Gender Roles, Domestic Labour and Power Relationships – Topic Overview

Families and Households Topic 4 – Changes within the family

Gender Roles, Domestic Labour and Power Relationships

Overview of the topic and sub-topics

In this topic we look at the extent to which relationships between men and women have become more equal, focussing on the following three areas:

4.1. To what extent are gender roles characterised by equality?

4.2. To what extent is the Domestic Division of Labour characterised by equality?

4.3. Issues of Power and Control in Relationships

4.4. To what extent has women going into paid work resulted in greater equality within relationships?

Key Concepts

  • Conjugal roles

  • Segregated conjugal roles

  • Joint conjugal roles

  • Instrumental roles

  • Expressive roles

  • The symmetrical family

  • The ‘march of progress view’

  • The Domestic Division of Labour

  • The ‘New Man’

  • Dual burden

  • Domestic Violence

  • Intenstive Mothering

  • Superdads

  • Gender norms

  • Liberal Feminism

  • The commercialization of housework

  • Emotion work

  • Gender scripts

  • Triple shift

Selected Short Answer Questions

  • Suggest three ways in which families are becoming more ‘symmetrical’

  • Suggest three reasons why families may be becoming ‘more symmetrical’

  • Outline three pieces of evidence that criticize the view that the family is becoming more symmetrical

  • Suggest two reasons why a gendered division of labour still exists between some couples

  • Suggest three ways in women going into paid work has influenced domestic relationships

  • Suggest three ways in which men may still have more power than women in domestic relationships

  • Suggest three reasons why official statistics on domestic violence may be inaccurate

  • Suggest three reasons why domestic violence occurs

Possible Essay Questions

  • Examine the factors affecting power relations between couples (24)

  • Assess the view that modern relationships are becoming more symmetrical (24)

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The Feminist Perspective on Education (UK Focus)

The Feminist perspective on Education

Liberal Feminists celebrate the progress made so far in improving girls’ achievement. They essentially believe that the ‘Future is now Female’ and now that girls are outperforming boys in education, it is only a matter of time until more women move into politics and higher paid, managerial roles at work.

Radical Feminists, however, argue that Patriarchy still works through school to reinforce traditional gender norms and to disadvantage girls – Add in details to the notes below.

  1. Some Radical Feminist Sociologists see concern over boys’ relative underachievement as a ‘moral panic’. Boys have still been improving their achievement in the last thirty years, just not as fast as girls. The Feminist argument is that the focus on education at the moment on ‘raising boys achievement’ reflects a male dominated system panicking at the fact that old patriarchal power relations are starting to break down.

  1. Despite improvements in girl’s education – subject choices still remain heavily gendered, and girls do not seem to be ‘breaking the glass ceiling’.

  1. Feminists would also draw on the above research which suggests that traditional gender norms are reinforced in schools, to the disadvantage of girls.

  1. Recent research suggests that despite girls doing well at school – girls are increasingly subject to sexist bullying, something which is becoming worse with the ‘normalisation of pornography’. Read the extract from Kat Banyard over page for more details and consider how common such incidents are today. Read the extract provided for details

Extract from Kat Banyard’s “The Equality Illusion”

Chapter 2 – Hands up for A gendered Education

While girls are discouraged from using their bodies on the sports field, they often find their bodies at the centre of another unwelcome kind of activity. Chloe was one of the many women and girls I heard from during the course of my research into violence at school. ‘I had boys groping my en masse. It wasn’t just at break times – in class as well. Sometimes they used to hold me down and take it turns, it was universally accepted. Teachers pretended they didn’t notice. I would regularly hang out in the toilets at break time. I felt pretty violated; it made me hate my body.’ Having now left school, Chloe can pinpoint exactly when the sexual harassment began. ‘When my breasts grew. I went from an A to an E cup when I was fourteen.’ It became a regular feature of her school day, mostly happening when the boys were in groups. ‘People would randomly scream ‘’slut’’. One boy told me that he has a fantasy that he wanted to tie me up and viciously rape me. He was a bit of an outcast. But when he said that all the boys were high-fiving him. He got serious street-cred for saying it.’’ Classrooms are training grounds for boys aspiring to be ‘real men’ and girls like Jena and Chloe are paying the price. Humiliating and degrading girls serves to highlight just how masculine boys really are. And so, sexist bullying and sexual harassment are an integral part of daily school life for many girls.

