After spending the afternoon drinking tequila, seventeen-year-old high school student Carla Wagner dialed her cell phone while driving and fatally hit a sixteen-year-old girl. Wagner was charged with drunk driving and manslaughter. According to a 2001 Time story, when she was given a trial date, her parents asked the judge whether it would be all right if, in the meantime, Carla followed her usual habit of spending the summer in Paris.

Susan—not her real name—was a student of mine in a political theory course. She asked for an extension on a take-home exam because it was due over the weekend of sorority rush. I denied the request. A few days later, she asked again, this time because she had to return home to California for a memorial service for a “close family friend.” Frankly, I didn’t believe her, but I asked her for written confirmation. A note arrived from her mother. Still suspicious, I forwarded the note to the Dean of Students’ office, which followed up with the mother, who again confirmed that Susan would be attending the memorial service. That weekend, I saw Susan outside a sorority house, standing in the line for rush applicants.

Anthony (again, not his real name), another student of mine, turned in a paper that was clearly plagiarized; more than three-quarters of it quoted a Web site word for word. When confronted with the evidence, Anthony responded that because he was a graduating senior who already had secured a job at a high-profile investment firm, my course wasn’t important to him. He also denied that he cheated. After I turned this case over to the academic-integrity board, his mother called to berate me for ruining her “son’s future for a course that had nothing to do with anything.” I pointed out that the message that cheating was not acceptable might be an important lesson for an investment career. She replied, “my son isn’t a cheater. I raised him to be a good person.”

Since 1986 I have been teaching “Introduction to Feminist Political Thought.” In 2003 something unusual happened in the course. In each of the first five classes, my students initiated a discussion of mothering.

Surprised by this development, I asked the students if they expected to have children. Every woman’s hand went up, but the men thought I was crazy. When I asked how many of the women expected to be stay-at-home mothers, three-quarters raised their hands. Mothering, they said, is the most important job anyone could do. They wanted other options available, but they planned to choose mothering. This pattern has held, more or less, in subsequent years.

Some feminists will cheer this development. Significant trends within feminism, grouped under the label of care feminism, have long emphasized the socially important work that women do rearing children. I have pursued such arguments in my own work but lately I have grown worried that feminists such as me have exaggerated the importance of care, ignored the inadequate ways in which it is often performed. We have failed to acknowledge that the louder we applaud it, the more we enable its perversion.

We hear a lot about the evils of working mothers, how they are too busy or selfish to pay attention to their children. And everyone loves to pile on rich men’s wives who are obsessed with getting their children into the right preschool yet consign them to the care of nannies. But we don’t often talk—either within the academy or outside of it—about the comparable failings of full-time mothering, about the women like Susan’s and Anthony’s mothers who devote their lives to caring for their families, while producing outcomes that arguably undermine such basic political values as freedom, equality, and engaged citizenship.

The students in my feminist theory course are a useful barometer. When they read about the financial and economic vulnerability of married stay-at-home moms, they are skeptical: good mothers, they say, devote themselves to caring for their children; and their husbands should support them; they’re a team. Yet when they read about women on public assistance— often single mothers—they argue that the women should work, and they excoriate them for being bad mothers who set a poor example for their children by not working for a wage, and, implicitly, for not hanging on to their husbands.

Their lack of empathy and identification is both breathtaking and remarkably consistent. They draw on the idea of care to shore up class divisions and selfish interest, the antithesis of care theory. Their reading of care feminism gives them neither awareness of their own vulnerabilities in a gender-unequal world, nor of the vulnerabilities of other women. Nor does it provide any useful tools for changing gender dynamics. In the feminism of care, they see a new description of the status quo, not a prescription for changing it.

We hear about the evils of working moms, how they’re too busy or selfish to pay attention to their kids. But we don’t talk about the failures of full-time mothering.

Obviously, care theory did not cause these failures of judgment and empathy; I doubt that Carla Wagner’s parents, or Anthony’s or Susan’s mother, had read the literature, much less used care feminism as a model for their behavior. Nor did care theory cause my feminist-theory students to advocate “opting out,” the phrase coined by Lisa Belkin’s much-discussed 2003 New York Times article documenting a supposed increase in women’s self-proclaimed “choice” to leave the workforce.

Whatever the causes—perhaps, as Susan Faludi has argued, the changes can be traced to cultural shifts stemming from the 9/11 attacks—my students were embracing a trend, not acting on a theory. Still, what surprised me was that they looked to feminism for validation, and were able to rationalize their views by using theories based on an idea of equality. If the work of care feminists can be put to use for ends opposed to those for which it was intended, maybe something is wrong with the theory itself.

