The strong and widely accepted reasons for using gender-neutral language presumptively apply to the gendered word paternalism and its gender-neutral counterpart, parentalism. With these reasons in mind, this Article’s thesis is that legal scholars should begin with a presumption for using the gender-neutral word parentalism, while using paternalism only when emphasizing the important relevance of gender or otherwise trying to convey a gendered meaning. Accordingly, many legal scholars define paternalism in an expressly gendered way—such as “the institutionalization of male dominance,” or an “ideology [that] teaches men to minimize women’s agency”—or fittingly use paternalism to describe an attitude especially characteristic of men or directed primarily toward women. All these many uses of the gendered word paternalism are supported by the writers’ apparent intent to emphasize the important relevance of gender to the writers’ points.
On the other hand, and despite the spread of gender-neutral language throughout our society and legal profession, many legal scholars continue to use the gendered word paternalism without indicating any important relevance of gender or otherwise manifesting intent to convey a gendered meaning. These many writers use paternalism rather than parentalism to describe laws or policies aiming to protect people (of all genders) by restricting their choices. For example, these writers cite “paternalism” as a standard justification for restrictions on contractual choice or other private ordering, including the unconscionability doctrine, usury laws, the minimum wage, and countless regulations limiting the range of enforceable promises by consumers, borrowers, employees, investors, and others.
In each of these contexts, it is better to use the gender-neutral word parentalism, unless the writer emphasizes the relevance of gender or otherwise manifests an intent to convey a gendered meaning. For example, a writer could justify using the gendered word paternalism by arguing that all our laws are gendered male so gendered language should be used to discuss any law, including using paternalism to describe laws aiming to protect people of all genders by restricting their choices. Or a writer could justify using the gendered word paternalism by arguing (after citing sufficient empirical data) that protect-by-restricting-choice parenting is gendered male, so analogous protect-by-restricting-choice laws and policies are also gendered male. Absent one of those two plausible arguments justifying use of the gendered word paternalism, laws or policies aiming to protect people of all genders by restricting their choices are better described as examples of parentalism.
In short, a presumption for using the gender-neutral word parentalism to describe laws or policies aiming to protect people of all genders by restricting their choices is well-grounded in the strong and widely-accepted reasons for ordinarily using gender-neutral language. And examining legal scholarship’s many uses of paternalism and parentalism illuminates our understandings of gender in both law and parenting.
Ware, Stephen J., "Paternalism or Gender-Neutrality?" (2020). Connecticut Law Review. 426.