Feminist theorists in a variety of fields have contributed unrelenting energy and invaluable insights to academic and policy-making work on the issue of women’s unpaid work as homemakers. Indeed, feminists have been struggling with the problem of housework, its valuation, and its (non-) remuneration for as long as feminism has been around. As economic theories of the household have developed, so have the feminist responses to them. This article explores the tension between economic methodology and the premises of certain schools of feminist thought, focusing on the reaction of legal feminists to economic thought in the context of the care work debates.
Legal feminists in the 1970s and ’80s were concerned with the ways in which law reinforces women’s subordination in both the family and the market, especially through the endorsement or toleration of sexual violence and discrimination. Discussions of the value of “homemaking” revived in the legal domain right after the no-fault divorce revolution and the consequent preoccupation with the financial destitution of divorced homemakers. Legal scholars debated alimony in the no-fault era and sought to redefine its basis in a way that would lead judges away from the idea of alimony as an award based on need. They proposed a variety of approaches as improvements over the need-based one, such as a contractual theory of marriage that included rewarding a reliance interest and encouraging efficient breach6 and a more traditional partnership theory.