On the whole, at the opening of the twenty-first century, Western women enjoy a power, education, and privilege unprecedented in human history. And much of this unprecedented power and freedom has resulted from women’s political activism on behalf of themselves and other women. Just as the social institutions of the West have both impeded and facilitated women’s political activism, so has women’s political activism caused both progress and decline in those institutions. Much depends upon your perspective and upon the historical moment you are considering.

Let us begin with the political context: there can be no doubt that the political institutions of Western Europe and the United States have played a role in the emergence of modern feminism and of women’s growing role in the social, economic, and political life of Western nations. The ideals of individual freedom and political democracy are distinctly Western and without them it is hard to imagine that women would have moved as readily into political life as they have. The political vocabulary of freedom, equality, and democracy has provided women with the principal justification for their campaign to enjoy the full status of citizenship, especially since there were never principled political justifications for their exclusion from it.

Many women remain dissatisfied with the results of women’s access to political life, usually on the grounds that formal equality with men has not netted women an equal share of wealth, power, and prestige. But these days, most activists are likely to focus their attention upon social rather than political institutions and to view political activism as a weapon to effect lasting social change. The impact of women’s political activism upon social institutions has been momentous, but its ultimate consequences still remain unclear.

In this essay, I shall briefly consider the current state of the balance sheet and then focus more closely on the specific institution of the family. On the positive side of the ledger, women’s political activism of the past few decades has decisively improved the independence and dignity of women as individuals. Women today enjoy opportunities to fulfill their talents, attain an education, pursue a career, run for and win political office that most of our mothers and grandmothers could not have dreamed of. On the negative side, social institutions, especially in the United States, have been decisively weakened, most of all the family.

A word of caution is, however, in order: One of the major consequences of feminist political efforts during the past three or four decades has been decisively to blur the boundary between public and private and, by extension, between political and social institutions. You may recall the early slogan of Second Stage Feminism, “the personal is political.” That slogan called for the systematic politicization of personal relations, and many of its goals have been attained. Historically, social institutions have usually been viewed as, in some measure, distinct from political life. During the early nineteenth century, Alexis Tocqueville visited the new United States and wrote a famous account of what he observed. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville commented that many American social institutions were voluntary, which is to say they lacked the legal identity of many European social institutions. He further commented that the egalitarian ideology of Americans and the fluidly of their democratic political institutions made social institutions all the more necessary to the health of the country.

The general situation that Tocqueville described persisted for decades, although specific social institutions changed along the way. Most, however, retained a measure of autonomy from political life. Throughout the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, the family ranked as the main social institution, and, as an institution, it did enjoy a significant measure of autonomy. In effect, the principles of democracy stopped at the threshold of the private home—a man’s castle, as it was proverbially known. As a kind of corporate enclave within the surrounding bustle of competitive individualism, capitalism, and democracy, the family remained tied to hierarchical principles that placed the man, husband and father, in authority over all, including his wife, and placed both parents in authority over their children.

From the beginnings of the woman’s movement in the mid-nineteenth century, feminists focused on the injustice of women’s subordination to men within the family, and they gradually secured a number of reforms, beginning with a married woman’s right to own property in her own name. Second wave feminists even more sharply condemned the family as the cradle of women’s oppression, and they successfully campaigned for no-fault divorce, recognition of marital rape, and other forms or assistance for the wives of abusive husbands. Many of these changes represented significant progress for women, many of whom had previously lived in dependence and without any resources they could call their own. As recently as the 1960s it was often extremely difficult for a married woman to get credit in her own name.

Few today would, I think, dispute the positive value of these and related changes, but some are also beginning to worry that they have come at an exorbitantly high price. Their impact has been all the greater because they occurred in conjunction with—and arguably partially because of—a massive movement of married women and mothers of small children into the labor force. Thus, just as the formal bonds of the family were being weakened by legal reforms, women’s presence in the family was decreasing because of the time they were spending at work, and women’s economic independence from the husband was increasing because of the wages they were earning. And, as more and more people are acknowledging, the most serious casualty of the family’s dissolution was children, who are increasingly being turned over to others or left to their own devices.

Feminist political rhetoric has tended to target men as the main obstacles to women’s independence and equality, but much feminist political activism has, directly or indirectly, targeted the ties that bind women to children. The campaign to secure and defend abortion on demand is especially revealing in this regard. First, a woman’s right to abortion has been defended in political language as an individual right—frequently as a woman’s right to sexual freedom. No less significantly, it has been defended on the grounds of privacy. Consider the implications of these two positions. In the first instance, a woman has a right to be liberated from children—the possible consequence of her sexuality. This strategy effectively divorces children from any social institution by labeling them the concern of the woman rather than of a woman and a man. The second argument points in the same direction by reducing privacy to the privacy of the individual rather than the privacy of the couple or the family. As Mary Ann Glendon has argued, this interpretation of the right of privacy is a radical innovation in American law, and it represents a significant departure from the legal norms of Western European nations. Symbolically, the reduction of privacy to the privacy of the solitary individual effectively sounds the death knell of social institutions, especially the family, as organic units with claims upon their members.

