Shulamith Firestone – And the Artificial Womb

Shulamith Firestone argues that that the main cause of gender inequality is the biological fact of childbirth – which puts women at a physical disadvantage to men.

She suggests that we need to develop an artificial womb so that women have the choice to be free from the biological necessity of childbirth.

Shulamith Firestone

Her best known work is the Dialectic of Sex, published in 1970.

Firestone argues that the ‘sexual class system’ was the first form of stratification – such systems existed before class based systems and capitalism.

She argues that biological differences between men and women formed the basis for a differentiated division of labour , organised into what she calls the ‘biological family’, which has four key characteristics:

Characteristics of the Biological Family

  1. Women are disadvantaged by the biology – especially pregnancy and childbirth. When they are weakened and caring for their young children they are dependent on men (husbands, brothers, fathers) for their physical survival.)
  2. Women’s dependency on men is severe because of the long period of time it takes human infants to mature.
  3. The interdependence between mother and child, and both of them on men is found in every human society, and this dependency relationship produces unequal relationships.
  4. The sexual class system forms the basis of all other class systems. Men enjoy their power over women in the biological family and seek to extend this into other realms of social and economic life.

Hence Firestone argues that the sexual class system gives rise to the economic class system (not the other way around as Engels suggested.

Women need control over reproduction for gender equality

Firestone argued that contraception was a step towards greater gender equality, because it gave women more control over when they got pregnant.

However, she argues that for full equality women needed even more control over pregnancy – that we need to develop artificial wombs so that reproduction can take place without women being physically ‘disabled’ for several months compared to men. This would be necessary to break women’s dependency on men.

Firestone didn’t argue that artificial wombs were a ‘one stop shop’ for bringing about gender equality – she argued that we would have to fight economic inequalities, power psychology and other aspects of gender inequality to, in order to achieve genuine sexual equality.

Evaluations of Firestone

The biological fact that women give birth may well go some way to explaining the widespread fact of gender equality, however, even in traditional societies, ther eare wide differences in the level of gender power inequalities, and her theory doesn’t explain these variations.

Moreover, whether we need artificial wombs for gender equality is debatable – huge steps have been made recently towards greater equality without artificial wombs.

The article below is worth a read for some further evaluations:

Is artificial womb technology a tool for women’s liberation?

Artificial wombs aren’t science fiction

This is an interesting video outlining how artificial wombs are being developed for premature babies – it’s not quite what Firestone imagine, but it’s a step towards them maybe…

Sources

Some of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn, edition 8!

Relevance to A-level sociology – This post is relevant to the Families and Households module, it is an example of a radical feminist perspective on the family.

The Dialectic of Sex (wiki link).

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What are the functions of the family today?

How have the functions of the family changed? Are the functions of the family in decline?

Functionalist sociologist Talcott Parsons developed the ‘Functional Fit Theory of the family, in which he argued that the extended family used to perform several functions in pre-industrial society, but as society industrialized and the smaller, nuclear family became the norm, the number of functions performed by the family declined.

This post examines the extent to which the functions of the family have changed and asks whether family functions have declined over the last 200 years. It can be used to evaluate the Functionalist perspective on the family.

This post has been written primarily for students studying the families and households topic for A-level sociology.

The functions of the family in pre-industrial society

  • Unit of production
  • Caring for the young, old sick and poor
  • Primary socialisation and control of children
  • Education of children
  • The stabilisation of adult personalities (I assume Parsons thought this was just as essential pre-industrialisation!)

The Functions of the family in industrial society

According to Parsons there are now just two ‘irreducible functions’ performed by the nuclear family :

  • primary socialisation – teaching children basic norms and values
  • the ‘stabilisation of adult personalities’ – providing psychological security for men and women in a stable relationship.

The changing functions of the family

Talcott Parsons was writing in 1950s, so it’s quite possible that even the two functions he identified are no longer performed by the family today (of course some people argue that the family didn’t even perform the functions he claimed they did back in the 1950s!)

To what extent have the functions of the family changed over time, and to what extent have they declined?

The family as a unit of production

Before industrialization and the growth of factory based consumption the family was also a unit of production – the family produced most of the goods it consumed itself, mainly food and clothes.

Today, the family household no longer produces its own goods for consumption. Instead, adults go out to work, earn wages and use those wages to buy food and clothes from the market.

More-over, the increase in technologically advanced products means it would be impossible today for the family-unit to produce itself many of the goods it requires to survive in modern society – so many goods require a complex division of labour with many different specialist job roles.

