Issue 237 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
'The struggles of the next century will be about the right of women to liberation' Lindsey German: the family
A big question facing millions of men, women and children in the new century is whether the family will survive? Already, family values mean something very different from 80, 50 or even 30 years ago. The figures tell their own story.
A quarter of households in Britain are made up of single people living alone--double the proportion of 1961. In 1995 there were 322,000 marriages--the lowest figure since 1926. There were 192,000 first marriages in 1995, half the figure of 1970. There are nearly seven times as many people divorcing now as did in 1961.
What has undermined the family? A combined revolution in women's lives which has transformed their work patterns, their educational expectations and their sexuality. The woman who stays at home to look after her young children full time is now in a minority, and many working mothers now go back into full time rather than part time work. Even among mothers of pre-school children, 18 percent work full time and a further 33 percent work part time outside the home. Today the number of women workers is around 12 million, compared with just under 10 million in 1984. Women comprise 47 percent of the workforce today whereas in 1951 they made up less than a third.
The impact of this on women's sexuality cannot be underestimated. As late as the 1950s, most working class women relied on men for their contraception and illegal, dangerous abortions to avoid unwanted pregnancy. In the 1930s one midwife who worked in a mining village believed that of 227 miscarriages by 122 women over seven years, few were accidental. It was only with the advent of the contraceptive pill and the changes in the law--especially the Abortion Act of 1967--that women gained some control over their fertility.
The family today increasingly mirrors that of textile workers described by Marx and Engels in the early 19th century--with more and more of its members employed in wage labour, paying for goods which were previously produced in the home. But, just as in the 19th century, the family does not disappear. Partly this is because it has become the haven in a heartless world for millions who find most aspects of their lives more and more threatening; partly it is held together by a capitalism which uses the family economically and ideologically to ensure the cheap reproduction of the next generation of workers.
Yet it is an institution which fails to deliver its promises. The struggles of the next century will therefore also be about the right of women to their liberation and freedom from the oppressive structures found in the family, and about the rights of all family members to lead personal lives which are not constrained within its narrow boundaries.Susan Faludi: men and work