Feminist Perspectives on the Family

A summary of liberal, marxist and radical feminist views on the traditional nuclear family

Last Updated on October 4, 2023 by Karl Thompson

Almost all feminists agree that gender is socially constructed. This means that gender roles are learnt rather than determined by biology, and the family is the primary institution which socialises individuals into these gender roles.

The proof for gender being constructed (rather than biologically determined) is found in the sometimes radically different behaviour we see between women from different societies: i.e. different societies construct being a “women” in different ways (and the same can be said for differences between men in different societies as well).

Overview of Feminist Perspectives on the Family

This post summarises Feminist perspectives on the family covering:

  • An overview of Feminism in general
  • Liberal Feminism
  • Marxist Feminism
  • Radical Feminism

All sections include what different Feminists think about the role of the family in causing gender equality, their ideas about solutions to inequalities and criticisms.

Feminist theory of the family mind map

The content below is primarily designed to help students revise for the AQA A level sociology paper 2, families and households option. 

Feminism and the Family

Feminists have been central in criticising gender roles associated with the traditional nuclear family, especially since the 1950s.  They have argued the nuclear family has traditionally performed two key functions which oppressed women:

  1. socialising girls to accept subservient roles within the family, whilst socialising boys to believe they were superior – this happens through children witnessing then recreating the parental relationship.
  2. socialising women into accepting the “housewife” role as normal, which limited women to the domestic sphere and made them financially dependent on men.

Essentially, feminists viewed the function of the family as a breeding ground where patriarchal values were learned by individuals, which in turn created a patriarchal society.

For the purposes of teaching A-level sociology Feminism is usually to be split (simplified) into three distinct branches: Liberal Feminists, Marxist Feminists and Radical Feminists. They differ significantly over the extent to which they believe that the family is still patriarchal and in what the underlying causes of the existence of patriarchy might be. Remember – all the theories below are discussing the “nuclear” family.

Marxist Feminism

(See also –A Marxist Feminist Perspective on the Family for more depth.)

Marxist feminists argue the main cause of women’s oppression in the family is not men, but capitalism. They argue that women’s oppression performs several functions for Capitalism.

  1. Women reproduce the labour force – women do most of the childcare within the nuclear family, part of which involves socialising them to accept the authority of their parents, which gets them used to the idea of being obedient to hierarchical authority more generally, which is what their future capitalist employers need. They are thus socialising the next generation of workers, and they do this for free because their domestic labour is unpaid.
  2. Women absorb anger – Think back to Parson’s warm bath theory in which women help men destress after a hard day at work and thus help keep industrial capitalism going. The Marxist-Feminist interpretation of this is that women are just absorbing the anger of the proletariat, preventing this anger from being directed towards the Bourgeois, and thus preventing revolution and the downfall of capitalism.
  3. Women are a ‘reserve army of cheap labour’ – the fact that women’s ‘normal’ role in the nuclear family restrictions them from working, but they are nonetheless there in the background, in reserve. This prevents men from striking to demand higher wages because the Bourgeois could potentially take on female employees at lower wages if male employees start to play up.

Key thinker – Fran Ansley (1972)

Ansley argues women absorb the anger that would otherwise be directed at capitalism. Ansley argues women’s male partners are inevitably frustrated by the exploitation they experience at work and women are the victims of this, including domestic violence.  

Ansley famously referred to women as ‘the takers of shit‘ within the nuclear family under capitalism.      

Key thinker: Laurie Penny

Laurie Penny argues that neoliberal capitalism has encouraged women to seek self-empowerment and freedom through consumerism (by buying high heals and overt expressions of sexuality, for example).

The problem is that only a relatively few women earn enough to be able to ‘consume their way’ to liberation and so this isn’t a solution for the majority of women.

In reality many women work very long hours in unpaid domestic roles or low paid unskilled jobs, and it is mainly the exploitation of women which sustains both patriarchy and capitalism.

