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Abstract

Contemporary social policy relating to women's employment remains strikingly ambivalent. Those in favor of traditional family structures, a position that is generally associated with conservative political agendas, have often expressed a preference for a family model that emphasizes the woman's role as a homemaker, or to use the more recent term, a caretaker. At the same time, as the 1996 Welfare Reform Act demonstrates, if the choice is between providing financial support that would enable lower-income women to stay in the home and forcing those women into the labor market, the conservative agenda will opt for the latter. More recently, and as an adjunct to the continuing welfare reform, policy makers on the right have advocated policies intended to promote marriage as a means of reducing poverty and providing for a more stable home for children. In some ways, these marriage promotion policies can be seen as a substitute for employment and as a way of striking a balance between the competing goals entangled in the welfare debate. Although these specific marriage proposals are of recent vintage, the objectives on the right, of promoting traditional families while deemphasizing women's role in the labor market, are familiar and long-standing. What has been more surprising is the convergence of policy objectives with the developing interest on the left of support for women's caretaking roles with public subsidies. In the last several years, there has been a veritable explosion of books and articles emphasizing women's role as caretakers and the difficulties women have balancing their roles as mothers and paid wage earners. As a way of ensuring a better balance between what are typically seen as two distinct roles, this literature suggests that it would be a desirable social policy to facilitate women's caretaking, through more extended parental leave, nonmarginalized part-time work, and by placing a greater social value on caretaking. These proposals, however, would likely have a serious negative effect on the quest for greater equality for women, particularly in the workplace, and they are likely to produce a replay of the debate over “difference” feminism from the 1980s by identifying women as caretakers and by appearing to accept gendered differences. Just as is true of the marriage proposals on the right, these policy suggestions might signal a return to the past rather than a move forward for women. The right's marriage proposals and the left's carework proposals nonetheless appear to focus on different aspects of women's roles. As the left recognizes, women can be mothers without being wives and support for caretaking is an unquestionably important social goal, which the left acknowledges through its advocacy of public responsibility for caretaking. The right, on the other hand, is attempting to force mothers to be wives while continuing to devalue the caretaking done by poor women by decreasing public support for caretaking. The proposals do, however, have a similar effect; each set of proposals can be seen as reinforcing, and in some ways reifying, women's role within the home. While we support the goal of providing increased recognition to the value of caretaking, we contend that this revaluation should be achieved without diminishing the role of women in the workplace. First, we challenge the view that marriage provides a cure for welfare dependence. Second, we argue that in addition to stressing the importance of caretaking, the left should focus on other issues that affect women's equality, such as education, the timing and length of the school calendar, and continued workplace discrimination. It is important to recognize that much of the carework literature does, of course, challenge the gendered nature of the workplace and in this essay we are challenging one aspect of the literature, that which focuses on facilitating women's carework. Our goal is to change the gendered female character of carework; although we approach the issue from outside of the home, we also seek to facilitate men's performance of household work and women's performance of market work.

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