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Feminist Interpretations of John Rawls

Edited by Ruth Abbey


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Re-Reading the Canon

Feminist Interpretations of John Rawls

Edited by Ruth Abbey

“This volume provides readers with a series of diverse, refreshingly open-minded, and very insightful feminist perspectives on the works of John Rawls. The essays are impressive on their own. Together they expand the parameters of feminist philosophy.”


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In Feminist Interpretations of John Rawls, Ruth Abbey collects eight essays responding to the work of John Rawls from a feminist perspective. An impressive introduction by the editor provides a chronological overview of English-language feminist engagements with Rawls from his Theory of Justice onward. Abbey surveys the range of issues canvassed by feminist readers of Rawls, as well as critics’ wide disagreement about the value of Rawls’s corpus for feminist purposes. The eight essays that follow testify to the continuing ambivalence among feminist readers of Rawls. From the perspectives of political theory and moral, social, and political philosophy, the contributors address particular aspects of Rawls’s work and apply it to a variety of worldly practices relating to gender inequality and the family, to the construction of disability, to justice in everyday relationships, and to human rights on an international level. The overall effect is to give a sense of the broad spectrum of possible feminist critical responses to Rawls, ranging from rejection to adoption.

Aside from the editor, the contributors are Amy R. Baehr, Eileen Hunt Botting, Elizabeth Brake, Clare Chambers, Nancy J. Hirschmann, Anthony Simon Laden, Janice Richardson, and Lisa H. Schwartzman.

“This volume provides readers with a series of diverse, refreshingly open-minded, and very insightful feminist perspectives on the works of John Rawls. The essays are impressive on their own. Together they expand the parameters of feminist philosophy.”
“This is an extensive and very important collection that covers both the feminist potential of Rawls’s theory and the major trends in liberal feminism. The emergence of feminism as a public political philosophy will owe a great deal to Ruth Abbey’s careful and balanced presentation and to her choice of thought-provoking contributors who all engage in serious critical debates with Rawls’s main conceptions.”

Ruth Abbey is Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame.



List of Abbreviations


Biography of a Bibliography: Three Decades of Feminist Response to Rawls

Ruth Abbey

1 Radical Liberals, Reasonable Feminists: Reason, Power, and Objectivity in MacKinnon and Rawls

Anthony Simon Laden

2 Feminism, Method, and Rawlsian Abstraction

Lisa H. Schwartzman

3 Rereading Rawls on Self-Respect: Feminism, Family Law, and the Social Bases of Self-Respect

Elizabeth Brake

4 “The Family as a Basic Institution”: A Feminist Analysis of the Basic Structure as Subject

Clare Chambers

5 Rawls, Freedom, and Disability: A Feminist Rereading

Nancy J. Hirschmann

6 Rawls on International Justice

Eileen Hunt Botting

7 Jean Hampton’s Reworking of Rawls: Is “Feminist Contractarianism” Useful for Feminism?

Janice Richardson

8 Liberal Feminism: Comprehensive and Political

Amy R. Baehr


List of Contributors



Biography of a Bibliography: Three Decades of Feminist Response to Rawls

Ruth Abbey

There is a wide consensus that John Rawls is one of the major thinkers of the twentieth century in the Anglophone world. . . . Most of contemporary political philosophy has been nurtured by his seminal ideas and can be understood either as a follow-up or a criticism and reaction against them. Thus, no student or scholar of the discipline can ignore them. (Audard 2007, 1)

By providing a chronological overview of English-language feminist engagements with Rawls from A Theory of Justice (TJ) onward, this “biography of a bibliography” displays the range of issues canvassed by feminist readers of Rawls as well as their wide disagreement about the value of his corpus for feminist purposes. As we shall see, feminist responses to Rawls’s first articulation of his theory of justice were, for the most part, critical yet hopeful. This early debate coalesced around such themes as whether his principles of justice extend to family relations; what it requires for a family to be just; and what lessons about justice children receive within families. The consensus was that whereas Rawls failed to exploit the feminist potential of his theorizing, it was there for others to explicate. Feminist responses to Rawls’s work after his turn to political liberalism are more numerous and more polarized, with one side arguing that this turn has largely stripped justice as fairness of its feminist potential, and the other finding political liberalism to be replete with resources for addressing feminist concerns. In this phase of the debate, Rawls’s feminist interlocutors examine whether efforts to accommodate reasonable pluralism compromise and constrain the feminist potential of justice as fairness. In doing so, they ask what qualifies as a reasonable comprehensive doctrine and how Rawls configures the public-private demarcation. They consider what political liberalism’s appeal to public reason offers feminists and ponder whether justice as fairness evinces any awareness of the ways in which girls and women can internalize views of themselves as subordinate to men, and whether Rawls provides any measures to combat such self-interpretations of lesser worth. This introduction’s survey of feminist engagements with Rawls also sets the stage for introducing the eight chapters in the current volume, chapters that testify to the continuing ambivalence among feminist readers about the value of Rawls’s work.

Responses to TJ

Feminist engagement with TJ began with Jane English’s 1977 article “Justice Between Generations,” which responds to Rawls’s attempt to address the problem of intergenerational justice by making the parties in the original position (OP) heads of families rather than individuals. Encouraging them to consider the interests of the next generation gives these choosers a more than simply self-interested perspective focused exclusively on the present. However, in English’s estimation, this solution to the problem of getting one generation to save for the benefit of the next creates other problems. It is, for instance, inconsistent with Rawls’s wider theoretical approach, which strives to minimize motivational assumptions (English 1977, 92–93). Rawls also fails to indicate how strongly these choosers care about their offspring and so cannot address how much they are willing to sacrifice in the present for their children’s benefit (94). English also fears that if thinking in the OP takes the family, rather than the individual, as its basic unit, Rawls could effectively endorse some utilitarian-style calculi about overall costs and benefits in a way that violates his insistence upon the importance of each individual. Yet such an insistence is a major rationale for his rejection of utilitarianism in the first place (94–96). Making parties in the OP heads of families rather than individuals also troubles Rawls’s account of justice within the family (91) and could legitimate sexist principles in the OP (94). English likens Rawls to Hegel when it comes to the family, because he seems to depict the family as a sphere of love and affection rather than justice (95).

