Liberalism, Neutrality and the Gendered Division of Labor

by Harry on September 23, 2019

Congratulations to Gina, whose book Liberalism, Neutrality, and the Gendered Division of Labor was published early in the summer (but I waited to say anything till fall, when I thought people would be more receptive).[1]

Here’s a very rough account of what the book’s about: Women and men do unequal amounts of domestic and caring labor, and this inequality contributes to unequal outcomes between men and women in their careers. This is the ‘gendered division of labor’. But are the inequalities, or the processes generating them, unjust? And, if so, should the government act to change anything?

Here’s the problem: No laws enforce the gendered division of labor; and while women face some discrimination in the labor market, most of the gendered division of labor seems to be explained, immediately, by people’s choices which are, in turn, responsive to influential social norms. We – liberals who believe in democracy and freedom – presume that people should be free to act on their own judgments, and are uneasy about government intervention that would attempt to change the social norms. This commitment is captured by the popular idea that, for the most part, the government should stay out of people’s personal lives – and that appears to include things like how members of a household decide to divide up the time doing the dishes, looking after a child, or caring for an ailing parent.

Gina’s book assumes, but does not endorse, the truth of some version of Rawls’s political liberalism, because it seems especially challenging, on that view, to endorse the kind of measures that would have some chance of undoing the gendered division of labor. And it does something very surprising—it shows that even people who hold fast political liberalism, which is a particularly austere view about the legitimacy of government action (roughly that it should be neutral among conceptions of the good) should support government action to promote a gender egalitarian society – one in which what women and men do is not determined and reinforced by social norms which perpetuate gendered allocations of work.

The central claim is this. Reciprocity is a corollary of neutrality, and whereas neutrality tends to place limits on government action, reciprocity can demand positive measures by the government. And one thing citizens owe one another as a matter of reciprocity is the genuinely available opportunity to live out a gender egalitarian lifestyle.

If social arrangements make it unduly difficult for men and women to live out an egalitarian lifestyle, then action is needed to protect that option. And Gina shows that in contemporary American society, even though long strides were taken toward equality between the sexes in the 20th Century, arrangements still make it unduly difficult for men and women to share domestic and paid labor between themselves equally. The surprise is that a view about state legitimacy that seems so limiting actually requires the state to act so progressively.

Some of the terrain has been explored before, obviously, and most notably by Susan Okin. But I think you’ll find, if you read it (as you should) that Gina’s book is now the best, and most interesting, philosophical treatment of the gendered division of labor we have.

[1] Full disclosure: The book started life as Gina’s dissertation at UW-Madison; I was a member of that committee, and have been following the ideas as they have developed over time.

{ 6 comments }

1

Z 09.24.19 at 1:28 pm

Too many interesting posts on CT to comment even on half of them…

Reciprocity is a corollary of neutrality, and whereas neutrality tends to place limits on government action, reciprocity can demand positive measures by the government

Yes, and further (well, I’m not sure it’s further because I’m unsure of the boundaries placed on the concept of reciprocity as used in the above), neutrality requires the potential participation of everyone (how would you know State action is really neutral otherwise?).

In other words, the fatal flaws of many political philosophies (classical liberalism, Rawls liberalism, property rights absolutism, anarcho-capitalism, but also to a large extent third way neoliberalism etc.) is the lack of recognition that the social reproduction of the values that they hold dear and thus the perpetuation of the core principles of their respective systems requires social action, often of a very specific kind which is at the very least not favored and often even prevented by the likely outcomes of these principles themselves.

So yes, we – anarchists who want every authority to bear a heavy burden of proof for the justification of its own existence (why not? we were apparently “liberals who believe in democracy and freedom” in the OP) – should absolutely applaud collective, forceful actions addressing the gendered division of labor: you’re not going to do a lot of questioning the undue authority of that or that social construct if you have woken up three times last night to lull the baby back to sleep.

As a side note, those of us who are actually anarchists who want every authority to bear a heavy burden of proof for the justification of its own existence may despair that liberals who believe in democracy and freedom apparently only conceive of government action as alternative to individuals managing their personal’s lives and regret that not a words is said about the many, many things in between (to be clear, I’m dismayed both by the fact that only the government is deemed pertinent to address concerns of reciprocity that aren’t suitably addressed at the individual level, so other intermediate levels are no given enough consideration, and by the fact that the legitimacy of these levels is not put in question, so they are given way too much respect).