Care’s unexpected consequences

Carol Gilligan’s classic study of gender differences in moral psychology, In a Different Voice (1978), introduced the idea that care for other people, rather than abstract rules and principles, should guide moral decisions, and already does guide the moral thinking of women. In emphasizing an “ethic of care,” Gilligan helped to give birth to difference theory or care feminism.

This view posed a major challenge to the then-dominant feminist view, which argued that women and men should be treated the same way. Care feminists argued that, in practice, sameness often meant that women should aspire to be just like men, as if men were the model of humanity. Further, by ignoring women’s continuing primary responsibility for child rearing and housework, the idea of sameness meant that nothing in the household changed, and women were left with a double day of paid work and housewifery. The ethic of care pointed to the social importance of the work women were already doing in the home. It thus opened up prospects for truly liberating change. Not only would men do their fair share of care work, they would see how important it was and would want to do it.

So difference feminists were not recommending that women should be the primary caregivers. Instead they argued that because women have done care work throughout history, we could look at women’s lives to gain insight into an important and under-appreciated human activity that everyone should engage in.

Difference feminists also debunked the conventional criticisms about the shortcomings of care. When critics said that care cannot dispense justice or morality because it is partial, emotional, irrational, care theorists responded that care is a distinctive kind of moral ethos. Critics also said that care doesn’t do the “important” work of the world, what Simone de Beauvoir called “transcendence,” which eschewed bodily need, emotions, and ties to family and particular people. Care theorists replied that care work is the linchpin of the social network; care makes social life possible, enjoyable, rewarding. It has profound moral, epistemological, and political significance and even offers a model of responsible citizenship.

In the early days of care theory, feminists worried about whether valuing care merely reinforced a caregiver role for women. After all, if care is so important, it could be argued, then women should do it and stop trying to compete in the marketplace. Many of us responded by arguing that care is not simply a woman’s value, but a human one that men should also embrace to their own benefit. That project, however, has not been a great success. According to 2005 data from an ongoing National Science Foundation study, married women still do two to three times more childcare and housework than men (17-28 hours per week for women, versus 7-10 hours for men). Indeed, having a husband apparently creates about seven additional weekly hours of housework for women.

This failure to change the division of care work may be linked to the way that feminists have approached care, particularly the effort to gain recognition of care as a public good, entitled to compensation from public sources. I have endorsed feminist arguments that full-time mothers should get credit for their social contributions, receive Social Security payments independently of the earning history of a spouse, and receive health care independently of their husband’s employment. I also agree with feminist lawyers that no-fault divorce laws should be restructured to take account of the social and economic value of the unpaid work that full-time housewives perform for their husbands as well as the decreased earning potential that such women suffer from their non-participation in the paid labor force for most of their productive lives.

But when we make such claims, feminists (including me) often fail to acknowledge the implications of our own arguments. Here are four.

First, if care is a public good, then shouldn’t there be public oversight? If feminists were arguing for a right to basic subsistence income, as welfare mothers urged back in the 1960s, public assistance for care would be provided by virtue of citizenship, and mothers could raise their kids however they wished. In contrast, care feminists argue for entitlements in terms of value to society: not only does caring labor have economic value if it is done outside the family, but in raising the next generation of citizens, caring for elderly family members, and making life easier for wage-earning husbands, women provide essential services to the larger society. However, once we put the argument in those terms, the public has a right to make sure that it is getting the service it is paying for.

That was precisely the logic behind hostility to welfare in the 1990s: it wasn’t just that the middle- and working-class families that needed two incomes to survive resented paying poor women to stay home with their children. The more overtly nasty discourse focused on the “irresponsibility” of welfare mothers, whose children were growing up to be criminals, drug addicts, or pregnant teens who simply would repeat the cycle. Welfare mothers were cheats, in short, because they were not doing what they were getting paid for. To be sure, those arguments were oversimplified and distorted. But the notion of a quid pro quo, and of doing your job adequately, is a logical corollary of the claim that raising children is a socially valuable job that contributes to the public good.

Many parents with more-than-adequate resources do an atrocious job teaching their children a sense of social responsibility and community

Second, we all know (as the stories I began with show) that not all parents do a very good job, and not all children grow up to be good citizens. Feminists often embrace the conventional liberal assumption that if parents, specifically mothers, have enough resources and sufficient support, their children will stay in school, avoid crime, and become contributing members of society. The problem with public assistance, in this view, is that it is too stingy.

