The Pitfalls of “Family Policy”

Against the Current No. 22, September/October 1989

Stephanie Coontz

THE FAMILY IS ONE of the hottest new topics for political rhetoric, popular concern and faddish prescriptions. Conservatives attack the women’s movement and government regulation for robbing families “of the autonomy that was once theirs”; liberals go back and forth between decrying divorce’s “feminization of poverty” and celebrating the new “family pluralism” (occasionally sounding as if single-parent families constitute a wonderful growth experience).

Even some feminists and leftists have been sucked into the debate, contending that they are the real champions of “the family.” There is thus a temptation to articulate a family policy, endorsing a particular definition of family and making demands on its behalf for state support.

I want to argue against attempts by leftists to formulate such a “family policy” on two grounds. First, the fundamental assumptions behind such an endeavor direct our attention away from the real crisis of our society, of which the family crisis is only a subset. This is a crisis of social obligation that extends far beyond sexual or familial relations.

Second, most efforts to articulate a family policy rest on a misunderstanding of the historical relation between family privacy and the capitalist state. The very privacy that we often conceptualize in opposition to state intervention is as much a product of capitalist development and ruling-class hegemony as is the modem state itself.

Now it is certainly true that the crisis of social obligation and commitment in the United States adversely affects familial relations. The United States has the highest teen pregnancy rates in the world, while ranking 18th in infant mortality; child abuse is high and probably rising; as many as 25% of urban newborns have been exposed to drugs in the womb; and even middle-class schools report an extraordinary epidemic of parental neglect.

While many women have benefited from liberalized divorce, escaping abusive or oppressive relationships, others have suffered. Fifty-four percent of single-parent families, almost all of them headed by women, fall below the poverty line. People often talk about the feminization of poverty, since women are more than 60% of the poor, but more striking stiff is the infantalization of poverty. Children have now displaced elders as the age group in America most likely to be poor. One in five U.S. children, almost one in two Black children, lives in poverty.(1)

Legal gains for women in the public sphere have done little to mitigate this situation. Eighty percent of all women workers remain concentrated in just twenty-three of the 200 occupational categories listed in the U.S. census. Despite some gains in middle management and the professions, most women have entered low-paid, sex-stereotyped jobs that pose for them a crisis in childcare: 11 million children under age eleven have no childcare while their parents are at work.

Developments like these have led some people to wonder if family life was really as oppressive as it seemed in the 1960s and early ’70s, or at least to conclude that the reforms and movements of that period may have left many families worse off than before. For many women and children, the break-up of traditional family relations has meant not liberation but new kinds of domination and despair.

Family disruption has been linked to poor school performance, drug abuse and depression among children. Liberalization of repressive legislation and morality has allowed violent anti-female and child pornography to come out into the open. Rising rates of suicide among teenagers of all classes further contribute to the sense that families need our help rather than our criticism.

It is not surprising, then, that many progressive thinkers have abandoned earlier attacks on the repressive nature of the family. They have begun to try to develop a family policy that can allay popular concerns about the excessive individualism of the modern United States and cut into the new mass base that the right wing seems to have garnered with its “pm-family” rhetoric. Thus the Coalition for Labor Union Women now raises many of its demands for welfare and labor reform in the context of defending the family, while many liberal Democrats espouse programs that put “families first.”

Efforts of oppressed national minorities to recapture their own history have demonstrated that under some circumstances families can act as a source of resistance to the dominant culture, a means of coping with poverty or preserving distinctive values, an alternative to rampant individualism. Many community organizers, therefore, now prioritize issues and demands that support the maintenance of such families. Some gay and lesbian couples or parents have demanded that their living arrangements be recognized as stable, “normal,” and worthy of the label “family.” Whatever their differences in defining family, then, a whole new spectrum of groups defines itself as “pm-family.”

Leftists should not minimize the damage inflicted by many changes in family norms and relations. We should not ignore the crisis of our nation’s children, nor pretend that demands on behalf of children are encompassed by a general feminist program.

To recognize that kinship, continuity and small intimate associations are essential parts of existence for all people, and that children need consistent, personally involved caregivers, however, is not to say that we should organize around a program for defending, revitalizing or even redefining families. Nor does it follow that we should formulate our demands on the state in terms of its services to families.

First of all, many of the problems associated with the so-called family crisis are simply old inequalities in a new guise, more visible now that some of them have appeared in the group normally thought of as middle-class. Capitalism has traditionally distributed poverty unequally within the working class, both outside family channels—through racial and ethnic divisions, occupational rankings, etc.—and within the family. Women and children bore the burdens of poverty just as heavily, if less visibly, within the “traditional” two-parent family as they do in single-parent families today.

