The Insularity of Contemporary Feminism

Toward a Humanist Justice: The Political Philosophy of Susan Moller Okin

  • Edited by Deborah Satz and Rob Reich
  • Oxford University Press, 2009; 260 pages, $85.00

In that attractive but rather closed community known as American higher education, feminists own a lot of real estate. The small number of courses in “women’s studies” in the 1960s and 1970s has given way to programs and departments with full-time faculty and even endowed professorships. During this time, feminism has gained considerable influence in American law and politics. Its influence derives from its secure position in the academy, because almost every student now attending a top-notch college, university, or law school will be exposed to the feminist worldview.

Comparing feminism with social conservatism is instructive. The latter, of course, is poorly represented among faculty members in higher education. To identify oneself as a social conservative at most colleges and universities—at least before earning tenure—is professional folly, if not suicide. Yet no one can deny the influence of social conservatism in American politics. It remains a potent electoral force because so many voters identify themselves as socially or morally conservative. Feminism’s influence is significant, but disproportionate to the relatively small number of Americans who identify with feminism in theory or practice.

The main disagreements between feminists and social conservatives are well known. With few exceptions, feminists endorse abortion rights, universal access to contraceptives (even for minors and at public expense), gender-based affirmative action, and the aims of the “gay-rights” movement. American feminists also show deep suspicion of, if not outright hostility towards, Christianity, which provides religious support for social conservatism. Nonetheless, feminists and social conservatives share a few policy goals. Both have tried to establish a constitutionally valid framework for regulating pornography, a project that has proceeded in fits and starts, but without much success thus far. Some feminists also worry about the fragility of the American family and the social consequences of widespread divorce. They rightly suspect that certain policies relating to marriage and families need to be changed.

The publication of Toward a Humanist Justice therefore provides an opportunity to assess the scholarly work of one prominent feminist who engaged several themes of interest to social conservatives. Before her untimely death in 2004, Susan Moller Okin taught as a professor of political science at Stanford University. On the basis of her scholarship, she acquired a reputation for path-breaking work in political theory. In the words of Debra Satz, one of the editors, Okin was “perhaps the best feminist political philosopher in the world.” A year after her death, colleagues at Stanford organized a conference to pay tribute to Okin and consider her legacy. Toward a Humanist Justice includes papers originally presented at that conference, most of which celebrate Okin’s work while raising questions for scholars and activists.

Taken as a whole, this collection of essays will interest few persons outside those two groups. Those seeking an introduction to the world of academic feminism could learn more by reading Okin’s principal works. As a supplement to those works, this book has value, but many of its essays suffer from being too narrow. The contributors teach at some of the best colleges and universities in the world, but they too often fail to ask vital questions about the practicality of Okin’s proposals and the coherence of her views.

Feminist Theory and Western History

Okin sought to demonstrate the political relevance of the concept of “gender.” Like other feminists, she argued that gender is a “social construct,” and that except for the obvious biological differences between men and women, such as a woman’s ability to conceive and carry a child, there are no “natural” differences between the sexes. Simply because a woman can bear and nurse a child does not mean that she should be assigned exclusive responsibility for raising that child. “Gender,” she therefore claimed, provides grounds for criticizing the family headed by a married mother and father. Okin insists that fathers can and should be more involved in both homemaking and childrearing.

In offering these criticisms, Okin believed that she and other feminists had uncovered a vast conspiracy: the political disenfranchisement of women. In this account of Western history, men long ago decided to relegate women to the drudgery of work in the home, while seizing the opportunity to do more interesting things, such as govern the polis. This account may seem historically sound, because women typically acquired the right to vote later than men. But the account errs in taking universal maleenfranchisement as the historical norm. In fact, it has been the exception, not the rule, in the West.

We see this tendency even in the United States. When the Constitution was written and ratified, every state had restrictions on the franchise for white males, with property ownership being the most common requirement. In Great Britain in the early nineteenth century, scarcely any men outside the aristocracy had the right to vote. In both countries, full enfranchisement came gradually. Nor was there anything like full male enfranchisement in classical Greece or Rome. Only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did universal suffrage become established in Europe as well as North America and, in almost every country, women received the right to vote within one or two generations after full male enfranchisement. None of the essays acknowledges these points.

