The institution of the family is the knot where many threads merge. The family plays a key role in maintaining women's oppression. We can't simply "abolish" the family, thus ridding ourselves of the misery. The family "organizes" the mechanisms which oppress women in society, and it hides them beneath the ideology of love's voluntary fellowship.
A portion of the work that is necessary for recreating the labor power takes place in the family. And precisely because it does take place in the family, it appears as something that women do solely for themselves and those closest to them. Because of this they work hard and altruistically without material rewards.
In the family the old and sick are cared for, people who, in the eyes of capitalism are "social waste", just an expenditure which gives no type of return. Because the family (women) care for them, capital avoids paying, at the same time they avoid the shocking sight of helpless people laying and dying on the streets. This too can be done by mobilizing women's spirit of self-sacrifice, duty and care towards their own. The work she does, therefore becomes something beyond any economic calculation.
The "buffer function" is ensured in the family: when public services are reduced or become too expensive, the woman can replace them with her own work. If the family's income is reduced, either by pay reduction or unemployment, the woman can, at least partially, replace the missing income with her own, unpaid labor. In this way the effects of the capitalistic crisis do not appear as garish as they otherwise would have.
The family also makes the woman into an "supplemental labor force" which presupposes a "main provider". She then becomes extra cheap labor power on the labor market. It is not only women who have a "main provider" who become extra cheap. All women are affected, whether they live alone, together with a man or together with a woman, whether they have a provider, or not.
This also places economic pressure on women who live in a family because it is close to impossible to support themselves and any children on a woman's wage. It is thus assured that the greatest number possible of women live within the institution where the man receives the clearest, most direct advantages of women's oppression. In the family, even the most wretched man is the "head of the household". He may be a zero in the rest of society, but in the family he receives his reward. Because of this he is a little less keen to change the system.
A central part of the socialization of new generations into "female" and "male" people takes place in the family. Everything is covered by an ideological veil which makes the family something holy and exalted: the result of two people's mutual love and their voluntary decision to share their lives because that is the ultimate human happiness. Presented in this way it seems like an evil conspiracy. But of course it is not. The institution of the family, as we know it today, is a result of a long historical process where both the economic, social and ideological conditions have played a role. I won't be delving very far into this here. I will be concentrating on the family's current function.
The family is primarily an economic unit. This was more obvious in the past than it is now. In the chapter about housework I wrote about how capitalism divided housework and production into two different forms of work which are carried out within different institutional frameworks. There were probably differences between housework and production earlier also. But both of these forms took place within the family. and the housewife had jobs which were directly and indirectly a part of production. On the farms she participated in farm work, in places where servants were hired (also in craftsmen families) she had the responsibility for the housework that was necessary for the servants to receive what they needed to live.
The fact that the division between housework and production becomes more diffuse when both take place within the same institutional framework is reflected in the recent discussion among farming women. The women in agriculture want the status of "farmer", not just "farmer's wife". But on what basis can they make the demand for this status? What part, of all the work that takes place on a farm, is the work that is a necessary part of production? And what is "housework"? When the farmer's wife makes food for the men who work the fields, is she a cafeteria supervisor or a housewife? The opinions differ. But the whole discussion is unthinkable if we transfer it to the industrial workers.
The family's position as an economic unit was also clearer earlier on because the family did not have the same social and emotional functions as now. Frønes (1981) claims that in the feudal villages the family was more of a labor and survival unit than an emotional unit. The emotional ties between spouses and between parents and children were not as strong as now, and the collective village life satisfied many of the needs for social interaction, closeness and belonging which the family covers today.
Though the family's economic function is less obvious today, this does not mean that it has disappeared. Capitalism's development has lead to a number of economic functions being removed from the family. But there are many left! One only has to look at the share of society's total labor which takes place within the framework of the family, Time budget studies in 1972 calculated that the total number of hours that were used on labor in the home was 20% greater than the total hours put into paid labor. A French study from 1975 calculated that the total number of hours used in the home was 30% greater than the total number of hours used in paid labor (as referred in Scott, 1984). The numbers may have changed somewhat, but it should nevertheless be clear that the family must still have important economic functions.