The only route to survival for many 19th-century working-class families, for example, was to send their children into the mills and mines. Indeed, the prolonged innocence of 19th-century middle-class children, whose loss is so bemoaned by the right wing, rested on the early adulthood of working children. It depended especially on the young girls whose domestic labor in other people’s homes created a “haven” for the development of true motherhood or whose exploitation in sweatshops created the cheap consumer goods that gave middle-class families an elevated standard of living. (Today, too, youth are the core workers of the fast-food industries that make life a little easier for some two-income families.)

Detailed analyses of working-class budgets reveal that married women routinely denied themselves food in order to give the male “breadwinner” enough to get by, while women in every social class have always expanded their paid and unpaid labor, working a “double day,” in periods of economic contraction.(2) Divorce is simply a new means of redistributing poverty within the working class from its relatively more powerful members to those made most vulnerable by hierarchies of age and gender.

Second, emphasis on the “feminization” of poverty and on the fact that divorce is now the greatest single (short-term) predictor of poverty for white women and children tends to obscure other kinds of poverty that cannot be explained by family dynamics or dissolution. Indeed, 54% of the growth in poverty in the United States since 1979 has taken place in two-parent families.

The ethnic group that has experienced the sharpest increase in poverty during the last ten years is the one that census-takers label “Hispanic” Most of the growth in Hispanic poverty is due to the worsening position of married-couple families, whose poverty rate grew by more than one-half from 1978 to 1987.(3)

A feminization-of-poverty or crisis-of-the-family analysis also diverts attention from a process that has been going on among both white women and minority men: increasing polarization between the privileged few, who have the resources to benefit from the dismantling of legal discrimination by competing successfully for management or higher-education jobs, and the majority who are confined to the lowest levels of the economy and never get a shot at equal treatment or affirmative action.(4)

Third, many problems of modern families are symptoms rather than causes of our social ills, and treating the family rather than the cause is at best ineffective, at worse counterproductive. Part of the problem in starting or maintaining families is the deterioration in men’s as well as women’s economic position.

Young men’s real earnings have dropped by almost one-third in the past ten years, young Black men’s by almost 50%. In 1963, 60% of men aged 20-24 earned enough to keep a family of three out of poverty. By 1984 only 42% could do so. These are structural problems, not problems caused by divorce or by the “loss of childhood,” though they are certainly likely to make divorce, loss of childhood, and failure to pay child support more prevalent.

The most critical factor affecting family arrangements and their outcomes has been the erosion of those unionized sectors of the economy that traditionally extended a “family wage” to significant portions of the working class. Two-thirds of all contracts negotiated in the past seven years have involved take-backs such as two-tier wage systems or loss of benefits.

Since 1980, steel has shed 40 percent of its work force, the United Auto Workers has lost one-third of its members, textile has been stripped of 25% of its unionized labor force and the mineworkers have lost 42% of their members. Today only 18% of the non-agricultural labor force is unionized, half the percentage of the 1950s.

The fastest growing sector of the economy has been service work, which is only 5% unionized (down from 15% in 1970); the fastest-growing part of this sector (indeed of the whole economy) is part-time work, which employs women, youths and elders. Demand for cheap female labor is so great that in the 1982 recession, for the first time, male unemployment topped women’s.

Such structural factors far outweigh the impact of family rearrangements in affecting the spread and distribution of poverty in the United States today. Even if there had been no changes in the age, race and gender of household heads since 1950, the poverty rate in 1980 would have been only 23% lower than it was. This overstates the effect of change in family arrangements by including race and age factors that are not caused by family dissolution, but even so it leaves 77% of poverty associated with structural, not familial, factors. Since 1980, a majority of the increase in childhood poverty has occurred in two-parent households.

These problems are not answered by a policy geared to supporting “families.” Obviously, one side effect of a social policy that addressed some of these problems would be to make families more viable for those who wish to remain in them. But our most pressing problems are simply not susceptible of resolution through policies directed at families. The family-wage system to which conservatives are so attached—to the extent that it existed at all—relied, James Coleman points out, “on both dependents and incomes being distributed across households.”

