Issue 192 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
Perhaps one of the most surprising political reversals of the 1990s has been the way in which the liberal middle classes have rediscovered the family. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary--a rising divorce rate, fewer people marrying in the first place, more and more children born out of wedlock--we are increasingly told that the family is the bedrock of society which has to be bolstered at any cost.
Defence of the family has always been high on the right wing agenda. From Adolf Hitler with his slogan of 'Children, church and kitchen' which summed up the role of women in Nazi Germany, right through to Republican Newt Gingrich in the US today, the family has been seen as one of the major units of stability inside capitalist society. Without stable families, it is argued, all manner of moral and social ills ensue. There is more crime, violence, truanting, disrespect for authority.
Such arguments, however, have tended to be the prerogative of a fairly narrow right wing. Lady Olga Maitland, for example, has always represented the neanderthal wing of the Tory Party. Today she has been joined in her defence of the family by a much wider range of people. Tony Blair, almost immediately after being elected as leader of the Labour Party, declared his belief that 'it is best that kids are brought up in a normal, stable family.' Earlier this year he told the Labour Women's Conference that 'Labour is the party of the family in Britain.'
Melanie Phillips argues in a television film, Who Killed the Family? and in the Observer that the family is being destroyed by 'libertarianism', and that the liberalisation of divorce law, for example, has helped to destroy the family.
There are many who do not agree with Phillips, but such is the moral climate over the family that they are pulled towards defending it while accepting some of the right wing's terms. So feminist Anna Coote argues that single parents, gays or divorcees should not be scapegoated, but then accepts many of the assumptions about the family. She says:
She concludes that we need 'the kind of pro-family agenda that could provide a government... with a strong moral leadership'.
All this is a very far cry from the ideas on the family held by those in the women's liberation movement at its inception in the late 1960s. Then it was assumed that the family was one of the main centres of women's oppression. Women could give birth to and bring up children without living with men, and their role in life had to go well beyond the confines of their own four walls if they were to gain real fulfilment. For example, the following was written in 1971 in a collection of women's writings called Liberation Now!:
Around the same time Linda Gordon wrote an article, 'Functions of the Family', which included such observations as, 'Families have enforced responsibility for children by making private property of them', and, 'Families have helped to stifle even the dream of liberation by conditioning people into roles and then defining these roles as "fulfillment".'
The early women's movement and socialist writing from the time combined a view of the family as something which existed at least partly for the good of the system itself, with the idea that all was not well within the family. The unpaid labour of women--and to a lesser extent men--within the home enabled the cost of bringing up a new generation of workers to be placed on the shoulders of individuals.
The contradictions inside the family, however, mean that it cannot fulfil the expectations of its individual members for much of the time. The household is seen as the repository of love, calm, respite from a cruel world. Its reality is rather different. The family contains within it personal and sexual tensions, some of which spill over into violence. The majority of murders, for example, take place in and around the family. Children are more at risk of abuse within the family than they are from strangers.
Economic pressures too find their sharpest focus within the family. People work for too many hours for too little money. The strain that this causes leads to argument, battering, divorce, adolescents leaving home. The contrast between the dream homes and ideal family lives of television advertising and the reality of cramped physical conditions and the constant exhaustion of shift working creates further pressures which some families simply cannot stand.
The validity of this analysis has not been diminished over the past 25 years. Rather the rise of unemployment and poverty, the increase in women working, the pressure of cuts in social services and healthcare have all put more strain on the family and made it less like the ideal.
Yet there is a growing unwillingness from the people who acquiesce in the way our society is run to accept that they are in any way at fault. Instead they blame family breakdown on increased 'selfishness' or people 'wanting to have their cake and eat it'. It is noticeable that these 'selfish attitudes' seem to be predominant among working people and the poor. Greater promiscuity on the part of rich right wing Tories like Alan Clarke does not seem to upset the new moralists. Nor does the life of idleness provided by the state enjoyed by the single parent Princess Diana. The 'second families' of MPs or businessmen cause little concern.
Outrage is reserved for the single parents living on council estates, those who have the temerity to want to divorce as easily as they marry, and those who refuse to stay in an unhappy relationship 'for the sake of the children'. There are two elements involved in the double standards of the pro-family liberals. One is the old view that sexual choice and freedom are fine for those with the time and the money, but not for the rest of us. The second is, why should money be spent on benefits for the poor and undeserving?
Those who call for a reduction in benefits for the poor themselves receive substantial subsidies in the form of tax relief on company cars, private pensions, mortgages and private schools--as well as salaries beyond the dreams of most ordinary workers.
Campaigns such as the recent one against the Divorce Bill attempt to impose a certain sort of morality on ordinary people's lives. Those who do so believe that they have the right to tell the rest of us what to do in our leisure time as well as at work. Yet they have no real comprehension of what causes the crisis in the family and so no idea of how it can be solved. The increase in divorce, single parenthood and increasingly independent attitudes among women can be traced to fundamental changes in women's lives. Women going out to work for longer and longer portions of their lives has gone hand in hand with much greater access to education and a desire in all the advanced capitalist countries for women to control and limit the number of children that they have.
In such a situation most women will no longer tolerate complete subservience to men; nor will they be willing to remain in unhappy relationships if they have an alternative. The rate of divorce has been rising since the Second World War. It rose sharply after the Divorce Act of 1969, but this was largely through people obtaining divorces who had wanted them for many years but could not get agreement from their partners. As a result the rate per thousand married people rose from 2.1 in 1961 to 6.0 in 1971.
There is evidence of a connection between women going out to work and a rise in divorce rates, as shown for example by Roderick Phillips in his book Putting Asunder. It also makes sense if we look at the history of the family under capitalism. During the period of the industrial revolution and its immediate aftermath, there was an almost complete breakdown of the family among large sections of the working class.
Driven off the land and pauperised, or forced to live and work in the slums of the big industrial cities, women and men often found the family impossible to keep together. By the beginning of the 19th century, most agricultural labourers in the south of England were on some sort of poor relief because their wages were too low. Cooking became virtually impossible for many of them because fuel was hard to obtain, and their diet consisted of bread, cheese and tea.
Workers were able to obtain a higher living standard by working in the big factories and textile mills, but only because in many cases all members of the family were forced to work (even tiny children). The family then was completely different from the old agricultural one: women had much more freedom; they paid other women to cook, clean and care for their children, and there was much more likelihood of traditional relationships breaking down.
This imposing of discipline on the working class family in the 19th century was one of the successes for the capitalist class in getting a more generally acquiescent working class to exploit. It ensured that women were seen as homemakers (even though they often had to work as well) for generations to come.
The changes in women's lives over the past 50 years and more have challenged the old attitudes to women and the family and given women a freedom--however limited--which their ancestors never knew.
This freedom is now under attack from the hardline right but also from erstwhile feminists. Attacks on divorce and single parents are all about putting women back into their 'rightful place'--and defending an institution which contains all the problems of the society which has moulded it.