Hayley described to me how some of the boys at her secondary school were using new technologies to harass girls. ‘They try and take pictures with their camera phones up you skirt while you’re sitting at your desk. Nobody knows what to say. They wouldn’t want to provoke an argument.’ Boys also access internet pornography on school computers. Hayley said, ‘in year seven and eight it’s quite common. Even the boys you wouldn’t expect you see getting told off by teachers for it.’ Similarly Sarah remembers pornography being commonplace at her school; ‘Every student was asked to bring in newspaper articles. Many boys saw this as a great opportunity to bring in newspapers such as the Sun, Star, Sport etc and make a point of looking at, sharing and showing the countless page-three-style images. Sarah was ‘extremely upset on a number of occasions when boys who sat near me in class would push these pages in front of me and make comments. Most of the time all the forms of harassment went completely unchallenged; I don’t think (the teachers) ever paid any attention to sexual harassment.’

The consequences for girls who are sexually harassed or assaulted at school can be devastating. Depression and loss of self-esteem are common. If girls experience repeated sexual harassment they are significantly more likely to attempt suicide. In fact the trauma symptoms reported by adolescent girls subject to sexual harassment have been found to be similar to those descried by rape victims. Yet despite the fact that sexual harassment is shown to have a more damaging impact on victims than other forms of school bullying, teachers are less likely to intervene in incidences of the former. Why? The sexual harassment of girls is viewed as ‘normal’ behaviour for the boys. And it is precisely this naturalising of the act, this insidious complacency it elicits, which has enabled sexist bullying and harassment to flourish in classrooms across the world.

Sociological Perspectives on Social Policy and the Family

The Functionalist View of Social Policy and The Family

Functionalists see society as built on harmony and consensus (shared values), and free from conflicts. They see the state as acting in the interests of society as a whole and its social policies as being for the good of all. Functionalists see policies as helping families to perform their functions more effectively and making life better for their members.

For example, Ronald Fletcher (1966) argues that the introduction of health, education and housing policies in the years since the industrial revolution has gradually led to the development of a welfare state that supports the family in performing its functions more effectively.

For instance, the existence of the National Health Service means that with the help of doctors, nurses, hospitals and medicines, the family today is better able to take care of its members when they are sick.

However, the functionalist view has been criticised on two main counts:

  • It assumes that all members of the family benefit equally from social policies, whereas Feminists argue that policies often benefit men more than women.

  • It assumes that there is a ‘march of progress’ with social policies, gradually making life better, which is a view criticise by Donzelot in the following section.

Adapted from Robb Webb et al

A Conflict Perspective – Donzelot: Policing the Family

Jacques Donzelot (1977) has a conflict view of society and sees policy as a form of state power and control over families.

Donzelot uses Michel Foucault’s (1976) concept of surveillance (observing and monitoring). Foucault sees power not just as something held by the government or the state, but as diffused (spread) throughout society and found within all relationships. In particular, Foucault sees professionals such as doctors and social workers as exercising power over their clients by using their expert knowledge to turn them into ‘cases’ to be dealt with.

Donzelot applies these ideas to the family. He is interested in how professionals carry out surveillance of families. He argues that social workers, health visitors and doctors use their knowledge to control and change families. Donzelot calls this ‘the policing of families’.

Surveillance is not targeted equally at all social classes. Poor families are much more likely to be seen as ‘problem families’ and as the causes of crime and anti-social behaviour. These are the families that professionals target for ‘improvement’. For example as Rachel Condry (2007) notes, the state may seek to control and regulate family life by imposing compulsory Parenting Orders through the courts. Parents of young offenders, truants or badly behaved children may be forced to attend parenting classes to learn the ‘correct’ way to bring up children.