But recent economic and demographic trends have created “an increasing distribution of income away from households which have children or other dependents.” Households without children “ordinarily do not redistribute the household’s income to children? Attempts to make them do so through taxes are resented and a lot easier to defeat than a missile appropriation. This has led to a conservative turning inward among many two-parent families, who consistently report to poll-takers their resentment at being taxed to help out what they see as “broken” families or “irresponsible” parents. Interestingly, Johanna Brenner and Nany Holmstrom have pointed out that the “marriage gap” on questions of social welfare was larger than the gender gap in the 1984 election: Both married men and married women were more likely than single men or women to support Reagan and his programs.(5)

Finally, attempts by the left to capitalize on an understandable but romanticized nostalgia for a more stable personal life represent an abandonment of one of the major insights of the feminist analysis of the 1960s. Whatever their role in compensating for or even softening other types of oppression, families are restrictive.

Most family systems, whether extended or nuclear, have been based on the private control of female productive and reproductive powers by the household head. The family may be a necessary means of survival for the working class, but it is one that has been based upon the subordination of women and the highly unequal division of its meager benefits among family members.

Families also tend to substitute the private exercise of social obligation by women—care of the young, the aged, the ill, for example—for public responsibility in this arena. Women as a gender rather than people as a community have been forced to shoulder the social dependencies that are inevitable for all individuals at various stages of life. The fact that liberalized divorce and sexuality have highlighted rather than solved the problems of how to meet social obligations and care for dependents doesn’t mean that we should go back to the older family, which denied obligation everywhere else in society by forcibly imposing it on women.

Even the far-flung and flexible kinship systems of oppressed national minorities should not be romanticized, for they often have ambiguous effects. On the one hand, they can be an effective locus of resistance to the dominant culture, but on the other hand, they may repress the individuality of certain members in order to achieve this. Even when they don’t do so, their positive role comes not so much from reliance on actual family ties as from their ability to use family language and behavior to hookup with wider networks of interdependence, reciprocity and collective resistance.

In early human societies, kinship was often fictive and seems to have developed originally in order to extend cooperation over time and space. To the extent that we find healthy families in the modern world, it is when they stretch the notions of brotherhood and sisterhood beyond the confines of blood. Families that do not do so may be very close and stable, but as any study of families in organized crime can testify, they can also be exceedingly antisocial.(6)

Even aside from the analytical problems in focusing on family protection, what kind of policy would we demand that the state adopt toward families, and what kind of unit would we direct that policy toward? Many liberals favor the Journal of Home Economics approach, which defines the family as any unit of intimate and transacting persons who share some resources and commitment to each other over time.(7) As a local Democrat in Washington State puts it, family can be a man and woman, two kids and a dog, or simply two friends living together.

Such a definition, however, represents a capitulation to the idea that families are the only appropriate units for intimacy, resource-sharing and—by implication—state support. Clearly, a family has to be more than one. Yet single households are the fastest growing sector of the population. Should they receive fewer benefits and rights than families?

Besides, a family is also less than something, away of restricting aid and obligation, setting boundaries. It is safe to predict, given the realities of political power in the United States, that the state will choose a restrictive unit to support or intervene in, however nimbly we choose to define families for ourselves. The state also tends to impose class-biased, sexist and ethnocentric definitions of family norms, putting working-class, minority, or gay individuals at considerable disadvantage in legal disputes about family rights.

Most debates over family policy revolve around the question of how much the state should be allowed or obliged to intervene in family life. One school of thinkers argues that state programs have drastically restricted the authority and independence of families, undermining traditions and practices that might facilitate resistance to the state. The historical evidence presented below supports this analysis of the motives of state intervention. Such intervention has restricted the autonomy of the working classes in many spheres of life and heightened our dependence on “experts.”(8)

But many of these analysts romanticize the older family forms. Calling for an end to intervention and a protection of family privacy is no better a basis for family policy. Linda Gordon demonstrates that while welfare agencies had very different goals and values than their so-called “clients,” many lower-class women and children attempted to use state agencies for their own ends, and sometimes succeeded in doing so. “More frequently, the clients did not get what they wanted, but their cumulative pressures affected the agencies’ definitions of problems and proposals for help.” The fact or threat of state intervention is an important resource for women and children in struggles against patriarchal power within the family.(9)

Furthermore, the pathologies of family life simply cannot allow any concern for “privacy” to override the need for protection of abused family members. A national poll by the Los Angeles limes in August 1985 found that 22% of Americans had been victims of child abuse, the vast majority of it committed inside families, by relatives. Fifty-five percent of the incidents involved sexual intercourse.

