Commemorating 30 years of “Justice, Gender and the Famliy” by Susan Moller Okin


Writing on gender injustice is a complex issue. Mainstream theories have largely failed to deal with significantly, (rather many have only aggravated) the problems of injustice against women. Thus, in order to engage with the issue of gender justice, one has to reassess the existing theories and devise fresh perspectives as substantive solutions to these problems. As if this is not a challenge enough, the anti-feminist as well as the ignorant political theorists keep derailing the issue by; firstly, complicating the definitions of justice such that the gender question is stuck in their ambiguities and secondly, raising universalist concerns in order to deny any particularistic attention to gender justice. Throw in the concerns about multiculturalism, communitarianism and traditionalism and it becomes an even more formidable task.

In this context Susan Moller Okin wrote “Justice, Gender and the Family” (published in 1989) trying to deal with the existing cannon of political theories on justice, in order to refute the anti-women and gender insensitive provisions in them. In doing so she dealt with the contemporary theorists whose propositions ranged from anti-women to generally obfuscating the issue of gender justice in society. The above mentioned task of disambiguating the definition of justice for women was done by Okin while constantly relating the theoretical aspects to practical issues which women face in everyday life.

The book is structured (and not divided) into eight chapters. Throughout the book there is a central argument which is identified, proposed and structured, covering various dimensions of social and political life. Many terms and concepts forwarded by her in preceding chapters are carried in to subsequent ones in order to connect the complex issues of gender injustice in one sphere to another. This is also done to bring out similarities in certain approaches of different political theorists when it comes to their approaches to justice and its repercussions for women.

Introducing the theme

The book introduces its theme in the first chapter as it relates the issues of justice, gender and family to each other. As Okin writes “Until there is justice within the family, women will not be able to gain equality in politics, at work or in any other sphere” (Page 4). The problem is thus identified to be a cycle of power relations that influences both the private as well as the public sphere in order to further cement the existing inequalities between the two genders. Okin suggests that both the legal and the occupational norms are based on the conventions of ‘gender structured marriage’ and hence perpetuate the ‘cycle of inequality’. These norms in turn are responsible for the construction of the differentiation between the sexes termed as gender. The gender is then institutionalized through socialization and traditions within the society.

The central issue then is that most issues of ‘justice crisis’ emerge due to neglect of the gendered structure of various institutions of society, such as family, politics, workplace etc. Firstly the ‘hidden gender-structured family’ remains so because contemporary theories of justice still continue with the same separation of spheres of private and public and assume the individual- the basic subject of all theories, to be the male head of the traditional household. Thus family itself is not examined on scales of justice. The second reason is the use of ‘false gender neutrality’ by most contemporary theorists. The gender neutral alternatives to representations of individual, according to Okin, are even more misleading than the explicit use of masculine terms because even in their usage of seemingly gender neutral language they implicitly only address male-centric concerns of justice within society.

Engaging with theories

Okin proceeds in subsequent chapters, taking on certain key positions on justice within liberal paradigm.  She assesses the extent to which the various positions on justice deal with gender and in what capacity, if at all.

Family becomes the central parameter to assess the various arguments given by people like Michael Sandel and Allan Bloom according to whom family lies beyond the scope of justice. Okin suggests that the ideas of Sandel and Bloom are in turn influenced by classical thinkers such as Rousseau and Hume. Sandel uses ideas of idealized family in order to argue against Rawlsian proposition of primacy of justice. He suggests that there can be virtues other than justice to accord higher importance to. However Okin counters this by arguing that firstly justice is not being accorded a primacy because of a certain supremacy in its moral worth. It is because justice is the most essential virtue that it has been preferred to be a primary virtue. As for the idealized account of family, Okin argues that “viewed realistically, human associations, including the family, do not operate so felicitously” (Page 29). The concerns of distributive justice within the family therefore cannot be abandoned, since otherwise it can lead to the women members of a family to be denied not only their fare share in the benefits and burdens but also the very opportunity to claim any. She suggests that an idealized account of the family ignores such realities as the issue of domestic violence.

She also questions Bloom’s anti-feminist arguments based on the idea that “while nature should be the standard by which we judge our lives, feminism is not founded on nature, defying as it does women’s natural biological destiny” (Page 34; Note 26). As Okin points out, Bloom like many others relies heavily on the nature argument to assert the importance of traditional sex roles. She then employs J.S. Mill’s arguments to counter Bloom’s. Mill says that nature and natural are often falsely used interchangeably to mean that the way things are without human intervention, is how they should be. This he suggests is one of the major sources of irrationality.