Donzelot rejects the Functionalists’ march of progress view that social policy and the professionals who carry it out have created a better society. Instead he sees social policy as oppressing certain types of families. By focussing on the micro level of how the ‘caring professions’ act as agents of social control through the surveillance of families, Donzelot shows the importance of professional knowledge as a form of power and control.

However, Marxists and Feminists criticise Donzelot for failing to identify clearly who benefits from such policies of surveillance. Marxists argue that social policies generally operate in the interests of the capitalist class, while Feminists argue men are the beneficiaries.

Adapted from Rob Webb et al

The New Right and Social Policy

The New Right have had considerable influence on government thinking about social policy and its effects on family. They see the traditional nuclear family, with its division of labour between a male provider and a female home maker as self-reliant and capable of caring for its members. In their view, social policies should avoid doing anything that might undermine this natural self-reliant family.

The New Right criticise many existing government policies for undermining the family. In particular, they argue that governments often weaken the family’s self-reliance by providing overly generous welfare benefits. These include providing council housing for unmarried teenage mothers and cash payments to support lone parent families.

Charles Murray (1984) argues that these benefits offer ‘perverse incentives’ – that is, they reward irresponsible or anti-social behaviour. For example –

If fathers see that the state will maintain their children some of them will abandon their responsibilities to their families

Providing council housing for unmarried teenage mothers encourages young girls to become pregnant

The growth of lone parent families encouraged by generous welfare benefits means more boys grow up without a male role model and authority figure. This lack of paternal authority is responsible for a rising crime rate amongst young males.

The New Right supports the following social polices

Cuts in welfare benefits and tighter restrictions on who is eligible for benefits, to prevent ‘perverse incentives’.

Policies to support the traditional nuclear family – for example taxes that favour married couples rather than cohabiting couples.

The Child Support agency – whose role is to make absent dads pay for their children

Criticisms of the New Right

Feminists argue that their polices are an attempt to justify a return to the traditional nuclear family, which works to subordinate women

Cutting benefits may simply drive many into poverty, leading to further social problems

Feminism and Social Policy

Liberal Feminists argue that that changes such as the equal pay act and increasingly generous maternity leave and pay are sufficient to bring about gender equality. The following social policies have led to greater gender equality:

  • The divorce act of 1969 gave women the right to divorce on an equal footing to men – which lead to a spike in the divorce rate.

  • The equal pay act of 1972 was an important step towards women’s independence from men.

  • Increasingly generous maternity cover and pay made it easier for women to have children and then return to work.

However, Radical Feminists argue that patriarchy (the ideal of male superiority) is so entrenched in society that mere policy changes alone are insufficient to bring about gender equality. They argue, for example, that despite the equal pay act, sexism still exists in the sphere of work –

  • There is little evidence of the ‘new man’ who does their fair share of domestic chores. They argue 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 Feminists even argue that overly generous maternity cover compared to paternity cover reinforces the idea that women should be the primary child carer, unintentionally disadvantaging women

  • Dunscmobe and Marsden (1995) argue 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.

  • This last point is more difficult to assess as it is much harder to quantify emotion work compared to the amounts of domestic work and paid work carried out by men and women.

  • Class differences also play a role – with working class mothers suffering more because they cannot afford childcare.

  • Mirlees- Black points out that ¼ women experience domestic violence – and many are reluctant to leave their partner

New Labour and Family Policy

New Labour was in power from between 1997 – 2010. There are three things you need to know about New Labour’s Social Policies towards the family

1. New Labour seemed to be more in favour of family diversity than the New Right. For example –

In 2004 they introduced The Civil Partner Act which gave same sex couples similar rights to heterosexual married couples

In 2005 they changed the law on adoption, giving unmarried couples, including gay couples, the right to adopt on the same basis as married couples

2. Despite their claims to want to cut down on welfare dependency, New Labour were less concerned about ‘the perverse incentives of welfare’ than the New Right. During their terms of office, they failed to take ‘tough decisions on welfare’ – putting the well-being of children first by making sure that even the long term unemployed families and single mothers had adequate housing and money.

