Etzioni: friend or foe of women's freedom?

April 7, 1995

If Gerard Kelly's article (THES, March 24) gives an accurate account of his views, Etzioni presents a deceptively gender-neutral vision of society under Communitarianism.

He is reported as saying that, in order to instill in children the civic virtues needed to overcome society's ills, each parent should contribute. Number one on his agenda is "enabling parents to be parents. We must move to much longer paid leave". Few would disagree with these statements, but Etzioni apparently moves away from gender neutrality when he identifies the fight to outlaw sexual discrimination and the opening of the market to working women as a major cause of the problem. The result, is a "society in which . . . all adults . . . act like men, who in the past were relatively inattentive to children". Implicitly, therefore, although it is men who have not been spending enough time with their families, the blame for "dysfunctional children" is laid on changes in the behaviour of women.

But in Britain, the majority of working mothers are in part-time work. There should be greater emphasis on the fact that if both parents are to make an equal contribution, then it is men's behaviour that has to change much more, along with the expectations of their employers.

A second point is that Etzioni's diagnosis of society's ills appears to focus on only a part of the dynamic process that links individuals and families to society at large. His picture of the family (curiously not unlike that of the economist Becker) suggests that men and women are free to make their own choices about the division of household and market labour. But this ignores the economic realities that make it more "rational" for husbands to seek full-time employment than their wives, and which also, in a period of economic recession, make it necessary for many wives to make an additional, financial contribution to the household. Individual choices do affect the type of society that we have, but we cannot gloss over the economic and social constraints that shape those choices.

Finally, there may be some negative outcomes of civil liberties, but their beneficial effects should not be overlooked. Greater economic freedom has transformed many women's lives, and often, those of their children. One important outcome of women's entry into the labour market is that they have the potential to escape exploitation and abuse in marriage, and are more likely to be able to set their own priorities for spending "household money". The work of the sociologist Jan Pahl shows that, pound-for-pound, the money that wives earn is more likely to be spent on the family (and thus the children in many cases) than that earned by their husbands.

Despite these criticisms, I, like many others, find much of value in the ideas expressed in Communitarianism; however, I also find alarm bells ringing. Etzioni is at pains to point out that he does not advocate a return to the status quo ante but wants both men and women to be actively and equally involved in parenting. This is something that many women have also been striving for in recent decades. However there is very little of substance on how this is to be achieved in practice in the current economic climate. A healthy society needs a proper balance of rights and responsibilities. The danger is that it will be all too easy for Etzioni's ideas to be applied in ways that restrict the choices of women, rather than in ways that give greater freedom to fathers to be active parents.

Carole B. Burgoyne

Lecturer in psychology University of Exeter

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