Rethinking Gender Egalitarianism

by Harry on February 24, 2007

I’ve been at several of the Real Utopias Conferences that have been organised out of the Havens Center. The latestI attended part time, and, I must admit, not without a certain amount of bad conscience. The topic was Rethinking Gender Egalitarianism, and I was leaving my wife at home much of the weekend with a 4-week-old baby and the girls. So, I missed some of the best bits. It was also odd because I rarely attend a conference where I know almost no-one; and although Johanna Brenner is a very old friend, I knew none of the other out-of-towners except through their work, some of them being people whose work I started reading 2 decades ago. Rosemary Crompton, I’m pretty certain, mistook me for my dad. He should be flattered.

Nevertheless it was, in some ways, the best conference yet. Everyone was nicely on task, and although debate got quite excitable it was always good-natured. The lead document, by Janet Gornick and Marcia Meyers, authors of Families that Work: Policies for Reconciling Parenthood and Employmenr, argues for a mix of improved daycare provision, labour market regulation and parental leave at generous replacement rates; and the argument is that this will improve the quality of family life and increase gender equality. The proposal is less utopian and more real than some of the real utopian proposals (perhaps less utopian than I would have preferred) but I think that may have been an unavoidable feature of the subject matter; get too far away from what is feasible in the short-to-medium term and it is hard to say much that is supportable.

The papers are all here.

I might say more about the individual papers on another occasion. But I have some more general observation about divisions in the conference. First, while everyone is in favour of subsidised and high-quality childcare, there was a major division between people who supported highly subsidised parental leave, and those who not only didn’t support it, but opposed it, on the grounds that, however you figure it, women are going to take it more than men, and it will therefore be a barrier to gender equality in the labor force. A second division (not completely aligned with the first) was between different attitudes to caring for very young children. At one extreme were people (like me) who see it as a major source of fulfillment, which engages some of the most important human capacities; at the other end were those who saw it as a chore which pretty much anyone can perform (I am not caricaturing). I did wonder at one point (not entirely flippantly, and not outloud) whether this division correlated with that between those of us who have had the experience of caring for young children with disposable diapers and those who had to use cloth diapers. The final division concerned the level of optimism about men. Some expect men to continue to avoid domestic, including childrearing, labour like the plague; while others (myself included, despite the fact that I felt like a complete hypocrite) are optimistic that men can come to be something close to equal participants in childrearing.

There’s something quite different about reading a conference paper beforehand, and being there for the presentation. The paper I was least interested in beforehand, but presentation of which was not only fascinating but actually moving, was Rosalyn Baxandall’s paper “Winning Daycare Through Grass Roots Struggle in New York City”. I hereby nominate it as the paper that every one of my female students who plans to go to Law School but denies being a feminist should read.



Ingrid Robeyns 02.24.07 at 7:36 am

Harry, I envy you and all other people who could attend this Real Utopia conferences. Why can’t the Haven’s center organise something like “real utopias on world tour” ? At least the good news for us far away is that there is a book we can look forward too.

The division lines that you scetch are very recognizable among feminists too – for example, I recall a conference of the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) where Barbara Bergmann clashed with a senior IAFFE member who advocates care leaves. There are just a number of truly difficult issues that gender egalitarians haven’t solved yet.

I am one of those people who doesn’t share your optimism about fathers (despite, ironically, that I married a genuine gender-egalitarian man, hence kow that it is possible for a few lucky women.) The evidence that we have from the social sciences, especially time budget studies, is not very encouraging. There is some change, but the change is so slow that it may take centuries before there is something appraoching true gender egalitarianism. Moreover, these kind of changes do not unfold linear: the next generation of men is not necessarily going to be more egalitarian than this one, certainly not if the next generation has a different socio-demographic profile (in terms of ethnicity and social class, for example), than the current generation.

But I don’t think this has anything to do with disposable diapers or not (I hope that was a joke?) – in my generation everyone except some truly committed environmentalist use disposable diapers, and the same division lines regarding attitudes towards child care for infants are still there.

