[Family Shifts: Families, Policies, & Gender Equality]

Article excerpt

Margrit Eichler is one of Canada's eminent social analysts who seeks to understand the ways in which economic, legal and social policies affect the lives of Canadian women. Her latest book builds on her previous critiques of public policy by focussing specifically on family policies. Its most significant contribution lies in its challenge of traditional models underlying our thinking about family policy, thinking that ultimately translates into legislative and economic decisions that affect the day-to-day lives of women and children. Eichler urges her readers to question theoretical underpinnings of family policy as they work to develop more gender equitable approaches.

Family policy here includes all state policies that affect families, such as social welfare legislation, policies concerning social services (day care), income tax regulations, provisions in civil and criminal codes, family law, regulations about social benefits and custody decisions. In 1993, the federal government had a list of 47 federal programs that support families in Canada, in addition to provincial and territorial programs. Eichler's main thesis argues that in the past century, from about 1900 to 1970, a patriarchal model underlay family policy-making. This model was gradually eroded to make place for an individual responsibility model of families that currently dominates policy decisions. The individual responsibility model, while premised on gender equality, fails to address substantive aspects of gender inequality, especially the need for public support for care of dependents as well as conflating spousal and parental roles, assuming a congruence that no longer exists. Eichler tell us that other policy critics, who agree the individual responsibility model no longer matches current family realities, have suggested three quite divergent solutions: a return to a patriarchal model of the family, thus resolving the "family crisis"; a vigorous advocacy of gender equality between spouses; and abolishment of legal marriage and the nuclear family as a norm. Drawing on all of these arguments, Eichler proposes a different solution: adoption of a new family model called the social responsibility model.

The first six chapters of the book are devoted to examining the patriarchal and individual models as preparation for reader acceptance of the social responsibility model. Eichler outlines eight features of each family model as a way to describe and compare all three. The social responsibility model of the family contains the following:

- an ideological commitment to minimizing stratification on the basis of sex

- functioning relationships constitute a family unit so that legal marriage is present but not privileged over the other relationships

- household and family memberships may be but are not assumed to be congruous

- the individual becomes the unit of administration

- social recognition of all dependency relations regardless of whether they are between kin or non-kin. Adults responsible for their own and each other's economic well-being. Fathers and mothers both responsible for children, whether they live with them or not

- mothers and fathers are both responsible for providing care for children. Parents retain parental responsibilities even if they do not live with children

- public shares responsibility with both parents for the care of dependent children. Society pays when a parent is absent or unable to provide. Society pays for dependent adults no distinction between same-sex couples or opposite-sex couples in terms of their treatment by the state. …