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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: August 2010

Tax Policy and Feminism: Competing Goals and Institutional Choices

Summary

Despite the dramatic increase in women's labor market participation in recent decades, women continue to perform a disproportionate share of “family labor,” or the unpaid work of caring for children and other family members. Feminists have long been concerned that the gendered division of family labor reduces women's wages, contributes to the high and disproportionate rate of poverty among single mothers, limits married women's autonomy within the marital household, and circumscribes women's life choices and social and economic power.

Although many feminists agree that legal reform should address the economic and social consequences of the gendered division of family labor, they differ significantly in their objectives and policy prescriptions. Feminists may seek to increase women's autonomy, economic well-being, power, or happiness. Feminist policy prescriptions also differ, although they tend to pursue one of three main goals. Some feminists advocate equal treatment, or the application of the same legal rules to men and women, in order to eliminate legal biases that discourage women's market work and reinforce traditional gender roles. Others favor policies that would not only eliminate legal biases but affirmatively encourage women's market work in order to change gender roles and enhance women's economic self-sufficiency. A third group argues that instead of trying to change women's behavior, public policy should provide additional income transfers and other assistance to caregivers in order to directly improve their economic security and social status.

This article argues that tax policy can make an important contribution to a feminist legal agenda, but that some prior scholarship has overlooked the normative and institutional complexity of translating feminist goals into concrete policy prescriptions.

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