Skip to main content

Farewell to Maternalism? State Policies and Mothers’ Employment (WP-05-10)

Ann Shola Orloff

Across the rich, developed democracies of Western Europe, North America, and the Antipodes, we are in the midst of changes in gendered policy logics from supporting women as full-time caregivers to requiring and supporting employment for all, or a series of “farewells to maternalism.” Whether these changes are “women-friendly”for some or all womendepends very much on how state support for caregiving activities and employment is configured. This paper analyzes the politics and policies surrounding the “farewell to maternalism.” First, I will briefly examine the social policies and politics that have been recently described as “maternalist,” and the predominant gendered divisions of labor and patterns of family and household formation which they depended upon and reinforced, for it is against these backdrops that current changes are occurring. Next, I take up the politics and policies which have moved Sweden and the U.S. away from maternalism and towards support for women’s employment, from supporting women’s claims as mothers to supporting women’s claims as workers or citizens and sometimes also caregivers. I close with some consideration about the potential for the emergence of new models in continental Europe, and whether it might be possible to imagine a situation incorporating higher levels of women’s employment with less displacement of family care to either market or state services.

Depending on each country’s starting point, different strategies may be pursued to enhance women’s employment, while reducing poverty and economic vulnerability, and ensuring that caregiving activities are supported. Supporting mothers’ employment presents a challenge not only politically and culturally, but also in terms of state capacities. The ultimatethough possibly utopiansolution to the problems of reconciling employment and care and women’s economic dependency in all systems may be a “universal caregiver” model: to induce “men to become more like what most women are nowthat is, people who do primary care work” (Fraser 1994, p.611).

Ann Shola Orloff, Professor of Sociology; Faculty Fellow, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

Download PDF