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,…

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