Perspectives on Politics


Constructing Freedom: Institutional Pathways to Changing the Gender Division of Labor

Elizabeth K. Markovits and Susan Bickford


In recent years, there has been renewed public discussion regarding the relationship between women’s equality and their traditional responsibility for carework. In this essay, we analyze the structures of choice and constraint that continue to produce the gender division of family labor and thus women's unequal participation in the public sphere. We conceptualize this as a problem of democratic freedom, one that requires building institutional pathways to sustain women's participation. Drawing on Nancy Hirschmann's arguments about processes of social construction and their relation to freedom, we argue that gender inequality in the public sphere means that women are unfree, in the sense that they are not participating as peers in the material and discursive processes of social construction that then help to shape their own desires and decisions. We use that framework to analyze the current landscape in which different subgroups of women make decisions about paid labor and care work. Our goal is to bring into view the way the social construction of desire interacts with the material context to underwrite inequality between women and men and across different groups of women. Gender equality and the project of democracy require participatory parity between women and men in the public sphere. We therefore turn in our last section to an effort to imagine how public policies could construct pathways that can help interrupt and undo the gender division of labor, and thus better support democratic freedom.