Sociological explanations for the long term decline in marriage include changing gender roles, the impact of feminism and female empowerment, economic factors such as the increasing cost of living and the individualisation associated with postmodernism.
Overview of the trends in marriage in the UK
The above graph only shows the long term overall decline in marriage. Other trends include:
People are more likely to cohabit (although in most cases this is a step before marriage)
People are marrying later
The number of remarriages has increased.
Couples are less likely to marry in church
There is a greater diversity of marriages (greater ethnic diversity and civil partnerships)
There has been a very recent increase in the marriage rate.
Evaluation Point – Even though it’s declining, marriage is still an important institution because….
Most households are still headed by a married couple
Couples may cohabit, but this is normally before getting married – they just get married later
Most people still think marriage is the ideal type of relationship
The fact that remarriages have increased show that people still value the institution of marriage.
Explaining the long term decrease in marriage
You may need to click on the image below to see it properly
1. Economic Factors– The increasing cost of living and the increasing cost of weddings.
Increasing property prices in recent years may be one of the factors why couples choose to get married later in life. The average deposit on a first time home is now over £30 000, with the average cost of a wedding being around £18 000. So for most couples it is literally a choice between getting married in their 20s and then renting/ living with parents, or buying a house first and then getting married in their 30s. The second option is obviously the more financially rational.
2. Changing gender roles
Liberal Feminists point to changing gender roles as one of the main reasons why couples get married later. More than half of the workforce is now female which means that most women do not have to get married in order to be financially secure. In fact, according to the theory of the genderquake, the opposite is happening – now that most jobs are in the service sector, economic power is shifting to women meaning that marriage seems like a poor option for women in a female economy.
3. The New Right
Blame the decline of marriage on moral decline – part of the broader breakdown of social institutions and due to too much acceptance of diversity. This results in the inability of people to commit to each other, and they see this as bad for society and the socialisation of the next generation.
Postmodernists explain the decline in marriage as a result of the move to postmodern consumer society characterised by greater individual choice and freedom. We are used to being consumers and picking and choosing, and so marriage is now a matter of individual choice.
Another process associated with Postmodernisation is the decline of tradition and religion (secularisation) – as a result there is less social stigma attached to cohabiting or remarrying after a divorce.
5. Late Modernism
Associated with the ideas of Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck – argues that the decline in marriage is not as simple as people simply having more freedom – People are less likely to get married because of structural changes making life more uncertain. People may want to get married, but living in a late-modern world means marriage doesn’t seem like a sensible option.
Ulrich Beck argues that fewer people getting married is because of an increase in ‘risk consciousness’ – people see that nearly half of all marriages end in divorce and so they are less willing to take the risk and get married.
Beck also talks about indivdualisation – a new social norm is that our individual desires are more important than social commitments, and this makes marriage less likely.
Giddens builds on this and says that the typical relationship today is the Pure Relationship – one which lasts only as long as both partners are happy with it, not because of tradition or a sense of commitment. This makes cohabitation and serial monogamy rather than the long term commitment of a marriage more likely.
6. Evaluation Points
The decline of marriage is not as simple as it just being about individual choice
There are general social changes which lie behind its decline
We should not exaggerate the decline of marriage (see details above)
This post examines the effects of declining in marriage and increasing divorce. Have women benefitted from these changes like some Feminists suggests. Are these trends signs of moral decline like the The New Right suggest, or are these trends just part of the broader process of individualisation and increasing reflexivity and nothing to worry about?
What replaces married couples?
Probably the most fundamental thing is that people’s attitudes towards marriage have change. The idea that marriage is a necessary tradition or a sacred duty have declined drastically, marriage is now seen as a choice.
There is greater family and household diversity as a result.
Despite the decline of marriage, most people still ‘couple up’ – cohabitation has increased.
Cohabiting couples are more likely to break up, so relationships have become more unstable. A related factor here is that serial monogamy, rather than out and out promiscuity throughout one’s life appears to be the new norm.
High levels of divorce create more single parent households and more single person households, as well as more reconstituted families
Finally, it is important not to exaggerate the decline of marriage – most households are still headed by a married couple.
Feminists would generally see the decline of marriage as a tradition as a good thing, because traditional marriage is a patriarchal institution. Most divorces proceedings are initiated by women which suggests that marriage works less well for women than for men.