I agree that public assistance can and should be better. But many parents with more-than-adequate resources do an atrocious job teaching their children the sense of social responsibility and community that care feminists see as the natural outcome of caring work. We need to be skeptical about the link between financial resources and child-rearing outcomes. Certainly, we can experience love, connection, comfort, and other wonderful things within the context of the family. But the family is also the locus of narrow-minded, selfish, and self-indulgent rationalization for its members. Think of white mothers shouting angrily at black school children in the effort to “protect” their children from the dangers of integration, or of parents who “protect” their children from going to jail for dealing drugs or driving drunk. We should resist the temptation to claim that this is not genuine care. It is one part of the reality of care, as distinct from the idealized image, and it will not be remedied by more generous social support.

If we start basing the provision of public resources not on need but on the social value of the work performed, then what do we do when children become drug dealers, prostitutes, or, worse yet, CEOs who sell out their shareholders, their employees, and the economy at large? Do we send the mothers to jail along with their children? Furthermore, feminists know that middle- and upper-class stay-at-home mothers have already had lots of public support, most obviously through a tax system that favors single breadwinners with stay-at-home spouses. And yet many of these mothers are interested in helping their kids get as much as they can and succeed economically, not in turning their children into public-minded citizens. New state policies that further help people to have and raise children won’t change this. They simply will make mothers more vulnerable to public condemnation.

Perhaps that is what care feminists have wanted all along, even though we don’t admit it: the idea was to promote the “right kind” of care, to promote the values we endorse, and to censure other kinds of caring. Care theory clearly does not advocate a philosophy of “anything goes, as long as the children are happy.” But framing the work that women do raising children as a contribution to the social good opens up an entire range of inquiry that may thwart the broader goal of women’s equality. Do we really want the state sitting in judgment of mothers, making sure that they are giving the kinds of care for which they are getting paid?

Even with large advances on issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, and sexual harassment, the state has hardly been a stalwart supporter of women’s equality over the past 30 years. Consider welfare reform, which often forced women to take minimum-wage jobs at the expense of pursuing higher education. I am increasingly doubtful of efforts to use the state to attain the goals we seek for care in particular. Only if the family were radically transformed—with an equal sexual division of labor, for starters—could state involvement be helpful. But if such transformation itself requires intervention by the state, then we have a problem.

The third unacknowledges implication of care-feminist arguments, is that regardless of whether a child grows up to be a civic contributor or a drain on public resources, parents receive goods from their children that cannot be transferred to others or cashed out in terms of “social value.” Call it “love,” but I am thinking of the mundane practicalities that go along with that: family vacations, laughter at the dinner table, holiday gatherings, pride, intimacy.

None of this is about the common good. Psychoanalytic theories suggest that we have children for all sorts of complicated and possibly selfish reasons sometimes having to do with the unconscious working out of issues from our own childhood. So having children may benefit us as individuals, but it is doubtful that it makes us better citizens. Feminists who have written about care tend to ignore that parents—particularly mothers, assuming they are the primary caretakers—receive goods that nobody else receives from their particular children. Instead, we focus on the “burdens” of mothering: the long days of always-unfinished work, the challenge of nurturing our children to become citizens and community members. And we focus on the need for public subsidies to relieve those burdens.

But if the state compensates mothers for the labor they perform raising their children, is not the state then also entitled to tax mothers for the love they receive—and only they can receive—from their children? For the psychological benefits that their childless fellow citizens never experience? The alternative implication is that every adult should raise children, for then everyone would receive the same goods and taxing them would become zero sum. But that doesn’t seem very consistent with advancing “difference,” much less “choice.”

The unequal sexual division of labor: are we still fighting that?

Fourth and finally—and this is, in my view, the most important point—the focus on care has done little to change the sexual division of labor. In fact, the celebration of care generally has reinforced women’s role as caregivers, just as many feminists originally feared.

Linda Hirshman has offered one of the most straightforward explanations of this: by being stay-at-home mothers, women lose economic and social power, which not only makes them and their children extremely vulnerable in the event of divorce, but also places them at a disadvantage vis-à-vis their husbands in negotiating the terms of the relationship. In contrast, if women have paid employment, this will force a redistribution of labor within the family. Moreover, women’s increased economic power will give them greater leverage to bargain successfully to enforce such changes.

Is this a crude return to the knee-jerk “careerism” of 1970s white, middle-class feminism? No, this prescription seeks a balance, not a repudiation. It is the fact that men make most of the money, and women do most of the caring, that produces within families the power imbalances that harm women and children. Realigning those power imbalances is necessary to effect change. But that cannot happen as long as women’s self-inflicted disempowerment is being rationalized under a feminist rubric.