I just got my delightfully cheerful son out of his bed, so will comment more later on.


franck 02.24.07 at 3:15 pm

You went off to a conference on gender equality and left your wife at home with two older children and a 4-week old baby? It seems to me this is a clear case where you didn’t see caring for young children as “a major source of fulfillment.” Cold.


harry b 02.24.07 at 4:00 pm

franck – I didn’t feel great about it. But I didn’t “go off” to the conference — it was 2 miles away, so I was just gone for two separate 3-hour stretches.


leederick 02.24.07 at 10:18 pm

The male breadwinner/female caregiver model of the family may have passed. But their new ideal of the dual earner/dual caregiver family is looking increasingly ropey too, and won’t be with us that much longer either.

Substantial numbers of children only live with one parent. In substantial numbers of families the children are only the children of one of the couple. For increasing sections of society the nuclear family just doesn’t exist. But as far as this section of feminist theory is concerned it is alive and well, and all we’ve got to do is update the 1950s ideal to modern times and everything will be okay.

I’m all for flexible relationships and egalitarian relationships, they’re both very attractive. But they both push in opposite directions, and you can’t have them both in practice. I just wish these people would realise the contradicitions of their position.


eweininger 02.25.07 at 1:04 am

It would appear that, as with so many things, context matters quite a bit here. Now all the family values-types can get on-board with gender egalitarianism.


H. E. Baber 02.25.07 at 3:21 am

There was an old, old piece I think by Joyce Trieblecot making a distinction between polyandrogynism and monoandrogynism. It seems like over the years feminist opinion about how families should be organized shifted in the direction of monoandrogynism–the idea that mothers and fathers should work and care for children. The assumptions seem to be (1) that a “balanced” life is better, more conducive to human flourishing than either playing the specialized conventional male or conventional female role and (2) that the conventional female role is really bad so that any arrangement where one partner plays that role will be inherently inegalitarian.

I don’t see any compelling reason to accept either of these assumptions. Leaving aside the feasibility of achieving this, it would seem that the ideal is polyandrogynism–both men and women have equal opportunity to play pure “male,” pure “female,” “balanced” or mix and match: “traditional” family, “role-reversed” family, or any other combination. If both partners want to be guys, they buy childcare, housework, etc. Of course, if both want to be housewife/nurturers there’s a problem about money.

I’ve got three kids and didn’t find caring for them when they were very young in any way fulfilling. I bought all the childcare I could afford. I just want to play the guy role–not because I think it’s better, but because that’s my taste. I thought that feminism was the polyandrogynist program: women get to be guys if that’s what they like, men get to play the traditionally female role if that’s what they like–both men and women get to play either role, balance or mix and match, that’s to say the end of sex-roles as such.


djw 02.25.07 at 4:11 am

chore which pretty much anyone can perform (I am not caricaturing).

The negative implications of “chore” notwithstanding, it would seem to me this is evidently quite true. If we’re talking about doing well, that’s another matter, but what human tasks are regularly done well?


Ingrid Robeyns 02.25.07 at 4:19 pm

Leederick, you are right that real families are increasingly varied and it is good to always keep that in the back of our heads. But it is also true that every government, or every way in which we organise society, is more supportive for some kinds of family forms and relationships than others. For example, whether we have tax breaks at the individual or the family level, whether we provide social assistance to single parent households on the condition or not that they should be in (or look for) employment, whether or not school hours are compatible with large part-time jobs – all these issues favour some family models over others.

So it is not just a matter of rigid models which feminist theorists (and others) argue for as better than others; it is also trying to detect which ideals are currently supported and not supported by different packages of public policies, and whether it would be wiser to support other family models instead by changing social policies and institutions – and if so, on what normative grounds this can be justified (which is what political theory/philosophy is doing). If you look at these discussions from this point of view, I don’t see why there would have to be any contradictions involved.


leederick 02.25.07 at 8:17 pm


The contradiction I’m suggesting is that gender egalitarianism is closely tied to the nuclear family. They criticise the male breadwinner/female caregiver model of the family as something which doesn’t reflect current reality. Well, the nuclear family is on the way out too – and the dual earner/dual caregiver family is pretty closely tied to it. I think more tightly that they’re willing to admit.