Feminists should be campaigning for better working conditions for women, and if women realised their power and just stopped working they could bring capitalism down, but this kind of activism is not very sexy or exciting and women remain ‘distracted’ with consuming their way to liberation.

You can read more about Laurie Penny’s views in this interview.

Solutions to Gender Inequalities within the family

For Marxist Feminists, the solutions to gender inequality are economic: we need to tackle capitalism to tackle patriarchy.

Two specific solutions include campaigning for better pay and conditions in jobs where mainly women work, such as cleaning and caring jobs.

Another solution is paying women for housework and childcare, thus putting an economic value on what is still largely women’s domestic work.

Evaluations of Marxist Feminism

  • One criticisms is that women’s oppression was clearly in evidence before capitalism – if anything, women are probably more oppressed in pre-capitalist, tribal societies compared to within capitalist societies.
  • If you look at the United Nation’s Gender Equality Index (2) there appears to be a correlation between capitalist development and women’s liberation – suggesting that capitalism has the opposite effect from that suggested by Marxist Feminists. This correlation isn’t perfect, but you can clearly see wealthy European countries such as Finland at the top and poorer sub-saharan African countries near the bottom.
  • The idea that women act as a reserve army of labour is less and less relevant every year: the employment rate for men in the UK in December 2022 was 79% for men and 72% of women, only a 7% gap.
  • However if we look at part time employment rates there is still more potential for women to do more work as women are more likely to employed than men: 38% of women worked part-time, compared to only 18% of men (1)

Radical Feminist Views of the Family

(See also – A Radical Feminist Perspective on the Family for more depth)

Radical feminists argue that all relationships between men and women are based on patriarchy, essentially men are the cause of women’s exploitation and oppression. For radical feminists, the nuclear family is where this system of oppression starts, it is the foundation on which patriarchy is based and thus should be abolished.

Against Liberal Feminism, they argue that paid work has not been ‘liberating’. Women’s lives within the family have not simply become better because they now have improved job opportunities and pay which is more equal to men’s.

Instead women have acquired the ‘dual burden’ of paid work and unpaid housework and the family remains patriarchal: men benefit from women’s paid earnings and their domestic labour. Some Radical Feminists go further arguing that women suffer from the ‘triple shift’ where they have to do paid work, domestic work and ‘emotion work’ – being expected to take on the emotional burden of caring for children.

Radical Feminists also argue that, for many women, there is a ‘dark side of family life’ –  According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales domestic violence accounts for a sixth of all violent crime and nearly 1 in 5 adults will experience domestic violence at some point in their lives, with women being more than twice as likely to experience it than men.

Kate Millett: On the sociology of Patriarchy

Key thiker –Kate Millet (see below) was one of the leading American Second Wave Feminists in the 1960s and 70s and is one of the best known radical feminists.

“Patriarchy’s chief institution is the family. It is both a mirror of and a connection with the larger society; a patriarchal unit within a patriarchal whole. Mediating between the individual and the social structure, the family effects control and conformity where political and other authorities are insufficient. As the fundamental instrument and the foundation unit of patriarchal society the family and its roles are prototypical. Serving as an agent of the larger society, the family not only encourages its own members to adjust and conform, but acts as a unit in the government of the patriarchal state which rules its citizens through its family heads.

Traditionally, patriarchy granted the father nearly total ownership over wife or wives and children, including the powers of physical abuse and often even those of murder and sale. Classically, as head of the family the father is both begetter and owner in a system in which kinship is property. Yet in strict patriarchy, kinship is acknowledged only through association with the male line.

In contemporary patriarchies the male’s priority has recently been modified through the granting of divorce protection, citizenship, and property to women. Their chattel status continues in their loss of name, their obligation to adopt the husband’s domicile, and the general legal assumption that marriage involves an exchange of the female’s domestic service and (sexual) consortium in return for financial support.