Caring for the young, old sick and poor

The family used to be the only institution which could care for dependents, however today we have a range of different services which have taken over these functions, most obviously the NHS.

Social welfare services can also intervene and remove children from parents if they believe abuse has been taking place.

Education of children

Before the Education Act of 1870 children were not required to go to school, so what education many of them received had to take place within the family.

There were exceptions to this, as those from wealthier families could send their children to school.

Occupational roles also tended to be ascribed – children learned their trades from their parents, with the skills for particular trades typically being passed down from father to son.

Today, the vast majority of children go to school from the age of 4-18, with the parents taking on a secondary role in their education.

Occupations are no longer passed down from parent to child either – most children rely on the education system to give them the specific vocational skills they will need for specific jobs – occupational status today is achieved, rather than ascribed.

Primary socialisation and control of children

This was the first of Parsons’ ‘irreducible functions of the family’ – that children learn the basic norms and values of society. However, today the state can play more of a role in this where certain parents are concerned.

Sure Start is a good example of the government getting more involved in parenting and Police and social services will intervene to attempt to regulate the behaviour of young offenders.

It’s also likely that parents have less control over children today, compared to the 1950s, because of the impact of the media. It is simply harder for parents to monitor and regulate hyperreality!

The stabilisation of adult personalities

Parsons argued that nuclear families provided stability and pyscholgical security for men and women.

It is difficult to argue this today, given the low rate of marriage and high rates of relationship breakdowns and divorce.

To what extent is the family a willing unit of consumption?

Evaluating the Marxist view of the family and false needs

Contemporary Marxists argue that one of the main functions of the family in capitalist societies is to act as a ‘unit of consumption’ – the family unit is supposed to buy the products necessary to keep capitalism going.

Key to understanding this theory is the idea of ‘false needs’ – which in Marxist theory are perceived ‘needs’ created by the capitalist system, rather than our ‘real needs’.

‘Real needs’ are basic material things such as food, shelter, clothing, but we might also include transport, health, education and general welfare.

‘False needs’ arise because of the demands of the capitalist system, rather than what we as individuals need. They include such things as the need for distraction or anything else we ‘need’ to make life bearable in an unfair system,  anything we might buy to give off a sense of our social status, and anything we buy or do to give ourselves or our children an edge in an artificially unequal world.  We could also include many of the products we buy out of fear, or out the need to make ourselves safe, if that fear is engineered by the capitalist system to keep the population under control.

This post has been written as part of an evaluation of The Marxist Perspective on the Family, part of the families and households module within A-level sociology.

False needs and the family

It is possible to think of many examples of families making purchases and consuming stuff which could fall into the category of false needs, which ultimately serves the needs of the capitalist system. Examples could include:

  • Purchases parents make just keep their kids quiet and simply give themselves time to manage their lives, given that parents do not have enough time at home because they both must work in a Capitalist system. This could include toys and subscriptions to media entertainment packages.
  • Purchase parents make to give their children an advantage in education. In Marxist theory education reproduces class inequality, primarily because the middle classes can buy their kids a better education.
  • Purchases parents make to give their family a sense of status to the outside world – this could be for the family as a whole, such as a better car, or parents giving in to the demands for kids to have the latest status clothes or phone.  
  • Products bought to keep kids ‘safe’, which could be mainly for younger children.
  • A lot of the above will be exacerbated by ‘built in obsolescence’ of many products.

Evidence of the Family perpetuating false needs

This section looks at possible evidence that families purchase ‘shit they don’t need’, giving into false needs, rather than consumption based on real needs.

Some places we might look for evidence include:

  • Case studies of high consumption families, but how representative are they?
  • Stats on advertising expenditure aimed at families and their effectiveness.
  • Stats on family expenditure – trends in how much parents spend on children. and what do parents actually buy?
  • Pester Power – how often do parents give in to their kids nagging?
  • Counter studies – what does an example of a family living in ‘real consciousness’ look like?!?

Keep in mind that there are limitations with all of the evidence below and you can always use your own brain-thing to find your own examples!

My Super Sweet 16

Shows such as ‘My Super Sweet 16’ probably show us the most extreme examples of parents willingly meeting their children’s false needs. An excellent analysis of this is provided my the most excellent Charlie Brooker in the clip below (5.30 mins on)

The problem with such case studies is they are maybe not that representative of families in America, let alone in the UK!?!