However, Radical Feminists would point out that the increase in divorce has not necessarily benefited women – as children go to live with the mother in 90% cases following a divorce, and single parent families (mostly female) suffer higher levels of poverty and stigma.
The New Right/ Functionalists
Would interpret these trends in a negative way, as indicating a decline in morality, and a breakdown of social structure and order – the family is supposed to be the fundamental building block of society, and it is difficult to see what will replace it. Without the family we risk less effective primary socialisation and more problem children as well as more anomie for adults.
The decline of marriage and increase in divorce reflect the fact that we are part of a consumer society where individual choice is central to life. The end of the ideology of the nuclear family is seen as good, and Postmodernists tend to reject the idea that the traditional married nuclear family is better than other family forms, so these trends are not a significant problem for either the individual or society.
People still value marriage but changes in the social structure make it harder to start and to maintain stable relationships – greater gender equality means it’s harder to please both partners, and the fact that both people have to do paid work doesn’t help with the communication required to keep a relationship going, or help with people getting together in the first place.
People now delay getting married not only because of needing to establish a career first, but also because of the increased cost of mortgages and weddings, and because of the increased fear of getting divorced – with cohabiting the new norm before marriage.
New institutions also emerge to help us cope with the insecurities of modern relationships – marriage guidance and pre-nuptial agreements are two of the most obvious.
In short, marriage is not about to disappear as an institution, but it’s not an easy path to pursue either.
Assess the reasons for the long term increase in the divorce rate (20)
This essay looks at social policies such as the 1969 divorce act, changes to gender roles, economic factors, secularisation and postmodernisation.
Introduction – The divorce rate has generally increased since the 1960s. The number almost trebled in the years following the 1969 divorce act and from the mid-1970s, the divorce rate has risen steadily, although it has been declining since 2005.
Social Policy changes are the first factor that explains rapidly increasing divorce in the early 1970s – the 1969 the Divorce Act extended the grounds of divorce to ‘irretrievable breakdown’, making divorce possible even if only one partner wanted a divorce. However, this cannot explain all of the increase, since the divorce rate was rising before the act, and continued to rise for many years afterwards.
Economic Factors – We also need to look at economic factors – Increasing inequality in the UK has meant that the lower social classes now get paid less compared to rising living costs (mortgages/ bills). This means that both partners in a marriage now need to do paid work to get by, which puts a strain on the marriage which leads to higher numbers getting divorced. A positive evaluation of this is that divorce rates are higher amongst poorer families.
The New Right would claim that increasingly generous welfare benefits for single mothers is a crucial factor which allows women to divorce if they deem it necessary – because if divorce occurs within a family, in 9/10 cases, the child will go with the mother – making it difficult to find full time work – and hence benefits may be a necessary link in the chain of explaining the increase in divorce. The New Right would also see the increasing divorce rate as a sign of wider moral decline, a point of view which is not shared by the next three perspectives…
Feminism/ changing gender roles. Many commentators argue that the changing position of women in society. Is crucial to understanding the increase in divorce rates.
Women today are much more likely to be in employment today and this means they are less financially dependent on their husbands and thus freer to end an unsatisfactory marriage. The proportion of women in some kind of paid work is now 70%, whereas in the 1950s it was less than 50%
Giddens himself argues that two trends are the most important – the impact of the Feminist movement, which arguably lies behind all of the above changes, and also the advances in contraception – which allows women to avoid unwanted pregnancies – and women in marriages without children will be freer to leave those marriages. Feminists however, point out that the advances of women can be exaggerated – women still earn less than men, and traditional gender norms remain in many families.
A further set of reasons are those associated with Postmodernism. Both religion and traditional values have declined in Britain. As a result there is no longer a set of social values which force people into staying married, there is less social stigma attached to getting a divorce and so people are freer to choose to get divorced. This change reflects the declining importance of social structure and the rise of consumer culture – the idea that individuals can choose their own lifestyles. However, one exception to this might that among some Muslim communities the concept of Izaat still prevents people from getting divorced.
Late Modern Sociologists argue against Postmodernists – getting a divorce is not simply a matter of individual choice, rather the increasing divorce rate is because of the changing nature of the typical relationship.