Deborah Kearns elaborates on this point, inferring that “Rawls assumes love and the family unit to be so natural that he excludes them from the scope of the principles of justice” (Kearns 1983, 36; cf. 38). Placing the family beyond justice claims makes the two principles of justice applicable to the public realm only (39). Rawls never defines what he means by the family, but he seems to assume that it is a natural grouping and that its heterosexual, nuclear form is its natural form (38). He seems, further, to accept that moral development differs according to gender (37), with male and female children growing up with different experiences and expectations based on gender (36, 40). For Kearns, a family lacking justice is not well equipped to inculcate a sense of justice in its children (36, 40, 41). She concludes that “Rawls’s whole theory is thus flawed from its very inception. An unjust family structure cannot produce just citizens” (36).

Like English and Kearns, Karen Green fears that Rawls’s depiction of those in the OP as heads of families betrays a traditional understanding of the public-private separation that could be inimical to feminism. He also neglects gender as a consideration that those in the OP might have as they imagine who they will be once the veil of ignorance is lifted (Green 1986, 28–29). Yet women who conceive, bear, and nurture children are necessarily less free than the men who father them (29–30). However, just as it restricts natural liberty, so raising children brings benefits such as the fulfillment that comes from an intimate relationship with another human and the ability to transmit one’s culture and conception of the good to the next generation (30). Contractors in the OP would wish to take this asymmetry into account by restricting both men’s liberty to remove themselves from the reproductive process immediately after the sex act and women’s monopoly on the benefits of raising children. Evincing more hope than Kearns does about the feminist potential of Rawlsian thought, Green offers a reading of the first principle of justice that would not only accommodate this need “to choose principles of justice appropriate for regulating a shared responsibility for and enjoyment of members of the younger generation” (31) but would also lead to “a radical feminist restructuring of family relations” (32; cf. 35)

Susan Moller Okin brings Rawlsian thought to bear on the debate between the ethic of care and the ethic of justice, which had been ignited by Carol Gilligan’s 1982 book In a Different Voice (Okin 1989b, 246–47). Rawls seems, prima facie, to belong to the “ethic of justice” camp, for his approach to moral psychology can easily be read as rationalist, individualist, and abstract (230). However, Okin discerns “a voice of responsibility, care and concern for others” (230; cf. 236–38, 245) at the center of his thinking about justice, insisting that “feelings such as empathy and benevolence are at the very foundation of his principles of justice” (238). The emotional intelligence needed in the OP includes a capacity for empathy, for imagination, for thinking about difference, a willingness to listen to other points of view, and an ability to consider others as one’s moral equals as well as to show care and concern for them (246; cf. 244–45, 247–48).

With her 1989 book Justice, Gender, and the Family (JGF), Okin produced the most sustained feminist response to TJ. Offering a feminist appraisal of Rawls’s work, chapter 5, “Justice as Fairness: For Whom?” (89–109), issues a mixed review. Okin’s first complaint is that TJ gives no indication that “modern liberal society . . . is deeply and pervasively gender-structured” (89; cf. 91). Neglect of gender is also evident in Rawls’s initial failure to stipulate that parties in the OP would be ignorant of their gender (91). While Okin applauds Rawls for including the family in his theory of justice, he fails to develop this promising beginning into any reflection on what justice within the family requires. Whereas Kearns read Rawls to be removing the family from considerations of justice, Okin sees him as carelessly assuming the family to be just. In doing so, he prematurely and illegitimately forecloses a crucial area of normative enquiry about what justice in the family looks like and requires (22, 94, 97, 108; cf. Okin 1989b, 237–38, 249). Okin echoes English’s suspicion that a conventional view of the family has been smuggled into his theory, and reiterates her charge that the family is “opaque to claims of justice” (English 1977, 75, cited in JGF, 94; cf. 95; cf. Okin 1989b, 230–31, 235, 239).

On the plus side, however, Okin finds considerable feminist promise and tries to exploit this in ways that Rawls had not (JGF, 90). She maintains that “a consistent and wholehearted application of Rawls’s liberal principles of justice can lead us to challenge fundamentally the gender system of our society” (89). In addition to the conception of justice as requiring both reason and emotion, discussed above, three encouraging aspects are (1) the location of the family in the basic structure, (2) the device of the OP, and (3) the depiction of the family as a major school of citizens’ moral development. Rawls’s explicit inclusion of the family in the basic structure suggests that the family should be examined and criticized in light of the demands of justice. Including the family in this structure also confounds the traditional liberal reading of the public-private distinction, for this theory of justice applies to public institutions and to the family, which traditionally has been deemed private (93, 96–97). Assuming the veil of ignorance should require those in the OP to consider what sort of family life is most compatible with a just society. If ignorant of their gender, and formulating principles of justice relevant to the family, they would craft a society that disadvantages no one on the basis of gender (101, 105). Finally, Rawls recognizes, officially at least, the central role the family plays in producing and reproducing a just society.

Agreeing with Okin, Linda McClain identifies the many ways in which Rawls thinks of individuals as connected to, and caring for and about, one another, such that “both the care and justice perspectives, and their norms of response and reciprocity” appear in his thinking (McClain 1991–92, 1204; cf. 1206–9, 1214, 1217–18). McClain does not find that Rawls operates with an implicitly masculine image of the atomistic individual who is disconnected from others, self-interested, and competitive, and who prioritizes rights over responsibilities. That charge is based on a misunderstanding of the OP, which is simply a thought experiment; it is not freighted with ontological commitments (1204–5). McClain further suggests that the dichotomies between rights and responsibilities, justice and care, and masculine and feminine experience that structure some of the feminist criticism of liberalism are not illuminating when interpreting Rawls (1215, 1217, 1263). She holds that Rawls’s actual view of persons—that they are capable of assessing and revising their conceptions of the good—can be beneficial for women, allowing them to review “whether certain kinds of connection, at the familial or community level, are desirable and not oppressive” (1206).

Lara Trout finds the Rawlsian approach to justice wanting because it focuses on economic interests to the neglect of other types of interest that can be salient. Rawls does not acknowledge “that ‘least advantaged’ could entail more than one’s economic starting point in society” (Trout 1994, 44). His conceptualization of the “relevant social position” therefore manifests “an insensitivity toward the proper representation of minorities and women” (39). Noneconomic interests “are grounded in a person’s self-respect” (40), which makes Trout’s charge that Rawls ignores them a powerful one, given that self-esteem is an important primary good for him (41). Trout’s answer to her own question—“can justice as fairness accommodate diversity?”—is “yes it can, even though it currently does not.” Like many of the first responses to TJ, Trout’s critique is immanent: she criticizes Rawls for failing to give one of his own claims the theoretical attention it deserves.

