Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It.

Author:Abrams, Kathryn

Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What To Do About It. By Joan Williams.(*) New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. 338. $30.00.

Feminist legal theory has, famously, spotlighted the connection between substance and method.(1) Epistemological assumptions, forms of reasoning, even nuances of tone, feminists remind us, can help to entrench or disrupt damaging gender rules or norms. Thus, feminist legal work has often nested a substantive critique in a broad challenge to the norms of legal scholarship, legal reasoning, or both. Joan Williams's new book, Unbending Gender,(2) exemplifies this approach. She has as much to say about the way that change should be framed, debated, and produced as she does about the particular changes that are required. And her offerings in both areas provide useful challenges to lawmakers, feminist theorists, and the public.

Williams's substantive innovation is a shift in focus, from the eroticization of dominance to the unresolved dilemmas of work/family conflict.(3) For more than a decade, she argues, feminists have focused almost exclusively on sexualized dominance as an engine of women's inequality. One casualty of this necessary focus has been a neglect of problems that fall outside this pattern, such as the persistent tension between market work and family work.(4) Williams returns feminists to this problem, yet she does so in a way that contrasts with earlier feminist efforts. The problem, in Williams's analysis, is not simply a lack of institutional expedients, such as family leave or flextime. It is domesticity, a complex system of norms and institutional arrangements that keeps men tethered to an increasingly demanding workplace, women professionally marginalized and economically dependent, and children often destitute upon their parents' divorce.(5) Williams's goal is to illuminate the norms and practices of domesticity and to explain how they can be deconstructed.

Yet Williams also proposes to address this challenge in a methodologically distinctive fashion.(6) Resisting a tendency toward unitary or totalizing theory,(7) Williams forges an approach that she describes as pragmatic.(8) Its pragmatism inheres in two primary features. The first is its eclecticism: Williams combines a heterogeneous range of expedients in order to achieve her goal. Domesticity is a system in which institutions reflect and perpetuate popular attitudes toward market and family work; therefore, a full program for change must address both attitudes and institutions. Williams does so by advocating legal changes that would require employers and families to recognize and to accommodate the work done by parents in caring for children. She also seeks to change the way that people conceptualize this problem, so as to encourage public support for flexible institutions. The second feature of Williams's pragmatism is its emphasis on short-term workability. Practicality is a paramount concern, and there is a limit to her willingness to challenge formative norms and assumptions of the existing system. Williams clearly distinguishes her approach from those she describes as "utopian," which seek to achieve transformation over the long run and to challenge bedrock assumptions about gender, family, and institutional life.(9) Williams takes a Deweyian perspective,(10) albeit a revisionary one: She seeks to "tease out the `precious values embedded in our traditions.'"(11) She then deploys those values as the basis of either an immanent critique(12) or a "drag" performance that uses modified versions of certain norms in order to challenge others.(13)

Williams's pragmatism, however, is not her only methodological innovation. She has also written a book that is professedly popular in its orientation.(14) Unbending Gender is not intended to bypass academic audiences. There is much of theoretical interest here; some of it even draws on the dense, demanding language of Continental social theory. But Williams has looked beyond the law, and beyond institutional structure, to the role played by "gender talk": the ways in which the problem of domesticity is framed and debated by average people. And it is to these people, as potential readers, that Williams directs a substantial portion of her argument. This choice means not only that she elects to present her ideas in a highly accessible style, sometimes forgoing the elaboration of theoretical nuances for the sake of clarity. It also means that she directs her attention to aspects of political engagement not frequently the subject of academic writing, such as the tone of a debate or the use of humor.(15)

In joining others who have redirected feminist attention toward questions of work and family,(16) Williams makes an important contribution. She takes this step with great gusto and an abundance of new ideas. While one can dispute some of her proposed solutions, her thirst to get to the bottom of work/family conflict and her resourcefulness in reframing debates and generating proposals are palpable in each chapter. I am ambivalent, however, about the pragmatic and popular elements of her approach. While the practical, "can do" ethos of the book is invigorating, I remain unconvinced by the Deweyian aspect of Williams's pragmatism: the decision to deploy the norms of domesticity against themselves. Whether "the master's tools," in the words of the late Audre Lorde, can disassemble "the master's house"(17) is, to my mind, a context-specific question: It depends on the nature of the problem, the flexibility of the tools, and the durability of the house. In this respect, Williams's incisive articulation of the problem undermines, to some degree, her ability to solve it. The more I learn from Williams about the interwoven norms of domesticity, the more I am convinced that these norms need to be challenged profoundly by a systematic program of change that is possible only over the long run. I fear that Williams's proposals, insightful and practical though they may be, will rearrange only the surface features of our work and family structure, leaving intact the attitudes toward masculinity, femininity, capitalism, and the state that are responsible for much of the debilitating problem of domesticity. These norms may be too institutionally entrenched for successful resolution by the "serious play"(18) of "drag" and the strategy of pluralizing options. This may be one problem for which the "pragmatist" must at least join hands with the "utopian" to ensure a solution.

Williams's decision to focus on a popular audience prompts a more mixed assessment. The section of Unbending Gender that most clearly addresses a more popular audience--Williams's analysis of "gender talk"--falls, in some respects, wide of the mark. It treats a series of differences that are at best a distraction as a central cause of the current impasse. The book's effort to mobilize a popular audience (through the coining of phrases or the prescription of styles of engagement) may also accomplish little if Williams's Deweyian pragmatism keeps her as far from the heart of this problem as I suspect. However, Williams seems more likely to succeed in the effort to engage a popular audience, which is also one of her central goals. Feminist analysis of the causes and remedies of this problem, as Williams recognizes, extends far beyond the formal legal regime. Sustained exchange between feminist legal theorists and others with lived experience of a problem might point to solutions that theorists alone would not have anticipated. Williams's bold move in the direction of "genre-bending" should encourage feminist theorists to explore these possibilities.

This review will have three parts. After sketching the outlines of Williams's ambitious project, I will turn first to the legal expedients she proposes for restructuring the workplace and reallocating family property in the event of divorce. I will then consider the "discursive" or "talk" -related portion of Williams's agenda. In the final Part, I will offer an assessment of Williams's primary methodological innovation: her pragmatic, popular approach to restructuring market and family work.


    Unbending Gender opens with a vivid portrait of the tensions between family and market work.(19) Men are consumed by the demands of their employers, salvaging only brief intervals to connect with their families. Women, who remain the primary caregivers whatever their employment status, move frantically from dissatisfied employers to needy children, exhausting and disappointing themselves in the process. Mothers who devote themselves exclusively to caregiving--and the children who remain in their custody--are predictably impoverished upon divorce. The cause of this predicament is a complex system of gender norms that Williams refers to as "domesticity."(20) Describing domesticity is Williams's central project in Chapter 1.

    Domesticity, which is both an ideology and a practice, positions men as "ideal workers" in the market and women as economically marginalized caregivers in the home.(21) It justifies this arrangement by reference to the innate characteristics of the two sexes and to the incontrovertible needs of corporations and of small children. The normative assumptions of domesticity, Williams argues, are embodied in three central tenets: Employers are entitled to "ideal workers" who are immunized from family responsibilities; men are expected and entitled to perform as "ideal workers"; and women should have "all the time and love in the world to give" to their children.(22) Yet these tenets do not exhaust the normative structure of domesticity. It is held in place by at least two supporting assumptions, which make it particularly difficult to glimpse the influence of domesticity or to reach it by structural or attitudinal reforms.

    The first of these supporting assumptions is "commodification anxiety":(23) a tendency...

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