The dual earner/dual caregiver family is hard to sustain in step families. It is very difficult to take on caregiver responsibilies when the children are not yours and when you’re a recent addition in their life. As a normative ideal, I think it is also unfair to expect someone to do this. Not that I’ve ever seen anyone take this into account when interpreting time-use surveys. The ideal is impossible if you’re a single parent family.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the dual earner/dual caregiver family is being set up as a normative ideal (just read Harry’s paper). I have to say I also think there’s a class thing here too. Gender egalitarianism is very good for the sort of people who write conference papers and make policy. It doesn’t fit as well with the needs of other sections of society who have less stable family forms.

It’s very ironic that these feminist theorists ideal is so closely tied to a very traditional family form which is becoming less common. That’s the contradiction. In one of papers they suggest egalitarianism is important because it gives women more power to leave their husbands. That’s perfectly true and desirable. But once they do leave any hope of egalitarianism is over. And they don’t seem to realise this…


harry b 02.25.07 at 10:01 pm


I haven’t had much time today to look at this, and can’t reply in any detail. My response to leederick, though, is twofold. First, I think that stable family forms are desirable, and that it is legitimate to try and shape social life in ways that support stability and dual parent family life. The case against incarcerating a large proportion of the young-ish black male population is overdetermined (to say the least) but one part of that case is that it undermines stable family life. Similarly the case against high rates of poverty. So I would try to evade your criticism of my paper by saying that one doesn’t have to talk about everything at once, but also promise that a future version will at least try to say something sensible about it.

Second, though, I think there are two fair criticisms — one is that we need to think much more carefully about the tension between diversity and equality, the other is everything you said in your second para of #9 which bears a lot of thinking about and I, certainly, haven’t seen (or done) a lot of thinking about (on the normative level).


eweininger 02.26.07 at 1:27 am

…the nuclear family is on the way out too.

You’re certainly right that there’s a downward trend in the proportion of children who live in nuclear families. On the other hand, the majority of kids in the U.S. still do: from 1980 to 2000, the change was from 77% to 69%. As of 1995, approximately 9% of the kids in two-parent families were living with a step-parent. Applying this figure the 2000 data, we get just over 60% in two-biological-parent families (+/- a bit, depending on how you want to handle adoptees, etc.). Data are from here, figs. 6-1 and 6-2.

Whether and to what degree step-parents assume fewer caregiving duties, ceteris paribus, is certainly something that could be addressed empirically via time use data, if it hasn’t already been.

On the normative “ideal” questiion: you may well be right that many of the proposals made in the name of gender egalitarianism reflect the interests of those in the (let’s call it) professional-managerial class. But then, a substantial proportion cut across class lines quite effectively–e.g. public provision of quality childcare, which is something professionals are least likely to depend on the state for. (And which, of course, single parents stand to benefit from disproportionately.) So, I’m with Ingrid on this one: I don’t quite see the irony or the contradiction.


eweininger 02.26.07 at 1:33 am

Minor clarification: adoptive parents obviously aren’t biological; but whether or not they’re comparable to step-parents (per the argument in #9) is, it seems to me, very much an open question. In any event, they constitute a relatively small proportion of all families, and thus don’t affect the figures substantially.


Tobias Schwarz 02.26.07 at 1:41 am

Interestingly, and most of you might not have realized this, this very question is currently the highest profile debate in Germany, exposiing cracks within the Christian Democrats, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party, following a proposal for increased federal support of daycare centers by one of her ministers. Late last week, a catholic bishop commented that it would be reducing women to “birth-giving machines” if they had to go back to work as soon as possible. It might be interesting, but difficult, to follow that debate, but I think I’ll put something on later this week.