3. New Labour believes in more state intervention in family life than the New Right. They have a more positive view of state intervention, thinking it is often necessary to improve the lives of families.

For example in June 2007 New Labour established the Department for Children, Schools and Families. This was the first time that there was ever a ‘department for the family’ in British politics.

The Government’s aim of this department was to ensure that every child would get the best possible start in life, receiving the on-going support and protection that they – and their families – need to allow them to fulfil their potential. The new Department would play a strong role both in taking forward policy relating to children and young people, and coordinating and leading work across Government and youth and family policy.

Key aspects included:

Raising school standards for all children and young people at all ages.

Responsibility for promoting the well-being, safety, protection and care of all young people.

Responsibility for promoting the health of all children and young people, including measures to tackle key health problems such as obesity, as well as the promotion of youth sport

Responsibility for promoting the wider contribution of young people to their communities.

A Radical Feminist Perspective on the Family

Radical feminists see society as patriarchal – a simple definition of patriarchy is provided by the London Feminist Network – ‘Patriarchy refers to a society in which there are unequal power relations between women and men whereby women are systematically disadvantaged and oppressed’.

Most radical feminists see the family as a important in maintaining male power. Below I restrict myself to focusing on the work of one radical feminist – Germaine Greer.

Germaine Greer – The Whole Woman and The Family

Germaine Greer (2000) argues that the family continues to disadvantage women. She focuses on looking at the role of women as wives, mothers and daughters.

Women as Wives

Greer argues that there is a strong ideology suggesting that being a wife is the most important female role. The wives of presidents and prime ministers get considerable publicity, but often have to be subservient to their husbands. Such a role demands that the woman…

‘Must not only be seen to be at her husband’s side on all formal occasions, she must also be seen to adore him and never to appear less than dazzled by everything he may say or do. Her eyes should be fixed on him but he should do his best never to be caught looking at her’.

Radical feminist criticism of marriage

This inequality is mirrored in most marriages. Greer argues that marriage reinforces patriarchal relations from the outset. What she refers to as the ‘ghastly figure of the bride’ expresses traditional conceptions of femininity and once the honeymoon period is over marriage settles into a pattern in which husbands spend more time outside of the home compared to the wife (reinforcing the gendered public-private divide), spends more money on himself, does less housework and generally does better out of the relationship. Wives tend to see it as their job to keep the husband happy, while the husband thinks he has done all he needs to keep his wife happy just by consenting to marry her.

It is typically women who are more likely to think they need to be married in order to be happy, but in reality this is a myth. In fact it is men who do better out of marriage than women. Married men report higher levels of satisfaction than non-married men, while single women report higher levels of satisfaction than married women.

Three quarters of divorces are initiated by women, which has led to a decline in the stable married-family in recent years. Greer sees this as a good thing because the illusion of traditional family life was built on the silence of suffering women.

Women as mothers

Greer consents that motherhood can be intrinsically satisfying she argues that it is not valued by society. She says ‘mothers bear children in pain, feed them from their bodies, cherish and nourish and prepare to lose them’. Children are expected to leave their mother’s home when quite young and to ow their mothers little or nothing in return. Many of the elderly who die of hypothermia are mothers, yet their children accept no responsibility for helping to support them. Society attaches no or little value to motherhood:

‘Mother’ is not a career option; the woman who gave her all to mothering has to get in shape, find a job, and jeep young and beautiful if she wants to be loved. ‘Motherly is a word for people who are frumpish and suffocating’.

