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Political Theorist Homes In on Justice Within the Family

September 10, 1986|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

WALTHAM, Mass. — Maybe it's because it seems so obvious that no one before Susan Moller Okin actually thought to say it: Justice begins at home.

More likely, however, in the view of Brandeis University political theorist Okin, the family simply has been overlooked as an institution where justice bears any relevance. "It's usually just assumed that families are just," she said, "so 'we don't have to think about that.'

"Frequently," she said, "the family is not only regarded as a private kind of institution, but one that doesn't even need to be looked at as being related to other kinds of moral realms."

But Okin, an expert on gender in politics, contends that the facts are otherwise. Rigidly defined traditional sex roles militate against justice within the family, she argues, perpetuating what she calls "a kind of caste system" rife with inequality. And by overlooking the family as a forum for social justice, she maintains, social theorists have vastly undervalued the contributions of women.

"Many assumptions about gender structure--about women doing the child-rearing and taking care of the psychological nurturing of men and children--are just looked on as unquestioned assumptions not to be talked about," Okin said.

The result, she suggests, is a population of citizens who are not only incapable of thinking about justice in an all-encompassing way, but who are unable to implement a fully just society.

"How can you grow up in an institution that is pervaded by injustice in very many ways, and become somebody who thinks about justice and goes out there in the world to try to institutionalize it?" Okin said. "I think the socialization of people in traditional families, in gender-structured families, is extremely detrimental to their thinking about these issues in any kind of reasonable way."

Or, she said, summarizing a major theme of her forthcoming book, "Justice vs. Gender": "There can be no justice in society until there is justice in the family."

Urging a "gender-free" theory of justice, she wrote in her proposal for that book, "Even recent theories of justice have not confronted the issue of gender distinction in society, and . . . they must if they are to be socially relevant (and) respond to recent changes in gender roles and in the status of women."

Political Theorists

An associate professor of politics, Okin is the author also of "Women in Western Political Thought" (Princeton University Press), a widely acclaimed examination of assumptions about gender in the works of such political theorists as Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau and John Stuart Mill. Her current research is supported by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation's program on "Long-Term Implications of Changing Gender Roles."

"One of the things I am arguing," she said, "is that theories of justice, although they claim to be talking about the human good and human needs and human desserts and all these kinds of things as being essential to their theories of justice--by ignoring the family, and to a large extent by ignoring relations between the sexes, and by ignoring all the things that have traditionally been women's work and women's sphere, they are in fact leaving huge things out of the human good, human needs, human desserts."

The "human good," Okin said, "very often turns out to have to do with material resources and things like intellectual development. That leaves out the whole issue of the good of human intimate relationships, of psychological good, of having a capacity to relate to other people in various ways, including the most intimate way.

A Capacity for Relating

"Now when we start to think about it, it seems fairly clear that you can't have a very good human life if you don't have that capacity to relate to others in intimate and less intimate ways. But mostly that just gets left out."

Taken out of the theoretical sphere and into the arena of real-life human dynamics, "this kind of notion," Okin said, "strongly affects the way in which we value and don't value things." Consider, she submits, "the incredible pay differential between someone who is a day-care teacher and someone who's an administrator in a corporation. We pay someone who administers something in a corporation 10 or 20 times as much as we pay someone who is extremely good at taking care of very small children--a job that is first of all colossally important, and also not a talent that's widely shared."

That kind of discrepancy, Okin said, traces directly to inequalities--to imbalances of justice--established within the traditional family structure.

"The inequality within the family," she said, "is absolutely central to the way that people have been able to construct these theories without thinking about the things that women do."

Where the Family Lives

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