Redefinition and Wollstonecraft’s Dilemma

Since the inception of the liberal-democratic state, woman has found herself buried deep in the depths of the institution’s patriarchal structure. She is confined to a sphere outside the sphere where individuals are seen to interact economically, politically, and even socially, to a greater or lesser degree. We find her as an ideal in the kitchen, the nursery, the bedroom of our archetypal home, not living life as the free and social being she, like man, is. For well over two centuries now she has fought within the theoretical framework of the liberal-democracy – and especially within the framework of the welfare state – for her emancipation from this house arrest. Working within these bounds she has encountered many obstacles, but one of the greatest dilemmas she has faced is that the patriarchal, fraternal structure of the system precludes in its basic assumptions the possibility of her ever being something even so basic as an individual, let alone a full citizen. Each and every time women try to rise out of this culturally imposed role of the second-tier citizen and assert themselves as full citizens of the state they encounter the paradox that “women in civil society must disavow [their] bodies and act as part of the brotherhood [in order to be seen as citizens] – but since [they] are never regarded as other than women, [they] must simultaneously continue to affirm the patriarchal conception of femininity, or patriarchal subjection (Pateman 52).”

We must, first and foremost, keep in mind that liberal-democratic theory and, hence, the liberal-democratic welfare state have developed not in a vacuum but hand in hand with Western capitalist society (Pateman 145). This recognition is of vital importance because it allows us to realize, in a sense, that liberal theory is not solely revolutionary in nature (though one must also recognize that it is a reaction to the paternalistic governments of the time), but is, instead, a justification of the status quo of the capitalist market economy. The theory, in essence, provides the groundwork for the myth of the citizen through its championing of ‘universal’ enfranchisement. If all are provided the opportunity to vote, the idea goes, then the political elite will be held to the public will by the myth itself (Pateman 147). It is granted from the beginning that the elite will be the only true political actors in society, rotating in power, but never ceding it. Rawls goes so far as to say that while the well-to-do, active in political life have a “political obligation” to the state, the masses simply have a “natural duty to obey” (Pateman 67). Part of this natural duty is a resignation to the tedium of daily routine and political inactivity for the good of the state.

The idea presented here is that the majority of life unfolds in the private (with a lowercase “p” which will be discussed later) sphere. The masses are consumers above all else, paradoxically both the drivers and passengers of the market economy. They purchase and sell, work and play, sleep and eat in the private sphere with little regard for the politics of the state (the sphere of public life), but all the while, by virtue of simply ignoring the political and going about their business, the masses consent to this political realm and fulfill their civic duty. Locke referred to the acceptance of the institutions of the state as “tacit consent” in his voluntarist framework (Pateman 63). What is neglected in this picture is the fact that this private sphere, the home of the individual, of Homo economicus, all the while, through all these activities, resides to some great degree within the Public sphere.

We have created two dichotomies where theorists had once seen only one. The capital-P Public sphere, once the sphere of man, of the individual with political and productive power, has cleaved to reveal the little-p public and private spheres, the spheres of government and economy, which are found at the locus of most discussions of the public versus the private. Governments are asked to stand out of private matters such as the exchange of goods and the growth of business unless some grave concern should arise. This shift has left another conversation by the wayside. The capital-P Private sphere has all but been ignored. Yes, we hope the government respects our privacy by not listening to our phone calls, but this is as much a private (economic) concern as a Private concern. Only in discussions of child rearing and sexual relations does the Private sphere assert itself in the face of the Public.

The Private sphere is where we finally find women obscured deep within this liberal-democratic structure. Nestled here in this realm, women have all but been pushed out of the conversation since the time of Locke through the late 19th to early 20th century. Here in this realm is where we begin to see the depth of the questions facing feminism and the hurdles standing in front of women in doing something so seemingly simple as asserting themselves as individuals.