John Demos points to studies showing that abusing families tend to be marked by “constant competition over who will be taken care of? This suggests that abuse is an extension of demands for intimacy, nurturing and individual fulfillment that are part of the 20th century ideal of family privacy. (Colonial families, without such ideals, did not seem to have such corruptions of them either.)

Colleen McGrath points out that battering occurs “in the most ‘private’ areas of the house … .in places that are especially isolated and closed off from outside intervention”; it is the other side of the nurturing intensity that occurs in this “psychological hothouse.”(10) In this period of soaring child-abuse and wife-battering cases, any program organized around the sanctity of families is surely unacceptable.

The only way around this dilemma is to recognize that the interventionist state and the private family did not arise independently of each and are not entirely separate, far less mutually opposed, entities. There is no natural family whose private relations represent an alternative to the capitalist relations supported by the state. There is no state that does not depend upon and foster a particular form of private family.

Family privacy is an illusion, but the illusion is itself a product of state intervention. Neither the ideal nor the practice of family privacy is a natural result of human intimacy; they are social constructs, closely linked to the evolution of the state. Conversely, state collective rights arose largely to protect private property rights, not public rights or communal interactions, including the inheritance rights of restricted family units. The state simultaneously shapes the private family and guarantees its privacy from other kinds of intervention, such as that by neighbors, kin, custom or other social groups.

Historically, the public state and the private family have generally developed in tandem, whatever the ongoing tensions between them. This is because families represent ways of drawing boundaries among people, limiting individuals’ obligations to a few individuals and demarcating those from others. The state has always been interested in supporting this function of families, both to facilitate social control by decreasing potential sources of solidarity and united action, and to establish smaller units that are sources of taxes and labor as well as repositories for certain kinds of obligations that might otherwise require state support.

Thus ancient states systematically narrowed the familial and political rights of extended kin networks and restricted the right of nuclear households to seek aid from clan or community groups, while early modern states increasingly protected the household head from outside interference with his prerogatives by kin, neighbors, or informal community institutions. Simultaneously, as the family was cut off from alternative arenas of political action, social welfare and mutual aid, it became more dependent upon state support and more vulnerable to state direction.(11)

American capitalism has fostered an especially intimate, albeit deeply conflicted, relationship between the private family and the public state. Colonial families had almost no concept of privacy. Testimony in court cases, for example, reveals that colonial people took for granted a daily interference in “private” or “family” matters by neighbors, servants and community leaders that would horrify modern reactionaries who delude themselves that a man’s home was once his castle.

Even the middle-class white families who invented domesticity and waxed eloquent about the oasis of home in the early 19th century were very limited in the privacy they accorded to family life. Same-sex associations remained important throughout the 19th century; female ties of friendship and kinship cut across the couple relationship, limiting its intensity; and middle-class family life was closely associated with the rise of public institutions. Not until after the Civil War did American domesticity mandate neighbors and religious groups to stay out of “private life.”(12)

The inventors of the ideal of the nuclear family were also the most ardent supporters of the growth of state educational systems and penal or welfare institutions—and for the same reasons: both state institutions and private families were seen as the best defenders of private property and capitalist work habits; both also handled dependencies without involving the “corrupting” personal relations involved in asking or giving charity. The self-sufficient family, supplemented when necessary by the impersonal state, would replace inconvenient social interdependencies that involved more grassroots relationships of reciprocity and obligation.

Henry Ward Beecher, preacher par excellence of Gilded Age middle-class values, explicitly put forward the family as a substitute for earlier notions of social responsibility, offering this ingenious answer to those who, he admitted, might well have “scruples” about withdrawing from wider social obligations:

“The family is the digesting organ of the body politic. The very way to feed the community is to feed the family. This is the point of contact for each man with the society in which he lives. Through the family chiefly we are to act upon society. Money contributed there is contributed to the whole.(13)

When poor families failed to thrive on this kind of nourishment, state welfare institutions were considered preferable to self-organization or inter-class reciprocity in providing a modicum of relief.

It is true, of course, that neither self-organization nor inter-class reciprocity had been providing adequate relief to the growing numbers of destitute in the 19th century. Nor did they pose any challenge to the economic dynamics of capitalist trade cycles, unemployment, overproduction and the like.

It is also true that middle-class charity and even working-class self-organization often perpetuated sharp racial and gender inequities, forcing women, Blacks and others to subordinate their needs to a false and unjust “community good.”