Responses to Political Liberalism

A major development in Rawls’s thinking about justice in the wake of TJ was his distinction between comprehensive and political liberalisms and his insistence that justice as fairness was a purely political doctrine. Born of his greater attention to pluralism in a liberal society, this innovation manifested Rawls’s ambition to make justice as fairness applicable and appealing to people holding a wide variety of worldviews and moral positions. The source of this pluralism in a liberal society is freedom: in a society that respects and promotes the basic civil and political freedoms, individuals inevitably generate different and ultimately conflicting worldviews and moral positions (PL, xviii). Any liberal approach to justice that fails to create maximum room for such pluralism is therefore deeply flawed. Thus, in a series of essays published after TJ, culminating in PL in 1993, Rawls carves out a form of liberalism that is an exclusively political doctrine. All justice as fairness needs is an overlapping consensus on the principles of right, leaving individuals free to live according to their own values in other areas, assuming that these positions are reasonable.

One of the first feminist responses to this shift came from John Exdell, who argued that these changes had major, and mostly adverse, effects on its feminist potential (Exdell 1994, 450, 461). A principal aim of political liberalism is to minimize controversy about the principles of justice, which makes Rawls’s approach more conservative than would be acceptable to feminists who challenge many accepted beliefs about women’s (and men’s) roles and status. This conservatism is compounded by Rawls’s ambition to ground the principles of political liberalism in the shared meanings of the public culture (459). The reach of political liberalism is limited, too, for it is formulated for the public-political realm, respecting pluralism by leaving citizens free to live according to their own beliefs and choices in the private sphere (442, 460). While this has the desired effect of making political liberalism attractive to religious fundamentalists, it offers no support to feminist attempts to make standards of justice applicable to the family (442) and to increase women’s liberty, agency, autonomy, and equality. Exdell identifies a number of philosophical and policy questions where feminism and fundamentalism collide (445–47, 449) and suggests that political liberalism effectively, even if unwittingly, lends support to the latter rather than the former.

Exdell concedes that political liberalism might not be wholly bereft of feminist resources—Rawls requires that all members of the well-ordered society be educated about their rights and liberties, which includes the freedom to leave groups they find oppressive or uncongenial and to develop their own conception of the good. This creates some space for an education in girls’ and women’s equality and autonomy and could justify some feminist policies to promote women’s independence (1994, 453–54). But at best this points to Rawls’s ambivalence about how tightly the public can be separated from the private, and it is ultimately defeated by his conception of public reason, which relies upon values and beliefs widely shared by the citizenry (460).

Linda Hirshman answers the question “Is the original position inherently male-superior?” with a resounding yes. She expresses amazement at Rawls’s ability to ignore feminist responses to his work in particular, and feminist scholarship about the social contract tradition more generally (Hirshman 1994, 1860–61). Hirshman is especially critical of his “amputation of the public sphere from the rest of life” (1861, 1865); his confinement of justice issues to the state (1862–63); and his “metaphysical assumption of a moral psychology of autonomous individualism” (1861, 1865, 1868). Although she does not cite Exdell’s work, Hirshman also castigates PL’s attempt to accommodate religious doctrines, for she sees the revival of Christian fundamentalism in American society as driven by regressive views of race and gender (1864–65). Any approach to justice that focuses on appealing to such views has, in effect, to legitimate inegalitarian doctrines.

Conducting a Rawlsian thought experiment of her own, with some “tough-minded” Hobbesian realism thrown in (1877), Hirshman rethinks “the social-contract scenario from the distaff side” (1875). Implicitly endorsing Okin’s suggestion that the OP offers a fruitful way of thinking about justice for women, Hirshman imagines how contractors behind the veil of ignorance would think, were it not tacitly accepted that they were, and would remain, men. Although she does not cite Green’s work, she echoes its concern that, being physically smaller and weaker and rendered vulnerable by childbirth and nursing, females will be handicapped when contracts are imagined among equal and autonomous individuals. Hirshman identifies two major entailments of those in the OP, imagining that they might be women once the veil was lifted. “First, the application of the principles of justice could not possibly be limited to the official coercive agencies of the state, but would penetrate to the most intimate human relationships. This is vital for feminist purposes because many of the threats to women’s liberty, equality, and security, such as rape, sexual abuse, and sex discrimination in the work place, emanate from non-state contexts” (1875–76). Second, rational contractors who knew they might end up as women would not be willing to bargain as individuals but would insist upon collective action to compensate for their physical disadvantages (1868, 1873–74, 1877).

Rawls’s shift to a doctrine of political liberalism provoked an ambivalent response from Okin (1994, 23). On the plus side is his express claim that his principles of justice cover questions of gender equality (PL, xxix). Yet this claim remains underdeveloped, and Okin wonders whether he is offering women merely formal or more substantive equality (1994, 25, 39–41). Moreover, several areas of concern outweigh this positive feature. The family appears to have been consigned to the private realm (26), and Okin wonders whether Rawls retains any concern with justice within it, noting the reduced attention accorded to the family’s role in forging a just society (23, 26, 28, 33–34, 37). Okin also fears that Rawls is willing to accommodate sexist doctrines under the rubric of reasonable comprehensive doctrines (29–31). Like Exdell, whose analysis she praises (23n1), Okin observes that Rawls’s toleration of a wide range of comprehensive doctrines clashes with the promotion of gender equality (28). Tolerating comprehensive doctrines that advocate gender inequality is not a good training ground for citizens in a just society, for when it comes to the political realm, justice as fairness requires that women be treated as free and equal. The friction between a comprehensive view of men and women as unequal and a political doctrine premised on women’s equality would be significant, with the message that children learn in the household conflicting directly with the stance they must endorse as citizens (29). Like Exdell, Okin finds hope in the fact that schools are required to provide civic education, exposing children to the idea of citizens as free and equal, for this could mitigate sexist lessons inculcated in the home (31–32). Overall, though, the feminist potential that Okin identified in TJ seems to have diminished radically in Rawls’s turn to political liberalism (25).

