Julia S. O’Connor, Ann Shola Orloff and Sheila Shaver. States, Markets, Families: Gender, Liberalism and Social Policy in Australia, Canada, Great Britain and the United States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 281 pp. US 24.95 paper.

Esping-Andersen’s Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, published in 1990, was a landmark study that provided a theoretical and methodological shot in the arm to comparative scholarship on the welfare state. But, as feminists pointed out, his analysis paid scant attention to gender. O’Connor, Orloff, and Shaver draw upon ‘mainstream’ and feminist work (including their own earlier and significant scholarship) to provide an extremely well developed, sustained and interesting analysis of gender relations and social policy in four countries that represent the ‘liberal’ world of welfare capitalism.

The authors are interested in developing a better understanding of the relationship between ‘policy liberalism’ and gender – a relationship that has received little attention in the comparative literature. The tenets of liberalism of particular relevance to this study include: the presumption of the autonomy of the public and private spheres, the emphasis on legal ‘personhood’ and civil rather than social rights; and the priority given to meeting need through the market and/or family rather than the state. Three major policy arenas are selected that “represent some of the most significant sites of gender politics in western countries over the last three decades.” First, the labour markets of the four countries are examined with reference to the characteristics of women’s labour force participation and then the policies that are (or are not) in place which facilitate or inhibit women’s participation in the labour market are assessed. Income maintenance is the second policy arena the authors examine, assessing the extent to which each national system generates and sustains gender inequality through the nature of social provision and the allowable bases for making claims on the state. Third, the authors explore reproductive rights in terms of the way in which the right to abortion is framed and implemented in each of the four countries. In addition, there is a chapter that considers the impact of party politics and the tenor and strategies of the women’s movements on policy development.

States, Markets, Families addresses a number of interesting issues. Does the notion of a ‘liberal’ social policy regime hold up when gender is included? What are the gender implications of liberalism in an era of restructuring and retrenchment? What are the characters of these liberal gender regimes – how different, how similar? They conclude that the influence of the ideology of liberalism is evident in all four countries, and both the policies of governments and the directions of the women’s movements do reflect an emphasis on gender sameness and a focus on individual rights. In an era of restructuring, the authors suggest, gender is particularly implicated as the criteria for services and benefits change, as the responsibility for care work is redistributed between states, markets and families, and as the internationalization of trade and production affects the quality and availability of employment.

Despite these broad similarities, there are also significant differences between the countries that matter, and this, in many ways, is the most interesting part of the book. Similarities help to establish the credibility of the liberal ‘world’ of welfare capitalism, but it is the discussion of differences among the countries that provides a rich analysis of the contemporary expression of liberalism as it relates to gender and social policy. Examining the differing ‘policy logics’ which are not always consistent or logical, the authors suggest that the United States is characterised by a considerable emphasis on the market (as a source of income and services), strong assumptions of gender sameness and a marked commitment to civil rights and a weak commitment to social rights. The emphasis on the market and gender sameness is also very evident in Canada, but it is also moderated by a greater tradition of state involvement and a greater acknowledgment of the links between labour market participation and caring responsibilities. Britain continues to emphasise the gender-differentiated ‘breadwinner’ model of the family, evident in both the income support system and policies related to labour market participation. The relatively strong commitment to social rights has been under threat since the 1980s, although the levels of income support continue to more effectively buffer British single mothers from poverty than those in the other countries. Australia is found to be the most distinctive of the liberal variants. Unlike any of the other countries, women are treated as independent citizens but, at the same time, caregiving responsibilities remain a basis for claims. Social rights are the most developed in Australia. The authors draw out the implications of these policy variants on class and gender equality.

This book has a number of important strengths. First, unlike much of the comparative literature, the authors have chosen to write together, rather than author separate ‘country’ chapters. The result is a well-developed analytic framework that produces a highly integrated and theoretically-grounded account which has taken the comparative literature an important step forward. Secondly, they have provided a much more comprehensive view of policies than is typically the case. Their inclusion of reproductive rights, for example, extends the discussion well beyond the ‘traditional’ boundaries of welfare state analysis and allows us to see the links/contradictions in an emphasis on the civil right to abortion without the social right to health care that allows many women to exercise the right. Third, they move beyond simply examining the nature of social provision and the quality of the claims that are recognized by the state, and include in their analysis the overall organization of benefits and services, and the patterns of gender and class stratification produced by them. Finally, they have generally struck a very good balance between providing sufficient detail so the reader can properly evaluate the argument, without a tedious and exhaustive (and exhausting) description of programs and policies. As they note in their conclusion, there is further theoretical and empirical work to be done to produce a full account of the origins of the similarities and differences in the inscriptions of gender and class in welfare regimes. This excellent study brings us considerably closer.

Patricia Evans
School of Social Work
York University

June 1999
© CJS Online

back to reviews index