indicate that the participants were vying with each other through their choice of gifts to demonstrate their professional competence and skills as mothers.

As women struggle with their public roles and their professional roles, a third theme emerges which is tension over exactly what constitutes the transition in this rite-the passage to motherhood, or the passage to parenthood? Women who do not hold traditional gender role attitudes clearly are experiencing conflict about the new role they will be expected to play as they become a mother, and whether they will be expected to play it alone. As men in couples with non-traditional attitudes begin to perform some of the household tasks associated with the role of "wife," there is an expectation that they will also take on some of the tasks and behaviors associated with the role of "mother" when parenthood occurs. The emerging forms of showers we have identified demonstrate that there is not agreement over the meaning and nature of the father's role transition, however.

At a mixed shower a father's transition to parenthood is made most explicit, and by honouring both mother and father in similar ways there seems to be an insistence at these showers that the joys, the work, and the changes associated with having a baby affect both sexes equally. These showers could be said to be based on a liberal view of sexual equality which seeks to deny that there is any meaningful difference between men and women. Feminist baby showers are a more recent phenomenon and seem to have evolved as some contemporary women who believe in equality of the sexes incorporate that notion with a belief that the experiences and roles of women and men are profoundly different. Thus the feminist shower reverts to the traditional all-female format and celebrates motherhood as a state quite distinct from parenthood.

This is not to suggest that we found evidence at feminist showers that the women attending were fully comfortable with the reappropriation of motherhood. Most seemed deeply ambivalent about whether this should be a female or a joint role transition; the guests at one such shower, for example, swapped stories about their partners' perennial inability to do the laundry properly or remember to cook vegetables for dinner.

This ambiguity about whether men acquire new roles as they become parents was linked to a fourth theme which emerged from our research, which is the ambivalence that characterizes the inescapable role transition from non-mother to mother for many contemporary women. We found that baby showers seemed to mark both an acceptance of the acquisition of a new role and a denial that anything fundamental would change. The idea of celebration and honour (for either a woman alone, or else a couple) surfaces in all the new forms of showers we identified and examined. At the same time, however, we found that the emerging forms of showers served as a reminder that women are no longer expected or able to separate from their old roles as they engage in the transition to a new one. The workplace shower served to remind a woman of her professional responsibilities and obligations which will not be left behind as she adds motherhood to her role repertoire. The mixed shower served to reinforce the bonds of the adult community in which a couple is expected to continue to play a part. The feminist shower appeared to act almost as a warning that a woman needed to beware of the "dangers" that are perceived to be associated with the traditional transition to motherhood, namely infantilization and a return to a pure and non-sexual state. Thus all the emerging forms of showers seemed to demonstrate in different ways the ambiguity of the contemporary transition to motherhood in which women no longer engage in the traditional separation from an old role as they acquire a new one, but rather seek to add an additional role to their repertoire.

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