Sharon Lloyd addresses some of Okin’s criticisms of political liberalism. What makes a comprehensive doctrine reasonable is its unwillingness to use state power to impose its views on others, so a sexist or racist doctrine that did not seek to use the state in this way could qualify as reasonable (Lloyd 1994, 355–56; 1995, 1323). Rawls also tolerates inegalitarian conceptions of marriage, so long as the marriage has been entered into, and can be left, voluntarily. Lloyd thus effectively concedes the validity of some of Okin’s concerns about political liberalism. But when Okin suggests that Rawls is uninterested in the justice of the family, Lloyd doubts that she has correctly understood the relationship between the principles of justice and the basic structure. These principles are not designed to apply directly to each and every institution within that structure, but rather to the operations of the system as a whole, to the outcomes of the interactions among its constituent institutions. What matters is that the operations of the institutions of the basic structure, when taken together, comply with the principles of justice (1994, 358–59; 1995, 1327).

Lloyd contends that Rawls is, in the interests of pluralism, indifferent to the form the family takes: all that matters is that it effectively prepare children for membership in a just society (1994, 358–59; 1995, 1328). This does not leave him insouciant toward family dynamics, however, or toward all forms of injustice within the family (1994, 361; 1995, 1331). A family in which the rights of one member were violated by another would be unacceptable. This precludes one family member’s selling another into slavery, depriving him or her of civil and political liberties, and assaulting and battering him or her (1994, 358; 1995, 1327). Children cannot be neglected or abused and must be educated in the rights and duties of citizenship (1994, 362; 1995, 1332). Additional requirements for the family to be just include the aforementioned freedom to marry; guarantees of equitable division of material assets and parental support upon divorce; publicly provided or subsidized child care; family leave and flexible working hours; comparable worth policies in the workplace; and affirmative action for women and their equal access to equally good jobs (1994, 361–62; 1995, 1331–32). Lloyd concludes that “all of these measures taken together still allow families to adopt unequal divisions of labor, and affirm sexist beliefs about natural hierarchy” (1994, 362; 1995, 1332). Being raised in such a family could damage girls’ and women’s sense of equality and their capacity for justice, and this should pose a problem for Rawls (1994, 363–66; 1995, 1333–38). Lloyd suggests, however, that people can acquire a sense of gender justice despite being raised in households that do not practice or promote gender equality (1994, 364–65, 369; 1995, 1336, 1341–42).

Kimberly Yuracko would agree with Lloyd’s interpretation of Rawls’s tolerance of inegalitarian gender doctrines in the family. But as the second half of her article’s title implies, she is very critical of this. Yuracko’s “Towards Feminist Perfectionism: A Radical Critique of Rawlsian Liberalism” (1995) objects that some of the comprehensive doctrines that Rawls would accept as reasonable encourage girls and women to think of themselves as subordinate. Although the basic structure transcends the standard public-private divide by including the family, PL “only applies his principles [of justice] to the public sphere” (Yuracko 1995, 6). But this obscures what Yuracko calls the spillover effects from the public to the private realm. What happens to individuals in the domestic sphere shapes their opportunities in other areas. If some family members carry an undue burden of unpaid domestic work, this limits their ability to participate in politics or other activities (7–9; cf. 3). Spillover effects also occur in more subjective registers, such as women’s preferences and self-esteem (3, 12). Yuracko effectively echoes Trout’s claim that Rawls attends to socioeconomic disadvantage while ignoring other forms of disadvantage and exclusion (13). She evinces skepticism about the sufficiency of his insistence that all children receive a civic education in their rights and duties as citizens, fearing that this is unlikely to go far enough in combating the effects of socialization in gender inequality (10–11, 13, 17–18, 32–35). Rawlsian liberalism is incapable of addressing the serious barrier to gender equality created by “internalized gender-based conceptions of the self” (2). Rather than accommodate the maximum number of conflicting comprehensive doctrines, a feminist approach to justice requires “an affirmative endorsement of the values and behaviors that are necessary for a normative vision of gender equality” (3; cf. 4, 31, 41–42, 48).

Amy Baehr (1996, 49–53) echoes Lloyd’s observation that Okin has misunderstood the role that Rawls assigns to the two principles of justice. Baehr proposes that it would be possible to make the family a more just institution without requiring the direct application of the two principles, and she points out that whatever Okin’s professed belief on this matter, she does not consistently apply the two principles to family life (61). Baehr, like Yuracko, would agree with Lloyd’s interpretation of Rawls’s tolerance of inegalitarian gender doctrines in the family under the mantle of the reasonable (57–58). This is one of the reasons why Baehr also agrees with Exdell and Okin about the diminution in feminist potential with Rawls’s shift to political liberalism: he “dulls the critical edge of liberalism by capitulating too much to those holding sexist doctrines” (49; cf. 50, 56–57, 61). Baehr rehearses Yuracko’s point about spillover effects (which she calls seepage) between private and public spheres making any strong separation between them untenable (51, 54, 58). She concludes by tendering a Habermasian approach to the public and the private as more fruitful for feminist purposes, for Habermas deems personal and political autonomy to be “co-original,” positing that rights in the public sphere enjoy no normative priority over those in the private sphere (62).

Two angles from which the question of family justice can be considered within Rawls’s work are discerned by Veronique Munoz-Dardé. The first is justice within the family. This part of her discussion retreads much of the ground covered in English’s early response to Rawls. Munoz-Dardé engages Okin’s views on the feminist potential of Rawls’s work (1998, 345–47) but finds her interpretation of those in the OP practicing empathy, care, and concern for others to be problematic and even unnecessary: ignorance of their sex “is enough to obtain the result Okin desires, namely that gender equality be considered as an issue of justice” (346). The second angle scrutinizes the justice of the family as an institution. Rawls poses the radical question of whether any family form is compatible with justice, for the family compromises equal opportunity. Because belonging to one family rather than another affects children’s life prospects in myriad ways, “as long as the family exists individuals will have unequal life chances” (339, emphasis in original; cf. 335, 338). But Rawls argues against the family’s abolition on the grounds that the family is the most effective way of ensuring children’s moral development (339, 350–51). Unlike previous commentators, Munoz-Dardé treats TJ and PL as a single theory (335n1). She admits, however, that there have been changes (337), such as Rawls’s seeming to adopt a more expansive conception of the family (338) and adding gender to the slate of informational restrictions in the OP (340). Munoz-Dardé cannot see how Okin’s ideal of a liberalized family is compatible with political liberalism because it seems to rest upon a wider comprehensive doctrine, but here she fails to acknowledge that Okin’s ideal was connected with TJ and that Okin herself expressed grave doubts about whether political liberalism could support it (347).