Other features of the abortion campaign similarly chip away at the family as a social institution. Feminists have, for example, strongly resisted the idea that a minor should have the consent of a parent or guardian before having an abortion. They argue that since the father or guardian may be the one who has caused the pregnancy in the first place, the requirement that the girl obtain consent simply exposes her to punishment or further abuse. Western European countries handle this danger by allowing a minor to obtain the consent of a judge, but feminist activists have opposed that solution as well, arguing that even a young woman’s sexuality is a purely individual matter. Such a radical concept of individualism further weakens the notion that children constitute a social responsibility and not simply an individual possession to be disposed of at will. In a bitter irony, the largest business interests tend to concur with feminist activists in this regard, and in Casey v. Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania, a majority of the Supreme Court argued that women had become accustomed to the free disposition of their sexuality and labor and that unplanned pregnancies should not be allowed to interfere with their ability to support themselves. The opinion amounted to recognition that social institutions, notably the family, have so far decayed that no woman or child can automatically count on their support.

Women’s political activism in the United States has disproportionately focused upon securing and defending women’s liberation from the binding ties of family and from traditional—or stereotyped—expectations about women’s roles. As a result, many feminists have rejected the idea of maternity leave on the grounds that child rearing is as much the man’s responsibility as the woman’s. Maternity leave, they reason, would officially sanction a woman’s special responsibility for children and accordingly reinforce the persisting inequalities between women and men. As a result, the United States stands as one of the few countries in the world that does not offer new mothers some form of Maternity leave. All of the Western European countries do so, some quite generously. They also make more generous provisions for state subsidized day care than we do in the United States.

In contrast, the European pattern has been to be generous to women by being generous to children and the reverse. European countries, with the Scandinavian countries in the lead, are also witnessing some weakening of traditional social institutions, especially the family, but none match the United States in divorce and illegitimacy rates—or in the number of abortions performed. Nor do any match our reluctance to subsidize the care of children. Of eight industrialized nations—Sweden, the Federal Republic of Germany, France, Canada, Australia, Israel, and the United Kingdom—the United States stands alone in neither providing maternity leave nor any universal child allowances. To compound the problems, we do less to support child care and are much less flexible and innovative in the kinds of child care we license than other Western, and many developing, nations. Some of these countries, notably Sweden, also provide housing allowances and health care benefits. And it is worth noting that none of these countries has as high a proportion of children either born to or living with single mothers, or as high rate of infant mortally. For the richest nation in the world, our record is nothing to boast about.


Sad and intuitively improbable as it may seem, women’s political activism has much to answer for with respect to the current state of our social institutions. On this point I am emphatically not implying that blame should be laid entirely at the feet of one or another group of women. What I am arguing is that the political agenda of various women’s groups has contributed to our current situation if only by failing to campaign vigorously for alternative solutions. Feminist opposition to maternity leave, as I have already suggested, has eased the pressure on business to face up to its responsibilities in this regard. The feminist leadership has also strongly favored policies that encourage women to work full-time throughout their children’s early years. This preference has led feminists to campaign for federally‑funded day care, but not for child allowances or even for an increase in the tax deductions for children that would make it easier for some women to work part-time or stay home for a few years while their children are young. Nor have feminists mounted a vigorous campaign against the penalty that our tax code imposes upon marriage, presumably because they wish single motherhood to enjoy the same status as marriage. No fault divorce has benefited some women, but it has harmed many others, and its very existence has tended to weaken both women’s and men’s willingness to make marriage and family a priority that justifies compromise or even sacrifice in other areas of life.

Conservative women, in contrast, often campaign vigorously for “family values,” but more often than not they show no inclination to pay for services that might help less affluent Americans to hold families together. For better or worse, we have moved well beyond the point at which it is realistic simply to exhort people to do the right thing. For numerous and complex reasons, at least half of American marriages may be expected to end in divorce; barely half of adult Americans live in heterosexual marriages (54.4%); barely a quarter of all households includes a married couple and children; almost a quarter of all American children are born to a single mother (the figure jumps to almost 70% among African-Americans); and a quarter of American children live in a family headed by a single mother. All of these figures represent substantial changes within the last thirty-five years. During that period, women’s fertility dropped dramatically, while out-of-wedlock births increased by 26% and families headed by single mothers by 13%. Nothing suggests that these patterns will automatically reverse themselves in the immediate future, and we may reasonably assume that without substantial support and incentives neither marriages nor two-parent families will regain their standing as foundational social institutions.

There is a disturbing message in all of this: American social institutions today are weaker than those of other Western countries, but elite American women enjoy more advantages and opportunities than women in any other Western nation. (Throughout Western Europe, the rapid rise in immigration and ensuing ethnic diversity is exerting great pressure upon the strength and cohesiveness of social institutions, but has not yet eroded them.) And this hard truth confronts us with a painful question: Must women’s gains as individuals come at the expense of social institutions?

Social institutions, by definition, exist to link people into groups. Typically, they possess less authority than the state but more than the isolated individual. Their main purpose and justification lie in their ability to effect goals and facilitate social relations, and in their appropriate sphere they do both better than either the individual or the state. It is further worth noting that, in their absence, the state frequency takes over their functions—often with a marked loss in both social vitality and individual freedom.

Historically, social institutions have often legitimated or reinforced men’s advantage over women—an advantage, sad to say, that too many men have abused. No less sad, feminist political struggles have too often sought to correct that imbalance by liberating women from social institutions which, we are learning, tend to crumble without women’s commitment. Conservative women’s campaigns simply to restore social institutions to some mythical state of normality have singularly failed, primarily because the vitality of social institutions always depends upon their ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

Somewhere between destruction and sterile perpetuation lies the opportunity to modify and revitalize our social institutions to meet the crying needs they were always intended to meet. Of this much, however, we may be sure: No society retains its health and vigor without robust social institutions to draw people into common commitments and to mediate between individuals and the state.

Reprinted with the gracious permission of The Intercollegiate Review (Fall 1998).

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