This paper examines the multiple strands of liberal ideology interwoven in social policy in four countries often regarded as having ‘liberal’ welfare states. These are Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. Social policy liberalism includes both classical liberalism in its original and neo-liberal forms, and social liberalism in the ‘new liberalism’ of the early twentieth century and the social policy legacies of Keynes, Beveridge, Marsh, Roosevelt and Chifley. Liberalism in whatever variant sits uneasily with contemporary conceptions of gender relations and the sexual division of labour, in which men and women are regarded as having separate and equal rights as individuals and yet as also inhabiting shared worlds of collective responsibility. The paper identifies a shift in the way in which successive social policy variants of liberal ideology have understood gender relations and the division between public and private spheres of social and economic life.