The justice of the family is also taken up by Ron Mallon, who agrees that the family is at odds with Rawls’s commitment in the second principle of justice to equality of opportunity (Mallon 1999, 273). Arguing that the family cannot be successfully defended in terms of its unique contribution to children’s moral development (275–81), Mallon advances an alternative defense based on the good of cultural membership (271). Although Rawls does not make cultural membership a primary good, he should, according to Mallon (272, 275, 281). Mallon sets out to show that (1) the family is a necessary and not merely a sufficient condition for the transmission of cultural membership, and (2) the primary good of cultural membership is of sufficient weight to override the goods ensured by the principle of fair equality of opportunity (281, 284–85). Given PL’s concern with a plurality of conceptions of the good, culture has to assume a significant role, for cultures host such conceptions as well as providing normative and symbolic resources for their revision (288). Cultural membership is therefore vital to the power of personhood that Rawls associates with a capacity for a conception of the good. Rawls’s restrictions on the state’s promoting any particular conception mean that the state could not carry out the task of transmitting cultural membership to children (289). Consistent with Rawls’s emphasis on pluralism in PL, Mallon permits a wide variety of family forms to carry out this crucial task (271, 290–91).

An influential critique of Rawlsian liberalism inspired by the ethic-of-care debate was mounted by Eva Feder Kittay, who charges that its image of the liberal subject as an independent individual standing in a condition of equality relative to similar others blinds Rawls’s political theory to the pervasive fact of human dependency. As children, we all experience dependency, but it recurs for shorter or more protracted periods through illness, mental or physical disability, financial need, and old age. This fact of dependency entails the work of caring for those who are dependent. Yet this social reality is occluded in justice as fairness, rendering Rawls unable to address the fact that most of the caring work in Western societies—care in the home for dependent family members, be they children, older people, or the disabled, and caring work in hospitals and other health institutions, child-care centers, and so on—is done by women. It is mostly unpaid or underpaid and always underrecognized (Kittay 1999, 78, 110–11). Any theory of justice unable to acknowledge, let alone accommodate, the fact of dependency and its implications for those who need, as well as those who provide, care, is seriously flawed. Kittay insists that dependency “must be faced from the beginning of any project in egalitarian theory that hopes to include all persons within its scope” (77, emphasis in original). Among the options for making justice as fairness more attentive to the fact of dependency are including the capacity to care as a moral power; considering dependents and their caregivers among the least well off; and adding a third principle of justice: “To each according to his or her need for care, from each according to his or her capacity for care, and such support from social institutions as to make available resources and opportunities to those providing care” (113, emphasis in original).

Just as Okin complained that major contemporary theorists of justice were largely oblivious to gender issues (JGF, vii, 14, 134), and as Kittay accentuates dependency relations, so Hilda Bojer observes that most contemporary theories of distributive justice ignore children (Bojer 2000, 23–24). She aims “to sketch a theoretical framework that makes it possible to take the just interests of children as children into account on an equal footing with those of adults” (26). Rawlsian theory is the only approach that can assist Bojer, but even then she must spell out its “radical and feminist” implications in a way that Rawls did not (30). If those behind the veil did not know whether they would be children or adults, the conditions of childhood would be taken very seriously, given how weak children are as a group. The important impact that childhood has on the adult that one becomes also urges that it be taken seriously by rational contractors (35). Although Bojer does not engage the debate about the family as an impediment to equal opportunity, one of her conclusions is compatible with that concern: “The right nutrition, preventive health care, education . . . must be ensured for every child in the just society, in my interpretation of Rawls, independently of their parents’ income or merits” (37).

Samantha Brennan and Robert Noggle echo claims by English, Okin, and others regarding Rawls’s failure to consider the justice of the family, and they emphasize how this neglects the interests of children (Brennan and Noggle 2000, 46). Rawls says little about children in TJ and even less in PL, they point out (47, 55, 61). When he does discuss children, it is in the context of moral development rather than their moral status in its own right (46). While this renders his theory of justice incomplete, Brennan and Noggle share Bojer’s belief that Rawls’s concern with the least advantaged members of society can be applied to children (46–47). Dropping the idea, in response to English’s critique, that the parties in the OP are heads of families (PL, xlviiin20, 20n22, 274n12) enables the contractors to think of themselves as being children, once the veil of ignorance has lifted (Brennan and Noggle 2000, 52, 54), and therefore to construct principles of justice that protect children.

Stephen de Wijze reviews the feminist criticisms of political liberalism by Exdell and Okin and deems them unfounded. The first line of criticism, which Wijze calls “the incongruence argument,” points to the mismatch between political liberalism’s requirement that women be treated as free and equal citizens and its tolerance of sexist comprehensive doctrines in the household (Wijze 2000, 262–63). A second criticism, which Wijze dubs “the political virtues argument,” asserts that a family in which injustice occurs is a poor training ground for citizens of a just society (263). Underpinning both lines of criticism is a concern with the way in which the liberal tradition has typically separated the public and private realms (263–65). Wijze contends that feminist critics misunderstand two key things: what political liberalism means by just family forms and how it draws the political-personal distinction (257). Following Lloyd and Baehr, he argues that Okin has misunderstood the relationship between the family and Rawlsian principles of justice, for the latter are not intended to govern the former directly (273–75, 278–79). Political liberalism operates with a robust but minimal conception of family justice, according to which a just family respects its members’ civil rights and liberties and promotes their capacities to be or become cooperating members of society (280). Even though the principles of justice do not apply directly to the family, they do constrain members’ interactions with one another.

Wijze’s second response is that feminist critics of political liberalism exaggerate the public-private separation. Political liberalism does not depict the family “as an inviolate inner sanctum immune from state interference” (272). Instead, as indicated above, civil rights and liberties are protected in the private sphere (274; cf. 275). In response to the political virtues argument, Wijze replies that if sexist family forms made it impossible for women “to develop the requisite political conception of the self” (277), they would not be tolerated by political liberalism. However, he charges that feminist claims about this are empirically dubious. Rather than provide evidence to counter these claims, he simply casts doubt on their plausibility. But even if sexist family forms prevent women from realizing the political conception of the self to the fullest possible degree, they will, in the interests of pluralism, continue to be acceptable (277).

