The Feministing Five: Joan C. Williams

Joan C. Williams is a social scientist, a professor of law and author of the new book Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter. Williams, who teaches law at the University of California, Hastings, has been researching and writing about work-family issues for more than two decades. She is widely recognized as an expert on how economics, gender and policy come together to shape American lives, sometimes for better, but mostly for worse. In 2000, she wrote the influential book Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What To Do About It. Williams is one of only five women ever selected to speak at Harvard’s prestigious Massey Lectures. It was out of her lectures at Harvard that her most recent book emerged.

Reshaping the Work-Family Debate shifts the conversation about the conflict between domestic work and market work away from women and on to men. Williams claims that in order to “jump-start the gender revolution,” a phrase that implies the revolution has broken down, we need to change the way we define masculinity. As long as we define “manhood” as working long hours, providing single-handedly for a family and disengaging from care-giving, the revolution will remain stalled. And women will continue to be overworked, underpaid and denied access to the highest ranks of business and politics.

It was an absolute pleasure to sit down with Williams, a woman who has thought long and hard about one of the greatest challenges facing not just feminism, but American society.

And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Joan C. Williams.

Chloe Angyal: What made you want to write your new book, and why did you focus on men and class?

Joan C. Williams: I wrote it because I was giving the Massey Lectures at Harvard, but it’s basically a continuation of work that I’ve been doing for ten years, and argues three different things. In prior work I’ve argued that motherhood is really what’s keeping women back. That’s not to say that women who aren’t mothers don’t face challenges, but the critical mass never arrives in the right place because of motherhood. And this book focuses on the fact that work-family conflict, which is usually talked about in terms of professional women who opt out, though of course they are often pushed out by gender bias, because the workplace is designed around men.

The traditional image of work-family conflict is one of the top 13% of American families, the professional elite. So I have for years been studying union arbitrations where work-family conflict arises, to get some picture of what work-family conflict looks like for a family that’s not the bottom 30% or the top 13%. Those families are often one sick child away from getting fired. So the theme of the book was to try to push the face of work-family conflict away from that top 13%, people in professional managerial roles.

The second is to follow up on something I’ve been saying for a long time, which is that work-family conflict isn’t really about women, it’s really about men and masculinity. When you think about that ideal worker, it’s someone who starts work early and works for forty years straight and doesn’t take time off for child-rearing. Who needs time for child-rearing when you have a wife? Workplace ideals are still shaped around one breadwinner and one homemaker. There’s been a lot of talk about that from the point of view of women – feminism is all about choices, but what has to happen in order for women to have choices is that the man has to remain the breadwinner. The idea that feminism is all about choices has gender role prescriptions for men. It prescribes certain gender roles for men, and so do workplaces.

I have two vignettes in the book and one is about men in Silicon Valley, engineers, talking about how men try to out-macho each other there, which is by being a bigger nerd than the next guy. It’s not like you’re a brace firefighter going up one more flight; it’s “I work long hours.” It shows how long hours are integral to masculine identity on the job. That same man went on to say, “He’s a real man; he works 90 hours a week” or, “He’s a slacker; he works 50 hours a week.” And he said that mostly, it was meant for the other man. The literature shows that masculinity has to be earned. You don’t just become a man by going through puberty, you have to become a “real” man. And masculinity is precarious. It has to be earned over and over again, and one of the places that happens is on the job. One of the ideas of American feminism is that women have earned equality on the job and now they have to bargain for it at home. But if we’re bargaining at home, without looking at the pressures that masculinity puts on men, we’re making men choose between gender equality and masculinity. And guess which side is going to tip heavier?

There’s been a stall in women’s workplace participation since the 1990s and a stall in men’s household participation. And among non-poor men, there’s been an increase in the hours of work. What we’ve reached is a plateau, and we’re not going to jump-start the gender revolution unless we open up a discussion about the pressure that gender places on men. Are we saying that gender oppresses men as much as women? No. It’s a hierarchy. It’s not that men are as oppressed as women, but in the hierarchy, men are policed by other men. Masculinity has really become a straitjacket. Femininity has opened up enormously since I was young. Masculinity has a little, but not nearly as much as femininity.

CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?

JCW: Pippi Longstocking. I was born in 1952, and there weren’t many early ideals of tomboy, devil-may-care girls. She was one of them. She didn’t perform femininity in the way that I was rigorously taught to do. My mother actually used to tell me to take smaller steps because I wasn’t feminine in the way I walked.

There are a lot of women I admire in real life. I admire Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I think that she was a fearlessly creative legal thinker. I admire Catherine MacKinnon for the same reason. I admire a lot of ordinary folks, like the woman who was my babysitter for eight years. Life is a lot harder than it looks, and I think there are a lot of ordinary heroes out there.

CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?

JCW: I haven’t been reading news very much, but I have been watching The Wire. That’s what makes me want to scream in despair. It’s such a dead-on accurate picture of the impact of income inequality in the United States, not to mention the literally lethal pressure on men to be providers. Also, Mad Men. It’s interesting, though much less profound. It is giving a very sympathetic picture of feminism, which is pretty unusual in popular culture. And it’s also giving a pretty complex understanding of what it means to be a male chauvinist pig, and that it ain’t all roses. It hurts the male chauvinist pig as much as it hurts everyone around him.

CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?

JCW: In many ways, to answer the question on its face is divisive. I see feminism as divided into at least three distinctive and overlapping pursuits. One is work-family, which is the one I work on, one is the sex-violence axis, and the third is the queer axis. So I will answer the question as it relates to my axis, the one where my value-added is. The biggest challenge for Western feminism in terms of work-family is interrupting the connection between care-giving and economic vulnerability. And to deconstruct the masculine norms that put pressure on men and on women, and shift from the norm of the masculine worker to a new norm of a balanced worker.

CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?

JCW: Really good bread, tea and Jane Eyre.

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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