I have previously written about what these functions consist of: it is the labor that is necessary for recreating the labor power; it is taking care of the people who, from capital's point of view, are "social waste"; and it is what I have called the "buffer function". Because society is organized around the principle of private support (though it is somewhat modified by public insurance and welfare benefits), the family also has the function of being the "natural" provider unit. In modern Belgium, hard hit by crisis, this finds expression in the authorities' reduction of unemployment benefits for unemployed who are married or cohabiting with a person who is employed.
In the last decades important changes have taken place in family patterns. The ideal family of the 50's, with a working father, a mother who stayed home, and two or more children, is reduced to a minority. In large numbers, women have entered paid labor. The number of divorces has increased and cohabitation without legal bonds has become commonplace. Open gay and lesbian partnerships have also become more common. The number of single providers, primarily women, has also increased. Some are saying that the family is heading towards disintegration.
In terms of the family as an economic unit, this is definitely not the case. The family is still a private system of support, and a unit where unpaid labor is conducted. Female single providers have not "abolished" the family, it doesn't disappear even if the man disappears. The only thing that happens is that the woman is left alone with the work. She has to do all the caring for and cleaning, while at the same time she has to support herself and the kids, and that on a "supplemental wage".
Countries like Nicaragua are a good example of the fact that the family does not disappear even when the man does. In Nicaragua the percentage of single female providers is very high, nearly half of all mothers. The revolutionary government is attempting to solve this problem (which is a large poverty problem) through campaigns for "responsible fatherhood". In other words, they are trying to force the fathers to take economic responsibility for the children they helped to bring into the world. The principle of private support is maintained, and the government attempts to get men to take their share of the commitments within the framework of the family as an economic unit.
In the bible it is stated that God is man's head, but man is woman's head. Therefore, it is the woman's duty to subordinate herself to the man's spiritual authority.
But it is not only the man's spiritual authority towards which the woman should be subordinate. The family is also a link in society's worldly hierarchy. Earlier, this was expressed through unmarried women being under their father's guardianship, married women under the husband's. A part of the marriage ritual was the command that a woman should obey her husband. It is not long since official questionnaires had a space for the "head of the household". Externally, in terms of authorities and other official persons, it was, and for the most part still is, the man who represents the family as the "head of the household".
The man had, and has, a physical means of power at his disposal. Previously the physical use of power by the "head of the household" was legalized and institutionalized as "domestic discipline". In our days this type of physical power is seen as more and more illegitimate, at least in societies like Norway. But the abuse of women within the family is still not regarded in the same way as other violent crimes, rather it is classified as "a household disturbance" and is protected by "the right to privacy". It has been difficult to get the police and social authorities to act. Snare, Olafsdottir and Peltoniemi sum up the results of Nordic research in this area in this way (1983, p.224):
"The abuse of women has been allowed to remain a "non-existing" problem. The social authorities' passive attitude is linked to the view of the family as a unit which has the right to live on it's own terms. Simultaneously a non-interventionist policy has been linked to the idea of preserving the core family."
Control over the economic resources is also an important means of power. Moxnes shows what this can mean in a family where the wife does not participate in paid labor, when she quotes sections of her interviews where divorced woman tell about their marriages (1981, p. 94-95):
"He went to the shopkeeper and said that I was a totally wastrel, so we had to keep writing it on the tab. The guy said okay. Every Saturday he wrote a check for exactly the amount I had on tab, but only after I had gone through every single item on the bill."
"People who have never gone through it, could never understand what it means to never have a single Crown that you can use on yourself. When my daughter went to music school we got the money for the bus, but I couldn't get 1.50 NOK for a cup of coffee while I sat and waited for her. The kids never came and nagged me for money either, because they knew that I didn't have a single Crown. If they were going to do something that cost money they had to plan it in advance so that they could ask their father for money."
