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Feminism and the Family: An Introduction

Date Last Edited: 01/10/2012

Very Useful Resource: Student Support Materials for AQA AS Sociology: Unit 1: Families and Households by Martin Holborn and Liz Steel [Collins Publications]

Click here for Introducing Families and Households NEW document added October 1st 2012

See also Sex, Gender and Feminist Analysis and Varieties of Feminism

Click here for an assignment on comparison of Functionalist, Marxist and Feminist Perspectives on Families and Households

Long term historical changes have  led to changes in Feminist objectives and methods which means that we must distinguish also between First Wave Feminism, Second Wave Feminism and Third Wave Feminism. However Feminism can be described broadly as a doctrine which suggests that women have been disadvantaged systematically in past societies and remain so in contemporary societies. For example in the case of the UK feminists argue that although women's educational and employment opportunities have gradually improved in the last hundred years , although they gained the vote in 1928 and although personal relationships between females and males may also be improving gradually women nevertheless remain disadvantaged in all of these aspects of their lives. Similar conditions apply in other advanced industrial countries while women's lives are often especially difficult in "Third World" societies.

All feminists are united in their beliefs that women experience a range of social, economic, political and personal difficulties in their lives but feminists do disagree as to the causes of female disadvantage, the relative significance of different types of female disadvantage and the means by which women's lives may be improved and this gives rise to important broad divisions between Egalitarian and Difference Feminism and between Liberal, Marxist, Socialist, Radical and Black Feminism. The differences between First Wave Feminism, Second Wave Feminism and Third Wave Feminism  can themselves be described to some extent in terms of the differing emphases given within these "waves of Feminism" to Liberal, Marxist, Socialist, Radical and Black Feminism.

Feminist sociologists focus especially on the important distinction between "Sex" and "Gender" . Sexual differences refer to biological differences between males and females such that there are variations between males and females in their chromosomes, their reproductive organs and their relative production of different hormones which in turn result in a range of physical differences. Gender differences refer to differences between males and females in their social attitudes and behavior and in their social roles  within a given society so that, for example, in the UK men may typically be more aggressive, assertive and competitive, more likely to be in paid employment and also more likely to occupy positions of political power whereas females may typically be more passive, sensitive and emotional and more likely to take disproportionate responsibility for childcare and housework.

 Supporters of biologically based arguments claim that because traditional differences in gender roles derive from natural, biological, sexual differences they must obviously be maintained because they reflect the natural order of things so that any change would be a change for the worse than for the better for women as well as for men. The female career woman and the house husband are acting against the grain of human nature in ways which can only be harmful for themselves and for society as a whole. Feminists have rejected these traditionalist arguments as invalid and patriarchal and sought to show that their effects were to legitimize and protect male privilege and to entrench female disadvantage in education, employment, politics and personal and domestic relationships.

[ However there are also disputes within feminism around the concepts of sex and gender and in this respect we must distinguish between egalitarian and difference feminism. Thus whereas Egalitarian Feminists may be described as anti-essentialist in the sense that they believe that although men and women have important biological differences in relation to the reproduce  process they are otherwise physically similar in all other respects and that gender differences in behaviour are not biologically determined but socially constructed via gender differences in  socialisation, Difference Feminists may be seen as particular kinds of Radical Feminists who believe that there are innate temperamental differences between males and females  with males tending to greater competitiveness, aggression and potential violence and females tending toward greater sensitivity, emotional intelligence and compassion. ]

 I  provide a little further information on Third Wave Feminism in a short appendix to this document.

You will perhaps already have studied Functionalist theories  of the family [associated mainly with Talcott Parsons] in which it is argued  that nuclear family life is essentially harmonious and stable , that roles within families are allocated effectively in accordance with males' instrumental and females ' expressive characteristics respectively ,that the nuclear family contributes usefully to the maintenance of societies which are themselves basically fair via the socialisation of the young [which includes "appropriate" gender role socialisation] and the stabilisation of adult personalities. You may be familiar also with  the more descriptive work of Young and Willmott which suggested that family life was becoming more symmetrical and harmonious. and the later work of "New Right" theorists which provides more or less unconditional support for the heterosexual nuclear family. 

Feminists argue that  all of the  above theories overstate the harmony and stability of the nuclear family while understating the extent of conflict within it: according to Feminists, Functionalist  theories are not examples of careful, objective Sociology but are used as ideologies designed to protect the existence of the traditional family which in reality is often harmful to its members, especially to women and children.