According to the FintechTimes children receive almost £20 a month in pocket money, sometimes for doing chores.

According to their research, nine year olds are already well versed in the habit of saving to buy expensive consumer items, as this top chart of products shows:

Whether you regard this as evidence of ‘false needs’ being established from a young age is debatable. Some of the products would fall well within the ‘false need’s category – the Play Station and Slime for example, but others seem quite educational – lego and books seeming to be high up the priority list!

A third of parents say Pester Power has made them take on debt

Corporations know that children Pester parents for toys they want, and so a good deal of advertising has historically been targeted at children. Some recent research from 2018 suggests that a third of parents have given into pester power to the extent that they’ve bought something on credit, just to stop their children nagging.

Parental Expenditure on Education

The average UK parental expenditure on education is almost £25K a year, and that’s over and above the free education provided by the State. Most of this will be by middle class parents trying to give their children an advantage.

Counter Evidence

Don’t forget to look for counter-evidence too – you might want to look up recent restrictions on the power of companies to advertise to children (reducing pester power) or look for examples of ‘frugal families’.

Criticisms of the Marxist view on the family as a unit of consumption

Are parents really in false consciousness, do they really have ‘false’ needs. ?

To what extent are parents under false consciousness and buying ‘shit they don’t need’ for their families and their children, rather than buying stuff because they have made a rational decision?

Some of the safety products for babies may well come under this category – maybe this is a genuine need – maybe it is better to spend £400 on a super safe buggy rather than relying on your parent’s hand me downs?

Individuals might have more false needs than families

I’m also not convinced that the family in particular is the most significant unit of consumption – young adults not yet in families are perfectly capable of buying ‘shit they don’t need’ themselves in their 20s and 30s, and it’s debatable whether their relative expenditure on ‘false need’ type items will be higher when they have families in their 30s 40s and 50s?

Life Expectancy in England is Stalling

Life expectancy has been steadily increasing since 1900, but this trend seems to be stalling, according to the recent Marmot Review of Health Equity.

You can clearly see the slow down in the increase in Life Expectancy for males and females in England in the two graphs below.

For both males and females the graph above shows a clear increasing trend from 2001 to around 2011, and then a much flatter trend from 2011 to 2017.

The above two graphs also highlight the clear correlation between deprivation and life expectancy, with the least deprived (or wealthiest) quintile of males and females enjoying around 6-8 more years of life than the most deprived (or poorest) quintile.

You can’t see it from the above graphs, but the poorest decile (the poorest tenth) of women actually experienced a slight decline in life expectancy in recent years. That is to say the very poorest women now die younger.

Declining healthy life expectancy

The report also highlights a small decline in healthy life expectancy, which I personally think is important to consider, given that it’s much more desirable to live a longer life in good health, compared to a longer life in poor health!

How do we explain the stalling of life expectancy?

The Marmot report says that an increase in deaths from winter illnesses such as flu in recent years can only explain about 20% of the decline in life expectancy.

The report also highlights funding cuts to health and social services as something which has ‘undermined the ability of local authorities to improve the social determinants of health’.

NB – note that the wording of the above is very careful, the report doesn’t say that funding cuts have caused a decrease in the rate of improvement of life expectancy, probably because the report doesn’t have sufficient data to infer a significant enough correlation between funding cuts and life expectancy trends.

So while the trends may be objective, we need to be careful about jumping to conclusions about why life expectancy is stalling!

One thing we can say is that inequality clearly hasn’t improved in the last 20 years, if we use differences as life expectancy as an indicator of this!

Relevance to A-level sociology

This is useful as an update to explaining trends in the death rate!

Bringing up Britain – A useful resource for A-level sociology

If you’re struggling to find useful resources to update the childhood topic within the sociology of the family then you should check out ‘Bringing Up Britain‘, a weekly radio 4 show/ podcast hosted by Mariella Frostrup. bringing up Britain.png

Each episode lasts 40 minutes and consists of debate among ‘experts’ on an aspect of contemporary parenting and childhood. You can see from the screenshot above just how relevant some of these topics are to the sociology of the family as well as to A-level sociology more generally.

The programme tends to analyse issues through more of a psychological perspective rather than a sociological one, but it’s a useful resource nonetheless which does consider social issues such as labelling, the role of the media, and changing norms and values, and how all of these (among other things) affect modern parenting and childhood.

