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Justice For Women!

Justice, Gender, and the Family

by Susan Moller Okin
Basic Books, 216 pp., $10.95 (paper)

As Bangladesh was struggling to recover from the disastrous famine of 1974, Saleha Begum’s husband fell ill, and they were forced to sell their land.1 Like most women in rural Bangladesh, Saleha had never been trained to work outside her home. Although she raised her children almost single-handedly and did the hard physical work that daily household life required, she was illiterate, unprepared for any sort of wage-paying job, and without any claims to respect as a worker. To avoid starvation for herself, her husband, and her children, Saleha fought for and won the right to work at an agricultural project previously closed to women, in which food was given in exchange for labor. As the prize for her victory she was able to spend her days breaking up turf with a hoe and carrying heavy baskets of earth—all the while caring for her young children, who accompanied her to the field, and continuing to do all the housework when she returned home. (Women, studies show, can move forty cubic feet of earth per day.) She told an interviewer that she regrets her lack of professional training: “I could have had a profession to see me through these difficult days—without always dreading whether I will have work tomorrow or whether my children will be crying in hunger.” When I saw her husband on film (too weak for field work, but otherwise apparently well), he was sitting on the ground and smoking a pipe while Saleha cared for their children.

Angela K. lives in the white middle-class American suburbs, but her story has much in common with that of Saleha Begum. Angela went to high school, but married shortly after she began college. She left school to go to work, supporting her young husband while he got both a bachelor’s degree and a professional degree, and then quit work to have children. Ten years later she was divorced and awarded custody of the three young children; but the court ordered the family house to be sold and the proceeds divided. The child support payments and temporary “transitional” alimony ordered by the court were inadequate to keep the family from hardship. Forced to rely on her earnings, she is caught in an exhausting dead-end routine. She has to take jobs paying close to the minimum wage while also caring for her children and doing the housework, and she has no hope of pursuing any sort of professional training. Her frustration is increased by awareness that her ex-husband is flourishing. It takes the average divorced man only about ten months to earn as much as the couple’s entire net worth. And divorced men are now more likely to meet their car payments than their child support obligations.2

Women suffer injustice not only through discrimination in the public world, but through the ways labor is organized and income is distributed within the family itself. It is in families, indeed, that the cruelest discrimination against women takes place. The economist Amartya Sen, for example, has shown that patterns of female mortality in many parts of the world suggest that pervasive discrimination against women (and especially girls) deprives them both of adequate food and basic health care.3 It is hard to prove who puts how much food on whose plate each night at dinner; but one can observe which members of a family die of malnutrition and draw the appropriate inferences about the inner life of that family.

And even when women are not actually dying as the result of discrimination, the patterns of family life limit their opportunities in many ways: by assigning them to unpaid work with low prestige; by denying them equal opportunities to outside jobs and education; by insisting they do most or all of the housework and child care even when they are also earning wages. Especially troubling are ways that women may suffer from the altruism of marriage itself. As the two stories show, a woman who accepts the traditional tasks of housekeeping and provides support for her husband’s work is not likely to be well prepared to look after herself and her family in the event (which is increasingly likely) of a divorce or an accident that leaves her alone.

Such facts are all too familiar. Few who have lived through some variant of this story, or have seen their friends do so, would confidently maintain that the contemporary family is a just institution. And yet philosophical theories of justice have rarely considered the workings of the family; they have rarely treated it as an institution to which basic insights about justice and injustice must apply. The aim of Okin’s important book is to bring this situation to light and to try to correct it.