Feminists use a range of arguments to claim  that women and female children may be disadvantaged in several respects within the nuclear family.

  1. Gender and Socialisation within the Nuclear Family

Firstly Feminists have rejected the analysis of gender socialisation provided in Functionalist theories of the nuclear family and claimed instead that in societies such as the UK the socialisation process as it operated at least up to the 1970s meant that many parents socialized their daughters to show dependence, obedience, conformity and domesticity whereas boys were encouraged to be dominant, competitive and self -reliant and also that when young children saw their parents acting out traditional gender roles they would perceive these roles as natural and inevitable. [ Gender differences in socialisation continued in schools as teachers praised girls for "feminine qualities" and boys for "masculine qualities"; boys and girls were encouraged to opt for traditional male and female subjects and then for traditional male and female careers. Furthermore in the mass media girls were encouraged to recognize the all importance of finding "Mr. Right" and settling down to a life of blissful domesticity in their traditional housewife-mother roles. ]

According to Feminists the socialisation process operating in the family and elsewhere  encouraged females to accept the traditional gender roles which entrenched female disadvantage in the private domestic sphere and in the public sphere of employment and political and social life. However because these gender roles were socially constructed rather than biologically determined they could be changed via various political and economic strategies and the improvements in female educational and employment opportunities which occurred from the 1980s onwards were welcomed as indications of reduced gender inequality and not as flying in the face of human nature as was suggested in biologically based arguments.

   2. Gender Roles Within the Nuclear Family

Secondly Feminists rejected both Functionalist analyses of gender roles inside and outside the family and the claims by Young and Willmott that nuclear families were becoming increasingly symmetrical on the grounds that  men and women did not necessarily possessed instrumental and expressive qualities respectively as had been suggested by Parsons and that  responsibilities for housework and childcare were shared unfairly which undermined Young and Willmott's theory.

However recent UK Time Use studies did give some apparent support to Young and Willmott's theory in that   they illustrated very clearly that women spend more time than men on housework and childcare but that the combined amounts of time spent on paid employment , housework and childcare by men and women respectively are very similar which could be taken to suggest that although males and females and females accept differing within families  they do spend approximately equal mounts of time on all family responsibilities combined.

Click here for information from the UK 2000 Time Use Study

Click here for useful ONS data on Gender and Housework

Nevertheless many Feminists have pointed to the limitations of these Time Use study data for the following reasons.

     3. Decision Making within the Family

Thirdly Feminists have argued  that in many nuclear families major spending decisions and/or decisions on whether or not to move house are taken by men rather than women which calls into question the alleged symmetry of the nuclear family. It has been pointed out that the analysis of all decision making [including family decision making involves some considerably theoretical complexity as a result of difficulties surrounding the definition and measurement of decision making power.

Power might be defined straightforwardly as the ability to get your own way but Steven Lukes has argued that there are actually three dimensions to the concept of power. The first dimension of power is measured in the outcome of actual decisions; the second in the possibility that an individual may have the power to shape an agenda so that issues which threaten his/her interests  are excluded from the agenda; the third arises from the possibility that an individual may lack power because s/ may not realise what her/his real interests really are.

Most studies of power within families such as those of Edgell and Pahl  derive from the first , decision -making dimension of power and show men to be relatively powerful. However it may be that when we consider the second and third dimensions of power, men can be shown to have even more power. Let us consider a hypothetical example   where without any significant discussion  or actual decision being taken a female accepts the main responsibility for housework and childcare. She might do so for example because although she hoped for more help from her male partner, she simply wishes to avoid conflict [ which is a reflection of the second dimension of power] or because she has been heavily socialised via patriarchal ideology to "want" to act as a traditional housewife [which is a reflection of the third dimension of power]. It could be argued that in both cases although no formal decisions have been taken the woman's actions actually benefit her male partner more than herself and that her actions are evidence of a patriarchal distribution of power in the family.

However, against this it could be argued that more women nowadays will make their views on the sharing of domestic tasks very clear and that if women do opt for a traditional housewife- mother role no-one else has the right to argue  that this is simply because they are a mindless victim of patriarchal socialisation processes. Instead they may be exercising their own free choice. This discussion is meant to show that we cannot assess the domestic division of power with any certainty but that it is at least possible that women have less domestic power than they think. Of course you can also imagine a man undertaking a total house renovation purely because he has been socialised to think he enjoys it!

