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Family shifts: families, policies, and gender equality.

FAMILY SHIFTS: Families, Policies, end Gender Equality

Margrit Eichler

Oxford University Press, Toronto, 1997.

Margrit Eichler is one of Canada's eminent social analysts who seeks to understand the ways in which economic, legal and social policies affect the lives of Canadian women. Her latest book builds on her previous critiques of public policy by focussing specifically on family policies. Its most significant contribution lies in its challenge of traditional models underlying our thinking about family policy, thinking that ultimately translates into legislative and economic decisions that affect the day-to-day lives of women and children. Eichler urges her readers to question theoretical underpinnings of family policy as they work to develop more gender equitable approaches.

Family policy here includes all state policies that affect families, such as social welfare legislation, policies concerning social services (day care), income tax regulations, provisions in civil and criminal codes, family law, regulations about social benefits and custody decisions. In 1993, the federal government had a list of 47 federal programs that support families in Canada, in addition to provincial and territorial programs. Eichler's main thesis argues that in the past century, from about 1900 to 1970, a patriarchal model underlay family policy-making. This model was gradually eroded to make place for an individual responsibility model of families that currently dominates policy decisions. The individual responsibility model, while premised on gender equality, fails to address substantive aspects of gender inequality, especially the need for public support for care of dependents as well as conflating spousal and parental roles, assuming a congruence that no longer exists. Eichler tell us that other policy critics, who agree the individual responsibility model no longer matches current family realities, have suggested three quite divergent solutions' a return to a patriarchal model of the family, thus resolving the "family crisis"; a vigorous advocacy of gender equality between spouses; and abolishment of legal marriage and the nuclear family as a norm. Drawing on all of these arguments, Eichler proposes a different solution: adoption of a new family model called the social responsibility model.

The first six chapters of the book are devoted to examining the patriarchal and individual models as preparation for reader acceptance of the social responsibility model. Eichler outlines eight features of each family model as a way to describe and compare all three. The social responsibility model of the family contains the following:

* an ideological commitment to minimizing stratification on the basis of sex

* functioning relationships constitute a family unit so that legal marriage is present but not privileged over the other relationships

* household and family memberships may be but are not assumed to be congruous

* the individual becomes the unit of administration

* social recognition of all dependency relations regardless of whether they are between kin or non-kin. Adults responsible for their own and each other's economic well-being. Fathers and mothers both responsible for children, whether they live with them or not

* mothers and fathers are both responsible for providing care for children. Parents retain parental responsibilities even if they do not live with children

* public shares responsibility with both parents for the care of dependent children. Society pays when a parent is absent or unable to provide. Society pays for dependent adults no distinction between same-sex couples or opposite-sex couples in terms of their treatment by the state.

Having outlined these characteristics, Eichler then explores the social history of policy-making in Canada by reviewing selective policies predominant mostly in the past 30 years.

The bulk of her critique is aimed at dismantling assumptions underlying the individual model of family policy by pointing out that Canada has championed human rights at an individual level but been rather less successful at implementing collective or social human rights. The result has been equality-based legislation affecting various economic groups unevenly. In particular, single women and their children have not been particularly advantaged by legislation. Moreover, recent demographic, social and economic transitions have led to a complete blurring of spousal and parental roles and responsibilities. High levels of divorce and the acceptance of common-law unions have altered the boundaries between being married and not being married as well as redefining each partner's economic and care responsibilities for biological and socially dependent children. The increasing acceptance of same-sex couples redefines spousal roles as partnerships as well as contributing to a diminishing of gender-defined roles within relationships. The result is a lack of congruence between spousal and parental roles which has a gendered component, namely most mothers retain custody of their children while most fathers are both non-custodial and non-coresident with their biological children.

The strongest contributions of Eichler's book are found in the last two chapters of the book where she describes the social responsibility model and suggests practical applications. Referring to the eight features, Eichler describes her task as the complicated one of devising a way of dealing with gender equality that avoids the problems inherent in the application of the individual responsibility model. This entails inventing a minimally stratified society -- an egalitarian society not being possible -- in order to equalize the social context in which families emerge. She then reformulates the eight characteristics of the social responsibility model as a set of policy goals and devises a list comparable to that published by the Canadian Council for Social Development. These include: minimizing sex stratification; providing collective support for inevitable dependents; providing collective support for care providers of inevitable dependents, giving social recognition to all those who partially or completely support temporary dependents, whether they are related or not; facilitating self-support and autonomy for every individual; giving social and legal recognition to lesbian and gay families. Examining selective policies concerning child support, alimony, spousal benefits and financial support for low-income families, Eichler concludes that we need to implement a child-support assurance system, a modified version of an income shares model in which all non-resident parents would be required to share their income with their children at a rate proportional to their gross income.

Attempting to redress gender inequality in family policy proves to be an enormous task. Eichler should be commended for providing readers with a theoretical map into this complex terrain and for bringing to attention what she calls "the desperate need" for family policies that recognize that old family structures have tinctured and that families perform socially necessary, but generally unrecognized, emotional and caring work.
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Publication:Resources for Feminist Research
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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