Recent topics include:

  • why do children lie (and is it a problem, not necessarily apparently!) – relevant to the family and crime and deviance
  • Generation anxious – relative to toxic childhood and just generally useful for helping kids deal with mental health issues.
  • Parenting in the Smart Phone age – also relevant to the media module.

 

How does social policy affect family life – Summary Grid

A summary grid of how five social policies might affect different aspects of family life. Designed to help students revise for A-level sociology – the families and households topic.

Picture below and then text version after!

Policy First Thoughts – How might this policy affect family life in the UK? More specifically will this support or undermine the conventional nuclear family?   Who does this policy benefit?

 

The 1969 and 1984 Divorce Acts  ·      Increases divorce and thus single parent, single person and reconstituted households

 

·      Undermine ·      Women (in abusive relationships)
Maternity and Paternity Acts ·      Should make relationships between men and women more equal

 

 

·      Undermine ·      Women (encourages men to become primary child carers)

·      And men – easier for them to be stay at home dads)

The Civil Partnership and Gay Marriage Acts ·      Reduces stigma against same sex relationships

·      Encourages more same sex families

 

·      Undermine ·      Same sex couples (reduction of stigma)
Universal Child Benefits ·      Encourage (poorer) parents to have more children, larger families

 

·      Support ·      Families with children

·      children

Income Support for Single Parents ·      Reduce the number of single parents

 

 

 

 

·      Support (recent changes make it more difficult for single parents to claim benefits) ·      (losers) single parents

Hungary’s tax break for breeders

Hungary’s Right Wing government recently announced a new social policy exempting women who have more than four children from income tax for life.

There are also other financial incentives designed to encourage families to have more children – such as loans of up to £27,000 which will be partially or fully written off if the couple go on to have two or three children.

The stated aim of the policy is to reverse the country’s population decline so that Hungary does not have to rely on migrant workers in the future.

The Prime Minister, Victor Orban stated that women having fewer and fewer children was a problem all over Western Europe, and that the solution tended to be to increasingly rely on immigrants in the future, to replace the ‘missing’ native children. Orban believes that Hungarians would rather have Hungarians working in the future rather than immigrants.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This is an unusual example of a right wing (New Right) policy explicitly designed to encourage marriage and the more babies being born (it seems within nuclear families).

At the same time it is pro-nationalist and and anti-immigration, hence anti-globalisation.

I guess from a narrow minded ‘Hungary first’ Nationalist perspective if makes sense in a ‘defend our boarders’ sort of way.

Unfortunately in itself it’s going to do nothing to actually stem the flow of migrants to Europe from poorer non-European countries, and neither is it going to do anything to curb global population growth – surely from a globalist/ environmentalist perspective what we need is wealthier countries having fewer babies, and more migrants from areas where the birth rate is still high to fill jobs in developing countries in the future?

This is a great example of an unusual family policy, quite extreme in nature, and also a good example of how short-sited Nationalism is.

The Sex Map of Britain

The Sex Map of Britain is a very interesting recent documentary series which ‘meets people for whom sex, sexuality and having children is far from straightforward.

The series covers the following topics:

  • The reality of being a ‘cheap prostitute’ – selling sex for as little as £4.
  • Why some people choose a career in porn.
  • Asexuality – why some people just don’t want sex.
  • Transgender escorts and parenting urges.
  • The journey of freezing eggs and ‘alternatives’ to IVF.
  • And a trip behind the scenes of a sexual health clinic.

Unfortunately the episode on polyamory has disappeared.

Relevance to A-level sociology

This is a terrific series to get students to explore the wonderful diversity of relationships and sexuality in postmodern society, and taken together, this collection clearly illustrates the postmodern view of modern family life – that there’s no longer such a thing as a ‘normal’ family or relationship!

There are nine available episodes available on iplayer for the next 10 months, and, suitably for a documentary series which explores the diversity of family life in postmodern society, they are all nice and short, so perfect for postmodern students with postmodern attention spans (i.e. short ones).

Explaining the rapid decline in the teen pregnancy rate

Why is the teen pregnancy
rate declining? What are the possible sociological explanations for this dramatic trend?

There was a 50% decline in the ‘teen pregnancy’ rate in England and Wales between the 6 years 2010 to 2016.

Teenage pregnancy stats England.png

The rate declined from around 40 conceptions per 1000 15-19 year olds to less than 20 per 1000. Similar trends in the 15-19 conception rate occurred in both Northern Ireland and Scotland.

This means that the UK’s teen pregnancy rate has gone from being one of the highest in Western Europe, to much closer to the average. This trend has been heralded as one of the most significant public health success stories of our times.

