Often, knowing the origin of a rule or practice is helpful in understanding its current operation and what one must do if one wishes to change it. Consider, for example, the sexual division of labor that is the main subject of Professor Williams’s book. Professor Williams describes in chilling detail how workplace practices, some of them having the force of law, disadvantage women, particularly those with children or elderly relatives. Whether caregivers or not, women perform work below their ability level, encounter obstacles that do not afflict men, and perform a disproportionate share of housework and caregiving. Even professional-class women experience glass ceilings and inadequate accommodations for motherhood.

Where did these practices come from, and why are they so entrenched in the United States? European workers enjoy a shorter workweek, longer vacations, and more favorable family leave policies than their American counterparts. Healthcare and disability policies are more generous there as well, and European husbands perform a higher percentage of the housework and child care than do similarly situated men in the United States.

What accounts for these role differentiations, and why are they so resistant to change? Professor Williams, who, to her credit, aims to reform them, devotes relatively little attention to their origins, saying only that they seem bound up with capitalism and appeared with the advent of the factory system.