Even when the wife is in paid labor, it is usually the man who controls most of the economic resources, since he often both works a full day and has higher pay than his wife. But regardless of the economic pattern, studies show that the man takes a larger portion of the family's total resources for his personal disposition and use than the woman. This is in part an expression of the man's greater economic power, and of the ideology that women should sacrifice themselves for other family members, and thereby be last in line when the resources are handed out (see Whitehead, 1984).
The man's position as the "head of the household" is, then, solidly anchored in economic conditions, in the (partially accepted) physical power at his disposal, and in worldly and religious norms. The family is an institution where ordinary men are rewarded for being a tool which assists in society's oppression of women. Therefore, the family becomes particularly important for "corrupting" men of the working people, and making them into collaborators for the existing society. It is not for nothing that authoritarian and socially preserving political movements always emphasize the family's importance for society's stability and contentment. The family is also crucial for the socialization of new people into an "obvious" and "natural" hierarchy, thereby making the existence of superior and inferior relations seem just as "obvious" and "natural".
Today, however, there is talk of equality in the family. "The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and reduced the family relation to a mere money relation" wrote Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto, in a section where they claim that capitalism is replacing all the traditional, emotional ties with naked, cold buying and selling. Here, Marx and Engels were wrong. Capitalism does not have less use for beautifying ideologies which cover up exploitation and power relationships than other class societies. "A purely monetary relation" is the last thing that the family stands out as, the economic functions are well-hidden behind the voluntary love union. Today it is also necessary to mask the family's function as an institution where men have power over women for the benefit of the existing society. It is only the half-mad outsider groups like the Christian, charismatic movement that currently openly support this ideology in its full breadth.
Men's open use of power is no longer accepted in many social environments. What happens? In an article about the changes in the relationship between women and men, Hanne Haavind writes (1985, p. 38):
"Therefore it is correct that the modern woman can do anything, but only as long as she does it subordinately in relation to the men with whom she deals. The chances for her being positively acknowledged as a woman, that is to say, appreciated, are greatest if she herself contributes to this relative subordination looking like something other than subordination. She has the responsibility for experiencing and presenting it as something she wants and seeks in accordance with her own personal characteristics. Thereby his superiority will not appear as illegitimate domination, but as personal qualities which she particularly appreciates. In other words it is all right if a woman is intellectual and self-assertive just so along as it doesn't affect men, if she, for example, chooses a partner that exceeds her in this way. /.../ The fact that two people love each other, is obviously the best way to make dominance and subordination look like something else. But also in all the other contexts where men and women associate, there is the underlying assumption that they should appreciate each other as men and women. The love relation becomes a form of prototype for association, also when the aim of the interaction isn't finding each other or being each other's partner."
Of course, real changes have occurred in the power relations between the sexes in the family. But the main structure, with the man as the "head", has not changed, though it has become more veiled. One reason for this is that the individual man has a lot to lose in the event of radical changes in power relations. But just as important is the fact that the power relation in the family is a fairly significant link in the maintenance of power relations in society, with the bourgeoisie on the top and the working class on the bottom.
Many, both women and men, feel threatened by the kind of description of the family that I presented above. It is an attack on their last place of refuge. The last decade's women's research (and literature and psychology prior to that) has certainly uncovered that there are a lot of unpleasant events taking place in "home sweet home", but where else can we warm ourselves?
In his poetry collection Nightly open Rolf Jacobsen has a beautiful poem about how he feels when his wife dies. The poem goes like this:
"Two hands were like a house
Move in here.
No rain, no frost, no fear.
I have lived in the house
without rain, without frost, without fear
until time came and tore it down.
Now I am out on the roads again.
My coat is thin. It looks
The poem can be read as a description of an important aspect of the female role in our society. The woman is expected to provide the man with shelter. But it can also be read as a poem about the family, about how painful it is to be "out on the roads again". The fact that it is painful, especially for men, can be seen in the fate often suffered by divorced men if they are not successful in quickly remarrying: loneliness, health problems, alcoholism. This sad picture of divorced men is partially due to the expenses often associated with divorce, and the fact that men aren't trained to look after themselves in a practical manner. But it is also a question of caring, consideration, social contact and personal closeness, which the family sets out to ensure and to varying degrees ensures. The isolated, privatized family is expected to carry most of the burden of satisfying our needs for valuable human contact. There are few good alternatives. Living in a family can be awful. But living without, is often worse.