In engaging with these ideas Okin reflects upon not only the state of contemporary theorizing on justice when it comes to the gender and family perspective, but also links these to the classical theories, exposing the absence of gender concerns in the very cannon of western political thought (except a few such as Mill i.e.).

The text then turns attention to the issue of false gender neutrality and how it is employed in assessing the traditions and shared understandings in society. A major concern of communitarians and traditional theorists, about societal values and culture, has been revived as areas for political theorizing. Okin looks at how do these theories address the concerns of gender justice and what impact can this trend have upon women.

She suggests that traditions and understandings are largely incapable of dealing with problems of social dominations. She further cautions feminists to be wary of any alliances with communitarians, precisely because of the false gender neutral language that they employ to represent these traditions and understandings as representative of all, when in fact that is not the case.

She assesses Alasdair MacIntyre’s ideas on traditions, from his book ‘After Virtue’. She criticizes his eulogizing of Thomas Aquina’s synthesis of Aristotlelian and Augustinian Christian traditions. Both these traditions with their clear omission of women from any considerations of justice, Okin suggests, are indefensible on any ground. But more importantly she criticizes the use of the false gender neutral language that he uses to not only further these ideas but also to defend them. She suggests that there is no scope of rationality in use of traditions to theorize on justice and that the argument of the very survival of tradition as a testimony to its efficacy is wrongly premised. She argues that feminist tradition is itself an epistemological crisis that stands against this tradition based theory which the latter fails to engage with adequately. In turn she argues for an open ended feminist tradition which can be re-engaged with and reinterpreted unlike the closed traditions of the past.

As for the shared understandings argument of Michael Walzer she criticizes the notion of the critical self who at the same time is situated within a context that Walzer proposes. She argues that for any self critique, a critical distance is important which is untenable in such a position. The shared understandings she argues is heavily relied upon people’s perceptions and is not apt to question the status quo. She takes examples of caste and gender hierarchies to explain her argument, where she illustrates the formidability of a self critique for a situated self.

She contrasts both the tradition based and shared understandings’ approaches to justice with Rawlsian unencumbered self in the original position to uphold certain universal values that every individual is entitled to. However in one of the subsequent chapters she provides a critique of Rawls as well based on the idea of the hidden gender-structured family argument.

From communitarianism, the book turns attention to libertarianism of Nozickian variety. She points out to an unlikely alliance which has materialized between the libertarian proposers of minimalist state (in economic spheres) and conservative enforcers of interventionist state (in moral and cultural spheres). The common element between the two as Okin argues is the advocacy of a preservation of status quo in the private sphere.

She takes up Nozick’s entitlement theory and seeks to apply her matriarchal version to it, only to expose certain absurdities in his propositions and thus dismiss his theory from the get go. She uses Nozick’s argument that it is only the means that count and not the ends when it comes to distributive justice. Thus if someone has legitimately acquired something, she is entitled to it. Applying reproduction as a means of acquiring children she argues that by Nozick’s theory, all the world will come to be owned by women in a strange matriarchal dystopic society. But highlighting the very unreasonable premises of Nozick’s argument is not all what she does through this application. She also shows that like other theorists, Nozick also fails to take women into account. In fact she goes on to attack even the critics of libertarianism for their implicit ignorance of women when they criticize the entitlement theory in light of distributive justice. She writes “they take for granted that whole vast sphere of life in which persons (mostly women) take care of others, often at considerable cost to their own advancement as individuals” (Page 88).

Okin thus challenges the clearly anti-feminist positions based on the false gender neutrality as well as hidden gender structured family. But she then proceeds to challenge the ambiguous propositions that have been furthered in the justice as fairness- position by John Rawls. It is generally a very tough task to challenge the unencumbered self of Rawls based in the original position where any inequality is only admitted as to favour the least well off. However what Okin has a problem with in this theory is that “there is strikingly little indication… that the modern liberal society to which principles of justice are to be applied is deeply and pervasively gender-structured” (Page 89). Thus while one can use the unencumbered self argument to suggest that gender neutrality is also guaranteed by this scheme of things, it becomes very difficult to hold when Rawls himself not only ignores the application of this principle to family institutions but also idealizes it “as the earliest school of moral development”. What Okin argues is that Rawls clearly ignores the fact that the very family where he anticipates the development of a sense of justice which leads to fairness, is and has been deeply engendered. She writes “Rawls does not explain the basis of his assumption that family institutions are just” (Page 99).

