Events

In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Pursuit of Economic Citizenship in 20th-Century America

April 16, 2002 // 12:00am

In Pursuit of Equity, the new recipient of the Bancroft Prize in history, traces the intersection between gender and the development of U.S. social policy. Prof. Kessler-Harris described it as emphasizing the way in which culture affects notions of fairness, which in turn lie behind and shape public policies.

Kessler-Harris centered her discussion on what she calls the "gendered imagination": a cultural mind-set about appropriate behavior for men and women. One element of that imagination, at least until the 1960s, was that economic citizenship – the right to work at an occupation of one's choice, to earn wages adequate for the support of oneself and one's family, and to non-discriminatory access to training and jobs – was necessary only for men. The cultural assumption was that women's right to nurture a family had to be protected but not their right to a job or to such elements of welfare as insurance and old-age pensions. The assumption found concrete expression in such public policies as the Social Security Act, which ignored work in one's home and paid domestic work (as well as other work such as agricultural labor), set women's benefits at lower levels, and established survivor benefits for women but not for men.

The debate about gender roles that began in the 1960s addressed the issue of whether women should be treated as individuals rather than as members of families; i.e., whether they should be entitled to government benefits on the basis of their personhood rather than in their capacities as wives and mothers. Kessler-Harris noted that the U.S. is unusual among developed nations in constructing its social policies around work rather than citizenship. To the extent, therefore, that welfare policies were and are designed for paid laborers, the gendered imagination limits their extension to women. 92% of mothers work what is considered less than full time in today's workforce, with 2 out of 3 working less than 40 hours per week.

Prof. Williams, noting that women still do 70-80% of child care in this country, discussed the current ferment in the law about "care work" and the question of how/whether it should be included in the definition of work that makes one eligible for social welfare benefits. While, given the gendered imagination, it appears non-discriminatory to open the doors to those women who wish to combine family responsibilities with full-time paid work and while, in fact, some women can manage the double burden, the conditioning of benefits on such work may in itself be discriminatory rather than "fair."


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