Rawls’s Later Writings

When considering the feminist implications of political liberalism, Lloyd made reference to an unpublished manuscript by Rawls from 1994 on women and the family (Lloyd 1994, 371n4). Some of the ideas in that manuscript made their way into section 5 of “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” “On the Family as Part of the Basic Structure” (IPRR, 156–64). There Rawls mentions Lloyd along with McClain, Okin, and Martha Nussbaum as encouraging him “to think that a liberal account of equal justice for women is viable” (156–57n58). References to this later material begin to appear in feminist responses to Rawls in the twenty-first century.

In “Rawls and Feminism,” Nussbaum conducts an overview of some of the main lines of feminist critique of justice as fairness, contending that Rawls can provide a powerful response to many (Nussbaum 2003, 488). Nussbaum devotes a lot of attention to feminist critiques of the rationalism and individualism of Rawlsian thought and endorses readings like those of Okin and McClain on the important role of emotions and connection with others in Rawlsian thinking (489–99). In Nussbaum’s estimation, justice as fairness faces a greater challenge in incorporating women’s equality into the family. On the one hand, Rawls’s pluralist commitment to individuals’ freedom to devise conceptions of the good implies maximum freedom for families. On the other, the family can be a site of “sex hierarchy, denial of equal opportunity, and also sex-based violence and humiliation” (500). Rawls should acknowledge the liberal dilemma when it comes to the family, asking how to “balance adult freedom of association, and other important interests in pursuing one’s own conception of the good, against the liberties and opportunities of children as future citizens” (506). Despite the more explicit and focused attention Rawls gave to women, the family, and justice in IPRR, Nussbaum identifies three remaining issues. First, if the family belongs to the basic structure, why does Rawls repeatedly liken it to voluntary associations (504)? Participation in a family is never voluntary for children, so freedoms of entry and exit hold little relevance for them. Second, Rawls gives insufficient weight to the fact that the family is a product of the law. The law defines which combinations of individuals can be regarded as families for the purposes of public policy, and shapes the nature of many of their relationships to one another and to other institutions. Because the state has the power to dictate who and what counts as a family, it is unhelpful to ponder the issue of state intervention in the family as if they were two discrete entities (504–6). Third, even though Rawls seems to have expanded his conception of the family since TJ, Nussbaum suspects that he endows the Western nuclear family with a quasi-natural status, ignoring forms of affiliation in other cultures that represent viable alternatives to the family (504).

Nussbaum also raises the issue, which goes back to Exdell and Okin, of political liberalism’s tolerance of sexist comprehensive doctrines (2003, 509–11). She follows defenders like Lloyd and Wijze in pointing out that doctrines denying women’s equality qua citizens would not be tolerated. She agrees that citizens who affirm women’s subordination in the household will encounter friction between their views and political liberalism’s insistence that women are equal citizens (510). Nussbaum also points out that feminists remain free to criticize such doctrines in civil society and personal relations (511). She concludes her review of feminist engagements with Rawls with Kittay’s dependency critique (511–14), accepting that in order to respond persuasively, Rawls would have to rethink both his image of citizens in the well-ordered society as fully cooperating members over the course of a life and his account of primary goods. But, overall, Nussbaum believes that Rawls can productively absorb feminist criticisms by revising justice as fairness to become even more liberal (515).

A revised version of Anthony Laden’s 2003 article “Radical Liberals, Reasonable Feminists: Reason, Power, and Objectivity in MacKinnon and Rawls” is published here as chapter 1. Laden questions the belief that political liberalism bodes poorly for feminists, showing instead that Rawlsian liberalism can engage the concerns of feminist critics of liberalism such as Catharine MacKinnon. Laden distinguishes a theoretical approach that is blind to such concerns from one that is merely shortsighted. Liberalism would be blind to feminist concerns if there were nothing in its theoretical apparatus to respond to them. A theory that is merely myopic, by contrast, might overtly ignore such concerns, but it nonetheless contains resources for addressing them. Advancing a reading of Rawls’s thought that emphasizes its deliberative dimensions, Laden sets out to show that political liberalism is merely shortsighted when it comes to gender.

Elizabeth Brake agrees with Laden that Rawlsian liberalism can rise to some of the challenges posed by MacKinnon’s feminist critique of liberalism. Focusing on the issue of neutrality, Brake urges feminists to see it “as a moral ideal in the process of justification . . . that . . . will require substantive feminist reform” (Brake 2004, 295). The ideal of neutrality can be invoked to attack the sort of state-sponsored gender hierarchy of which MacKinnon is so critical (296). This initially seems counterintuitive, given that neutrality requires that the state refrain, as far as possible, from endorsing any conception of the good (296–98). But, as Brake points out, if current practices and institutions are nonneutral, the ideal of neutrality can leverage considerable change. Current arrangements regarding paid employment and unpaid caring work in the home are biased against women, so a neutral state would be justified in enacting many of the policy changes Okin outlines in JGF, in the name of removing or reducing this bias (307–9). Neutrality’s appeal rests ultimately on the commitment to moral equality and equal respect that underlie it, for these values portend “a rejection of sexist and other oppressive doctrines” (309; cf. 301–2, 305)

In “Democratic Citizenship v. Patriarchy: A Feminist Perspective on Rawls,” Marion Smiley reviews a number of feminist criticisms of Rawls, asking which, if any, prove fatal. The three most powerful are (1) that Rawls’s methodology is abstract and individualist, which biases his thinking in a masculine direction, away from a more feminine orientation toward care and relationships (Smiley 2004, 1602–6); (2) that justice as fairness lacks the ability to criticize women’s subordination in the private sphere; and (3) that the veil of ignorance requires that people think away key aspects of their identity (1601). Smiley does not find the first criticism to stand up, but neither does she deem Okin’s attempt to associate the OP with care and empathy to be successful (1607–8). With regard to the second criticism, Smiley finds that the OP contains the potential to challenge patriarchy in public and private life (1600; cf. 1608–13). The third criticism, which is especially salient for members of oppressed or subordinate racial communities (1613; cf. 1613–19), can be addressed via a reading of Rawls’s thought that is, like Laden’s, derived from Rawls’s increasing tendency to present justice as fairness as a theory for democratic societies. This tendency needs to be strengthened if Rawls’s work is to fulfill its feminist and egalitarian potential by emphasizing what it means to belong to a democratic community, with its requirement not just of moral equality but also of political equality and nondomination (1600–1601). What is needed is “a definition of democratic identity . . . that challenge[s] patriarchy and other hierarchical structures of domination” in both public and private spheres (1626; cf. 1620–22, 1624–26). This would, conversely, require that Rawls downplay some other aspects of his thought, such as his view of toleration and the limits of state action, and the role of rational choice (1627).