There were thus several progressive, or at least necessary, aspects to the development of state education and welfare institutions. But it is important to understand that the twin ideals of an economically and emotionally self-sufficient private family and a bureaucratically organized state were alternatives to the cooperative, egalitarian visions found in some sectors of the workers’ movement and even among many middle-class utopians.

Both state institutions and private families in America were constructed in opposition to other forms of solidarity and mutual aid. Both were put forward to foster not individuality but individualism (to borrow a distinction suggested by Walt Whitman). They were conceived as substitutes for reform of productive relations. And they were mutually dependent in their origins and evolution.

At the turn of the century, for example, the evil of “promiscuous” social interactions and the threat these posed to family privacy, as defined by middle-class reformers, were principal justifications for construction of a state apparatus. Some of the earliest state agencies were set up to foster—or require—middle-class family norms among immigrants and the working class.

Calls for the sanctity of the private family often acted as a cover for issues of class control. Reformers embarked on a sustained campaign against boarding and lodging, setting up licensing criteria for lower-class housing that prohibited co-residence of subfamilies and sending out social workers to educate about the evils of having “strangers” in the bosom of the family.

Single-family zoning laws were used to block construction of cooperative housing or group homes. Public relief was given only to households that restricted all pooling to the nuclear family. (Food stamps are still denied to people who cannot show that they have separate places to store and prepare food. Similarly, as late as 1974 the Supreme Court upheld zoning laws prohibiting co-residence of people unrelated by blood or marriage.)

Despite some laudable goals, early 2Dth-century reformers inserted a constricted, privatized definition of “a worthy family” into state policy and explicitly penalized any sociability or collective action occurring beyond the family. Lower-class youth groups were a particular target of the reformers, in part because such groups acted with more militancy than their parents were able to get away with during strikes and disturbances.

Thus authorities engaged in what one author has called “the invention of juvenile delinquency,” which circumvented normal legal rights in order to impose middle-class standards of behavior on youth. Acts that were not illegal but which offended middle-class sensibilities—congregating on street corners or at dance halls, for example, gambling, even “lack of ambition to become something worthy”—became evidence of delinquency, and youths could be committed to institutions for these sins. The majority of females brought before the juvenile courts were charged with non-criminal sexual offenses.

‘Pro-family” reformers enthusiastically eliminated legal and administrative restrictions on court officials and social workers, empowering them to make arbitrary judgments as to whether a youth was “pre-delinquent,” a family was “decent,” or a widow was” morally fit” to receive a pension enabling her to keep her children at home.

Indeterminate sentences in reformatories further expanded the power of bureaucrats to discipline individuals whose ideas about family life and gender roles departed from the middle-class norm.(14) (As late as 1964! worked in a state institution—an unusually progressive one, incidentally—where three of our long-term commitments were there for “promiscuity” with tacked-on time for acting out against incarceration or attempting to run away.)

Debates over the relation between state and family tend to ignore the mutual if not always amicable role of nuclear family and extended state in enforcing the private nature of capitalist production and the impersonal nature of capitalist exchange. The relation between family and state in perpetuating the capitalist work order stands revealed in the way that welfare developed in America. America led the world in instituting mothers’ pensions for “decent” women lacking a male breadwinner, but lagged way behind other industrializing nations in instituting unemployment insurance or other programs for so-called able-bodied, nondependent men. Means-tested programs associated with “abnormal” family situations were considered vastly preferable to entitlement programs for individuals, regardless of family position.

Meanwhile, the family wage, originally developed as a critique of wage-work, became in the early 1900s both a defense of gender privilege in the private family and a state policy for containing wider unionization. Mothers’ pensions and the “family wage” worked together to build the myth that normal families could be self-reliant as long as they contained a male breadwinner. As Eli Zaretsky points out, a certain alienated kind of private life and state life developed together, because both were severed from recognition of the social interdependencies involved in production and community organization.(15)

The growth of family privacy in America was linked to the development of monopoly capitalism, not only through mass production and consumption, but also through the growth of the interventionist state. Privacy was initially imposed on working families through the campaign of reformers and police against boarding lodging lower-class peer-group associations and neighborhood sociability, however attractive such privacy has since come to seem to those families.

At a later period privacy was sponsored for middle-class families by state development of highway systems and sewers, government loans for home ownership, and other infrastructural support for suburbanization. (Tax subsidies for home ownership, for example, totaled $42.4 billion in 1986, as compared to only $14.3 billion in federal expenditures for low-income housing assistance.) The privacy so achieved has had many unintended consequences and contradictions, but this does not mean that there is any basic incompatibility between family privacy and state expansion.