These statistics were highlighted this week in a report published by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS). The charity commissioned YouGov to collect a combination of qualitative and quantitative data, using the the following mixed-methods approach:

  1. A diary task in which participants documented their day-to-day lives over the course of 4 days (including one weekend.)
  2. Four online focus groups with 16-18 year olds drawing on the diary notes (inNovember 2016)
  3. The results of the focus groups were then used to inform a demographically weighted quantitative survey of 1,004 16-18 year olds which was conducted online in February 2017.

In this this blog post I selectively summarise some of the findings of this research. I focuses on the reasons why the teenage conception rate has fallen so dramatically in the last six years.

Why is the teen pregnancy rate declining?

The conclusion to  the report highlights the importance of three factors:

  1. importance of good quality sex education
  2. The use of contraception
  3. The rise of what the authors call ‘generation sensible’: today’s teenagers are basically more risk averse and responsible than you may think.

To my mind this final analysis is typical of a charity looking to influence social policy. The first two factors are things the government can control, and the link between them and the decline in teen pregnancy is fairly obvious.

Of far more interest is the significance of social factors which the government cannot control: the social factors which lie behind the rise of so-called ‘generation sensible’…

The rise of ‘generation sensible’ and the decline of teen-pregnancy

Just over half of teenagers feel negative about the state of politics in the UK. The report finds that teenagers are worried about their future prospects. They feel that the current older generation in charge isn’t creating the kind of society in which they can prosper. In this context, teens are more likely to knuckle down and study to improve their future prospects.

Teenage views politics.png

Many of today’s teens have a dim view of those who engage in risky drug-related and sexual behaviors, and such behaviours have declined.

Teenagers are not that promiscuous: only a third of teenagers admitted to having had sex, and half of those had only had sex with one person. Some of the responses in the focus groups were that they were too busy for relationships.

Sexting seems to be replacing body-body sex: nearly 80% believe sexting can be a legitimate part of a relationship. Half of teenagers admitted to having received a sext, with a third admitting to having sent one.

Almost half of 16-18 year olds don’t drink at all, or drink only once a month or less. Only 13% drink more than twice a week. Moreover, many teenagers have a negative view of binge drinking and don’t like the risks associated with being ‘out of control’. Today’s teenagers have even more negative attitudes towards drugs.

Teenage drinking.png

Sociological relevance

This study provides a really interesting insight into how risk society and the perception of lack of opportunities in the future have changed the world-views of today’s youth.

It also seems to suggest support for the view that today’s youth have become ‘responsibilised’. They are taking responsibility for their own futures by not engaging in risky behaviour which might reduce their life chances. Foucault would be nodding his head furiously I imagine.

Despite the ‘policy’ feel of the report, I also think it’s an important reminder that social policies are quite limited in their ability to steer human behaviour. It seems that the other social factors are just as important here.

What’s of further interest is just how rapidly this change has occurred.

On the hypocritical parenting of tech billionnaires

Given the trend towards toxic childhood, it should come as no surprise that young children are being increasingly exposed to technologies such as iPads as part of very early socialisation, and it should be no more surprising that such exposure is having an effect on children’s behaviour.

Some small children have been spotted by teachers trying to turn book pages by ‘swiping left’, according to teachers from the National Education Union, while paediatric occupational therapist Sally Payne blames technology for the fact that some small children are starting school never having learnt to hold a pencil.

Whether such technology led socialisation practices end up being detrimental to those children who are exposed to them remains to be seen, but what’s interesting is that so many of the techno-elite are taking steps to limit their own children’s exposure to such technologies. Below are just a few examples:

Tech Billionnaires children.png

So what’s going on here?

It seems that our technological elites have an intuitive feeling that the products they have created are maybe harmful for children, in the sense that they are addictive, and so take active steps to limit their own children’s use of such products.

At the same time, however, they are more than happy to take the billions of dollars they’ve made from these products and run companies which actively seek to addict more and more people, including children, to the precise same products they want to protect their own children from.

This kind of hypocrisy really speaks volumes about neoliberal silicon valley culture: such a morality is surely only possible in a hyper-individualised culture? A culture which allows people to innovate and take absolutely no responsibility for the social cost, as long as they’ve got enough time and money to protect their own nearest and dearest from the negative consequences of their bread and butter.

Sources:

The Week Issue 1170

Pic Source – http://waldorfpeninsula.org/