    4. Full-time Housewives and limited Power.

Fourthly it is argued that once married or cohabiting  women have children they are much more likely than their husbands to feel obliged to sacrifice their career prospects in the interests of their husbands' career prospects. Married/cohabiting women who have accepted a traditional housewife/mother role without paid employment are financially dependent upon their husbands such that, for example, it is suggested that even when some families receive incomes which in principle could keep all family members out of poverty, some women within these families may nevertheless experience poverty because their partners fail to allocate them a sufficient income and that they may neglect  their own needs in order to meet the needs of their children. Furthermore once women leave paid employment for period of years in order to raise their children they may find their promotion prospects blocked when they return to work while housewives who divorce after a long period out of employment may be unable to find well paid work because of their relative lack of work experience. In each case marriage/ cohabitation and motherhood can create especial difficulties for women.

  5. Domestic Violence 

Fifthly Feminists have emphasised that domestic violence is far more widespread than is implied in the optimistic theories of Parsons and Young and Willmott and that women and children are far more likely than men to be victims of domestic violence. The actual extent of domestic violence is difficult to quantify because victims may be unwilling to report the crime perhaps because of fear of reprisals, because they are willing to forgive their partner, because they do not wish to publicise the crime, because they fear that the police will not take the crime seriously and may not even record it  or because they believe that the courts are unlikely to return a guilty verdict. Because Radical Feminists are especially critical of the male capacity for violence against women they have been more likely than other Feminists to emphasise this potentially terrible aspect of nuclear family life and to argue that heterosexual relationships  are potentially fraught with danger for women. However the widespread existence of domestic violence is now much more widely recognised among people who nevertheless believe that heterosexual relationships can often be a source of great happiness. Click here for the Women's Aid website which provides information and assistance in relation to domestic violence.  

 

As has been already been stated although all feminists agree that many women are in various ways exploited within the nuclear family but they also disagree as to the nature, causes and extent of such discrimination. For Radical Feminists  the fundamental cause of female exploitation and oppression is "Patriarchy"  which  means literally "rule by the father" but in feminist theory has come to mean the male dominance over women which feminists believe exists in society as a whole. The term is especially likely to be used by radical feminists who argue that it is entrenched in male-female relationships in general and in the family in particular but also in all of the institutions of the public sphere. However there are also disputes within radical feminism as to the sources of patriarchy in that it may derive from biological factors such as female dependence upon males during pregnancy and males' greater physical strength and tendencies toward aggression but also from a range of social and economic factors which operate to the disadvantage of women. Radical feminists are highly critical of male personalities; they describe heterosexual relationships as essentially patriarchal; they emphasise the significance of domestic violence against women and argue that women should avoid heterosexual relationships with men and opt instead for lesbian relationships although some radical feminists [especially radical difference feminists ] argue in favour of motherhood as a means for women to express their caring, compassionate natures.

Finally they reject Marxist Feminist theories of the family because women's exploitation exists in capitalist societies and did exist in former "State Socialist" societies which means that capitalism itself cannot be the source of female oppression and they reject Liberal Feminist theories because in their view Liberal Feminists have not recognised the fundamentally patriarchal nature of all societies and have overestimated the extent to which women's oppression can be ended via gradual piecemeal social reform.

Marxist Feminists argue that n capitalist societies the nuclear family is part of the overall Superstructure of capitalism and that its organisation and functions are heavily influenced by the nature of the capitalist economic base which means that women's oppression derives primarily from the organisation of the capitalist system rather than from the patriarchal behaviour of men which is emphasised by radical feminists. Thus according to Marxist Feminists housewives fulfil several important functions for the capitalist system : they bear and rear children at no cost to the capitalist system and, along with their husbands, encourage their children to accept authority such that a new, suitably obedient generation of workers becomes available; housewives also provide many domestic services at low or zero cost which reduces the wage levels which the capitalist system needs to pay its male workers . Women also form part of the reserve army of labour which is available for employment during times of economic boom but which can return to the traditional housewife- mother role during economic recession.

According to Marxist feminists, women also provide emotional support for their husbands/partners without which they would be unable to face the oppression and alienation of the capitalist workplace. Without this emotional support it is also possible that workers would be more prepared to challenge the capitalist system. However, family responsibilities may also dissuade workers from strike activity and the existence of families with its demands for cars, washing machines and other consumer durables also helps to maintain spending and capitalist profits. ) Finally, the socialisation process which operates within the family both stabilises the capitalist system as a whole and also by discouraging female career aspirations, restricts female career opportunities .