Okin also contends that the “gendered” division of labor freed men economically, allowing them to make money outside the home. This prerogative is said to have made wives radically dependent on husbands. But here, too, fact is mixed with fancy. For most of Western history, most men have not been economically free in the way that Okin suggests. In the Founding era of the United States, for example, roughly 75 to 80 percent of men worked as either farmers or independent artisans (e.g., blacksmiths), and many men did both kinds of work. This way of life persisted for many Americans into the twentieth century (as novels like The Grapes of Wrath depict), and it belies the idea of a rigidly gendered division of labor. In rural societies, including rural America and medieval Europe, the family typically has functioned as a flexible economic team and without the stark differential in gender power that Okin posited. The British historian Eileen Power (1899–1940) could even speak of a “rough and ready” equality between most husbands and wives living in the Middle Ages.

Admittedly, a gendered division of labor became more common during the Industrial Revolution. In the United States, its heyday was in the decades following the Second World War, a period that coincides with the birth of academic feminism. But the division of labor criticized by Okin—with the husband as the family’s sole breadwinner, and the wife as the full-time homemaker and caretaker of the children—had a short life. That ideal was never as universally followed as she imagines and soon gave way to today’s reality, in which a married mother may well work outside the home—although not always full-time and often intermittently through the childrearing years—as the husband often remains the family’s principal (but not sole) breadwinner.

Despite being a poor historian, Okin made some original and important arguments about social justice. She observed that married American women who assumed primary or exclusive responsibility for homemaking and childrearing tend to be economically vulnerable, especially after a divorce. They are vulnerable because they often sacrifice professional advancement during their childbearing years and, on average, work more total hours per week than husbands, if one includes all the work done at home by each spouse. Various studies support Okin’s findings here and her thesis about economic vulnerability. How might this vulnerability manifest itself? First, if a husband’s income greatly exceeds his wife’s, or if she is a full-time mother and homemaker without her own source of income, he can “pull rank” on her. Second, if the couple divorces, a husband’s economic prospects typically improve (at least slightly), while the wife’s is apt to decline. Her economic position may decline further if she gains custody of the children, the usual occurrence in most states.

Okin sought to reduce such vulnerability not by attacking easy divorce but by developing certain ideas in the political theory of Harvard philosopher John Rawls and by offering several policy proposals. At the level of theory, she argued that the family must be regarded as part of the “basic structure” of society and that principles of justice must apply there. Crucially, she assumed that the presence of love and affection in a family does not preclude the extension of principles of justice to it. At a practical level, she sought to reduce economic vulnerability and win public recognition of the importance of unpaid domestic work through a policy of “shared income” between spouses. In this scheme, employers would be legally obliged to endorse paychecks to both husband and wife. In the event of divorce, Okin proposed that the incomes of the post-divorce households be equalized, at least for a period of several years. 

A Policy Agenda in Search of a Constituency

These proposals were part of a larger political agenda. As noted by contributors Mary Lyndon Shanley and Alison Jaggar, Okin believed that a truly just society would abolish gender and create conditions that make it easy for mothers to combine a career outside the home with family life. To that end, she wanted publicly subsidized, “high-quality” daycare (including “on-site” daycare in schools), and much longer periods of fully paid parental leave after the birth of a child (for both mothers and fathers). Sweeping changes in education would also be required, so that girls could see themselves pursuing any career that men might pursue.

These recommendations assume that a rational woman would want a career outside the home as much as she might want to be a mother and homemaker. The policies would also require a sizable expansion of government. To judge from her published writings, however, Okin failed to anticipate the inevitable questions: Would most Americans favor these policies? Would they be willing to pay higher taxes for them? Do most married mothers in America value a career outside the home as much as they value their work for their families? If they value the latter more, shouldn’t other women, including Okin, accept their priorities?

These questions receive little attention in Toward A Humanist Justice. Contributors such as Nancy Rosenblum and Iris Marion Young as well as the editors evidently regard Okin’s proposals as brilliant ideas just waiting to be enacted. The only contrarian voice is John Tomasi (“Can Feminism Be Liberated from Governmentalism?”), who questions whether the government must play such a large role in effecting changes on behalf of women. He shows that various nineteenth-century feminists would have challenged that assumption.

Because more than twenty years have passed since Okin put forward her policy proposals in Justice, Gender, and the Family (1989), political and intellectual elites ought to explain why the voting public, including the majority of American women, have not embraced them. With respect to the “shared-income” policy between spouses, some might say the policy could be difficult to administer, especially if the husband is self-employed. More fundamentally, however, the policy seems to conflict with individualistic notions about economics, notions reflected in the writings of John Locke and Milton Friedman, among others. Okin would say that this economic individualism is just what the policy is meant to redress, because that individualism sometimes jeopardizes the prospects of married women and children.