Anthony Giddens, for example argues that the typical type of relationship is the ‘pure relationship’… it exists solely to meet the partners’ needs and is likely to continue only so long as it succeeds. Couples stay together because of love, happiness of sexual attraction rather than for tradition or for the sake of the children. In short, we have increased expectations of marriage, and if it doesn’t work for us, then we get a divorce.
Ulrich Beck points out that divorce has increased because the typical late-modern family is characterised by more gender equality and negotiation – pleasing both partners takes a lot of time and effort, which is simply not sustainable when both partners are in paid work, which in turn explains the high levels of divorce.
By way of a conclusion, there are many different historical trends that go into explaining the increase in divorce rates – it is important to remember that social structural forces are at work – such as changes in the law, the impact of Feminism and the changing role of women, which have had the effect of making our society more gender equal and providing people with greater choice, all of which work together to explain the increasing rate of divorce.
As a final word, it is also worth noting that the divorce rate is now decreasing – which could be due to the fact that the age at which people get married is increasing – people get married after a lengthy period of co-habitation – and so are more likely to marry the right person for the right reasons!
An essay plan that should be sufficient to get you into the top mark band
Examine some of the reasons for changes in the patterns of marriage and cohabitation (24)
There have been many changes in the patterns of marriage and cohabitation in the last 40 years. This is due a number of different factors including secularisation and changing attitudes towards the value of marriage and larger acceptance of cohabitation. Divorce rates have also influenced patterns of marriages and remarriages – likewise has women’s liberation and changing attitudes in women’s position.
Secularisation – or the decreased value of religion in society has had a large impact on marriage roles and cohabitation. Marriage is now viewed as a contract of love, friendship and trust – often resulting in divorce if these fail to continue throughout the marriage (only ½ of marriages last for ten years). This is juxtaposed to the religious nature of marriage in the past – a binding contract – ‘til death do us part’. Cohabitation has also become less frowned upon. However, this trend seems to be generational. 80% of 16-24 year olds said it was acceptable to cohabit in 2007, compared to only 44% of the 56-64 year olds.
Thus these changes in societal values have resulted in a decrease of marriage – due to declining of value and the increasing accessibility of divorce whilst roles of cohabitation are still on a steady incline.
The divorce act of 1969 made irretrievable breakdown the sole basis for attaining divorce. This caused a large influx of divorce, peaking in 1999. The seemingly stable idea of marriage now began to contract for many people. If their partner was not suitable, divorce was now available, which is another factor for the rise in cohabitation and the decrease in marriage.
Cohabitation is now seen as an option instead of marriage supporting more freedom and flexibility. Living together apart is one example of a serious relationship type where people do not live together. However, 80% of cohabitating partners intend to marry.
A decrease in secularisation has brought about an acceptance of cohabitation of same sex couples. The 2004 civil partnership act also allowed homosexual couples to marry – some sociologists argue that cohabitation – particularly a lesbian couple – is a way of resisting gender scripts and norms
This is relative to women’s liberation – women now resist the idea of marriage due to financial independent and stability. Also, women are increasingly resisting the idea of segregated conjugal roles for a more symmetrical relationship. For many women, cohabitation offers these opportunities. Availability of contraception has lessened the obligation of having to conceive children when in a long term relationship.
Feminists argue this is a movement of resistance towards the patriarchal institutions of marriage not the family as such.
Concluding, patterns of marriage and cohabitation have changed significantly due to divorce, women’s liberation and secularisation. Secularisation is perhaps the basis for the change due to social change in attitudes towards cohabitation and marriage. However, women’s liberation and divorce further instil this idea, offering more choice to the individual.
Assess the view that the modern nuclear family is the most effective type of family unit in which to socialise children and stabilise adult personalities (24)
The above view is associated mainly with the Functionalist perspective, to an extent with the Marxist perspective, while Feminists tend to disagree.
George Murdock (1949) argued that that the nuclear family performs four essential functions to meet the needs of society and its members: The stable satisfaction of the sex drive – which prevents the social disruption cased by a ‘sexual free for all’; the reproduction of the next generation and thus the continuation of society over time; thirdly, the socialisation of the young into society’s shared norms and values and finally he argued the family provides for society’s economic needs by providing food and shelter.