The development of the family has meant that this institution has received ever increasing emotional functions. This is the actual development, not just empty ideology. The feudal villages' open, non-privatized community is gone. Perhaps it is also of importance that society has become so secularized. The church was an oppressive and suffocating power in the Middle Ages. But perhaps religion also fulfilled the need for devotion, ecstasy, sincerity, intensity and close human contact. Now the love of God must be replaced by the love of man. In our society love is something that primarily belongs to the family.
Because the family has these kinds of real, emotional functions, the ideology of voluntary love-union receives increased validity. It is based on something that people can recognize. But at the same time it hides the family's economic, political and oppressive functions and "the union of love" is blown up beyond reasonable proportions.
When emotional closeness and love become the only legitimate explanation for the existence of the family, each individual family becomes more vulnerable. The alliance between woman and man should be built on falling in love, romantic love. No other reason for entering into a relationship as a couple is accepted. The idea of romantic love emerged in the Age of Chivalry, totally separated from marriage and the family as an institution. Romantic love was not something one primarily experienced towards one's betrothed or marital partner. There were other, more down to earth, reasons that guided that choice.
But love can end, and one can fall in love again. Living with a partner other than the one one is in love with at the moment, is seen as almost a sin. At least it is not very satisfying, when the whole explanation for a life together is love and personal closeness. This is why we experience the phenomenon of "serial monogamy" where people marry and divorce in an unending row as love comes and then dies. It begins to look as if the ideological superstructure for the justification of the family as an institution, has begun to live its own life and to guide people's behavior on the marital market.
It is not quite that easy, (or complicated) though one should not underestimate the independent power of ideology to influence people's actions. "Serial monogamy" has several causes. Changes in women's situation have made it easier for them to break out of oppressive relationships (it is often the woman who takes the initiative for divorce). The economic, social and emotional problems associated with living alone seem, however, to push many quickly into new family relationships. Men often make new connections more quickly than women. This could be connected with the fact that a "used" man has more value on the marital market than a "used" woman, and he has a greater opportunity to get out there where bonds are tied than the divorced woman, who often ends up with the main responsibility for the children. But it is most likely also because the reward of familylife is greater, and the costs less, for men than for women. Good alternatives don't exist. An English study (referred in Ingham, 1984) showed that 56% of a sample of divorced men who were interviewed, stated that their network of friends had become weaker or broken down totally after their divorce (probably a result of the fact that it is the woman who organizes the family's social contact and maintains their network). Nearly two out of three also felt that their careers suffered seriously during the divorce because of bad living conditions and poor health. Though the family plays the main role in women's lives in a different way than in men's, it looks as if it is the man who suffers the most when the relationship disintegrates. This is a sign of how the man's "strength" rests on the woman's shoulders.
But the concept of the family as an institution which primarily exists in order to provide people with closeness, happiness and reciprocal caring, gives women yet another reason to start searching for a more satisfying relationship than the one they are living in at the moment. Differences in women's and men's emotional structure, which is due to their socialization to fulfill different functions in society, cause difficulties for the satisfaction of women's needs and longings in their relationships with men. Ericsson, Lundby and Rudberg have described it in this way (1985, p.71):
"Men's and women's psychology becomes different in such a way that the meeting between them must become unsatisfying and difficult. It is common that women complain about a lack of emotional response from men. The longing to be cared for and receive closeness is not met. Often the man does not even understand what the woman demands of him. One reason that he does not understand is that his own need to be cared for, recognized and given attention, is satisfied to a much larger extent, because he has a professional care worker in the home who takes care of this side of his life as a matter of course. One who is full up has difficulty in understanding how hunger feels. We have found that another reason is women's difficulty in formulating their needs clearly and unambiguously, as it conflicts with her identity as selfless and giving. And though the man vaguely feels what she wants, he does not know how to give it to her, she demands that he do something that he hasn't learned! This leads to insecurity, helplessness and frustrated anger. In addition we have the threat that lies in closeness and intimacy, the threat of losing control and being devoured. On her side, the woman interprets the man's lack of ability to give her what she longs for as love on the breaking point. The man does not want to meet her on this. For women it is difficult to understand that men don't understand what women are asking for, and they don't know how to give it. They feel emotionally used in their relationship to men."
