Vulnerability by Marriage: Okin's Radical Feminist Critique of Structural Gender Inequality

Hypatia 31 (3):687-703 (2016)
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The central thesis of Susan Okin's Justice, Gender, and the Family—that the ideology of the traditional family is the linchpin of contemporary gender inequality in the US—remains significant more than a quarter-century after the book's publication. On a political register, Okin's insistence on structural analysis of gender inequality is an important corrective to recent mainstream feminist emphasis on individual women's choices. On an academic register, her work reveals the incoherence of scholarly classifications of feminist theories as “liberal feminist” or “radical feminist” by confounding such distinctions. I argue that her thesis is best understood in relation to the early radical feminism of Juliet Mitchell's Woman's Estate, a book Okin praised. Placing Okin's work in the context of its radical roots clarifies her “linchpin thesis,” but also reveals the limitations of her argument: in her emphasis on what Iris Young has termed the “distributive paradigm of justice,” Okin unnecessarily adopts a much narrower definition of the family than did Mitchell, and overestimates the influence of economic vulnerability after divorce on women's capacity to exit marriage. I suggest modifications to her theory, and conclude by showing the continuing relevance of her argument for analyzing recent legal, policy, and demographic shifts.



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