Aid to Families with Dependent Children policies, which have so often forced families to split up as a condition for receiving aid, are a good illustration of the contradictions and compatibilities: In one sense the state destroys nuclear families here, but it also reinforces the norm and social function of the private nuclear family by making an abnormal family a condition for receiving help. The policy justifies all kinds of additional state intervention on the grounds of the “family pathology” its own actions have fostered.

Yet such intervention frequently perpetuates the private nuclear family even when it also undermines traditional family prerogatives, especially those of the male parent Conservatives are correct in observing that AFDC policies encourage unwed teen mothers to setup their own households instead of remaining in their parents’, but this is only the tip of a structural problem that forces many working and unemployed people to choose between life in an extended family with their parents and life in a truncated single-parent family. State policies here create only a deformed and fragile alternative to the traditional nuclear family, an alternative so primed to fail that its existence merely magnifies the mythical qualities of that traditional family.(16)

I want to end by suggesting that the crisis of the family in the modern United States is inseparable from the general crisis of liberalism. Liberalism’s insistence on individual rights and formal, contractual equality was a powerful weapon against the structural inequalities and hierarchies of precapitalist social formations and ideologies.

However, liberalism contains no program for combatting the degradation of human relations in a society once the extension of democracy has destroyed coercive interpersonal fetters on the commodification of social intercourse and the spread of the market has rooted out the little corners of personal life that were once kept separate from contracts and contract disputes. This is one reason that many who abhor the conservative-political and economic program nonetheless find the conservative moral critique of modern capitalism compelling.

Production and exchange in every society prior to capitalism—of goods, people, services or emotions—were not separable from concrete personal relations. The personal relations could be as unfair as slavery or feudal dues or as intricately balanced as the gift networks and hospitality rules of unranked kinship societies, but they were never divorced from relations of dependency and obligation.

Gift-giving, for example, established a relationship that was alternately one-sided, and therefore more permanent than a more “even” relationship in which accounts are always settled so that one or the other party can leave at any time. Among the Bushman, giving an immediate return for any offering implies a profound insult, for such an act suggests that one is unwilling to be obligated, uninterested in bearing the burden of obligation that helps a relationship persist through time. Rather, the recipient waits for a decent amount of time and eventually returns a gift that is slightly larger, putting the original donor into obligation for the future.

Institutions such as the Kula exchange networks of the Trobriand Islanders or the funeral ceremonies of early Native Americans extended such principles of reciprocity and continuity over much greater distances and periods of time. In such societies it is an anti-social act to refuse a gift and the obligation a gift entails—a fact that may explain why some languages come to refer to gifts and poison in the same terms. (This suggests fascinating analogies with our ambivalent attitudes toward sex, one exchange that cannot be completely reduced to contract, despite the market in personal advertising and singles matchmaking.)

Such interpersonal mechanisms of organizing reciprocity and obligation, of course, have tremendous potential for abuse. While many societies retained non-coercive, egalitarian practices of reciprocity right up until the 20th century, others developed at a fairly early period inequalities of gender, social status and wealth that transformed these exchanges into pervasive systems of domination.

Ranked kinship societies used patron/client relations, marriage rules and age hierarchies to extract surplus production and personal servility from women, juniors, “strangers” or “barbarians.” Ancient states extended these servile relations into permanent, hereditary slavery. Feudal-type social formations subordinated the majority of the population through personal networks of violence and degradation as well as more formal class institutions and inegalitarian ideologies.

In such societies, “obligation” came to mean the duty to produce surplus for the rulers, dependence meant the subordination of the poor in every aspect of their lives, and while lack of privacy often signified community solidarities it also underlined the coercive power of interpersonal hierarchies. It is worth noting, however, that precapitalist resistance movements did not claim privacy or lack of obligation as a right. They insisted, rather, that obligation must be mutual, that dependence should evoke assistance not humiliation, and that lack of privacy should extend to the property and power of the rich.

Capitalism created a new political and interpersonal as well as a new economic commensurability among goods and people, leading to a decrease in socially imposed obligation and inequality but also to a concomitant denial of the inevitable oscillation of dependence and obligation in our daily life—as if we were all equally capable at all times of being self-supporting economic animals.