Murdock thus agrees with the two statements in the question and goes further, arguing that the nuclear family performs even more functions. Furthermore, he argued that the nuclear family was universal, following his study of over 250 different societies.
Some sociologists, however, criticise Murdock’s view as being too rose tinted – pointing out that conflict and disharmony can occur both within nuclear families and within societies where the nuclear family is dominant. A second criticism is that the nuclear family is not universal – Gough studied the Nayr of South India and found that women and men had several sexual partners, but this type of matrifocal family was functional for that society.
A second Functionalist, Talcott Parsons argued that the type of society affects the shape of the family – different societies require the family to perform different functions and so some types of family ‘fit in’ better with particular societies.
To illustrate this, Parsons argued that there were two basic types of society – modern industrial society and traditional pre-industrial society. He argued that the nuclear family fits the needs of industrial society and that the extended family fitted the needs of pre-industrial society. He argued that as society became industrialised, society had different needs, and that the nuclear family evolved to meet these needs. For example, one thing industrial society needed was a geographically mobile workforce – the nuclear family is appropriate here because it is more mobile than the extended family.
Parsons also argued that the family performs less functions with the move to industrialisation – as the health care and welfare functions come to be taken over by the state. However, the family becomes more specialised – and performs two ‘essential and irreducible functions’ – these are the two mentioned in the question – the primary socialisation of children is where we are first taught societies norms and values and learn to integrate with wider society and the stabilisation of adult personalities is where the family is the place of relaxation – the place to which one returns after a hard day of working to de – stress.
Parsons has, however been criticised, as with Murdock, for having a ‘rose tinted view’ – Feminists argue that women get an unfair deal in the traditional nuclear family, for example. A second criticism is that while he may have been right about the 1950s, when he was writing, the nuclear family seams less relevant in our post-modern age when many couples need dual incomes – meaning the nuclear family may be too small to effectively perform the two functions mentioned in the question.
The Marxist view of the family is that it does do what is stated in the question, but they criticise the Functionalist view, arguing that the family also performs functions for Capitalism. Firstly, they say it performs an ‘ideological function’ in that the family convinces children, through primary socialisation, that hierarchy is natural and inevitable. Secondly, they also see the family as acting as a unit of consumption – the family is seen by Capitalists as a something to make money out of – what with the pressure to ‘keep up with the Joneses and ‘pester power’
Thus, applying Marxism we learn that the Functionalist view is too optimistic – they see the Capitalist system as infiltrating family life, through advertising, for example, which creates conflict within the family, undermining its ability to harmoniously socialise children and stabilise adult personalities.
Finally, we come onto Feminist views of the family. Radical Feminists are especially critical of the view in the question. They argue, for example, that many nuclear families are characterised by domestic abuse and point to the rising divorce rates in recent years to suggest that the nuclear family is not necessarily the best type of family. Moreover, many Feminists have argued that the nuclear family and the traditional gender roles that go along with it has for too long performed an ideological function – this set up is projected as the norm in society, a norm which women have been under pressure to conform to and a norm which serves to benefit men and oppress women – because women end up becoming dependent on men in their traditional roles – so they see the nuclear family as being the primary institution through which patriarchy is reproduced, again criticising the rather rose tinted view of the Functionalist perspective on the family.
So to conclude, while the statement in the question may have appeared to be the case in the 1950s, this no longer appears to be the case in British society today.
This post is designed to help you revise for the AS Sociology Families and Households Exam (Perspectives on the Family)
In the 1980s New Right thinkers argued that government policy was undermining the family so policy changes were needed. Their thinking dominated policy development from 1979 to 1997.
Like Functionalists, the New Right hold the view that there is only one correct or normal family type. This is the traditional or conventional nuclear family. Again like Functionalists, The New Right sees this family as ‘natural’ and based on fundamental biological differences between men and women. In their view this family is the cornerstone of society; a place of contentment, refuge and harmony. Finally the New Right argue that the decline of the traditional family and the growth of family diversity are the cause of many social problems such as higher crime rates and declining moral standards generally
The New Right believe that it is important for children to have a stable home, with married mother and father, and that ideally the wife should be able to stay at home to look after the children.