It is worth remembering that Carol Gilligan’s original formulation of the “care model” is also called the “responsibility model” because taking responsibility for others’ welfare is essential to care. “Responsibility to self,” however, is also an important part of this model because you cannot have a relationship with others if you do not have a self.

Responsibility to self, to others, and to community is not served by stay-at-home mothering or “choice” feminism. Women receive the benefits of higher education and then turn their backs on the social resources invested in them in order to focus on raising one or two children, who often spend substantial portions of their day in school. Or worse, the children are homeschooled by women who, in most states, need not be certified as teachers. The children fail to interact with other students and thereby miss “the jostlings of equality” that Mary Wollstonecraft argued were so important to the development of responsible citizenship in a free and gender-equal society. Some of these women may participate in progressive volunteer work at domestic-violence shelters, homeless shelters, and food banks, but most of them do not. Indeed, many women who make these choices to be stay-at-home mothers are opting out not just of the career track, but of the fight for equality more generally.

As a result gender oppression is ignored. Women’s choices are constructed for them under conditions of systematic inequality, restrictive gender and sexuality norms, laws, and public policies that at least push, but more commonly coerce, them. Philosopher Ann Cudd argues that women who choose to be stay-at-home mothers support a system of patriarchal oppression that makes it more difficult for other women to make other kinds of choices. Women, she argues, have a responsibility to resist this gender oppression by refusing the standard feminine roles. I would not go as far as Cudd, because I agree with the French philosopher Michel Foucault that resistance happens in ways we are not always aware of. But she is right that oppression undercuts the innocence of individual choice, and every woman who fits the patriarchal mold makes different choices more difficult for the rest of us.

When feminists demand that state and employer policies take the place of inadequate spousal help, men once again avoid having to change.

This social effect of women’s apparently individual choices manifests in several ways. As Hirshman argues, women who opt out—like my feminist-theory students are poised to do—are failing to take up the positions of leadership that their resources, such as college education, prepare them for (and we should note that although elite students may get the headlines, this phenomenon is not limited to elite universities by any means). They thus fail to make the contributions to society that could change our understanding and perception of gender and challenge the way in which society is structured by gender hierarchies.

For instance, consider how women’s choices affect taxation. As Edward McCaffery argues in Taxing Women, dual-income couples are taxed at a higher marginal rate than are single-income couples, particularly when Social Security (for which housewives have been eligible for the past several decades at a reduced rate even though their working husbands do not make extra contributions) is included in the calculation. This tax policy originated in the 1930s and ’40s as a response to the fact that the majority of married women were stay-at-home mothers. But it also produces that effect: given the extra costs that dual-earner families often pay for services such as childcare, cleaning, and takeout or microwaveable meals, a second earner often makes the family worse off economically. This happens not just when one spouse, typically the wife, earns much less than the other; indeed, the more equal the spouses are in their earnings, the harsher the tax penalty.

My point is not that we need to have lower taxes, but that the tax system creates a coercive “decision path.” That is, patriarchal culture in effect rewards full-time motherhood and punishes wives and mothers who work for wages. This coercion is sometimes overt, as when a husband issues an ultimatum, but it is more often subtle, as in this example, which sends a clear message to women that they should stay home. Nobody wants to work twice as hard and end up worse off; we want our work to be worth something, economically as well as socially. Indeed, that was a central theme in feminist hostility to “workfare” and other aspects of welfare reform.

Women’s choices are not just shaped by this sexism: they in turn support it. The more women opt out, claiming that theirs is a free choice, the more they become invested in maintaining this tax structure, and the more likely they are to oppose reforms to make the tax code conducive to women’s pursuit of a wider variety of options in shaping their lives.

The same goes for the sexual division of labor. The more women go along with the social formations that have created their “choices” for them, the more embedded they are in the structure of oppression. And, absolved by women’s false choices, men still are not doing their share.

The tradition of patriarchal privilege continues to underwrite the practice and law of marriage in most societies. Even if patriarchy is eroding as a formal structure—shaping the overt content of law and social policy in fewer and fewer cases—the ideal of masculinist privilege persists in subtle and explicit forms ranging from domestic violence to married women changing their last names and giving their husbands’ names to their children. Convincing men to abandon those advantages and accept a more equal place is a difficult task. What Hirshman and others suggest is clear-cut: if women stop doing the care work, men will have to pick up the slack.

This risks sounding not just simple, but simplistic, even facile. Women have been trying for decades to get men to do more. But when feminists demand that state and employer policies take the place of inadequate spousal help, men once again avoid having to change. Until men share equally in child rearing—not to mention the other aspects of housework—gender equality will not be achieved.

