Justice, Gender, and the Family
by Susan Moller Okin

This is a profoundly anti-libertarian book. Every one of her proposals for making society more just violates the libertarian view of justice. She seems to be honest and careful about the information she gathers. Her reasoning is generally sound too. Her problem is that her basic premises are wrong. This is obvious from the first words on the first page of Chapter 1 where she says:
"We as a society pride ourselves on our democratic values. We don't believe people should be constrained by innate differences from being able to achieve desired positions of influence or to improve their well-being; equality of opportunity is our professed aim." [3]
She starts out on the wrong foot by confusing justice and equal opportunity. She implies that single-parent families are entitled to as much income as two-parent families, and that voters have a duty to elect women politicians in proportion to the female share of the population.

She is unaware of the facts of life. She insists that:

"nothing in our natures dictates that men should not be equal participants in the rearing of their children." [5]
Are we not mammals? Aren't women the one's who bear children? Aren't mothers the ones whose breasts fill with milk for their babies to suck? I dare say the natural thing for humans is for women to rear children. The nuclear family was a great invention. It is an improvement on human nature, and I give women the credit for inventing it.

She denies all natural differences between men and women except for the purely physical ones such as the ability of only women to bear children. Other than the purely physical differences between the sexes, all aspects of men's and women's nature are totally plastic and boys and girls should be raised identically. All of the nonphysical aspects of gender in our society are man-made (society-made) inequities that need to be eradicated by law (government coercion).

The whole book is testimony to the falsity of her statement that

"The potential significance of feminist discoveries and conclusions about gender for issues of social justice cannot be overemphasized." [7]
The central topic of her book is "How just is gender?" [8] and she wonders why other major theories of justice have not addressed this question. The answer, which never dawns on her, is, of course, that it is a stupid question. It is on a par with how just is height, or weight, or ethnic origin?

In her preoccupation with the inequality that results from stereotypes about gender, Okin can barely begin to see all the other sources of unequal opportunity that would have to be rectified to achieve her brand of justice. What about the unequal opportunities associated with age, height, weight, intelligence, religious beliefs, artistic ability, athletic ability, work habits, temperament, ambition, geographic location, and the endless list of other factors that unfairly give one person more opportunity than another in some respect?

Her argument is that we must eliminate the idea of gender because it prevents women from having equal access to all of life's opportunities. This is true, but what about ethnicity? Children raised by parents from different ethnic and religious traditions cannot have equal opportunities in life. So must we outlaw ethnicity and religion?

The theory of justice that underlies libertarianism is fundamentally at odds with the theory of equal opportunity that underlies feminism. As Susan Moller Okin points out in this book, equal opportunity requires massive state intervention for

"a high and uniform standard of education and the provision of equal social services--including health care, employment training, job opportunities, drug rehabilitation, and decent housing--for all who need them. In addition to redistributive taxation, only massive reallocations of resources from military to social services could make these things possible." [16]
In her philosophy, the unequal division of labor between married couples in the bourgeois family is unjust. To libertarians, the idea of a voluntary division of labor being unjust is self-contradictory. Okin specifically attacks libertarianism and says, quite correctly, that it is "completely demolished" by the demand for equality. [23]

The problems posed by the goal of equal opportunity can only be solved by a totalitarian state that equalizes opportunity downward; restricting it to the lowest common level. Anyone who supports the idea of a free nation must first abandon all hope of equal opportunity, and anyone who believes in equal opportunity would not be attracted to a free nation. There will be so few anti-gender feminists in a free nation that they could not pose a serious threat to the bourgeois family.

When she makes points that are tangential or unrelated to her central argument she is often correct and insightful. For example, she makes the point that modern philosophers "often employ gender-neutral language in a false, hollow way." [8]

Her pro-women, anti-men bias (which she is probably not conscious of) is apparent when she describes the condition of wives as one of "economic dependency and restricted opportunities" [9] rather than a condition of parasitism and exploitation, which is the anti-women, pro-male perspective of it. To whine about wives being economically dependent on their husbands is like saying that the main injustice of the slavery system in the South was that it made the slave owners economically dependent on their slaves. Children are, like housewives, dependent. Does this mean they are entitled to compensation for this "injustice?"

She wants to develop a theory of justice for all human beings, not just for heads of households (men). My theory is even broader. It applies to all moral agents. Not only human beings.

Her goal of equal opportunity for women is not achievable and is not required by justice, nor, in my opinion is it desirable. She is no doubt correct when she says that the gender structure in our society is a major obstacle to equality of opportunity. She is also correct to point out that other liberal philosophers who believe that justice requires equal opportunity have not devoted enough attention to the obstacle posed by gender. She reaches the radical conclusion, which is a logical inference from her premises, that we must eliminate gender itself. She accuses other philosophers of taking the family structure for granted, but she takes for granted that the goodies such as childcare that she wants the government to redistribute will be produced.

"... justice takes primacy because it is the most essential, not because it is the highest, of virtues." [28]
She doesn't have a clue that her demands for state action are demands for force. In reaction to Allan Bloom's charge that feminists want to use force she says,
"He does not explain how feminists have used force in pursuit of their aims. By chaining themselves to railings, or by learning self-defense, perhaps?" [35]
She is very good at critiquing other philosophers. She does a good job dissecting traditionalist moralists, relativists, other liberals, and Robert Nozick. Nozick's theory of labor as the source of ownership implies that mothers own their children. Nozick cannot rebut the slavery implications of this because he specifically defends the right to sell yourself into slavery. So, in a Nozickian world, children would be commodities.

She complains about domestic violence and says,

"The privacy of the home can be a dangerous place, especially for women and children." [129]
Which is true unless you compare it to any of the alternatives. She whines about the unequal distribution between husbands and wives of power, prestige, self-esteem, but she fails to mention the unequal distribution of leisure time, shopping, consuming, watching TV, and life expectancy. She complains that the housewife's work is devalued. But it is feminists who covet men's careers and devalue housework more than any other group.

Without tax laws and government regulations, businesses could be more flexible in accommodating the needs of their employees with regard to work schedules. Computer technology is making it possible for more parents to work for wages at home where they can also attend to and supervise their children.

Her specific proposals are:

  1. Employers must be required by law to eradicate sex discrimination.
  2. Employers must be mandated to provide leave for pregnancy and childbirth.
  3. Employers must allow workers to work less than full-time during the first year of a child's life and to work flexible hours until the child is 7 years old, without prejudice to the worker's seniority, benefits, and so on.
  4. Parents with a child who has health problems or a disabling condition must be granted flexibility in their work schedules without prejudice to their careers.
  5. Large-scale employers should be required to provide high-quality on-site day care for children from infancy up to school age.
  6. Direct government subsidies should be given to low-income parents so they can afford equal quality day care for their young children.
  7. Discrimination based on sex should be practices in the education system until there are equal numbers of male and female teachers and administrators.
  8. Schools should be required to provide high-quality after-school programs.
  9. The parent without physical custody should be required to contribute to the child's support, to the point where the standards of living of the two households are the same.
  10. Employers should be required to make out paychecks equally divided between the employee and the employee's spouse.
See the excellent critique of Okin's book by Karen Vaughn in Reason Papers #18, Fall 1993.

Year Read: 1997


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