They believe that the introduction of the welfare state led to a culture where people depend on hand-outs from the state and that these encourage single parenting, which in turn, they argue leads to deviancy and a decline in morality.
New Right thinking encouraged the conservative government to launch the Back to Basics campaign 1993 to encourage a return to traditional family values. This was criticised for being unsuccessful, and hypocritical due some Conservative MPs being found to be having affairs or being divorced.
Evidence for ‘non-nuclear families’ being a problem
The rate of family breakdown is much lower amongst married couples (6% compared to 20%)
Children from broken homes are almost five times more likely to develop emotional problems
Young people whose mother and father split up are also three times as likely to become aggressive or badly behaved
Lone-parent families are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as two-parent families.
Children from broken homes are nine times more likely to become young offenders.”
Criticisms of the New Right
They exaggerate the decline of the Nuclear family. Most adults still marry and have children. Most children are reared by their two natural parents. Most marriages continue until death. Divorce has increased, but most divorcees remarry.
Feminism – gender roles are socially determined rather than being fixed by biology. Traditional gender roles are oppressive to women.
Feminism – divorce being easier is good because without it many women end up being trapped in unhappy or abusive relationships.
Most single parents are not welfare scroungers – most want to work but find it difficult to find jobs that are flexible enough so they can balance work and child care.
Chester (see later!) argues that the New Right exaggerate the extent of cohabiting and single parent families – most children still spend most of their lives in a nuclear family arrangement
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Related Posts (both of which criticise The New Right)
Late-Modernists such as Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck recognize that people have more choice in terms of their relationships and family arrangements, but do not believe that people are as free as postmodernists suggest. There are still underlying patterns, and shared experiences of relationships that are a consequence of our living in a ‘late-modern’ society – rather than families just being diverse and random.
For example, people are less likely to get married because of structural changes – For example gender equality means that both partners have to work and spend longer building their careers, which means the average person has less time to spend making a relationship work, which means a decline in marriage, and an increase in divorce.
Ulrich Beck also argues that fewer people getting married is because of an increase in ‘risk consciousness’ – people see that nearly half of all marriages end in divorce and so they are less willing to take the risk and get married.
This is not simply a matter of freedom of choice – people are ‘reflexive’ – they look at society, see the risk of marriage, and then choose not to get married – their personal decisions are informed by what they see going in society.
Beck also talks of indivdualisation – a new social norm is that our individual desires are more important than social commitments, and this makes marriage less likely.
Giddens builds on this and says that the typical relationship today is the Pure Relationship – one which lasts only as long as both partners are happy with it, not because of tradition or a sense of commitment. This makes cohabitation and serial monogamy rather than the long term commitment of a marriage more likely.
The work of Giddens and Beck is briefly summarised below.
Anthony Giddens: Choice and Equality
Giddens argues that in recent decades the family and marriage have been transformed by greater choice and a more equal relationship between men and women. Giddens argues that relationships are now characterised by three general characteristics:
1. The basis of marriage and family has changed into one in which the couple are free to define the relationship themselves rather than simply acting out roles that have been defined in advance by law or tradition. For example, couples today can chose to cohabit rather than marry
2. The typical relationship is the ‘pure relationship’….It exists solely to meet the partners’ needs and is likely to continue only so long as it succeeds. Couples stay together because of love, happiness of sexual attraction rather than tradition a sense of duty or for the sake of the children.
3. Relationships become part of the process of self-discovery or self-identity trying different relationships become part of establishing who we are part of our journey of self discovery.
However Giddens notes that with more choice, personal relationships inevitably become less stable and can be ended more or less at will by any partner! Joy! For example most teenagers (57%) think that their relationships will only last 1 year and only 2% of relationships at 18 will progress to marriage’
Ulrich Beck: The ‘Risk Society’ and The Negotiated Family
Ulrich Beck puts forward a similar view to that of Anthony Giddens. Beck argues that we now live in a ‘risk society’ where tradition has less influence and people have more choice. As a result we are more aware of risk (we have developed a ‘risk consciousness’) because having choice means we spend more time calculating the risks and rewards of different courses of action available.
