Feminist Theories of the Family Research Paper Starter

Feminist Theories of the Family

A family is a special kind of social group whose members are linked to each other through kinship relations created either through marriage or through blood ties. The characteristics and structures of family relationships differ according to time, place, and culture. Families may live together in one household as part of an extended network that includes a nuclear family (two adults living with their biological or adopted children), or live in one household as a conjugal unit. While some people in the contemporary West argue that families are under attack because of rising divorce rates, single parent households, and the impact of feminism, history suggests that families in earlier times experienced impermanence (especially through high mortality rates for people of all ages). Whatever the reason, concern for and about families (often, though not exclusively, from the political right) is very often concern about the idea of the family and the values that family life is assumed to engender. The family is, after all, the primary source of learning for future adults and, therefore, citizens. However, feminists have also expressed concern about the idea of the family because of the contribution of family structure and life to gender inequality. Feminist theorists have addressed these concerns by examining what Western society means by the idea of the family and what goes on in families, and by describing the diversity of family structures and their impact on values and social practices.

Keywords Conjugal Unit; Familialism; Kinship; Nuclear Family; Patriarchialism; Patriarchy; Role Differentiation; Sexual Division of Labor

Feminist Theories of the Family

Overview

A family is a special kind of social group whose members are linked to each other through kinship relations created either through marriage or through blood ties. The characteristics and structures of family relationships differ according to time, place, and culture. Families may live together in one household as part of an extended network that includes a nuclear family (two adults living with their biological or adopted children), or live in one household as a conjugal unit. While some people in the contemporary West argue that families are under attack because of rising divorce rates, single parent households, and the impact of feminism, history suggests that families in earlier times experienced impermanence (especially through high mortality rates for people of all ages). Whatever the reason, concern for and about families (often, though not exclusively, from the political right) is very often concern about the idea of the family and the values that family life is assumed to engender. The family is after all, the primary source of learning for future adults and, therefore, citizens. However, feminists have also expressed concern about the idea of the family because of the contribution of family structure and life to gender inequality. Feminist theorists have addressed these concerns by examining what Western society means by the idea of the family and what goes on in families, and by describing the diversity of family forms and their impact on values and social practices.

The Family as a Private Institution

English philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) was an early commentator on the impact of family life on women. He recognized that inequalities that were commonplace inside the family would likely be replicated outside the family. However, many contemporary social commentators and philosophers of family life have tended to view the family as a private institution, set apart from principles that govern other social institutions (such as justice or equality). Most likely, this view stems from the assumption that because families are associated with children and parenting, and therefore with reproduction, they are natural and therefore subject to the rules of nature and of biology. The family is typically viewed as a private institution, in the sense that it is somehow special—natural—and set apart from the principles that govern other aspects of social and public life.

Early sociological studies of the family, informed by anthropological studies, tended to emphasize the “naturalness” of the nuclear family—a unit consisting of heterosexual spouses and their children. Anthropologists argued that the nuclear family is a universal social grouping essential for everyday subsistence, historical survival, and social continuity (through reproduction). George Murdock (1949), for instance, viewed the family as a unit, sharing a common residence, working together to sustain each other economically, and raising children (biological or adopted).

Many founding sociological theorists accepted that women (and children) within families and households constitute property on the grounds of their biology, physiology, and inferior intellect. Max Weber for instance, notes in his discussion of patriarchalism, which is a limited type of domination within a particular organizational form, that women are dependent on men because of the latter's “normal superiority” (1978, p. 1007). Several nineteenth- and early twentieth-century theorists and philosophers held the view that it is, therefore, “natural” for men to exercise power over women.

Friedrich Engels (1975) commented more extensively on a woman's role within the family and argued that their oppression is a consequence of capitalism, class structure, and property ownership. Monogamy in particular is necessary, Engels argued, to ensure that the wealth accumulated by men is bequeathed to his biological children (1975), and concomitantly, the restriction of women to the domestic sphere is necessary to the capitalist system of production (Waters, 1994, p. 255). Thus, while Engels acknowledged that the role of women within families is subordinate, he argued that this position is a consequence of class structure, rather than the exercise of power by men over women.

These two examples of early sociological theory on women and their role within families have provided a springboard for feminist criticisms about the relative impact of patriarchy and capitalism on women's subordination. These criticisms have focused on the extent to which the idealized nuclear family reinforces women's economic dependence on men, conceals and perpetuates inequalities between its members, and reinforces a sexual division of labor.

Sexual Division of Labor

The idea of a sexual division of labor, in which men do one kind of work and women do another, is widespread, tacit, and powerful. Biological and physiological differences between men and women have been used to explain differences in their relative access to, for instance, certain kinds of jobs, political participation, wealth accumulation, and differences in the tasks that men and women perform in families. Indeed, classical theorists tended to assume that while men are the product of society, women are the product of nature (Durkheim, 1952), and this view influenced sociological explanations of the function of families and the roles of its members.

Parsons and Bales (1955) for instance, examined how role differentiation within families occurs in order to functionally support society as a social system. They argued that families are differentiated on two levels or dimensions (Waters, 1994). First, family members, such as parents and children, are differentiated from each other according to their relative power (parents hold positions of authority over children). Second, members are differentiated from each other according to the types of activity they undertake within the family. Parsons and Bales observed that all social groups participate in task-oriented (instrumental) and solidarity-oriented (expressive) activities and linked this latter form of differentiation to biological differences between men and women. Simply put, they argued that in industrialized societies, instrumental activities are undertaken by men, while women undertake expressive activities because biology—women's reproductive potential—ties women more closely to emotion and care.

Parsons' work influenced contemporary thinkers on the function of the family in modern society and about the relative roles of men and women within families. For instance, Christopher Lasch, a prolific writer and social critic, argued that the family is a “haven in a heartless world” (1995), a place of refuge based on ties of love and affection to which its instrumental members (men) can return to refuel after enduring the strain and stresses of participating in the public sphere. However, although physiological differences clearly exist between men and women, researchers have shown that the tasks that men and women perform in families differ considerably across cultures. Ann Oakley (1982) examined anthropological studies of tasks undertaken by men and women in 224 societies, and observed that in many societies, women undertook tasks such as collecting wood, hunting, mining, building, and were active in the military, while in some societies, parenting and childcare were not exclusively undertaken by women. She argued that cross-cultural differences in the tasks undertaken and roles performed by men and women within families suggest that while role differentiation within families is universal, the tasks that are associated with men and women are not. This observation suggests that despite the appeal of the family as a universal, biologically underpinned unit/ideal, in practice, the tasks that men...

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