Gendering the Comparative Analysis of Welfare States: An Unfinished Agenda*


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    Address correspondence to: Ann Shola Orloff, Northwestern University, 1810 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, IL 60208. Tel.: 847-491-3719. E-mail:; A number of colleagues read this essay, sometimes more than once, and offered excellent advice and suggestions; I thank Paula England, Myra Marx Ferree, Lynne Haney, Walter Korpi, Jane Lewis, Kimberly Morgan, Sheila Shaver, and Linda Zerilli. Remaining errors are my responsibility.


Can feminists count on welfare states—or at least some aspects of these complex systems—as resources in the struggle for gender equality? Gender analysts of “welfare states” investigate this question and the broader set of issues around the mutually constitutive relationship between systems of social provision and regulation and gender. Feminist scholars have moved to bring the contingent practice of politics back into grounded fields of action and social change and away from the reification and abstractions that had come to dominate models of politics focused on “big” structures and systems, including those focused on “welfare states.” Conceptual innovations and reconceptualizations of foundational terms have been especially prominent in the comparative scholarship on welfare states, starting with gender, and including care, autonomy, citizenship, (in)dependence, political agency, and equality. In contrast to other subfields of political science and sociology, gendered insights have to some extent been incorporated into mainstream comparative scholarship on welfare states. The arguments between feminists and mainstream scholars over the course of the last two decades have been productive, powering the development of key themes and concepts pioneered by gender scholars, including “defamilialization,” the significance of unpaid care work in families and the difficulties of work-family “reconciliation,” gendered welfare state institutions, the relation between fertility and women's employment, and the partisan correlates of different family and gender policy models. Yet the mainstream still resists the deeper implications of feminist work, and has difficulties assimilating concepts of care, gendered power, dependency, and interdependency. Thus, the agenda of gendering comparative welfare state studies remains unfinished. To develop an understanding of what might be needed to finish that agenda, I assess the gendered contributions to the analysis of modern systems of social provision, starting with the concept of gender itself, then moving to studies of the gendered division of labor (including care) and of gendered political power.