Thus, for Marxist feminists the socialisation process, the management of dissatisfaction, the allocation of roles between males and females and  the hidden services provided by the family for the capitalist economy all contribute to the maintenance of an unjust capitalist system and to particular disadvantages for women within that system. The nuclear family and the role of women within it cannot be improved significantly via gradual reform as suggested by Liberal Feminists nor can women's situations be improved via rejection of relationships with men as suggested by Radical Feminists. Instead what is necessary is the unity of men and women within the working class which alone can end the capitalist system and the exploitation of all women and all men everywhere. Of course non-Marxists deny the validity of the Marxist analysis of capitalism and hence the necessity for  anti-capitalist revolution.

[Socialist Feminists agree that capitalism is the main source of female oppression and that males and females must unite to end capitalist oppression but that this can be achieved by gradual parliamentary means rather than by revolution. They are also more likely to argue that patriarchy is a more significant cause of gender inequality than is suggested in orthodox Marxist accounts . According to some socialist feminists women are subject to Dual Systems of oppression whereby they are exploited mainly by the capitalist system in their work environment but also exploited by men at home and in their personal relationships with men. To repeat they are subject to dual systems of oppression: the oppression associated with capitalism and the oppression associated with patriarchy.]

 Liberal Feminists criticise both Radical and Marxist Feminism on the grounds  that many men do not have patriarchal values and have no wish to dominate and exploit women , that heterosexual relationships can be a source of great happiness and fulfilment  and also that such exploitation of women as does occur can be reduced via meaningful social reform within the existing basically capitalist and liberal democratic framework of society.

Liberal Feminists argue further that it is most important for females to be socialised and educated in such a way that they have equal opportunities and free choices as to whether to focus primarily on their employment careers , on motherhood or on a combination of the two. So long as these choices are available Liberal Feminists believe that many women who opt for primary roles as housewives and mothers may well derive just as much personal fulfilment from such roles as other women may derive from interesting careers.

They argue that better education and controls over sexism in the mass media can improve the overall social climate for women and that  anti-discrimination legislation such as the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act combined with improved educational opportunities for female students have had some success in improving women's employment prospects which has given women greater confidence to demand equal treatment in their personal relationships with men which have brought advantages for both partners. Nevertheless further progress in the sharing of household and childcare tasks and especially stricter enforcement of penalties for domestic violence remain important priorities.

Finally as women's lives within families and the wider society have tended to improve some liberal feminists have tended to criticise especially radical feminists claiming that their anti- heterosexuality, anti-marriage and anti-motherhood ideology is out of touch with the ideas of many modern confident young women who wish to enjoy their new found opportunities, to enjoy their heterosexuality and wish also to become mothers at some point in the future. Liberal Feminists claim that these young women are often likely to have some sympathy with Liberal Feminism but are repelled by the ideas of radical feminism, a view which radical feminists of course reject. 

 Black Feminism emerged in the 1980s as black women increasingly argued that their concerns were given insufficient attention in both first-wave and second-wave feminism which in their view tended to focus especially on the aims of white and mainly middle class women living in advanced industrial countries. Black feminists increasingly pointed out that white Second Wave Feminists focussed excessively on the difficulties and concerns of relatively affluent professional women in the advanced industrial countries while neglecting the problems of black, working class women oppressed by racism and poverty as well as sexism and that the difficulties of  black women living in "Third World" countries were also neglected.

They noted also that whereas white feminists focused on issues such as the gender division of labour in the household and the facts that although Western women might have reasonable living standards they were nevertheless paid less than men, life for many women [and men] in the Third World involves  a day to day struggle for survival in which  women are at  a much greater disadvantage than they are in the industrial \countries of the world.

In relation to the family they pointed out for example that whereas according to many white feminists the family could be a site of oppression it could also for black women be a haven from the racism of white society; they stressed that they faced racial as well as gender discrimination in the labour market emphasising also that they experienced the racist behaviour of white women as well as of white men and that they were often forced to accept jobs that white women would not accept ; they argued that black girls [and boys ] faced specific problems in the education system not experienced by white girls [and boys] .

They noted also that whereas white feminists focused on issues such as the gender division of labour in the household and the facts that although Western women might have reasonable living standards they were nevertheless paid less than men, life for many women [and men] in the Third World involves  a day to day struggle for survival in which , however, women are at  a much greater disadvantage than they are in the industrial \countries of the world.