It is not surprising that "relational problems" abound. The real content in family as an institution is hidden, and the emotional function is blown out of proportion. But the emotional side of the family is in itself so laden with conflicts that it is no wonder that it provides material for numerous relational problems. Nonetheless, a critical analysis of the family seems threatening for most of us. Because the family gives us something real, something important that it is difficult to live without. And "out on the roads" it is cold, and it looks like snow.
Few other social institutions appear as "natural" as the family: Western anthropologists, who in the last half of the previous century began studying other cultures, were often unable to conceive how it was possible to organize in ways other than the family form that they knew. Observations were interpreted into the framework of this family form. Sometimes it went so far that they refused to see what they saw. Evelyn Reed quotes Westermarck from 1893 (Reed 1978, p.93):
"Marriage occurs in several of the lower species of animals, is the rule among humanlike apes, and is universal within humanity. This is closely connected to parental duties - the immediate care for the offspring falls primarily on the mother, while the father supports and protects the family /.../ Marriage among primates appears to be due to the low number of offspring and the long period in which they must be cared for. Later, when the human race began to primarily survive on meat, the full-grown man's help became even more essential for the offspring, since hunting, everywhere, is the man's function. The supposition that the offspring's protector in a distant past was not the father, but the mother's brother, is just as factually unsupported as the claim that all members of the clan were their protectors."
Today's family therapists have similar "natural" attitudes towards the family. It is strange that a professional group which through their own practice has seen how much unpleasantness, madness and perversity that takes place in a family, (and which according to the family therapist's own opinion is due to mechanisms in the family system itself) so rarely questions the family as a social institution. Haley's description of the schizophrenic family awakens certain associations to the family's social function (1969, p. 149): "a sort of formless, bizarre despair under a coating of great hopes and good intentions, which cover a deadly power struggle and appear in the shape of endless confusion."
Family therapists were the last to discover phenomena like wife-battering and incest. Maybe "discover" isn't the word, because they knew that they occurred. But they weren't defined as abuse. Incest and wife battering were a result of interaction in the family, and therefore no alarm was sent out. It was the women's movement, with their perspectives on oppression, that were the ones who "discovered" what was going on.
Literature on family therapy is full of examples of this double talk, ambiguous communication, impenetrable conditions, insolvable conflicts, magical rituals and evil power struggles, perpetually repeated, destructive patterns of action. It is a shame that this knowledge has never been used to analyze the family's function in society, and the consequences that this has for life in the family. This is truly a subject that is searching an author!
The family is an institution where the systematic application of power takes place under the cover of free will and love. In the worst cases it can go as far as long-term, gross torture. But also in the cases where the application of power takes place on a more acceptable level, it sets rules which are neither easy to live by nor easy to break. I have earlier referred to which rules Hanne Haavind sees as applying to modern women: the message to the modern woman is that she must subordinate herself to the man, but it has to be chosen and voluntary subordination which appears as something else. In the family it should appear to be love. An example of the "double talk" which is used in literature about family therapy, is the mother signalizing to her child that she wants the child to spontaneously carry out her wishes. The child should, totally independently, on its own initiative, carry out the mother's orders. (Haley 1982, p. 28.) This kind of "double talk" is assumed to lead to emotional disturbances and bizarre behavior. But ,the very central premise for the relation between man and woman in the family is this type of "double talk". The woman must subordinate herself, but it should be voluntary.