On the topic, I am always surprised to which extent all this focuses on male behavior, while so much data seems to suggest that it is female mating decisions that determine male role choices more than anything else. Under this assumption, shouldn’t a conference on real utopias be more concerned with the apparent incongruency between the stated and revealed female mating preferences?

Maybe this is ashortcoming explicable by the lack of “sex” or “mating” as a useful concepts in most feminist approaches.


chris armstrong 02.26.07 at 12:20 pm

I have to admit I don’t see the force of Leederick’s point that it would be practically or normatively inappropriate to hold step-parents to the same egalitarian standards as biological parents. I agree that existing family dynamics can make it hard for step-parents to step in as caring parents, though I think that the age of the children concerned is hugely important here (as far as I’m concerned, if you agree to marry a spouse with children aged two and four (to pluck some numbers from the air), then it shouldn’t make much difference in the long term to your caring responsibilities whether you’re a biological parent or not). I don’t see, in this case, how the fact of biological non-parenthood undermines the egalitarian impulse here at all (and I also think the adoption example IS significant in troubling the connection between responsibilities and biological parenthood).

I do agree that in families with children of the age of 10, or 12, or 14, that stepping in as a parent can be incredibly fraught and emotionally difficult. And to put it simply, children may simply refuse to BE ‘parented’ in the conventional sense by the new spouse. But I’m still not sure that this undermines the normative idea about the importance of equal parenthood. I’d need more argument as to just how, anyway.


harry b 02.26.07 at 3:04 pm

I think it is enormously complicated. In many arrangements the children already have two parents, and have (in my opinion) a powerful interest in being parented by them, not by someone else, who has been chosen by just one parent as a spouse, and probably not entirely for his or her parental skills. What the duties of the step-parent are must vary according to circumstances (though I agree that the step takes on a significant moral burden, and its worth thinking hard about what that is). This is at the core of leederick’s point about diversity and equality being in tension, I take it. I think this is true regardless of the ages of the kids, as long as both original parents are somewhere in the picture. I should just say that in the work I’ve been doing on the family with Adam Swift we have simplified a great deal, treating even original parents as a single unit, and so not thinking about the distribution of responsibilities between them (even the paper for this conference complicates this on only one dimension), and we haven’t thought through the complications introduced by melded families etc Well, we’ve both thought about them a great deal, but not “officially” as it were. So leederick’s criticism touched a nerve partly because I’m aware there’s a mismatch between my non-rigorous thinking (in which these things play a big role) and my rigorous thinking (in which I tend to assume them away).

In response to #12 — I use the term “original” parents here to mean “the 2-parent unit that had full parental responsibility before the split”. I think that adoptive parents are not at all like steps, and should be treated as the real parents for normative purposes. In fact I think biological parenthood is irrelevant here — it is only when the biological parent makes the lifelong commitment that the adoptive parent is expected to make that he or she gets to count as the real parent.


Slocum 02.26.07 at 3:37 pm

…argues for a mix of improved daycare provision, labour market regulation and parental leave at generous replacement rates; and the argument is that this will improve the quality of family life and increase gender equality.

I’d be surprised if such a conference came to any other conclusion — it seems overdetermined.

And yet — European countries have these sorts of policies and they seem to result in the preservation of gender inequality. The generous leaves are taken almost only by women (even when equally available).

The U.S. has little or none of these, but fathers serving as primary caregivers seems a much more common pattern because of economics. E.g. free, government-provided daycare is not provided so when the father makes less money (which is increasingly common) families do sometimes decide to have the father stay home (or work part time). But I’d predict that if women were offered generous paid leave at near their salaries, they would be the ones taking leave regardless of whether or not they were the higher paid spouse.

I say this, BTW, as a father who has, over the past 15 years, done more than half of the child care — mainly because I could (I can telecommute and work while at home with children over the summer or when they’re sick, but my wife cannot).


Laura 02.26.07 at 4:09 pm

We’re making the transition from a traditional division of family labor to a dual income/dual career family. It’s extremely difficult, since we’re committed to using as little childcare as possible and my husband is unable to shoulder most of the family responsibilities during the week. In effect, I have two jobs right now and am completely wiped out.

