The Missing Middle

Reshaping the Work-Family Debate

By Joan C. Williams

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010, 219 pp. $29.95, hardcover


Reviewed by Jean Hardisty

Reshaping the Work Family Debate is based on the William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University, delivered by Joan C. Williams in 2008. Williams is a luminary in the legal field of work-family balance. Work-family scholarship is often considered to be part of Women’s Studies, but it is legal scholars and activists who have been responsible for much of the progress that has been made in legislation to protect women’s rights in the workplace.

Work-family scholarship has generated an impressive body of literature addressing the tensions and stresses faced by women who are juggling their relatively new role as breadwinners and their traditional roles as mothers and homemakers. However, most of it focuses on the professional women’s demanding jobs and other problems. Williams courageously takes on the class bias of her field.

Her book is choppy, with each chapter somewhat arbitrarily addressing a different aspect of work-family conflict.  This is one danger of turning lectures into a book.  She covers some well-trodden territory, including the dominance of male-centered norms in the workplace, even today, so that mothers are expected to be “on the job, fulltime,” she says, even when a child is sick or a parent needs care.

In two areas, though, Williams breaks new ground. She presents an innovative theoretical framework in an attempt to move beyond the “sameness/difference” debate in feminist theory.  Williams re-characterizes “sameness feminism” as “assimilationist” and goes on to present a theory she calls “restorative feminism,” which she claims can reconcile difference and sameness feminisms. Rather than focus on similarities or differences in women’s gendered behaviors, Williams advises, we should look at how women are treated in the workplace.  In other words, according to restorative feminism, the workplace is the problem, not the woman. “Unstated masculine norms” in the workplace and elsewhere, says Williams, must be revealed and corrected if women are to achieve true quality.

Given that restorative feminism de-centers race, disability, and sexual orientation, I question how widely it will be adopted. Williams dismisses the dominant feminist theoretical framework, “intersectionality,” on the grounds that it has reached its limit of usefulness. However, if you view intersectionality as a human-rights framework, it remains useful and adaptable.  It could easily incorporate a concern for men’s rights as well as women’s.

Williams’s second original contribution is her challenge to progressives, who, she says, fail to understand the “missing middle”—a phrase she adopts from the political scientists Theda Scokpol: that is, working- and middle-class Americans who are neither rich nor poor.  She complains, justifiably, that progressives tend to belittle the norms and social practices of these groups. However, her discussion of the problem is unapologetically preachy.  Her chapter on “The Class Culture Gap” has a scolding tone and lumps all progressives together as upper-middle-class, brie aficionados.  Pointing to Candidate Obama’s use of the price of arugula as an example of the strains of rising food prices, she says,

Two rules emerge for Democrats. A presidential candidate should never get into a situation of explaining the less privileged to the elite. The risks of sounding condescending are just too large. (Note that I am explaining the working class to the elite. It’s a risky business, even for an academic.)

Occasionally, she mimics the voice of the kind of professional woman she criticizes.  She may feel this is all right because she herself is a “class migrant” to the professional class, but her assumption that her readers are upper-middle-class professionals like her, and her occasional reference to this group as “we,” is jarring to the nonacademic reader.

Many of Williams’s observations and much of her criticism of the progressive movement are spot on, and she is flying in the face of her own field of study to make them.  I become uncomfortable, though, when she positions herself as qualified to describe the “missing middle” based on a few dated studies, which she uses to make broad generalizations, if not to stereotype: middle- and working-class people behave this way; progressives (whom she assumes are upper-middle, professional-class people) behave in another. Certainly progressives need educating about why many people dislike them. But Williams is not a reliable guide. Because her sources are old, she cannot address the spread of electronic communication, especially among young people of all classes; the current massive recession; the election of Barack Obama; or the aging of the population.  She does not cite the work of contemporary feminist scholars of work-family conflict, such as Arlie Hochschild, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Katherine Gerson; nor does she go back to historically significant studies such as Studs Terkel’s Working (1974); Herbert Gans’s The Levittowners (1967); or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906).  This grounding work is often ignored by scholars of work-family conflict, yet it is relevant to any discussion of working families and even to legal debates.

In justifying her focus on lower- and middle-class women, Williams dismisses a large body of research about poor women by dedicated scholars, often women of color, who have concluded that work-family conflict lies at the center of poor women’s struggle to survive. Williams writes,

Floods of studies document the lives of Americans in poverty… When I searched I found 349,303 books listed under “poverty,” with a large percentage about public policy initiatives to help the poor. When I searched “working class,” I found less than one-half as many books (140,790).


Williams’s claim that US scholars are “biased” toward studying poor women misses the point entirely.  It is comparing a specific policy concern (how women deal with their multiple roles) and a condition that plagues an increasing number of Americans, poverty.  Williams directs researchers to study the “missing middle” because they are politically powerful; they are understudied; and they are the largest group of voters. But in arguing that the missing middle needs more study, Williams risks implying that the poor need less.  This is at the least unethical given the shocking context of US inequality and the growing rate of poverty. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United States has a poverty rate of around seventeen percent, the third-highest among the thirty OECD member-nations in its category. Mexico ranks first, with a poverty rate of around 18.5 percent, while the median poverty rate for OECD member-nations is about eleven percent. (See The last thing we want to do is criticize paying attention to this crisis.

Williams is concerned not only about the women of the missing middle but also about the men, who she says are squeezed from two directions. If they are married, they must tag-team with their spouses or partners to earn enough money to support the family while also caring for the children. If they are divorced, they struggle with childcare arrangements. Feminists have, according to Williams, neglected men’s problems. As if making up for this neglect, 55 percent of the cases pursued by her Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings School of Law were men’s.

Williams is eloquent on the stresses created for both men and women by a workplace culture that relies on the old image of the hard-working, always available husband and the stay-at-home wife.  She unmasks the fact that women do not drop out of the workplace, as the media often claim, but rather are pushed. But perhaps she is the wrong person to campaign to correct the class bias of work-family studies.  She does not seem to be able to step outside of her identity as a professional woman. A Harvard lecture series, which by definition adds a feather to the academic’s professional hat, may not be the right venue for a full critique of the work-family field; but this is a loss to the reader.


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