Susan Moller Okin’s “Justice and Gender: An Unfinished Debate” surveys Okin’s own, and some other, feminist engagements with Rawls since TJ. Okin also registers her reactions to the later developments in Rawls’s thinking about women and the family. Her reaction, once again, is mixed. While grateful that Rawls eventually responded to his feminist interlocutors and adopted some of their recommendations (Okin 2004, 1565), Okin remains troubled by his unwillingness to apply the principles of justice directly to the family (1538, 1563–64, 1567) and puzzled by his comparisons of families to associations (1563, 1566). She insists that a purely political form of liberalism remains unhelpful for feminist purposes (1538, 1555), and finds unconvincing the distinction between respecting women’s political equality while propounding their metaphysical or moral inequality. Her answer to Lloyd, Wijze, and Nussbaum, therefore, is that a doctrine promoting the latter cannot truly respect the former (1559, 1562). In this context, Okin reiterates Kearns’s original question about how a family that does not practice justice can transmit a sense of justice to its children (1566–67).

Like many feminist commentaries on Rawls, Karen Green’s revisits the debate between him and Okin but maintains that Okin’s ideals are more destructive of Rawlsian liberalism than Okin appreciates. Four major problems can be identified in Okin’s call for a form of androgyny where gender differences are minimized or eradicated. The first is that sex difference might be more biologically rooted than Okin allows, and the second is that some people might feel attached to their gender identities and not want to relinquish them. Pursuing androgyny would, third, interfere with individual liberty by imposing a particular conception of the good on citizens. The fourth problem is that an ideal of androgyny clashes with multiculturalism, for many minority groups have strong commitments to gender difference. A more liberal approach would support a variety of family forms, which is the position that Rawls ends up adopting. Green’s preferred way of creating and implementing just family law is to follow a principle of parity that guarantees equal representation of both sexes in parliament. With parity in place, “one can leave the choice between androgyny and gender difference to be determined by individuals within a framework of law that is informed as much by the voices of women as by those of men” (Green 2006).

Catherine McKeen (2006) encourages feminists to be more solicitous of family privacy and family autonomy, for these goods leave adults free to determine the family’s comprehensive doctrine. The values and attitudes circulating within a family need not “conform to the dictates of public debate . . . [or be] open to public scrutiny in the first place.” These protections against state interference mean that parents can prevent sexist values and attitudes from penetrating the family. Partiality refers to “particular attachments, relationships and loyalties” and is a good that the family realizes. Partiality could even, in McKeen’s view, qualify as a Rawlsian primary good. Protecting it means that relationships do not always have to be “answerable to general social concerns,” nor must individuals always be “thinking of public concerns and public goods.”

In 2006 Lisa Schwartzman published Challenging Liberalism: Feminism as Political Critique, underlining the incompatibility between feminist theory and liberal methodology. An abridged version of Schwartzman’s critique of Rawls appears here as chapter 2. Schwartzman evinces skepticism about Okin’s use of the OP for feminist purposes, for this departs from Rawls by including gender as a relevant social position and attributes knowledge of gender oppression to those behind the veil. Schwartzman also echoes Trout’s complaint that Rawls focuses on economic status to the neglect of other forms of social inequality, and follows Trout in advocating a wider understanding of the concepts of “relevant social position” and “least well off.” Schwartzman considers, but finds unsatisfactory, the rejoinder that Rawls is doing ideal theory and so writing about inequalities that would be acceptable in a well-ordered society. She also criticizes Rawls for his too permissive pluralism, for some of the conceptions of the good that he tolerates take for granted the continuation of structures of oppression. With its focus on people as individuals rather than as members of classes or groups, liberalism is incapable of perceiving, let alone criticizing, the social hierarchies that subordinate individuals on the basis of group membership. Feminist theorizing, by contrast, must pay attention to collectivities and be contextual and concrete, rejecting also the abstraction that characterizes liberal methodology.

I puzzled through some of the uncertainties that Okin identified in Rawls’s later writings on women, and I contend that Rawls goes a long way toward addressing some major feminist-liberal concerns about justice as fairness (Abbey 2007). Yet in accommodating his feminist interlocutors, Rawls pushes justice as fairness in the direction of a more comprehensive, rather than a strictly political, doctrine. Situating the family in the basic structure makes it impossible to confine concerns with freedom, equality, independence, and rights to the strictly political realm. In bringing family relations within the purview of justice as fairness, Rawls must go beyond ideas implicit in society’s public political culture, for, as feminists have long argued, the family has traditionally been relegated to the private sphere. Once the family becomes the subject of justice, at least some of the virtues of private life, which Rawls relegates to comprehensive doctrines, become part of his theory of justice. As he fleshes out what it means for women to be equal, free, and bearers of inalienable rights in all (or most) areas of their lives, the insufficiency of a purely political liberalism becomes manifest. I contend that Rawls advocates a type of autonomy for adult individuals in the domestic, as well as in the political, realm, which once again surpasses the limits of a purely political liberalism.

Just as I was suggesting that more than political liberalism was needed to satisfy feminist concerns, Corey Brettschneider advanced a reconstruction that would render political liberalism much more receptive to them. Brettschneider articulates a “principle of publicly justifiable privacy,” according to which the public-private distinction must be formulated with reference to political liberalism’s values of free and equal citizenship: “to the degree that privacy exists at all, its boundaries must be determined by and normatively argued for through public reason. . . . Domestic life is not immune from political examination” (Brettschneider 2007, 24). Political liberalism’s values apply as much to the domestic as to the public sphere and should be used to scrutinize citizens’ comprehensive doctrines. When such doctrines clash with those values, the doctrines should be amended. “When public reason demands it, individual moral identity must be completely reformulated” (26; cf. 23, 25). Political liberalism thus has considerable power to transform citizens’ outlooks, indicating that Brettschneider offers a much less passive, permissive reading of political liberalism than do interpreters like Lloyd, Wijze, and Nussbaum. Yet Brettschneider insists that political liberalism remains distinct from comprehensive liberalism, for while political liberalism’s values constrain and limit family dynamics, they do not dictate how a family should behave or what it should prize or pursue in all areas. This leaves room for a diversity of comprehensive doctrines to address these issues in different ways (27–28). In stark contrast to McKeen’s defense of partiality, Brettschneider sees it as a strength of his reading that “the moral identity of individuals as citizens is given priority over their private identities. This often means that our public commitments are more fundamental than private ones” (26).