Greer suggests at least the following pieces of evidence to demonstrate that mothers are undervalued in society:

  1. In childbirth, the attention focuses mostly on the well-being of the child. The mother’s health takes a back-seat.
  2. Mothers and babies are generally not welcomed in society – in restaurants and public transport for example.
  3. Women are expected to return to work shortly after giving birth, on top of all of the child care duties.
  4. The feminine ideal is to be slim and hipless, while broad hips and the blossom of maternity are seen as monstrous. Women are expected to ‘regain their figure’ shortly after childbirth.
  5. After all is said and done the final role for mothers is to take the blame if their children go bad. Single mothers are here singled out for special attention.

Women as daughters

According to Greer men expect to exercise control over women and expect them to service their needs. Greer argues that daughters are quite likely to experience sexual abuse from their fathers, step-fathers and other male relatives and that this is a particularly horrendous form of patriarchy and is an extension of male heterosexuality. She believes that such abuse is very much more common than most of us think and that ‘it is understood that heterosexual men fancy young things, that youth itself is a turn-on, but no-one is sure how young is too young. Why after all are sexy young women called ‘babes’?

Solutions

While Greer does not believe that women should cut themselves off from men altogether she thinks they would be better off in matrilocal households, where all the adults are female. She believes such households have a lot to offer women, especially if they incorporate the many older women currently living alone.

Evaluations

A problem with Greer’s work is that it makes sweeping generalisations which are not backed up by evidence. In fairness it took me a while to find the above picture of the Camerons, most of them seem to involve them looking at each other!

Jennifer Somerville in particular is very critical of Greer, arguing that she does not take into account the progress women have made in terms of family life in recent years.

Related Posts

Feminist perspectives on the family (which covers all three types of Feminism)

The Liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family

The Marxist Feminist perspective on the family

Marxist Feminist Perspectives on Family Life

Marxists such as Engels and Zaretsky acknowledge that women are exploited in marriage and family life, but they emphasise the relationship between capitalism and the family, rather than the family’s effects on women. Marxist feminists use Marxist concepts, but they see the exploitation of women as they key feature of family life.

marxist feminism
Marxist Feminism

The reproduction of labour power

‘The amount of unpaid labour performed by women is very large and very profitable to those who own the means of production. To pay women for their work, even at minimum wage scales, would involve a massive redistribution of wealth. At present, the support of the family is a hidden tax on the wage earner – his wage buys the labour power of two people’ (Margaret Benston, 1972).

In other words, all of the chores associated with the traditional, expressive role, such as domestic labour, child care and emotion work are necessary to ‘keep the family going’ and so women’s unpaid work ultimately ends up benefiting the Capitalist class, because they only have to pay one person in the family– the male breadwinner a wage. The woman attends to the husbands needs and ‘keeps him going’ as a worker for free, and women also do most of the child care for free, thus reproducing the next generation of workers for free.

A related point here is made by Fran Ansley who sees the emotional support provided by men as a safety valve for the frustrations produced in the husband by working in a capitalist system:

‘When wives play their traditional role as takers of shit, they often absorb their husband’s legitimate anger and frustration at their own powerlessness and oppression.’

(NB This analysis is essentially a more critical view of Parson’s ‘warm bath theory’ – the theory of the stabilisation of adult personalities – in Marxist-Feminist terms this is not ‘different but equal’ roles, it is a case of different an unequal – and this inequality benefits capitalism)

Finally, because the husband has to pay for his wife and children he cannot easily withdraw his labour power even if he is exploited. This reduces his bargaining power in relation to his employer and makes it more likely that he will put up with a low wage rather than risk being sacked by striking for a higher wage.

As an economic unit the nuclear family is a valuable stabilising force in capitalist society. Since the husband-father’s earnings pay for the production which is done in the home, his ability to withhold labour is much reduced’ (Margaret Benston, 1972).

Ideological conditioning

The traditional nuclear family not only physically reproduces cheap labour for the the ruling class, it also teaches the ideas that the Capitalist class require for their future workers to be passive.