Two reasons for this omission are frequently offered, Okin points out, either separately or in combination. Some theorists claim that the family is not an appropriate topic for a theory of justice because it is in some sense “beyond” justice, a sphere of life that embodies virtues of love and generosity that are “higher” than justice. (This claim has recently been advanced by thinkers as different as the communitarian political theorist Michael Sandel and the radical legal scholar Roberto Unger.)4

Even if such a claim is true of the family at its best, it is far from clear why generosity and love should be thought incompatible with a basic concern for justice—as if it were small-minded to inquire about equal opportunity when partners are bound by deep emotion. We should, as Okin says, be suspicious of that criticism, especially when we notice whose interests that idea of a love beyond justice has frequently served.5 Real generosity and real love, we would insist, should at least be just; and it seems right to demand of the family that it meet the basic requirements of fairness, no matter what higher ends it pursues.

This point is all the more important since the dominant model of the family used in current economic theory—that of the economist Gary Becker—assumes a harmony of interests among family members, in which a beneficent head of the family acts “rationally” on behalf of the interests of all its members.6 This approach, as Okin perceptively notices, is not very different from that of theorists who idealize the family. Like such theories, it fails to confront inequalities of power and problems of justice that can exist within the family itself.

It is also said that the family cannot be expected to meet standards of justice because, unlike the state, it exists “by nature,” or “according to nature”—an argument recently made, for example, by Allan Bloom in his attack on women’s demands for equality of opportunity.7 But the word “nature,” as J. S. Mill long ago observed,8 is among the most slippery of many slippery terms in the philosopher’s lexicon. If “according to nature” means “the way things are without human design or intervention,” it is far from clear why we should be bound by nature when it comes to ethical choices. Many bad things happen according to nature in that sense—diseases, earthquakes, bodily weakness, and hunger. This hardly means that we should do nothing about them. Many good things, too, are in that sense against nature—including most of the ethical ideas we have.

Nor can the traditional patterns of family life be separated from other social norms and political institutions. As Okin shows in detail, the “private” realm of the family, so frequently contrasted with the “public” world of laws and institutions, is actually shaped by laws and institutions in countless ways: directly, by the impact of divorce law, tax law, and other family-related laws on the opportunities and living standard of family members; indirectly by the fact that the family members are deeply influenced by the societies in which they live. Their actions in “public” life also shape, and are shaped by, their ways of participating in family life. An unequal division of labor within the family presents obstacles to women in their lives outside the family; and these inequalities are often supported by social traditions and expectations.

And yet most major theories of justice have had little to say about women or the family. This, Okin argues, simply will not do: since women evidently suffer injustice, a theory of social justice forfeits its claim to our attention if it omits so much of its topic. The family, moreover, is the school of justice for the larger society, the place where children are first exposed to the models of fairness and unfairness that will affect their later behavior in the larger world. If young citizens’ earliest experiences of family life include the experience of injustice, even of injustice masquerading as nobility or as nature, must this not work against the eventual possibility of a more just society?

Okin examines what some influential philosophical accounts of justice have to say about the justice of the family. If, as often is the case, little has been said explicitly, she asks whether the theory itself has the potential for an adequate treatment of injustice to women. Communitarian theories of justice, which hold that standards must be found in the deeply rooted traditions of particular societies, seem to her particularly inadequate.

Here Alasdair MacIntyre’s account of justice within traditions9 is of particular interest, since MacIntyre shows much sensitivity to issues of justice for women and goes to some pains to show that his Aristotelian-Thomistic account can avoid some of the discriminatory conclusions of Aristotle’s actual treatment of women. Okin argues, convincingly in my view, that MacIntyre’s appeal to the excellence of traditional arrangements is persuasive only to the extent that he makes his reader forget to ask what position he or she would occupy within the traditional society. It is one thing to be a Homeric warrior, quite another to be a Homeric slave, and MacIntyre always concentrates on the dominant class, failing to imagine the horrendous inequalities that are directly entailed by the standards of justice in these traditional societies. When much of the world seems to be seeking meaning in ethnic, national, and other traditions, and casting aspersions on the Enlightenment demand for impartiality, Okin reminds her readers of the dangers of romanticizing tradition.10

Equally vigorous is her attack on libertarian theories of justice, for example Robert Nozick’s rights-based account of a minimally interfering state.11 Her criticism here is, I think, unfortunately narrow; it is aimed at finding an inconsistency within Nozick’s account of ownership, and argues that he cannot avoid the conclusion that women own their children, since they produce them by their own labor. If this is so, she argues, nobody can ever own anything since they do not own themselves in the first place. In consequence, Nozick’s theory of ownership and entitlement is flawed from the start. This seems to be a relatively superficial objection, of little help in investigating the general structure of theories of justice based on rights, and what they have to offer women.

