- Wed to the Problem? The Place of Men and State in Families
In The Place of Families, Linda McClain has written a persuasive, elegant argument for restructuring public policy to provide more resources for families so that they become institutions that serve the ends of an active democracy. That mythical concept known as "the family," becomes more realistically assessed in McClain's book as "families," diverse units of social groupings of people of different ages, sexes, and sexualities, that nurture and foster its members into becoming "individuals" in the robust sense of the word: human beings who can think critically about their lives and their society, who can reflect on who they are and what they want in a pro-active rather than reactive manner, and who can give back and make contributions to the social structures that have fed and nurtured their ability to do precisely that. It is a moral vision, a social vision, and clearly a political vision, for it is a model of how to create citizens in a world increasingly apolitical, thoughtless, and passive.
There is a great deal to admire in this book. It is ambitious in scope, it is broad-ranging in its recommendations, and embodies a lofty idealism of what we can achieve that leaves the reader inspired to do more, and better. McClain is one of a relatively small number of legal scholars to write an actual book, a sustained argument across multiple chapters with various foci. In a field that is focused on law review articles, in a process that is not even subject to the social science norm of the double-blind review, the amount of work involved in writing a book may appear to have a small payback for legal scholars. And so McClain is to be applauded even more for making such a significant contribution.
One of the most important contributions she makes has to do with the role of men. McClain rightly points out that "families" cannot just be about women with children, often the focus of many feminists. Her argument involves a plea for men's greater involvement, including policies that will encourage men to do more in the household and with their children. The starting assumption of such arguments, of course, is that men currently do not do very much within most families in terms of caring for children and household production. This is an accurate observation of the current state of things, indeed of the history of "the family," where men were seen as bread-winners and women as caregivers. Feminists have, in theory, struggled against that sexual division of labor for some time, and McClain's book presents a different and important angle on this struggle: how to induce men to do more. How to use carrots, and not just sticks like garnished wages for child support, to get men to engage more actively in the life of their children, to be an engaged part of the "families" of which they have formally been the heads.
Parents who work for salary or wages are, as Arlie Hochschild argues, genuinely in a "time bind," and these are, at least tacitly, the people McClain is writing for and about.1 And this is where McClain's stress on fathers is particularly relevant, for the more that women work outside the home, the more pressure will be placed on fathers to pull their weight in the home. This goal is an important impetus behind McClain's stress on equality within marriage, and I applaud her recognition of this need. Until men share equally in childrearing (not to mention the other aspects of housework), gender equality will never be achieved. This is particularly true when we consider the psychic effects of childrearing in the early months, when infants make primary identification with their primary caretaker—no matter which gender that person is. The gender of that caretaker, however, will have implications later on when the child learns her or his own gender identity; the fact that currently women are those primary caretakers in almost all cases produces an asymmetrical imbalance between males and females that reproduces the gendered division of labor and...