Free Markets and Feminism: The Neo-Liberal Defence of the Male Breadwinner Model in Britain, c. 1980-1997
Women's History Review
Although neo-liberalism is often seen as a set of ideas that prioritises the individual, in fact neo-liberals have always seen the traditional family as the critical social institution that is to be protected from the state and to be granted new freedoms by greater access to market opportunities. A male bread-winner model of economic life was therefore as central to the worldview of neo-liberalism as it was to post-war social democracy. How did the advocates of market liberalism on the British right conceptualise the shifts in gender norms that took place during the 1980s and 1990s? How far did they try to adapt their free market objectives to this new social reality and how far did they try to resist it? How did they react to the growing salience of feminist arguments and policies on the left of British politics, and in particular Labour’s growing enthusiasm for a social democratic politics that integrated some feminist insights? This article investigates these questions through an examination of the political thought of Britain’s market liberals. The picture that emerges is two-fold: in the first instance, a concerted, although unsuccessful, effort by the free market right to resist some of this social change, but secondly greater ideological success for neo-liberals with respect to the role that could legitimately be played by the state rather than the market in addressing the social challenges posed by shifting gender roles.