  1. 1

    I take this real-life example from Marty Chen, “A Matter of Survival: Women’s Right to Work in India and Bangladesh,” forthcoming in M. Nussbaum and J. Glover, editors, Human Capabilities: Women, Men and Equality, a volume in the World Institute for Development Economics Research series, to be published by Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press. The example of Angela K. below is a fictional composite, drawn from the data presented in Okin, chapter 7.

  2. 2

    Okin draws this point and other related data from Lenore J. Weitzman, The Divorce Revolution: The Unexpected Social and Economic Consequences for Women and Children in America (Free Press, 1985). Some of Weitzman’s data have recently been challenged—see Susan Faludi, Back-lash (Crown, 1991) pp. 19ff. But Faludi still finds that pay inequalities in the work force, and the selfish behavior of divorced men, lead to serious economic hardship for divorced women. Criticisms of Weitzman are answered by Okin in “Economic Equality After Divorce,” Dissent, Summer 1991, pp. 383–387.

  3. 3

    Amartya Sen, “More than 100 Million Women Are Missing,” The New York Review, December 29, 1990; see also Sen, “Gender and Cooperative Conflicts,” in Irene Tinker, editor, Persistent Inequalities (Oxford University Press, 1990); Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, Hunger and Public Action (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1989) pp. 46–64; and Sen, “Gender Inequalities and Theories of Justice,” forthcoming in Nussbaum and Glover, Human Capabilities. Okin discusses the particular problems of women in developing countries in “Justice, Gender, and Differences,” forthcoming in Human Capabilities.

  4. 4

    Michael Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge University Press, 1982), discussed in Okin, chapter 2; Roberto Unger, “The Critical Legal Studies Movement,” Harvard Law Review, Vol. 96 (1983), and also published as a monograph by Harvard University Press; also Roberto Unger, Politics: A Work in Constructive Social Theory (Cambridge University Press, 1987), part I, both discussed by Okin in chapter 6.

  5. 5

    See especially Sen, “Gender Inequalities and Theories of Justice” (in Human Capabilities).

  6. 6

    Gary S. Becker, A Treatise on the Family (Harvard University Press, 1981), discussed by Okin in chapter 7, and in more detail by Sen in “Gender and Cooperative Conflicts” in Persistent Inequalities and “Gender Inequalities and Theories of Justice” in Human Capabilities.

  7. 7

    Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (Simon and Schuster, 1987), discussed in Okin, chapter 2. I discuss Bloom’s treatment of issues concerning women in “Undemocratic Vistas,” The New York Review, November 5, 1987.

  8. 8

    J. S. Mill, “Nature,” from Three Essays on Religion in The Philosophy of John Stuart Mill, edited by M. Cohen (Random House, 1961); see also the excellent treatment of this topic in Peter Singer and Deane Wells, Making Babies: The New Science and Ethics of Conception (Scribner’s, 1985).

  9. 9

    Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), and especially Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (University of Notre Dame Press, 1988). See my review of the latter in The New York Review, December 7, 1989.

  10. 10

    Okin draws the phrase “shared meanings” from Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (Basic Books, 1983); she is highly critical of the traditionalist strand in Walzer’s theory, but finds considerable promise in other parts of his view, especially the criticism of dominance and hierarchy.

  11. 11

    Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Basic Books, 1974), discussed in Okin, chapter 4.

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