However as already pointed she does acknowledge the potential of his theory as becoming a tool for feminist criticism, referring to the unsituated individual as opposed to the previously mentioned notions of shared understandings and traditions. But as she reiterates, this theory can only be used as such when the public-private dichotomy has been dispensed with.

Building up of arguments further

Okin after having pointed out to the discrepancies in various theories on justice and then having acknowledged the potential in Rawls’s theory for becoming a tool for feminist critique but only after doing away with the public-private dichotomy, focuses her attention to this very issue. She cites Carol Pateman and writes, “the dichotomy between the public and the private… is ultimately, what the feminist movement is about”.

After having previously discredited Walzer for his views on shared understandings, Okin now engages with his ideas on separate spheres in order to trace how inequalities in one sphere impact and manifest themselves in the other. Okin applies gender concerns to Walzer’s idea of dominance which according to him is the result of this translation of inequalities from one sphere to another. Thus she shows that for women “the unequal distribution of rights, benefits, responsibilities, and powers within the family is closely related to inequalities in the many other spheres of political and social life” (Page 113). This in turn becomes the cause of an all pervasive dependence for women. However she points out that Walzer does not realize the potential of his argument for turning it into a feminist critique and in fact does not actively do anything to further it.

She uses various examples of the contemporary American legal and political society to illustrate how the personal ideas of dominance and dependence are translated into political domain which in turn again adversely influence the personal domain.

From theory to practice

No discussion of justice and family can be completed without a mention of marriage. Marriage being the very institution that establishes the presently prevalent form of family is important to be looked at to trace the gendered structure of filial bonds. Okin argues that marriage and family as currently practiced in the society are unjust institutions. This she illustrates through providing examples from various studies conducted by different organizations and researchers. She uses various empirical data to argue about how these institutions create relationships of vulnerability and power. She elaborates upon Abert O. Hirschman’s arguments among many others. Hirschman proposes the idea as to how various statuses of exit options for women affect the development of their ‘art of voice’. Not going deeply into the argument, it can be said that the crux of it is that marriage itself becomes a vulnerability inducing institution by decreasing the feasibility of exit as well as decreasing incentives for the development of the articulation capability in the more vulnerable partner (mostly women as shown by empirical data).

Okin largely argues to bring the institution of marriage within the purview of existing theories of power and dependency to study the vulnerabilities and inequalities within them. Thus beginning with developing a connection between justice, gender and family and proceeding through engagement with mainstream theories of justice while critiquing as well as appreciating ideas of various political thinkers regarding their views on gender as well as potentials for feminist critiques, Okin develops the arguments about the invalidity of a public- private dichotomy, eventually questioning the very injustice within family and marriage.

This clever argument is structured through eight chapters which she concludes by raising larger concern about the very constitution and functional makeup of modern families. She writes “a just future would be one without gender” (Page 171). She seeks to demolish the traditional conceptions of parenthood, child care etc. such that the independence generated through this translates into other spheres as well and the cycle of inequality and vulnerability is finally broken.

A parting point

The book is very cleverly structured, in building up of a central argument in a sort of a circular narrative such that even after having progressed through various positions and arguments the reader finally relates the central concern from the beginning to the end. Secondly certain argumentative devices that Okin devises such as false gender neutrality, hidden gender structured family and concepts of cycle of inequality and vulnerability are cleverly deployed throughout the entire text to not only provide a feminist critique of various positions but also facilitate a drawing up of common contextuality amidst various thinkers. Thirdly, the empirical data has been aptly used to relate theory to practice, something that most mainstream theories of justice always lack in their fetish for abstraction.

Having said that it is also important to point out that Okin at places does become repetitive in making arguments and critiquing various thinkers. Moreover she does at certain points qualifies her criticisms, which otherwise done wisely, sometimes become redundant especially in taking forth her arguments. But it would be apt to end this review by quoting Okin from the text when she writes “An equal sharing between the sexes of family responsibilities, especially child care is the great revolution that has not happened” (Page 4).


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