Today’s risk society contrasts with the modern society of the past with its stable nuclear family and traditional gender roles. Beck argues that even though the traditional patriarchal family was unequal and oppressive, it did provide a stable and predictable basis for the family by defining each member’s role and responsibly. However the patriarchal family has been undermined by two trends.
Greater Gender Equality – which has challenged male domination in all spheres of life. Women now expect equality both at work and in marriage.
Greater individualism – where people’s actions are influenced more by calculations of their own self-interest that by a sense of obligation to others.
These trends have led to the rise of the negotiated family. Negotiated families do not conform to the traditional family norm, but vary according to the wishes and expectations of their members, who decided what is best for them by discussion. They enter the relationship on an equal basis.
However, the negotiated family may be more equal, but it is less stable, because it is characterised by greater equality.
Almost all feminists agree that“gender” is socially constructed. This means that gender roles are learnt rather than determined by biology, and the most significant institution where we are socialised into our appropriate roles and norms of behaviour is the family. The proof for this theory is found in the sometimes radically different behaviour we see between women from different societies i.e. different societies construct being “women” in different ways (This is obviously true for men as well).
This post summarises Feminist perspectives on the family, focusing on liberal, radical and Marxist Feminism, and 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:
a) 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
b) socialising women into accepting the “housewife” role as the only possible/acceptable role for a women. Indeed it was the only way to be feminine/to be a woman. Essentially, feminists viewed the function of the family as a breeding ground where patriarchal values were learned by an individual, which in turn created a patriarchal society.
Feminism today tends to be split 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.
Causes of inequality in relationships – A combination of two things – (1) Mainstream working culture which requires long and inflexible working hours which are still based on the idea of the main breadwinner, (2) Men refusing to pull their weight in relationships.
Solutions to Inequality – Greater gender equality in the public sphere -achieving equal access to education, equal pay, ending gender differences in subject and career choice won primarily through legal changes.
A key thinker who can be characterised as a liberal feminist is Jennifer Somerville (2000) 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.
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.
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
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
Women reproduce the labour force – through their unpaid domestic labour, by socialising the next generation of workers and servicing the current workers (their husbands!)
Women absorb anger – Think back to Parson’s warm bath theory. The Marxist-Feminist interpretation of this is that women are just absorbing the anger of the proletariat, who are exploited and who should be directing that anger towards the Bourgeois
Women are a ‘reserve army of cheap labour’ – if women’s primary role is domestic, and they are restricted from working, this also means they are in reserve, to be taken on temporarily as necessary by the Bourgeois, making production more flexible.
Key thinker – Fran Ansley (1972) 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.
Key thinker 2 – Penny Red’s Socialist Feminist Blog
“The freedom that’s offered to everyone under Capitalism is the freedom for a few to self-actualize in an extremely narrow, homogenous way by shopping and consuming, whilst the rest of us work long hours for low wages or no wages. Freedom from economic exploitation isn’t the sexy kind of female empowerment we’ve all become used to, but without it we won’t be moving forward.
The way in which women’s labour is used and abused—the concentration of women in low-paid or unpaid caring and domestic roles, for example, is not only one of the things that sustains patriarchy, it also sustains capitalism. Without the work that women do for free, the markets would be on their knees in a day. And yet, it just goes to show that there is, in fact, plenty of work out there, it’s just that most of it is being done by women, for free.”
Marxist Feminism – 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. Softer solutions include paying women for childcare and housework – thus putting an economic value on what is still largely women’s work, stronger solutions include the abolition of Capitalism and the ushering in of Communism.
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 entire patriarchal system needs to be overturned, in particular the family, which they view as root of women’s oppression.
Against Liberal Feminism, they argue that paid work has not been ‘liberating’. 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 British Crime Survey domestic violence accounts for a sixth of all violent crime and nearly 1 in 4 women will experience DV at some point in their lifetime and women are much more likely to experience this than men
Key thinker –Kate Millet (see below) was one of the leading American Second Wave Feminists in the 1960s and 70s
Solutions to gender inequality
In short, Radical Feminists advocate for the abolition of the traditional, patriarchal (as they see it) 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 also practise political Lesbianism and political celibacy as they view heterosexual relationships as “sleeping with the enemy.”
Supplement: Kate Millett: On the sociology of Patriarchy
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.
A Level Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle
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) 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