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  • Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What To Do About It
  • Cynthia Willett (bio)
Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What To Do About It. By Joan Williams. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Several decades ago saw fervent feminist activism in the streets, in the media, on college campuses, and even in my high school. Today, the enthusiasm is gone. Many of our students take for granted women's hard-fought battles for equality in the workplace and against sexual harassment, and feminism has become, for many of these students, an unpopular cause. Yet the march toward greater equality for women does not seem inevitable. On the contrary, middle-class women seeking promotions in firms, academia, or business face what has become known as the glass ceiling, and the number of women and children living in poverty is on the rise. What is going wrong?

In Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It (2000), an enormously rich and thoughtful book, Joan Williams builds a strong case for what ails us: it's the economy. Or rather, it is a particular norm that informs cultural assumptions about the nature of work—what Williams calls the norm of the ideal worker (49). In accordance with this norm, employers expect the typical worker to delegate carework and burdensome household duties to invisible others, and devote him or herself to long hours on the job. The work of caring for family does not always fall on women; some men also perform this work. But women continue to perform 80 percent of childcare duties (2), and this accounts for why, as a group, women are failing to earn promotions and raises, and often enough, falling out of the middle class, sometimes into poverty.

It would seem that these difficulties would call for more of the feminist activism that flourished in the 1970s. Williams, however, was warned to keep the word "feminism" out of her book to attract readers (1). Feminism is perceived as part of the problem of women's current woes, not the solution, Williams explains (46). Women blame feminism for their overburdened lives, and see not so much the gains of feminism in the workplace as the loss of privileges [End Page 228] for those who choose to bear children. Feminism, in short, is not viewed as a family-friendly philosophy.

Williams explains that this is because the '70s feminist movement chose to condemn the cult of domesticity. Influential feminists such as Betty Friedan argued that domesticity was repressive of female energies. They urged women to send their children off to daycare and to seek independence and fulfillment in paid work. The problem with their solution to the conflict between family and market work is that a 200-year-old ideal of domesticity cannot be eradicated, or at least not easily. The career-first feminism of the '70s leaves too many families cold, triggering what Williams calls "commodification anxiety" (118). These families view commercialized childcare as a poor substitute for the "parental norm of childrearing" (52) that they refuse to give up.

The diminished sense of community and governmental responsibility in American-style capitalism leaves us suspended between the two separate and opposing spheres of the family and the marketplace. Marketplace values of self-interest and instrumental thinking relegate to the family the virtues of altruism, self-sacrifice, and service that once belonged to the public sphere. Our only relief from the unfriendly competition of corporate culture is the family. For this reason the cult of domesticity remains a steadfast partner of capitalism.

Polls reveal that the foremost concern of women is how to balance work and family, and these findings support Williams's most basic theoretical claim, which is that feminists need to shift their attention away from modern theories of sexual domination and postmodern theories of gender flux and toward a pragmatic theory of work and family. From this pragmatic point of view, feminists need to develop our understanding of the impact of social forces, conventionality, and habitus on the individual. Williams names John Dewey and Pierre Bourdieu as key figures for this new work-and-family feminism.



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pp. 228-231
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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