My husband just took a week off from work to mind the kids while they had off from school and I didn’t. He loved it. I loved it. The kids loved it. If we could afford to pay the mortgage on my salary alone, he would quit and be a full time parent. The best option would be if he could take a lesser job with less money, so he could do more at home during the week. Unfortuneately, his employer would never allow that.

Like you, Harry, I’m convinced that men would like to shoulder a bigger chunk of labor at home and that it would be good for parents and kids alike. I’m sorry that the optimists like us weren’t more well represented at your conference.


eweininger 02.26.07 at 5:26 pm

Harry B-

I used the “two-biological-parent” classification only because the census bureau break down I was linking to uses it. As far as adoption is concerned, my point in #12 was merely that, even if one were to accept leederick’s argument about step parents (in #9), adoptive parents should not be considered comparable.

My normative intuitions on this are, I think, pretty close to Chris Armstrong’s.


harry b 02.26.07 at 5:31 pm

eweininger – yes, I assumed we were in agreement about the basic useage and the central point, and I was just trying to clarify that (we are, right?). I see my comment looks a bit schoolmasterly, which was not at all what I intended. Sorry if so.


jen 02.26.07 at 7:50 pm

I supervise men and women in a business workplace every day; of my current direct reports 5 of 7 are parents. I see some continued gender stuff, but among the men there’s a big generational divide between Boomers and Gen Xers. Gen X men are, in general, much less likely to accept long hours if it means not seeing their kids. Perhaps the two camps — those who are pessimistic about men, and those who are optimistic — are both right? Perhaps it depends on how old the man is?

I also personally believe the answer in the States is not about asking the government to mandate subsidized day care, or longer leaves, or what have you. It’s about breaking the connection between health care / FICA expense and full-time work. If a half-time employee cost his/her employer exactly half what a full-timer costs, businesses would have many more part-time employees. And if you could walk out on an overly-demanding employer without risking your family’s health coverage, you’d see a lot more parents voting with their feet.


Fitz 02.26.07 at 9:55 pm

None of this can properly be termed “gender egalitarianism” but rather “enforced androgyny”

Although utopian is accurate.


harry b 02.26.07 at 10:35 pm

Fitz — the mechanisms being proposed, even in my paper, quite specifically do not enforce (though they do endorse) any particular arrangements within particular marriages. I should also add that at the conference there was a a great deal of unease with the idea of the state involving itself in social engineering (an unease from which I hurriedly disassociate myself, having argued frequently here at CT that it is legitimate, for example, for the state to promote marriage).


harry b 02.26.07 at 10:44 pm

oh, and I agree with jen about the significance of health care. They deal with this in the book, but its 6 months since I read the lead paper, and I can’t remember whether they discuss it in there. But that’s not everything…


eweininger 02.27.07 at 3:54 am

Harry B-Not at all. I was just worried that my comments suggested something other than what I had intended.

Slocum-I’m inclined to agree with you that wage rate disparities play a role–albeit partial–in determining which parent withdraws from the labor market to care for children. But can you document that fathers in the U.S. are really more likely to stay home than their European counterparts?–and if so, which European counterparts, since the relevant policies appear to vary substantially from country to country.

Which suggests an interesting point: much of the discussion has implicitly presupposed that people make fertility decisions, and then subsequently flounder about in the policy environment of whatever country they happen to live in. However, at least if you’re willing to trust things like this, it may be the other way around: the policy environment may have a substantial impact on fertility decisions.


Pete 02.27.07 at 3:36 pm

“The topic was Rethinking Gender Egalitarianism, and I was leaving my wife at home much of the weekend with a 4-week-old baby and the girls.”

I’d make a sarcastic comment here, but really it writes itself.


harry b 02.27.07 at 4:17 pm

pete — right, though you might read #3. On reflection (which franck’s comment forced on me), I realise that I wouldn’t have done the same with either of the other kids at the same age, but that’s because they were monstrous, unlike the little charmer we’ve added.

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