Freedom and Gender Equality: Friend or Foe?

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society by Lucie Novotná. Click here to access the article.

In recent decades, the concept of gender equality takes prime in social policy theory and practice. Gender equality, in all its possible interpretations, problematizes the boundary between public and private. Its aim is to expand the space of where it is still legitimate for the state to intervene. But what impact do such state interventions have on citizens’ freedoms in liberal societies? 

The Feminist Argument and Freedom

The feminist argument provides one part of the answer. Scientific literature on gender equality recognizes that women’s life experiences were invisible or neglected in social policy. The design of welfare states reproduced women’s economic dependence and preserved women’s primary responsibility in the domestic sphere. The attention of feminists thus brought the gender dimension to the idea of social rights:making the case that, for women, the possibility of making autonomous choices is primarily rooted in contextual social relations of work and family. Social policies should serve to rectify gender inequalities by addressing men’s and women’s ties to unpaid labour, care and to employment. The legitimacy of such interventions is derived from a specific notion of liberty that is at the core of social liberalism – positive freedom.

Positive freedom represents the idea that everyone is free to act in accordance with what they consider meaningful. Being free means being determined to go one’s own way towards one’s own understanding of what is the highest value in life. However, as the life of every individual is embedded in social context, the organisation of social and economic relations might impose obstacles to positive freedom. Because gendered practices are derived from the social structure, it is the gender order that might hinder the possibility to make authentic choices. Gender equality thus acts as a reference value around which social relations should be re-arranged to increase positive freedom. More equal societies grant women ‘choice’ or the possibility of self-government. To achieve this in practice, it is essential that collective efforts be directed towards orienting social actors towards gender equality by public policy interventions.

In this context there are two conceptualisations of positive freedom. First, monistic positive freedom means that a certain conceptualisation of gender equality is taken as the only correct and rational principle upon which society should be organised. Second, pluralistic positive freedom aims to protect the plurality of values and different approaches to life. Plurality serves as the highest value towards which the organisation of society should aim. In terms of gender, it is an approach that encourages the creation of a society where everyone can choose their way of life regardless of gender stereotypes or gender order.

The Second Concept of Liberty

There is, however, an alternative notion of freedom which is connected to classical liberalism – negative freedom. This notion of liberty does not focus on the social context, but rather on the individual. Negative freedom is the absence of barriers, limitations, and outside interference from other people or institutions that prevent an individual from acting. People’s personal goals and values are understood as the result of their individual choices independent of the social environment. Thus, at the political level, instead of rearranging the social order, the proponents of negative freedom advocate for a minimal state and the protection of rights and freedoms of individuals (e.g. movement, speech), which guarantees a space of personal freedom that cannot be violated. Negative freedom thus strongly separates private and public life making the case that private life should be untouched by policy interventions. 

Historically, negative freedom assumed a specific type of individual who belonged primarily to the public sphere. Women’s ties to domestic/private sphere made their status of free individuals problematic as they lacked of full range of citizenship rights. Their life experiences were fully omitted in doctrines derived from negative freedom, leading to the persistence of the disparities that arose from the gender order.

Understanding negative freedom as encompassing all individuals (male and female) makes the case for rearranging society in a manner that allows for choice and grants a space of non-interference to all. This step, however, is not negative freedom because negative freedom is merely the space of non-interference that an individual enjoys. It is rather something that can be titled “positive negative freedom”. 

How To Establish Liberal Society

The concept of positive negative freedom is a concept that takes negative freedom as its reference value (rather than “gender equality”). The nature of any social contract endows a popular sovereign with power over its subjects, giving legitimacy to state intervention and governance over people. The nature of such interventions is not, even in classic liberal doctrine, divorced from the private sphere. This means that restrictions imposed on individuals to protect freedom of movement, speech or property are justifiable if they lead to broadening the overall space of non-interference (negative freedom).

Positive negative freedom is a prerequisite for the existence of negative freedom. It is positive freedom because it takes into account social context of individuals and attempts to rearrange social conditions of individuals to grant choices to men and women within public/private domain. Simultaneously, it is negative freedom because an aim of such rearrangement is to increase the scope of non-interference. 

Existing theoretical arguments connected to gender equality and freedom were derived from the dichotomy between the masculine/public and feminine/private/domestic spheres. Encompassing both men and women in the concept means that the state should intervene to grant negative freedom from various expressions of coercion, social control and exploitation. This is especially relevant in the view of gendered division of labour which creates a mechanism of social control derived from embedded gender order. 

Gender Equality, Freedom and the Role of Social Policy 

So, what is the impact of gender equality policies on freedom? The original article used four concepts of liberty (monistic positive freedom, pluralistic positive freedom, positive negative freedom and negative freedom) as an analytical framework to examine selected work-family reconciliation policies to answer this question. There are three main take-aways: 

First, the analysis showed that the specific notion of gender equality (i.e. the specific representation of what gender equality means) does not have direct implications for individual’s freedom as it is mediated via a selected policy tool. The precise impact on individual’s freedom stems from formulation, aim and form of implementation of a specific policy tool. This suggests that reconciliation and boundaries between freedom and gender equality are not purely a theoretical problem, but also an issue of policy formulation and bureaucratic processes.

Second, many work-family reconciliation tools were identified as positive negative freedom. Gender equality shares with positive freedom its reflection on social conditions of individuals, reflecting particularly on gender order embedded within social institutions and social structure. Simultaneously, gender equality can be translated into policy tools that expand the scope of choices for both men and women concerning the organisation of domestic matters and that grant women choices in their activities within public sphere. This means that a specific family policy tools are a prerequisite of a liberal society.

And lastly, there are also some boundaries of gender equality within the liberal tradition. Policies derived from monistic positive freedom are closely tied to a specific value or value order. Such policies are prescriptive in instituting the ‘right’ way of life citizens should follow. Thus, gender equality policies can not only free women and men from the shackles of gendered social order but also contain an inherent danger for freedom. To avoid simplification, this danger can manifest seriously only if the inherent value order and its institution take over the policy agenda. What is, however, immediately relevant about this tendency is the fact that monistic positive freedom have inherent totalitarian and authoritarian tendencies. In other words, the more restructuring a society undergoes to achieve a single value, the less liberal the society becomes.

About the author

Lucie Novotná is a researcher at Masaryk University.


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