In view of the nation’s attachment to economic individualism, Okin would need to sell her policy proposal. Her political judgment, however, was not only poor but also lacking the kind of rhetorical skills she and other feminists needed to win support for their policies. For the shared-income policy to be enacted, it would have to resonate with middle America and its political representatives. But like many feminists, Okin disdained much of middle-class American life.

Because of their desire to strengthen American families and their wariness of hyper-individualism (like that seen in no-fault divorce), social conservatives might be inclined to give the shared-income policy a sympathetic hearing. But they would be less inclined to do so if they knew of Okin’s contempt for so many things that they hold dear. Okin had many prejudices towards religion in general and Christianity in particular. In Justice, Gender, and the Family, she wrote that a rational woman would eschew the Christian faith. She also favored abortion rights, same-sex “marriage,” single motherhood “by choice,” and a thoroughly “non-judgmental” approach to teenage sexuality. Moreover, with the exception of showing some fairness to her opponents on the question of abortion, she made paltry efforts to understand why other people hold different views. And by suggesting that a rational woman would never affirm Christianity, she implied that Christian teachings on these matters did not merit any respect.

As further evidence of her poor judgment, consider Okin’s fondness for hyperbole and extreme political positions. Writing in the late 1990s, she remarked that American women remained “second-class citizens.” Such a criticism would surely offend many, for it suggests that the United States did nothing in the twentieth century to eliminate unwarranted discrimination against women.

Some of the essays in Toward a Humanist Justice display the same tendencies. Mary Lyndon Shanley refers to gender in the contemporary United States as a “caste system”; David Miller refuses to give the natural family a preferred normative status in his political theory; and Cass Sunstein believes that Okin was “broadly correct” in holding that religious institutions should be stripped of their tax-exempt status if they assign certain offices and positions on the basis of sex. These views might have currency in the academy, but they also help to explain why something like the “shared-income” policy is likely to remain nothing more than a talking point among feminists.

A Superficial Genealogy

Besides John Tomasi’s paper, a genuinely critical posture toward Okin is evident in only one other place in the book. In “What We Owe Women: The View from Multicultural Feminism,” Ayelet Shachar provides a defense of traditional Muslim and Jewish women who are religiously observant and want to be recognized as equals within their communities. Her essay amounts to a critique of Okin’s views on feminism and “multiculturalism.”

Okin’s writings on that topic appeared in her last decade of life. She criticized the “multicultural turn” in Anglo-American political theory, arguing that women in and from non-Western societies faced intra-group prejudice, discrimination, and violence in different settings, even after immigrating to the West. Accordingly, she had little sympathy for arguments to preserve the “cultural autonomy” of these groups.

Most Americans can appreciate Okin’s concerns, but may still criticize her on two counts. First, as several contributors point out, her analysis of the cultural practices of non-Western groups and communities was sometimes perfunctory, relying too heavily, for instance, on articles published in the New York Times. Second, if Okin believed that intra-group discrimination against women was a serious problem outside the West, why did she not more thoroughly explore the intellectual and cultural sources that contributed to the more favorable life prospects for Western women? As might be expected, she believed that those better life prospects were largely attributable to feminism and liberalism. She saw the former as an outgrowth of the latter, and admired the liberal political theorist John Stuart Mill as a thinker who bridged the two traditions.

But Okin’s “genealogy” of feminism didn’t go far enough. The connection between classical liberalism and Christianity has been an important theme in Western political theory since the early nineteenth century, with the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831) designating Christianity “the religion of freedom.” Later in the nineteenth century, British political theorist T. H. Green, a contemporary of John Stuart Mill, concurred. Even if one disagrees with Hegel and Green, Okin’s indifference to the connections between Christianity, liberalism, and feminism could be interpreted as further evidence of her bias against the religion.

Here again, readers might wish that some of the contributors had explored this matter—or at least broached the subject. But the likelihood of that occurring was probably very small. Given their expressed views, most of the contributors would be unwilling to entertain the possibility that Christianity has done more than either liberalism or feminism to advance the life prospects of women in the West. This is yet another reason the Okin conference organizers and editors should have solicited the insights of conservative scholars. Both conference and book would have in all likelihood been intellectually richer.

In sum, Toward a Humanist Justice offers a revealing account of the place of feminism in the academy. Any reader who acknowledges Okin’s reputation as a political theorist and her premature death can understand the book’s hagiographic tone and its celebration of her work. But the collection of essays also conveys the insularity of contemporary feminism. That insularity at times seems self-willed, and it confirms that more extensive collaboration between feminists and social conservatives is not going to happen anytime soon.

Dr. Tubbs, a fellow of the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, is associate professor of politics at The King’s College in New York City.