This is particularly so when considering the psychological effects of early child rearing. The gender of the primary caretaker has profound implications for children’s understanding of gender. If women are almost exclusively the caretakers in heterosexual marriage, then each generation will reproduce the gendered division of labor and the structure of gendered inequality. Changing this fundamental relationship is the single most important factor in creating a just, equitable, and free society. And making that change requires that women care a little less.

Achieving equality

Feminists have demanded changes to the workplace to accommodate both parents and thereby make it easier for men to participate in household labor, including childcare. But this hasn’t worked. As the sociologist Arlie Hochschild and others have shown, employees, particularly men, do not take advantage of their employers’ family-friendly policies, for fear of professional stigma and penalty. Regardless of the reality, the perception is that such employees’ productivity declines. So women still do the bulk of the caring labor, even when they work full-time and earn salaries comparable to those of their husbands or boyfriends.

Indeed, family-friendly policies may be used against women. Maternity leave is the most obvious accommodation policy. It helps women reconcile the competing demands of work and family in the context of unequal sexual division of labor, but it does nothing to change that division of labor itself.

Where “parental leave” is offered, things can be even worse. Academia is a prime example. Parental leave is supposed to give male and female academics extra time to have children without suffering reduced chances at earning tenure. Yet women routinely complain of men using the extra time to get a jump on their tenure battles. There are no rigorous studies to confirm this, but if that is the case, then not only does this progressive policy fail to change the sexual division of labor, it potentially widens the gap between men and women come time for tenure. And indeed, Berkeley professor Mary Ann Mason has found that men who have babies early in their careers are more successful in attaining tenure, while women in a similar position are hurt.

According to the sociologist Mary Blair-Loy, mothers are perceived as less committed to their paid work, regardless of objective measures of qualifications, performance, and effort. The result is what scholars have called the “motherhood penalty”: women are paid less for the same performance, and their effort is less recognized. Several studies have shown that whereas mothers are penalized when compared to childless colleagues in terms of hiring, pay, and performance standards, fathers actually benefit on all three measures. Men who are primary caregivers are similarly penalized, so men generally do not become caregivers or take advantage of family-friendly policies.

We certainly can’t legislate the necessary change; Cuba’s 1975 Family Code, which mandated an equal division of labor in the family between men and women, unsurprisingly did little to alter Cuba’s sexual division of labor in practice. Women still do the bulk of unpaid housework, despite being actively engaged in paid labor as well. And the thought of “housework police” or wives bringing their husbands to Judge Judy is not one most U.S. feminists would welcome. After all, fining husbands, or putting them in jail, wouldn’t exactly help (unless they could take the laundry with them).

If feminists want to envision a more caring and nurturant world, it must be one in which all of us, men and women alike, participate in the important activities of care. But if new state and company policies won’t equalize the sexual division of labor, what will? Women need to insist upon such change themselves, in their individual relationships. Such demands likely will not succeed as long as full-time housewifery remains a way out of the “time bind” produced by the conflict between work and childcare. Though it operates on both parents, the time bind pressures mothers more because women could quit their jobs—at least in theory—and become housewives, whereas men are expected to remain in the workforce.

Economists from Adam Smith to Gary Becker have argued that having one breadwinner and one housekeeper is the most efficient economic model for household production, one that maximizes household earnings. But what they ignore is that, given existing power relations, this arrangement compromises women’s individuality. Women are seen exclusively as agents of the family’s rational interests, not their own. Care feminism wants to make us think more in terms of connection and relationship, but if men have no incentive to give up their power and follow the care model’s recommendations, then women continue to represent “the family” and men remain “individuals.”

Care feminism has long been critical of individualism; but perhaps the best way to achieve the goals of the care model is for women to become stronger in individualist terms by gaining and retaining economic clout and social status, thereby giving them leverage to get men to change, and to care more.

This may mean that the vision of care that feminists promote—the kind of care that we produce—has to change as well, become less ideal, more pragmatic, without abandoning its commitments to progressivism or civic-mindedness: more like “tough love” than empathic giving. This may sound counterproductive to the ideals of empathy, responsibility, and connectedness that care theorists have advocated. It may seem overly sanguine. Some care theorists may claim that that is what they have been trying to do all along. But theorizing care from the perspective of the power dynamics to which we have inadvertently contributed is essential to its success. Because ultimately it is women’s power, not care itself, that will enable gender equality.

Independent and nonprofit, Boston Review relies on reader funding. To support work like this, please donate here.