Lands of Possibility

Nancy Folbre
18 March 2008

The social democracies of Northwestern Europe offer many varieties of inspiration for the United States.

My favorite analysis of progressive family policies remains Janet Gornick and Marcia Meyer’s Families that Work (Russell Sage, 2003).

It addresses issues of gender equality as well as child wellbeing and develops a nicely balanced proposal for combining expansion of publicly provided child care with paid family leaves and increases in paternal participation in childrearing. Plus, it actually explains how this could happen and what it would cost.

Sociologist Erik Olin Wright at the University of Wisconsin organized a conference around the Gornick/Meyers proposals as part of a series of projects envisioning “Real Utopias.”

The interdisciplinary discussion was terrific (see the conference website), and is leading up to a special issue of the journal Politics and Society and an edited volume to be published by Verso. An essay that I wrote for this project emphasizes the need to go beyond family policy to a broader project of rethinking and restructuring the care economy as a whole. Erik keeps pushing me to get more specific. I’m trying!

Meanwhile, international discussions of family policy provide rich food for thought. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has published a comprehensive report called Babies and Bosses (Europeans seem really worried about below-replacement fertility rates and the need to get more mothers into paid employment). The Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has published two terrific reports that provide a model for discussions that should be taking place in more countries: Striking a Balance and It’s About Time: Men, Women, Work, and Family.

Also worth noting are recent changes in family policy in Korea, another country worried about below replacement fertility rates. Since I now have TWO brilliant Korean graduate students working with me, I’m trying to talk them into writing a guest blog on what is going on there. I’m also writing to friends in Taiwan and Japan to see what they have to say….

One comment on "Lands of Possibility"

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    Joan G

    Hello Nancy,

    Thanks for your work and the blog! I am currently in the third year of a Phd at the ANU on a topic related to maternal subjectivity. I’m trying to get at agency – how is this expressed after the birth of a child? But on the subject of the social structuring of dependency I’ve found the work by Martha Fineman, in The Autonomy Myth, and Eva Feder Kittay, in The Subject of Care, to be useful in conceptualizing how the family has been gendered within institutional policy and practice.

    Martha Albertson Fineman (2001), Professor of Feminist Jurisprudence, Cornell Law School, drew critical links between both Liberal and Libertarian conceptions of an unwritten social contract that incorporates a division between the private and the public realms, linking the autonomous individual, the state and the market with the public, and the family, including dependency, with the private. A claim also defended by Patrizia Longo (2001) who highlighted links between the current social sexual relations embedded in institutional practices and consequences for proscribed identities. These artificial, public-private divides, have affectively partitioned consideration of equity, justice and citizenship to the so called public realms. Our inherited understandings are inadequate, leaving out the relations of reproduction from political consideration, continued Carole Pateman (1988) in her important work on the public-private divide. The traditional, gendered nature of the family, casts women as the nurturers, mothers of the nation; exemplified by the common use of the feminine representation of nationhood in the early 20th century. The family a quintessentially private institution, with a decidedly public role, accommodates dependency needs for the newborn, children, chronic illness and disabilities, as well as the infirm aged. Traditional gendered scripts, underwritten by ideologies that sentimentalize and naturalize relations within families, coupled with policies and practices of the state, perpetuate obligations and expectations that feed into norms.

    I would be very interested in your comments in this regard.

    best wishes, Joan G

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