Like Brettschneider, Baehr (2008) explores the feminist potential of political liberalism and thinks through what it would mean for feminism to become a public political philosophy. While feminism can be classified as a family of partially comprehensive doctrines (195), political liberalism’s ambition to be hospitable to the fact of pluralism serves feminism well, for feminism is itself an internally plural school of thought. A robust feminist approach to politics would attract an overlapping consensus from as large a number of women and feminist positions as possible. So Baehr sets out to sketch a form of feminism that would draw its conclusions and recommendations for public policy from the values implicit in the public political culture of a democratic society. As a public political doctrine, feminism would argue for or against certain social practices on the basis of whether they harmed women’s liberty and equality as citizens, or how they affected women’s physical security or chances of equal opportunity. Baehr indicates what such an approach could justify as well as what its limitations would be. In the concluding chapter of the current volume, she develops her vision of feminism as a public political philosophy, looking closely at liberal feminism through this lens. If liberal feminism can be portrayed as a purely political doctrine, then it can be affirmed by those holding different comprehensive doctrines, such as Jewish feminism, ecofeminism, or socialist feminism.

Continuing the debate about the value for feminists of Rawls’s turn to political liberalism, Christie Hartley and Lori Watson contend that political liberalism’s commitment to equal citizenship makes it highly supportive of feminism. They distinguish their defense of political liberalism’s feminist potential from that offered by Lloyd, Baehr, and Nussbaum by the attention they give to reciprocity. The criterion of reciprocity limits what counts as a reasonable comprehensive doctrine to views that eschew any form of women’s subordination to men. They go further than previous feminist defenders of political liberalism by claiming that “political liberalism is a feminist liberalism” (Hartley and Watson 2010, 6). They do not discuss, however, a key issue that arises from attempts like theirs and Brettschneider’s to recover a feminist position from political liberalism, namely, the limitations that this necessarily places on pluralism, which was, as noted above, the impetus to its creation in the first place.

The Current Volume

In addition to chapters 1 and 2, by Laden and Schwartzman, respectively, which contain previously published material, this volume offers six new essays that further the debate about the resources that Rawlsian theory provides for feminist thought. Along with chapters 1 and 2, the volume’s concluding chapter, by Baehr, which grows out of her 2008 article, has been described above. In chapter 3, Elizabeth Brake mounts an argument about the latent feminist possibilities in Rawls’s thought that takes a shape similar to her position on neutrality, described above (Brake 2004). In this volume, Brake explores the place of self-respect in Rawls’s thinking. Rawls deems self-respect a primary good, but, in Brake’s estimation, having awarded it this cardinal status, he never develops its implications. Brake effectively echoes Trout’s (1994) charge that Rawls fails to give one of his own claims the theoretical attention it deserves. Brake notes the ambiguity in Rawls’s treatment of this concept and advances a definition of self-respect that holds promise for thinking about gender inequality and the family. She develops the important implications of self-respect for the legal recognition of family forms and for the question of parents’ rights to infuse children with their beliefs.

In stark contrast to those who find potential for feminist causes in Rawls’s thought, Clare Chambers identifies deep-seated difficulties that emanate from his belief that the basic structure is the appropriate subject of justice. Like many feminist commentators, Chambers revisits the Rawls-Okin debate and considers Okin’s suggestion that principles of justice should apply to the family. She examines the rejoinder, first advanced by Lloyd, that the principles apply not to single institutions but to the interactions of the basic structure’s components. Chambers replies that what the family’s relationship to justice illustrates is that how the principles apply to an institution does not in fact depend on that institution’s location in the basic structure. Chapter 4 of the current volume thus interrogates Rawls’s wider position that there is something distinctive about the application of justice to the basic structure and finds it unconvincing.

In chapter 5, Nancy Hirschmann considers how Rawlsian theory responds to the claims and needs of disabled citizens. Surveying the debate about this issue, she agrees with feminist critics like Kittay about Rawls’s inability to address the crucial issue of dependency and care in human life or politics. But Hirschmann reframes the issue of disability as a question of freedom rather than justice. Examining what Rawls’s theory has to offer disabled citizens in the way of freedom reveals the Rawlsian self to be not only masculinist but also able-bodied. She contends that Rawls’s work is underpinned by a tacit but influential notion of embodied individualism that makes assumptions about what sort of bodies are able to be free. Rawls’s negative conception of freedom, moreover, is ill equipped to respond to claims by the disabled for greater inclusion in social life, and his neglect of the social construction of desires and identities is explained by his general indifference to social relationships. Hirschmann defends the social model of disability and its implications for enhancing freedom by contrasting it with the dominant medical model.

Nussbaum is among the thinkers whom Hirschmann discusses who try to correct for deficiencies in the Rawlsian approach by incorporating disability issues into their thinking about justice. Heavily influenced by Kittay’s critique of Rawls, Nussbaum strives to find a way to incorporate human dependency in her capabilities approach to justice. Nussbaum’s parallel attempt to show how thinking about justice can be extended globally features prominently in chapter 6, in which Eileen Hunt Botting addresses Rawls and international justice. Hunt Botting examines Rawls’s Law of Peoples and considers Nussbaum’s critique of his position. She suggests that both Rawls’s and Nussbaum’s theories of justice offer useful resources for advancing feminist values in international and transnational relations, albeit in different situations. Nussbaum’s capabilities approach is helpful for defending women’s human rights in situations of minimal cultural or religious conflict, whereas Rawls’s approach is more useful for women’s human rights in situations of significant cultural or religious conflict. Rawls also has the advantage of wrestling with the hard case of using military force to defend women’s human rights.

Along with Nussbaum, another feminist thinker to have been powerfully influenced by Rawls in a number of key respects is Jean Hampton. In chapter 7, Janice Richardson examines Hampton’s work, comparing and contrasting Rawls and Hampton as contractarian thinkers. Richardson applauds Hampton for applying social contract thinking to the justice of everyday relationships, for this brings this tradition into line with much other feminist thought that is concerned with the implications of everyday beliefs. Richardson aligns Hampton’s interest in self-worth with Rawls’s references to self-respect, and agrees with Brake about the importance of this concept for feminist thought.