Another concept that is used in family therapeutic literature is the "family myth" (See Ferreira 1967). A family myth is an often totally irrational idea, that family members cooperate on maintaining, because it is central to holding the family system together. If the family myth is challenged, it often has dramatic consequences. Simultaneously the family myth has its price: the family system is held together by a distortion of reality and forms of interaction which are in line with this distortion. The family myth's enormous importance in a family's life can only be fully understood when one sees how each member of the family struggles to sustain a family myth. In some families it seems as though the myth is the only thread which prevents the family from completely unraveling. Ferreira (p. 187) concludes that the family myth protects the family from looking the true conflicts in the eye:
"The family myth is a group defense against disturbances or changes in the relationship. Thus, the family myth performs very important functions in the preservation of the nature of the relationship and in its affirmations it may go well beyond the "reality" of facts."
It is not difficult to see parallels on the social level. The family institution's real content: an economic institution for securing capital reproduced laborpower at the lowest possible price, and a very central institution for the maintenance of man's power as a link in the bourgeois domination, hidden behind the myth of the voluntary union of love. Women's unpaid toil in a powerless position is justified by her doing it for those she loves, in natural, female sacrifice. The rage of the bourgeoisie when these myths are challenged, shows that they are very central in keeping the family system together. In Norway the bourgeoisie has even organized a separate political party whose main job is maintaining society's myth of the family, called Kristelig Folkeparti (the Christian People's Party).
Another common pattern that family therapists are concerned with consists of one member, usually a child or youth "sacrificing" his/herself by becoming "a failure" in order to keep the family together. The child or youth can become a criminal, a drug abuser or emotionally disturbed in periods when the family system threatens to disintegrate, for example, when the parents move apart. By becoming a "failure" the child or youth makes his/herself totally dependent on the family, which therefore must stick together. If the child/youth gets better there is often a "relapse" in the family: the parents threaten to move apart again, and the child/youth must once again "fail" and become dependent in order to forestall this. This pattern is especially common in families where a child has reached the age when it is natural for them to move away from home and start out on their own (See among others Haley, 1982).
On the social level the family also demands large human sacrifices, particularly from women. Women must appear as dependent on the family, economically and emotionally. They must be "failures" in social life outside the family, to the extent that they are incapable of satisfactory participation in work and society, on the same level as the man. They cannot fully stand on their own.
The long-term slander campaign against working women as a "threat to the family", reveals a fear of successful, independent women which is just as massive as the disturbed families' fear of successful, independent children. If the family is to survive, women must "sacrifice" themselves and be half a person. The minute they threaten to become anything else, the family system rocks on its foundations.
The family as a social institution is then marked by just as many myths, just as much "double talk" and ambiguities, and just as many destructive, obsessive patterns as the "sick" individual families with which the family therapists work. The family therapist's job is to attempt to get the client family to function "normally" on sick premisses. The result is often that they strive either to establish "healthy, normal hierarchies", to end the struggle for power through permanently cementing power relations, or by helping the husband to show that he "has balls".
My point is not that family therapists should attempt to overthrow society. What I would like to point out is the fact that the family therapist's attitudes say something about the enormous power that lies in the conception of the family as something natural and obvious. Without this ingrown concept more family therapists would use the extensive knowledge available to ask the question: perhaps there is something wrong with the family itself as an institution in society?
I once saw an old French film from 1946, The Pastoral Symphony, based on a novel by Andre Gide. The movie was thought-provoking, both seen from the viewpoint of family dynamics, and as a symbol for the family as a social institution. The main character in the film was a blind adoptive daughter in a minister's family. She grew up to be a beautiful woman, and awoke feelings both in the father and the son that should not be awoken by daughters and sisters, particularly not in the vicarage. But everything can be made hazy and kept hidden, so the family system functions in a kind of balance, as long as the girl is blind. Towards the end of the movie the girl is operated and regains her vision. Then everything crumbles. The family members turn on each other in open hostility, and the girl is driven to commit suicide.
A dismal drama about how dangerous it is to "see" what is really going on in the family. On the social level we must believe that there are possibilities other than death and destruction, namely change.