Black Feminists played a significant role in unsettling the second wave feminist movement and continue to make very important contributions to the development of feminism and you should note that the Black feminist movement is now often described as the feminism of women of colour to take account of the contributions of Asian and Middle Eastern as well as black feminists.

Feminists seek to correct what they see as the inaccuracy and over-optimism  of  Functionalist and New Right theories of the family  and there can be little doubt that they have made many accurate and important criticisms of family life . Although nuclear family life may have been becoming more symmetrical in the early 1970s when Young and Willmott wrote "The Symmetrical Family" Feminists have argued correctly that the extent of symmetry had been overstated at this time and that many women still experience considerable disadvantages within the nuclear family.

Traditional gender differences in socialisation may well have disadvantaged females in education and employment ; and even if many nuclear families are gradually becoming more symmetrical   women  continue to take the main responsibility for housework and childcare while receiving relatively low level assistance from their male partners ; they may  still concentrate disproportionately on the more difficult unpleasant  tasks;  they may be more heavily involved in draining emotion work; they may have less quality leisure time; and the division of power within the household may be relatively patriarchal and sometimes based ultimately on the use of male physical violence. The high proportions of "empty shell" marriages and the high rates of divorce suggest that family life in many cases  far from  symmetrical and harmonious and the Feminist criticisms of nuclear family life seems to help to explain why single parents may not choose to marry , why many opt for cohabitation rather than marriage for fear that a more "permanent" marriage may not work out and why the rate of divorce remains high even though it has fallen in the UK in 2005, 2006 and 2007

As we have seen , however, there are important disputes within Feminism. Liberal Feminists have argued women's experiences of the nuclear family may have improved as a result of social reforms and changing attitudes that have encouraged the growth of more egalitarian nuclear families,  that further reforms and improvements are nevertheless still necessary but that they may be achieved without the radical social transformations demanded by Radical and Marxist Feminists.  Liberal Feminists and others argue that Radical Feminists  have an unrealistically negative view of men; that they have underestimated  the importance of trends towards increased equality between men and women , have overstated the degree of conflict in family life and underestimated the happiness which flows from successful families; that they  have unfairly dismissed women favouring a traditional housewife- mother role as falsely conscious and that they  have failed to recognise the increasing difficulties faced by men in contemporary societies .

Meanwhile Marxist Feminists have been  criticised primarily because of their allegedly unrealistically negative  view of the capitalist system and their failure to recognise that the improvements in living standards generated by capitalism can also promote increasingly happy family life as the pressures of poverty are reduced. Of course Radical and Marxist Feminists completely reject the criticisms made of their theories: ongoing patriarchy and capitalist inequality still result in the exploitation and oppression of women and only fundamental social transformation will change things.

Controversy continues

These controversies are reflected in controversies from the 1990s onwards between Third Wave Feminists and Second Wave Feminists in which Third Wave Feminists claim to respect the achievements of Second Wave Feminist  but wish nevertheless to move beyond it in several respects. Third Wave Feminists include Camille Paglia  who in the 1990s suggested that although women in general support the aim of greater gender equality they may nevertheless reject Feminism because of its perceived portrayal of women as essentially victims is at odds with the freedom and self-confidence increasingly felt by modern women. an argument extended by Naomi Wolfe who argued that this "victim feminism" could actually prevent women from developing the self-confidence to improve their situations still further.

Also in another important Third Wave study Rene Densfield argued that many young women are not attracted to Feminism because they have less experience of gender inequality and because the radical feminist emphasis on inevitable male oppression and opposition [often but not always] to heterosexuality, motherhood and family cannot possibly appeal to the vast majority of women who are heterosexual, pro-motherhood and pro-family.

Studies by Natasha Walter [The New Feminism 1998] and by Germaine  Greer [The Whole Woman 2000] provide further important insights into the possible relationships between Second Wave Feminism and Third Wave Feminism. According to Natasha Walter Third Wave Feminists have correctly identified important improvements in young women's educational, employment and leisure opportunities, the resultant increased self-confidence of many young women  and their opposition to most elements of radical feminism. However she notes also that ,despite some narrowing, gender inequalities in incomes and opportunities remain significant which suggests the ongoing relevance of Liberal and Socialist Second Wave Feminists concerns. Furthermore Germaine Greer has argued that Third Wave Feminists have understated the extent to which many male-female relationships are still highly patriarchal and exploitative and thereby underestimated the continuing relevance of Second Wave Radical Feminist insights.