A half-century ago T.H. Marshall, British Labour Party social theorist, offered a progressive, developmental theory for understanding the history of what we have come to call citizenship. Taking the experience of Englishmen to define the superior path, he postulated a hierarchy of citizenships: civil rights, political rights and social rights. The last of these became the category in which twentieth-century Europeans have understood claims on the state to health, welfare, education and protection from avoidable risk. They conceived of these citizenships as stages in an upward climb toward an ever better democracy.
Marshall’s schema looked only at European men. Feminists have pointed out that women did not achieve citizenship in this order. In fact, women often won some social rights–for example, protective legislation and “welfare”–before achieving political ones such as the right to vote. And women’s individual civil rights were often overwhelmed and even suppressed by legally imposed family obligations and moral sanctions. (For example, a century ago courts generally interpreted the law of marriage to mean that women were legally obligated to provide housework, childcare and sexual services to husbands.) Equally problematic were Marshall’s obliviousness to British imperialism and what it meant for Third World populations, including the fact that he conceived of the British as civilizers rather than exploiters, and his apparent ignorance of the conditions of second-class citizenship for racial/ethnic subordinates within nation-states. In short, his historical hierarchy was highly ideological.
But no one has yet done what Alice Kessler-Harris has in her newest book, In Pursuit of Equity, reaching beyond Marshall and his critics to suggest a new concept, economic citizenship. In this history of how women have been treated in employment, tax and welfare policy, Kessler-Harris–arguably the leading historian of women’s labor in the United States–synthesizes several decades of feminist analysis to produce a holistic conception of what full citizenship for women might entail. In lucid prose with vivid (and sometimes comic) illustrations of the snarled thinking that results from conceiving of women as dependents–rather than equal in heading families–she offers a vision of how we can move toward greater democracy. In the process, she also shows us what we are up against. Her book illustrates brilliantly how assumptions about appropriate gender roles are built into all aspects of policy.
She aims to resolve what is perhaps the central contradiction for policy-makers and policy scholars who care about sex equality: the contradiction between, on the one hand, valuing the unpaid caring work still overwhelmingly performed by women and, on the other hand, enabling women to achieve equality in wage labor and political power. Today, for example, although all feminists oppose the punitive new requirements of the policy that replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children, repealed in 1996, they are divided about what would constitute the right kind of welfare system. Some find it appropriate that all adults, including parents of young children, should be employed, assuming they can get a living wage and good childcare. Others, often called maternalists, believe a parent should have the right to choose full-time parenting for young or particularly needy children. Behind this difference lie two different visions of sex equality–one that emphasizes equal treatment of the sexes and individual rights and responsibilities, another that seeks to make unpaid caring labor, notably for the very young, the old and the ill, as honorable and valued as waged labor.