Equality became defined, C.B. Macpherson points out, in terms of self-ownership–ownership of one’s own labor, one’s person—and freedom denoted lack of dependence, the right not to be obligated to others.(17) This definition allowed bourgeois reformers to fight heroic battles against slavery without in anyway opposing the social and economic inequalities of wage labor Liberty came to mean privacy; personal dignity came to mean immunity from social claims on one’s wealth or time. Ironically, some of the most important reforms of capitalism were gained on this basis: not because people were felt to have some social interdependency but because they were entitled to the property rights of self-ownership (of their body, credit card, vote, or whatever).

The importance of these gains in personal freedom (and the need to preserve most of them in a socialist society) should not blind us to the limiting nature of capitalism’s definition of private rights, nor to its potential for extension into a total denial of obligation, interdependence and social responsibility. It is that potential that right-wing theorists have always sought to evade by their insistence that someone or something be a repository for social obligation and dependence. Historically, they have assigned women the role of taking care of obligation and dependence; this is the basis of their family policy.

But liberals are just as limited when in opposing the coercion of women into such roles they project all dependence onto the poor, assigning the obligation for it to the state, and confine the notion of mutual assistance to a family, however defined, for which they demand state aid.

Whatever the limits of 1960s feminism, its great contribution to socialist thought lay in its identification of both family and state with patriarchy and repression and its implicit suggestion that neither one can reform the other. Rather, mutual obligation and interdependence must be built into both work relations and personal relations, extending beyond the family and alongside, independent of, the state—including the so-called socialist or workers’ states.

Socialists need to rediscover ways of presenting the vision that made feminism so powerful in its early period—the picture it was able to paint of alternative ways of organizing human interdependence. We need to seek strategies that speak to the moral and personal crises of social reproduction in modern capitalism, many of which revolve around what we owe to others and what we can expect from others.

Historically, socialists used to talk about obligations as well as rights, people’s communal duties as well as their personal rewards. Such is the meaning of slogans about taking from each according to ability, giving to each according to need. Stalinist distortions of these slogans have rightly made us wary of abstract proclamations about the need to sacrifice for the “common good.” But have we also not been influenced too much by the bourgeois rhetoric of individual rights? Surely we should not abandon the notion of a “commonwealth,” with all the personal responsibility that implies.

I am not suggesting that we make demands on individuals instead of on the state. Indeed, there are clearly a number of areas in which we have to expand our demands for entitlement programs. But we have to seek ways of doing so that suggest alternative ways of organizing the state, that project our vision of interpersonal as well as social responsibilities, and that speak to people’s need for new moral guidelines and social obligations. For example, we need to think through our notion of what nationalization or workers’ control of industry would involve and try to show how we could build recognition of dependence and obligation into the actual relations of production. When we argue for childcare we should point out the advantage of building childcare centers at work, so that parents can take breaks with their children if they choose.

Similarly, when we support abortion rights we should do so not on the basis of a right to privacy but on grounds that women need a whole array of reproductive rights and possibilities to lead fulfilling and socially responsible lives. Both women and men need sex education, access to new reproductive technology, childcare, contraception and abortion because society is better off when people have enough control over their lives to plan responsibly for the future. Our aim, after all, is to decrease the necessity for abortion whenever possible as well as to eliminate unwanted motherhood, for recourse to abortion is often associated with a lack of other options for controlling one’s body and planning for the future. That is why battered women are eight times more likely than others to seek abortions and why America has the highest abortion rate in the western industrial world.

Sweden, bete noir of the right wing, is the only western industrial country that liberalized its abortion laws and at the same time decreased both teen birth-rates and abortions. It did so by linking an absolute right to abortion with extensive sex education in the schools, free and confidential contraception, frank treatment of sexuality; a nonjudgmental attitude toward unwed motherhood, and social support for working parents.

Feminists and socialists should be discussing what kinds of demands we can raise that put pressure on the state to help those in need while simultaneously projecting a vision of self-organization and mutual support Concentration on a family policy can only distract us from that task.

But this does not mean that we should associate ourselves with a radical bourgeois critique of family life that fails to present an alternative notion of collectivity and continuity. Some traditional Native American council meetings included a representative for “the seventh generation yet unborn.” This is a totally different concept than the right wing’s individualistic “rights of the fetus,” and suggests an attitude that socialists would do well to invoke, not only in our environmental work, where it has obvious applications, but in our vision of how a decent society would operate.


