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  • Working Mothers and the Welfare State
  • Jason Beckfield
Working Mothers and the Welfare State By Kimberly J. Morgan Stanford University Press, 2006. 250 pages. $55 (cloth), $21.95 (paper)

Working Mothers and the Welfare State is a carefully researched, richly detailed and provocatively argued contribution to the "cultural turn" in the political sociology of the welfare state. Kimberly Morgan offers a fresh explanation of cross-national variation and historical change in policies that shape how working mothers in rich countries balance work and family. Noting that the rise in women's participation in the paid labor force in western Europe and the United States has prompted a range of policies on child-care, parental leave and "flexible" work arrangements, Morgan asks what forces drive these differences. Her answer: organized religion. Although the book is better at accounting for cross-national differences than it is at explaining change, Morgan's comparative-historical study of the politics of work-family policies in Sweden, France, the United States and the Netherlands marks an advance and serves as a guidepost for future scholarship at the intersection of welfare politics, gender and religion.

The main strength of the book lies in its intriguing argument for how one aspect of culture – organized religion – matters for one domain of the welfare state: work-family policies. Morgan shows that the different forms taken by organized religion in the 19th century cemented different patterns of political competition that in turn shaped divergent ideologies and policies toward working women into the 20th century. Both religious practice and religious conflict are key. In Sweden, a universal-breadwinner, "parent worker" model of work-family policy can be traced to religious homogeneity and early secularization that, in the absence of a strong religious cleavage, opened the door to the deep involvement of the state in family life. In France, activist and pro-natalist state policies result from the victory of anti-clerical [End Page 867] Republicans over Catholics. In the Netherlands, publicly-financed – but privately-provided – education and child-care programs developed out of deep religious cleavages between secularists, on one side, and a Protestant-Catholic alliance on the other, which combined Protestant belief in "sovereignty in one's circle" with the Catholic "subsidiarity" principle. In the United States, a limited, market-oriented model emerged from vast religious pluralism and an early separation of church from state that resulted in a robust but fragmented civil society and an ideology of "local control," individualism and anti-statism.

Morgan supports these claims with convincing historical detail on the precise mechanisms that translated religious practice and religious conflict into the emergence of education, child-care, labor and leave policies in her four countries, over an impressive historical scope (the Industrial Revolution, the "golden age" of the welfare state, and the post-1970s "crisis" period). Thus, this book will serve as an important resource for future scholarship in this critical yet still-understudied area. But, while a great deal is revealed about policies, political institutions and party competition, the book is surprisingly limited in its examination of religion as a particular structure of meaning. For example, Morgan notes that "the moral prescriptions of Catholic and, later, Protestant churches upheld the subordination of women and children to the male head of household,"(36) but this feels overly simplistic and would be unlikely to satisfy a sociologist of religion or culture. So , too, would the treatment of secularization as a uni-dimensional and uncontested phenomenon. In tracing the policy consequences of religious meaning structures, the book is at its best in articulating the resonance of "subsidiarity" with "sovereignty in one's circle"(84) in shaping Catholic and Protestant beliefs about the proper role of the state in family life, but this does not go far enough. The attention to politics and institutions, while perhaps natural for a political scientist, is somewhat disappointing because it results in an overly structural variety of cultural analysis. Morgan's argument about how work-family policies influence the choices parents make and thus "help constitute their own identities and beliefs about what mothers of young children ought to do"(110) is an exception to this tendency.

Another area that leaves...


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pp. 867-869
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