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Feminism for Everyone


Every idea has its time. Joan Williams’s idea is that we need to reframe debates about work and family by paying attention to how our gender system of domesticity harms everyone: women, men, privileged Americans, and working-class people. Williams defines domesticity as the gender system that organizes market work and family work around traditional gender roles through a set of entrenched narratives and institutional arrangements. Her basic argument is that to achieve more family-friendly public policy in the United States, feminists and advocates need to pay attention to the impact of domesticity on men and working-class people as well as privileged women. In Williams’s view, we also need to be more sophisticated about politics.

Like her formidable body of work on the subject, Williams’s new book, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter, has a lot to say about the harms of domesticity for women. Yet her latest contribution to the subject signals a reorientation of priorities. The cover makes her point clearly: we see an image of a sweatshirt-clad, unshaven white man looking into the eyes of a young white boy, presumably a father and son. Is this a working-class man saying goodbye to his son before leaving for a blue-collar job? Or is it a laid-off Wall Street investment banker newly discovering the joys of fatherhood? The point is this: it does not matter, for the financial crisis of 2008 increasingly leveled the playing field between the two. Joan Williams’s timely book seeks to harness this potential alignment of working-class and elite interests to further advance her lifelong project of disrupting separate-spheres ideology and creating more family-friendly workplaces in America.

In this Essay, I offer an assessment of Williams’s apparent reorientation in strategy: her decision to focus on masculinity and class in framing the problem of work and family conflict. Part I describes the book, reviewing its main theoretical and strategic innovations. Part II teases out the intellectual underpinnings of Williams’s book, including Marxist-socialist inspired feminism and philosophical pragmatism. Part II also explores the reasons why this is the perfect moment for Williams’s ideas and arguments, both in legal feminism and in national policy debates about work and family issues. Part III suggests that attention to the structural, macroeconomic issues contributing to work and family conflict might take Williams’s analysis even further.