She began by presenting a dismal picture of the role of fathers in family life:
In the official story fathers are necessary ingredients both of childhood and of good-enough mothering ... But the official story cannot conceal the fact that, as Gertrude Stein remarked, "fathers are depressing". Barely known, scarcely knowable, the "absence" of fathers permeates feminist stories ...
If an absent father is depressingly disappointing, a present father can be dangerous to mothers and children ... the father with no time for the double shift may well have time enough to serve as a controlling judge of his children's lives.
So what is to be done? Sara Ruddick presents two feminist responses. The first is to make fathers unnecessary by having children supported instead by the state. This would then make women wholly autonomous:
If putative fathers are absent or perpetually disappearing and actual present fathers are controlling or abusive, who needs a father? ... Most mothers do not choose and cannot afford to raise children alone. But in a state that provided for its children's basic needs, women could raise children together as lesbian co-parents or as part of larger friendship circles or intergenerational households.
Exceptional men who proved particularly responsible and responsive might be invited to contribute to maternal projects - that is to donate, as other mothers do, their cash, labor, and love. [Note that there is no longer a paternal role for men. Men are only to be permitted to contribute to a maternal project.]
... Secure in near-exclusively female enclaves that are governed by ideals of gender justice, women could undertake a politico-spiritual journey in which they (almost all) relinquished heterosexuality though not (necessarily) mothering, overcame their dependence on fathers and fears of fatherlessness, and claimed for themselves personal autonomy.
Sara Ruddick then presents a second option, one in which the average man still plays a role in family life, but as a mother rather than as a father:
Rather than attempting to free mothers from men, they (we) work to transform the institutions of fatherhood. Their (our) reasons are naive and familiar: many men ... prove themselves fully capable of responsible, responsive mothering ... Feminists cannot afford to distance themselves from the many heterosexually active women for whom heterosexual and birthing fantasies are intertwined and who want to share mothering with a sexual partner ... For all these familiar reasons, many feminists, and I among them, envision a world where many more men are more capable of participating fully in the responsibilities and pleasures of mothering.
So Sara Ruddick prefers the second option. She does, though, fantasise about the first:
I only have to open a newspaper, read the testimony of women, listen to students, or (more frequently) remember the father-dominated homes of friends and colleagues to find myself fantasising about a world without fathers.
Well, Sara Ruddick's fantasy didn't really come true. There are no separatist lesbian co-parenting communes.
But in other respects we have moved increasingly toward the ideas set out by Sara Ruddick back in 1990. The state has continued to make it more possible for women to raise children independently of men (via welfare payments, child support, paid maternity leave, subsidised childcare and so on). And the idea has taken hold that a good father is one who does work traditionally done by women. In other words, we have moved toward an assumption that being a good parent means being a good mother.
Just today comes the news that the Labour Party in Britain has appointed as its new chief spokeswoman on families Dr Katherine Rake. She is a feminist who has declared it her aim to "transform the most intimate and private relations between women and men" because "It is only when men are ready to share caring and work responsibilities with women that we will be able to fulfil our true potential to form equal partnerships in which we have respect, autonomy and dignity."
Where do these ideas come from? Why are they influential (apart from the giving up heterosexuality bit)? Well, they fit in with liberal autonomy theory - the idea that the ultimate aim of existence is to be as self-determining and independent as possible.
If you wish to be self-determining, then you won't want distinct gender roles within the family, as these are tied to an unchosen biology. But you will also be particularly hostile to the paternal role, as this is connected to a form of authority within the family that is unchosen and uncontracted. So it makes sense for an autonomist to opt for a single unisex parental role based on the traditional maternal role.
The end result, though, is to deny the importance of a distinct role for men within the family. This is the end point of Sara Ruddick's feminist philosophy - "fantasising about a world without fathers".
Better, I think, to encourage men to carry out their distinct role effectively, wisely and conscientiously - rather than to follow Sarah Ruddick along the paths of modernist philosophy.