“An Egalitarian Case
for the Gendered Division of Labor”
with Jessica Flanigan
April 27, 2023
In some subcultures, women are encouraged to stay home and raise multiple children and men are encouraged to work outside the home. Proponents of these gendered family subcultures argue that a gendered division of labor (GDL) is generally an efficient way to arrange a household which gives both partners access to meaningful work.
Egalitarian critics of these gendered family subcultures argue that even a voluntary GDL mistreats and exploits women. Some even argue that public officials should coercively discourage the GDL. At the same time, egalitarian political philosophers also frequently cite companionate marriages as a political ideal. Egalitarians argue that citizens should adopt an egalitarian ethos and reject capitalist conceptions of status and value. And egalitarians are quick to decry the deskilling, alienating, meaningless work that participation in capitalist economies so often involves.
My central claim in this talk is that these egalitarian criticisms of the GDL are often misplaced. Rather, members of gendered family subcultures can live in accordance with egalitarian principles to at least the same extent as people in families where both partners work outside of the home. People in gendered family subcultures act on the basis of an egalitarian ethos when they engage in practices of unconditional exchange within their local community. They distribute resources within the family and community in a way that is guided by a commitment to fellowship, simplicity, and anti-consumerism. Women in these family subcultures are also especially attentive to the alienating nature of modern work, and the virtues of physical labor and caregiving.
This analysis of gendered family subcultures should prompt egalitarians to either rethink their criticism of the gendered division of labor or to rethink their egalitarian commitments.
Jess Flanigan is an Associate Professor of Leadership Studies and Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and Law and the Richard L. Morrill Chair in Ethics & Democratic Values at the University of Richmond where she teaches ethics and critical thinking classes. Her work has appeared in journals such as the Journal of Moral Philosophy, the Journal of Political Philosophy, and Philosophical Studies. She is also the author of Pharmaceutical Freedom and a co-author of Debating Sex Work.