Throughout the history of the welfare state (named as such in 1939, but really throughout the history of liberal-democracy) the Private sphere has been largely ignored as relevant to the political state yet has also been the focus, paradoxically, of many of its policies (Pateman 179). Men have been seen as the breadwinners (citizens) and, hence, the contributors to the welfare state. They produce value through their labor in the private-Public sector and pay taxes for the public-Public good. By virtue of this contribution, men are also the seen as the rightful recipients of the welfare state’s goodwill. It is assumed that women benefit only through their benevolent husbands and fathers (Pateman 188). Women, hence, are not provided the opportunity to do that which is central to the idea of citizenship in the welfare state: work. Women are not seen to be owners of their own persons, and are not able to bring their persons to market in the form of labor (Pateman 186).

Women have, however, through various feminist movements, brought many of their needs to the attention of the state. They have taken the place of the majority in regards to the receipt of welfare (Pateman 180). In their place in the home, women are seen to provide, in some sense, welfare to the state as welfare to the family. They are caregivers of children, the elderly, and the infirm, and, as such, have asserted their rights as, at least, formal citizens of the welfare state and demanded some compensation for this work. But this, as we shall see, has only added to the paradoxical place of women as citizens.

Pateman, in her essay The Patriarchal Welfare State, provides us with a useful idea in what she terms as Wollstonecraft’s Dilemma. Women have sought, as was laid out by Wollstonecraft, two routes to citizenship which both turn out to be “incompatible” with the very structure and nature of the patriarchal welfare state. The first route is to insist that “the ideal of citizenship be extended” to include women as full members, full individuals, of the state (196-7). This can be best exemplified in the woman as worker ideas of Marxist revolutionaries, but it must necessarily fail both by virtue of the definition of the term citizen and by the fact that it fails to recognize that there are differences in capabilities (such as bearing a child) between men and women.

The second route is to demand that the currently unpaid work of the woman in the home be recognized as productive and, hence, contributive to the welfare state. In doing this work, women are fulfilling their duties within the role of citizen (Pateman 197). This maneuver fails to address the dual dichotomies of public and private, and relegates women, still, to the Private sphere of the home where, in spite of any laws or economic remuneration, they will continue to be seen as the perpetual second sex.

Wollstonecraft’s Dilemma and attempts by women to traverse the paths laid out by it have both highlighted and ignored the fundamental, underlying problems of the liberal-democratic welfare state. The current structure does not even allow us the language with which to conceive of a new arrangement of life within the state. A radical redefinition of the terms citizen, private, public, and welfare must accompany a move away from the ideal of full employment (of white men) and the wealth accumulating goal of profit-seeking.

A legitimate candidate for the next step in this process of redefinition is the restructuring of employment law and norms to both better recognize work outside of the confines of the office and the factory as valuable work and afford both men and women equal opportunity and incentive to take part in that work. Men are just as well suited as women to be caregivers to their children, to clean the house, to prepare the meals, and to do the laundry. In essence, such a restructuring is a redefinition of the current ideal of citizenship. Work on the open market (the masculine ideal) would no longer be the only valuable form of work. Breaking down the barriers between Private and Public, between work (as a physical place) and home, allows both men and women to readjust their positions in the state in a positive way.

Recently we have seen pushes toward the mandated availability of both maternity and paternity leave of equal lengths. While some progressive workplaces do offer this ideal, it is still very far from the norm and will not be accepted without a fight by industries. This type of legislation would stand in stark contrast to the business friendly norm that allows employers to be profit-seeking entities for the good of wealthy shareholders and to the detriment of employees. Legislating paternity and maternity leave, or even commanding it, would bring more equity into childrearing and the work of the home while allowing mothers and fathers both to have a job to come back to; allowing both to be breadwinners.

This type of sharing of labor across the Public-Private divide is a necessary step in redefining citizenship. The welfare state plays a crucial role, even while in question, in that state support would be necessary to relieve market pressures on businesses to release mothers and fathers from employment. While many obstacles stand in the way of measures like this, it seems as though we have no choice but to move forward, to persevere, in this project of redefinition.

--The source cited in this text is Carole Pateman's "The Disorder of Women" published in 1989 by Stanford University Press--

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