Diane Feeley (1972) argues that the family is an authoritarian unit dominated by the husband in particular and adults in general. The family has an ‘authoritarian ideology which teaches passivity, not rebellion and children learn to submit to parental authority thereby learning to accept their place in the hierarchy of power and control in capitalist society.

Evaluations of the Marxist Feminist Perspective on The Family

David Morgan argues that the traditional nuclear family is becoming less common and so this theory is less applicable today

They also ignore the fact that women have made progress in family life – life is better within families today for women, as Liberal and Difference Feminists point out.

Related Posts

Feminist perspectives on the family (which covers all three types of Feminism)

The Liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family

The Radical Feminist perspective on the family

Sources used

The material above is adapted from Haralambos and Holborn: Sociology Themes and Perspectives.

The Liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family

Liberal Feminism is one of three main perspectives on the family, within the A-level sociology families and households topic. For a briefer summary of this perspective on the family, along with Marxist and Radical and Feminism, please click here.

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. She can thus be characterised as a liberal feminist, although she herself does not use this term.

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.

Gender-Pay-Gap-1-2014-Ages-1mpk9h3
The Gender Pay Gap – At least woman aged 20-29 have caught up with men!

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’.

chore-wars-22dwirw-435x1024
The gendered division of labour – still a source of tension!

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

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 argues that she fails to deal with the Patriarchal structures and culture in contemporary family life.

A Liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family – Executive Summary

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 – Social Policies designed to make working hours more flexible.

Sources Used – Haralambos and Holborn – Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition

Related Posts

Feminist perspectives on the family (which covers all three types of Feminism)

The Marxist Feminist perspective on the family

The Radical Feminist perspective on the family

External sites which may be of interest 

An article from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (2014) – Women put at particular disadvantage by the requirement to work full time

Workingmums.co.uk – A site which works with policy makers and employers to encourage more flexible working hours

The radical feminist perspective on power and control in relationships

The Radical Feminist viewpoint is that relationships are the primary means through which men control women and maintain their power over them in society.

Probably the most shocking evidence which supports this view is the continued prevalence of domestic violence. According to the BCS (2007) this 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.

The radical Feminist explanation for DV is that it is an inevitable feature of a patriarchal society and it is part of a wider system that helps maintain male power over women, they key division in society.

Just to demonstrate that this Radical Feminist views didn’t disappear in the 1980s – Here is a recent Radical Feminist view on domestic violence…

“Domestic violence against women by men is “caused” by the misuse of power and control within a context of male privilege. Male privilege operates on an individual and societal level to maintain a situation of male dominance, where men have power over women and children. Domestic violence by men against women can be seen as a consequence of the inequalities between men and women, rooted in patriarchal traditions that encourage men to believe they are entitled to power and control over their partners.”

(Women’s AID Domestic Violence Fact Sheet, 2009)

Criticisms of the Radical Feminist view on Domestic Violence

1. Wilkinson criticises Feminists by arguing that it is not so much Patriarchy, but poverty that causes stress which leads to DV, so this is much less common in more equal, middle class households.

2. Men are also victims of DV with some statistics suggesting that men are the victims in as many as 2/5 cases of DV.

Other issues relating to power, control and sexuality in relationships

  • In general, women have more freedom and control over their sexuality than in traditional societes.

In many traditional tribal societies, there is little notion that women should gain any satisfaction out of sex. As one British witness to sexuality amongst the Himba of Namibia put it ‘when the husband wants sex, the woman just opens her legs, he gets on with it, and when he’s finished, he just roles over and goes to sleep, there’s no sense of pleasure in it for the woman’. Moreover, in some societies, especially in East Africa, women’s sexuality is tightly controlled, in extreme cases through Female Genital Mutilation, which removes much of the pleasure associated with sex, and sex remains very much about reproduction only.