The chief contribution of the family in patriarchy is the socialisation of the young (largely through the example and admonition of their parents) into patriarchal ideology’s prescribed attitudes toward the categories of role, temperament, and status. Although slight differences of definition depend here upon the parents’ grasp of cultural values, the general effect of uniformity is achieved, to be further reinforced through peers, schools, media, and other learning sources, formal and informal. While we may niggle over the balance of authority between the personalities of various households, one must remember that the entire culture supports masculine authority in all areas of life and – outside of the home – permits the female none at all.

Although there is no biological reason why the two central functions of the family (socialisation and reproduction) need be inseparable from or even take place within it, revolutionary or utopian efforts to remove these functions from the family have been so frustrated, so beset by difficulties, that most experiments so far have involved a gradual return to tradition. This is strong evidence of how basic a form patriarchy is within all societies, and of how pervasive its effects upon family members.”

Solutions to gender inequality

Radical Feminists advocate for the abolition of the traditional, patriarchal nuclear family and the establishment of alternative family structures and sexual relations.

The various alternatives suggested by Radical Feminists include separatism – women only communes, and matrifocal households. Some extreme radical feminists also practise political lesbianism and political celibacy as they view heterosexual female relationships with men as “sleeping with the enemy.”

Radical feminists also argue for more support for female victims of domestic violence to help women out of abusive relationships.

Evaluations of Radical Feminism

  • There is still evidence of the dual burden and triple shift on women. Women do twice as much childcare than men and spend 64% more time doing domestic chores.
  • The ME TOO campaign and the Harvey Weinstein scandal both show that harassment and sexual abuse of women remain common.
  • Ignores the progress that women have made in many areas e.g. work, controlling fertility, divorce.
  • Too unrealistic – due to heterosexual attraction separatism is unlikely.
  • Ignores domestic/emotional abuse suffered by men who often don’t report it.

Liberal Feminism

(See also – A liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family for more depth)

Liberal Feminists do not emphasise the role of the family in perpetuating gender inequality in society as much as Marxist or Radical Feminists.

According to liberal Feminists gender inequalities are primarily caused by inequalities in the public sphere rather than inequalities in the home. Prior to 1972 the main problem was the lack of equal pay in work between men and women, and today two problems include:

  • stereotypical subject domains in education steering women into lower paid jobs such as health and social care.
  • unequal maternity and paternity pay encouraging the woman to take more time of work than the man following the birth of a new child.
  • lack of free child care preventing women from returning to work earlier.

Solutions to Inequality

Liberal Feminists tend to focus on achieving greater equality of opportunity in the public sphere: focussing on achieving equal access to education, equal pay, ending gender differences in subject and career choice won primarily through legal changes.

In Liberal Feminist theory if women have an equal chance as men to pursue careers outside of the family, they are free to choose NOT to be housewives and mothers.

We have made enormous progress towards equality in the public sphere in recent decades, and all that remains is ‘tweaking’ in certain areas, such as improving equality in higher managerial positions: there are still very few women employed at the senior executive levels.

Two social policies liberal feminists would support include the 2015 shared parental leave act in which the mother and father can share the mother’s maternity leave between them and the forthcoming 2024 act which proivdes free childcare for children down to 9 months of age.

Key Thinker: Jenny Somerville

A key thinker who can be characterised as a liberal feminist is Jennifer Somerville (2000) who provides a less radical critique of the family than Marxist or Radical Feminists and suggests proposals to improve family life for women that involve modest policy reforms rather than revolutionary change.

Jennifer Somerville

Somerville argues that many young women do not feel entirely sympathetic towards feminism yet still feel some sense of grievance.

To Somerville, many feminists have failed to acknowledge progress for women such as the greater freedom to go into paid work, and the greater degree of choice over whether they marry or cohabit, when and whether to have children, and whether to take part in a heterosexual or same-sex relationship or to simply live on their own.