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Gina Schouten 09.25.19 at 6:06 pm

Woken up *only* three times to lull the baby back to sleep? :)

Thanks for this comment, Z. I really like it, and actually think it’s nicely in the spirit of what I try to argue in the book. One of the things I’m trying to do is show how the social action necessary to realize the relevant values stably over time *is* favored by the principles themselves. Thanks for that way of putting it.

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EB 09.26.19 at 12:07 am

How do you thread the needle of the difference between socially-imposed gender expectations and biologically-imposed ones? At what point after a child is born is it realistic and fair to expect that both parents will do equal amounts of caring work? paid work? housework? what if the division of labor in a household is not symmetrical, but is truly, freely agreed on by both partners?

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Gina Schouten 09.27.19 at 1:22 pm

Hi EB,
“How do you thread the needle of the difference between socially-imposed gender expectations and biologically-imposed ones?”
A good and a hard question. I think one thing is to make sure people are getting accurate information about the benefits of breastfeeding. Lots of women do it because they’re told it’s far and away “best for baby,” and my sense is that many (how many? I don’t know) fewer would do it if they weren’t convinced that opting out would be positively bad for baby. My sense, also, is that in most cases of the relevant sort, opting out would not *really* be bad for baby. I’m no scientist, but I gather from talking to many of them about this that the evidence base for the breastfeeding push is, at best, not as solid as the enthusiasm of that push would suggest.
But, second, early bonding is important and there are ways to use policy to encourage early bonding with the non-birthing parent. For example, you could structure leaves so that parents got an extra month if the non-birthing parent takes the first parental leave, after the *medical* leave for the birthing parent ends. There may be lots of problems with that proposal, but it illustrates the point of the book, which is that whatever the biologically-imposed differences, there’s plenty of room to use policy to subsidize *more* equal sharing than we’ve currently got.
“what if the division of labor in a household is not symmetrical, but is truly, freely agreed on by both partners?”
The argument of the book defends policy to push for more gender-equal sharing based on the existence of social norms and on the fact that institutions are designed to accommodate behavior in compliance with those norms. It just doesn’t take a stand on any particular family’s configuration. And I treat it as a sort of condition of adequacy for an argument such as the one I want to give that it *not* imply that every arrangement like the one you describe is objectionable in some way.

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Sam Tobin-Hochstadt 09.27.19 at 2:16 pm

EB,

Early on, especially if you’re breastfeeding, there are a lot of things that only the birth mother can do. But those things are more than 50% of the work to care for a baby, let alone 50% of the work to care for the baby plus manage the rest of the household (dinner still needs making, clothes still need washing, etc). So my answer is “immediately”.

How to think about choices people freely make that nonetheless support the maintenance of the problematic gender divisions in our society is a harder question. Maybe I should read the book to find out what Gina says about it.

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Z 09.27.19 at 3:40 pm

@Gina I’m trying to do is show how the social action necessary to realize the relevant values stably over time *is* favored by the principles themselves

Then that is exactly the conception of political philosophy I consider successful and helpful, so thank you for this work.

At what point after a child is born is it realistic and fair to expect that both parents will do equal amounts of caring work?

The moment it is born? I mean, sure only the mother can breastfeed if that is the choice parents make, but both parents can equally lull the baby, dress and undress him, give him the bath, change his diapers, watch over him, cuddle him, provide the long list of small medical care newborns require etc. (not to mention of the course the even longer long list of supplementary household chores that accrue with a newborn). Anecdotally, out of my three children, I did more than half of the caring work in the very first days for two of them, because they had medical problems that needed assistance my wife could not provide or supervise immediately after giving birth.

Of course an equal division along these lines is possible only if parental leave is available to both parents.

what if the division of labor in a household is not symmetrical, but is truly, freely agreed on by both partners?

As long as the asymmetry is not likely to yield divergent outcomes that will prevent equality further own he road, I would say that is fine, but that criterion is not so easily fulfilled, actually. For instance, a parent may find taking care of the food for the family especially enjoyable and may have a special talent for it that justifies freely doing most of that type of labor, only to discover that children don’t want the other parent to get involved in it anymore (because they are not used to it, because the differences in ability diverge in time…), so that the other parent misses out on something essential and the first parent is now less free to leave the house for extended period of time which in turns may lead to etc.

So actual equality is probably quite a good ideal to strive for.

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