The above example stands in stark contrast to modern notions of female sexuality. Since the heyday of Feminism and the sexual revolution in the 1960s, and helped by modern contraception, we now live in the age of what Anthony Giddens calls ‘plastic sexuality’ – where sex is primarily about pleasure for both sexes rather than just being about reproduction.

Today, women increasingly demand sexual satisfaction as an ordinary part of their relationships, and cultural products such as the recent best-selling novel – ‘50 Shades of grey’ and programmes such as ‘The Joy of Teen Sex’ certainly suggest that there is much more open and honest discussion about sex between partners in relationships.

Further evidence that suggests modern relationships are equal and that women are more empowered lies in the proliferation of advice and discussion sites about relationships – Advice magazines such as seventeen.com certainly suggest that women, and even girls, are more empowered in their relationships than they used to be. Such magazines even have quizzes so girls can assess whether their boyfriend’s up to scratch.

Also, blogs such as the good men project suggest that men are more prepared to discuss ‘what it means to be a man’ and ‘modern relationships’, further suggesting more equality between the sexes where intimate relations are concerned.

  • However, there is evidence against the view that there is equality in sexual relations

Women experience less sexual satisfaction than men….

Indiana University’s comprehensive survey found that while 91% of men had an orgasm the last time they had sex, but only 64% of women did. These numbers roughly reflect the percentage of men and women who say they enjoyed sex “extremely” or “quite a bit”: 66% of women and 83% of men. Only 58% of women in their ’20s had an orgasm during their latest sexual encounter.

30-40% percent of women report difficulty climaxing and 33% of women under 35 often feel sad, anxious, restless or irritable after sex, while 10% frequently feel sad after intercourse.”

The mainstream media refuses to advertise vibrators

According to one Feminist blog…“Vibrators still are such a big taboo. The media and films (ie. American Pie) glamourize women’s sexuality, but then refuses to run ads for vibrators which are very useful tools for helping women understand their sexuality. Yet Viagra ads run on all of these platforms with no problem.

  • All of this serves to reinforce ‘heteronormativity’, or the idea that women need men to give them sexual satisfaction. The problem with this is that the evidence suggests that men are failing to provide this…. many women report a lack of satisfaction in the bedroom.”

    Thirdly, there is evidence that men and women are becoming more equal where decision making is concerned in relationships

Pahl and Volger (1993) found that ‘pooling’ of household income is on the increase – where both partners have equal access of income and joint responsibility for expenditure

50% of couples pooled their income compared to only 19% of their parents, showing a movement away from ‘allowance systems’ in household expenditure’

Feminist criticisms that decision making is becoming more equal

While some decisions concerning money are made jointly, these tend to be less important ones – such as what clothes to buy while, some recent research suggests that men still tend to have the final say in more important decisions such as changing jobs or moving house

Feminist Perspectives on the Family

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

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.

Feminist theory of the family mind map

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.

Liberal Feminism

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

Executive Summary

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.

Jennifer 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.

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
  • Difference Feminists argue that this is an ethnocentric view – it reflects the experiences of mainly white, middle class women. (See this post for more detail – Is the UK really the 18th most gender equal country in the world?)
  • 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 argues that she fails to deal with the Patriarchal structures and culture in contemporary family life.

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 – through their unpaid domestic labour, by socialising the next generation of workers and servicing the current workers (their husbands!)
  2. 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
  3. 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.

Evaluations of Marxist Feminism

  • One limitation is that this sounds very dated for the 2020s: women today are just as likely to be in paid work as men, and so they no longer act as a ‘reserve army of labour’ for example.
  • A further limitation 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.
  • 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.

Radical Feminism

(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 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.”

Evaluations of Radical Feminism

  • In some ways this perspective is less relevant today than in the 1960s – women are much less likely to suffer from the dual burden and triple shift, for example.
  • In some ways, however, it still seems very relevant. For example, the ME TOO campaign and the Harvey Weinstein scandal both show that harassment and sexual abuse of women remain common.

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

Families Revision Bundle Cover

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

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

Footnotes

(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