Lisa R. Pruitt


As suggested by the title of her new book, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter, Joan Williams takes class seriously. Class matters, Williams argues, because “socially conscious progressives” need political allies to achieve progress with their agenda for work-family reform. Williams calls us not only to think about class and recognize it as a significant axis of stratification and (dis)advantage, but also to treat the working class with respect and dignity. Emblematic of Williams’s argument is her challenge to us to “[d]iscard[] Marxian analyses from 30,000 feet” and “come down to learn enough about working-class life to end decades of casual insults.” In other words, be nice and play fair. It’s a tried-and-true way to win friends and influence people.

In this Essay, I seek to enhance Williams’s powerful and pathbreaking discussion of the white working class in three ways. Part I brings geography explicitly into consideration by arguing that the culture wars—which I believe Williams aligns correctly along a broad and fuzzy line between the working class and the professional-managerial class—similarly align along the rural–urban axis. Just as liberal elites shun and ridicule the white working class, they similarly express disdain for rural and small-town residents. Indeed, among denizens of the largest cities and “coastal elites,” rural Americans have become a proxy for the working class—the uncouth, the uncultured, and—yes—the illiberal. I contend that social progressives reserve their greatest contempt—and increasingly also their ire—for whites in rural America, the vast majority of whom are working class.

Based on this argument that the opposing sides in the class culture wars are now represented, broadly speaking, by the rural and the urban, I take up three other issues. First, in Part II, I disrupt Williams’s broad-brush class dichotomy—“professional-managerial” and “working class”—by introducing other classes and subclasses that are particularly relevant in rural contexts. Specifically, I show how Williams’s implicitly metropolitan class taxonomy parallels a similar divide in nonmetropolitan communities, and I discuss the role of morality as a basis for differentiation among factions of the white working class in both types of settings. Then, in Part III, I argue that cultural and political disdain for rural folks prevents law and policy-makers from seeing and addressing the distinct challenges facing the rural citizenry—including those associated with work-life security. I conclude in Part IV with thoughts on what might provide common ground between the professional-managerial class and the white working class—ground that could provide a bridge of understanding that would permit political détente and, ultimately, cooperation.