  1. Unless otherwise noted, statistics here and elsewhere in the essay come from: Women’s Economic Agenda Project, (Oakland, 1987); The Olympian, Feb 21,1985; “Life at the Edge,” Consumer Reports, June, July and August, 1987; The Olympian, December 16, 1987; A Growing Crisis: Disadvantaged Women and Their Children, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, May 1983; Children’s Defense Fund, October 1986; Sheldon Danziger and Daniel Weinberg, Fighting Poverty: What Works and What Doesn’t (Cambridge, MA, 1987).
    back to text
  2. Ruth Milkman, “Women’s Work and the Economic Crisis: Some Lessons from the Great Depression,” in Nancy Cott and Elizabeth Pleck, A Heritage of Her Own (New York, 1979); Laura Owen, “The Welfare of Women in Laboring Families: England, 1860-1950,” Feminist Studies I (1973).
    back to text
  3. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Shortchanged: Recent Developments in Hispanic Poverty, Income and Employment,” (236 Massachusetts Ave, NE, Suite 305, Washington, DC, X00Z 1988). This organization has excellent data on causes of and recent trends in income inequality, which is currently at its highest point in forty years.
    back to text
  4. William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass and Public Policy (Chicago, 1987).
    back to text
  5. James Coleman, “Families and Schools,” Educational Researcher 16 (1987) 32-38; Johanna Brenner and Nancy Holmstrom, “Autonomy, Community Women’s Rights,” The Year Left: An American Socialist Yearbook (London, 1985) 254 and 261, note 31.
    back to text
  6. Stephanie Coontz and Peta Henderson, “Property Forms, Political Power, and Female Labour in the Origins of Class and State Societies,” in Coontz and Henderson, editors, Women’s Work, Men’s Property (London, 1986) 116-119; Brenner and Holmstrom, “Autonomy, Community, Women’s Rights,” 294.
    back to text
  7. “New Directions,” Journal of Home Economies, May 1975.
    back to text
  8. Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged (New York, 1979); Jacques Donzelot, The Policing of Families (New York, 1979).
    back to text
  9. Linda Gordon, Heroes of Their Own Lives: The Polities and History of Family Violence (New York, 1988) 295 and passim.
    back to text
  10. John Demos, Past, Present, and Personal: The Family and the Life Course in American History (New York, 1986) 68-91; Colleen McGrath, “The Crisis of the Domestic Order,” Socialist Review 43 (1979) 23, 21.
    back to text
  11. Sherry Ortner, “The Virgin and the State,” Michigan Discussions in Anthropology 2(1976); Coontz and Henderson,”Property Forms, Political Power and Female Labour,” 148-55; Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarcy (New York, 1987); Philippe Aries, Centuries of Childhood (New York, 1962); Lawrence Stone, The Family, Ses and Marriage in England (New York, 1997); Viana Muller, “The Formation of the State and the Oppression of Women,” Review of Radical Political Economics 9 (1977); Mary McIntosh, “The State and the Oppression of Women,” Feminism and Historical Materialism, Annette Kuhn and AnnMarie Wolpe, editors (London, 1976); Mary Ryan, “The Explosion of Family History,” The Promise of American History: Progress and Prospects, Stanley Kutler and Stanley Katz, editors (Baltimore, 1982.
    back to text
  12. These points are documented and developed in my book, The Social Origins of Private Life: A History of American Families, 1600-1900 (London, 1988) esp. chapters 5-7.
    back to text
  13. William Gerald McLoughlin, The Meaning of Henry Ward Beecher: An Essay on the Shifting Values of Mid-Victorian America, 1840-1870 (New York 1970) 115-6 (emphasis added). See also: Michael B. Katz, “Origins of the Institutional State,” Marxist Perspectives, Winter 1978; Eli Zaretsky, “The Place of the Family in the Origins of the Welfare State,” Rethinking the Family, Barrie Thorne with Marilyn Yalom, editors (New York, 1982).
    back to text
  14. Anthony Platt, The Child Savers: The Invention of Delinquency (Chicago, 1969); David Rothman, Conscience and Convenience: The Asylum and its Alternatives in Progressive America (Boston, 1980); Willard Gaylin et al, Doing Good. The Limits of Benevolence (New York, 1978); Mimi Abamovitz, Regulating the Lives of Women (Boston, 1988).
    back to text
  15. Martha May, “Bread Before Roses,” Women, Work and Protest, Ruth Milkman, editor (Boston, 1985); Zaretsky, “Place of the Family.”
    back to text
  16. Mary Ryan, “The Explosion of Family History,” The Promise of American History 189; Johanna Brenner and Maria Ramas, “Rethinking Women’s Oppression, New Left Review 144 (1984).
    back to text
  17. C. B. Macpherson, “The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism (New York, 1962).
    back to text

September-October 1989, ATC 22