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  • Fostering Fair and Egalitarian Families
  • Jyl J. Josephson (bio)

It will be a good day for women's freedom when liberal feminist scholars such as Linda McClain no longer need to explain to readers of The Good Society why, if they believe in such liberal principles as equality and individual responsibility, they must be committed to the equality of women and men. Indeed, one would think that if anything, the opposite case would be necessary, and that those who support the continuation of hierarchies based on gender, or at least believe it is unnecessary to worry about them, would be called on the carpet to justify their reasons for doing so. This, alas, is not the world in which we live, either in the world of scholarship or the world of family policy and law that McClain takes as her primary subject of analysis.

McClain's theme is described well by her subtitle: she sees families as places where democratic citizens are formed, and thus as places that should foster "capacity, equality, and responsibility." The problem is that families have also historically been places where gender inequality is produced and reproduced, and in many ways they continue to do so even in a liberal democracy such as the United States. So, McClain begins by laying out the principles of a liberal feminist argument for families that might produce and reproduce equality and thus be more consonant with women's citizenship and with democracy. One could see it as a more deeply elaborated and nuanced update of Susan Okin's argument in Justice, Gender, and the Family; her version of liberalism, as Okin's, draws on Rawls' political liberalism.

McClain's primary audience is mainstream or non-feminist political theorists and legal scholars. She is drawing on the work of political theorists who have argued that government should play an important role in "shaping self-governing citizens," but that "do not offer a feminist perspective" (10). This last bit of understatement is characteristic of McClain's reasoned tone throughout the book. Her intent is to provide a feminist account of the work that families do for democracy and the role that government should play in fostering the kinds of families that can do this work while respecting the rights of women and men to make decisions about family life.

The book is divided into three sections, described by the subtitle: fostering capacity, fostering equality, and fostering responsibility. The first section is primarily theoretical, and outlines the principles that should guide family policy and law. She then turns to analysis of specific policies; under the heading of equality she includes a chapter each on welfare policy and marriage promotion and on same-sex marriage, and a third chapter on the question of whether to move "beyond marriage." The final section of the book contains two chapters on "responsibility," on abortion, and on abstinence-only sex education.

In the opening section, McClain argues that government policy toward families should be seen as a "formative project" with the intent of shaping good citizens. McClain's introduction lays out "three salient ideas" that should shape government policy as well as the practices of civil society towards families and family life. The first goal should be to foster the capacity of citizens to be "capable of democratic and personal self-government" (4). Second, policies should support equality both within and among families, including gender equality and equality for different kinds of families (4–5). Finally, policies should support responsibility and responsible decision-making regarding families and family life, including sexuality, reproduction, intimate relationships, and family formation (8). In this formative project, government should be guided by two basic principles: government responsibility to foster capacities and responsibility to "refrain from coercive action with respect to a range of decisions and behaviors" (15–16). Thus, both government action and government restraint are required. How to draw the lines with respect to government regulation of families and family life, and make judgments about when action is permissible or necessary, and when restraint is required, is at the heart of McClain's concerns, and is in general at the heart of political contestation over families. McClain offers guidelines that ask...


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pp. 56-60
Launched on MUSE
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