When Private Becomes Public: Coupling in the Public Sphere, 1950-1985
Liberal political philosophy, which informs much of American political history, is based on the concept of a society made up of individuals. As citizens, individuals participate equally in the polity. As people with private lives, they also inhabit a sphere of personal space removed from the polity. In each sphere, each individual possesses certain rights and obligations. "Equal rights" and "equal access" are the arguments used to obtain public sphere rights such as employment and education. The "right to be left alone" is the argument used to obtain private sphere rights such as the right to chose whether or not to procreate. Public sphere obligations include military service and jury duty. Private sphere obligations include obligations of spousal and child support. However, the public/private divide is not as clearly delineated as liberal theorists often assume.
Feminists have understood the problem with liberalism's public/private divide since the early days of the first wave of feminism. Modern feminists, as well, grapple with issues that are not easily confined to one sphere or the other. For example, although choices about reproduction may be private, they implicate public resources when abortion is the choice. The decision by the woman may be private, but her access to abortion is dependent on the public sphere of professional doctors, hospitals, and clinics. Furthermore, reasonable access to abortion by poor women is dependent on public funding. Feminist advocates for women's rights question the current structure of the public/private divide every time they argue for public support of abortion.