The increased choice for women and the rise of the dual-earner household (both partners in work) has helped create greater equality within relationships. Somerville argues that ‘some modern men are voluntarily committed to sharing in those routine necessities of family survival, or they can be persuaded, cajoled, guilt-tripped or bullied’. Despite this, however, ‘women are angry, resentful and above all disappointed in men.’ Many men do not take on their full share of responsibilities and often these men can be ‘shown the door’.

Somerville raises the possibility that women might do without male partners, especially as so many prove inadequate, and instead get their sense of fulfilment from their children. Unlike Germain Greer, however, Somerville does not believe that living in a household without an adult male is the answer – the high figures for remarriage suggest that heterosexual attraction and the need for intimacy and companionship mean that heterosexual families will not disappear.

However, it remains the case that the inability of men to ‘pull their weight’ in relationships means that high rates of relationship breakdowns will continue to be the norm which will lead to more complex familial relationships as women end one relationship and attempt to rebuild the next with a new (typically male) partner.

What Feminists thus need to do is to focus on policies which will encourage greater equality within relationships and to help women cope with the practicalities of daily life. One set of policies which Somerville thinks particularly important are those aimed at helping working parents. The working hours and culture associated with many jobs are incompatible with family life. Many jobs are based on the idea of a male breadwinner who relies on a non-working wife to take care of the children.

Somerville argues that in order to achieve true equality within relationships we need increased flexibility in paid employment.

For a more in-depth exploration of Somerville’s work you can read her book, published in the year 2000: Feminism and the Family: Politics and Society in the UK and the USA.

Evaluation of the Liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family

  • Sommerville recognises that significant progress has been made in both public and private life for women.
  • It is more appealing to a wider range of women than radical ideas.
  • It is more practical – the system is more likely to accept small policy changes, while it would resist revolutionary change.
  • Difference Feminists argue that Liberal Feminism is an ethnocentric view – it reflects the experiences of mainly white, middle class women.
  • Her work is based on a secondary analysis of previous works and is thus not backed up by empirical evidence.
  • Radical Feminists such as Delphy, Leonard and Greer (see further below) argue that she fails to deal with the Patriarchal structures and culture in contemporary family life.
  • Despite policy changes which have made work more equal, slight gender inequalities remain in the UK!
A Level Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my AS Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle

Families Revision Bundle Cover

The bundle contains the following:

  1. 50 pages of revision notes covering all of the sub-topics within families and households
  2. mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering perspectives on the family
  3. short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers – 3 examples of the 10 mark, ‘outline and explain’ question.
  4.  9 essays/ essay plans spanning all the topics within the families and households topic.
Related Posts/ Find out More

Please click here to return to the homepage – ReviseSociology.com

Sources Used to Write this Post 
  • Haralambos and Holborn (2013) – Sociology Themes and Perspectives, Eighth Edition, Collins. ISBN-10: 0007597479
  • Chapman et al (2015) A Level Sociology Student Book One, Including AS Level [Fourth Edition], Collins. ISBN-10: 0007597479
  • Robb Webb et al (2015) AQA A Level Sociology Book 1, Napier Press. ISBN-10: 0954007913
  • (1) House of Commons library: Women in the UK Economy.
  • (2) The Gender Equality Index.
  • (3) The Guardian: The End of Lockdown and Domestic Chores.

(1) This division goes back to Alison Jaggar’s (1983) Feminist Politics and Human Nature where she defined four theories related to feminism: liberal feminism, Marxism, radical feminism, and socialist feminism

3 thoughts on “Feminist Perspectives on the Family”

  1. Hi! We’re wondering if we can use this “Feminist Perspectives on Family” chart for our website? We’re FLIP (Female Leads in Partnerships), working to “flip the script on patriarchal views of gender and family,” and are hoping to use this image to help educate those visiting our website a little more and to help demonstrate that we are not a radical feminist group.

    We can be reached at flip.socialmovement@gmail.com. Thanks so much!

  2. I would like to use your information about the functions of the nuclear family. Is there a way I can cite this? Is this your idea or someone else’s? Thank you!

  3. I think it’s true coming from both sides of the fence male and female

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