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.

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

How has women going into paid work affected equality in relationships?

Evidence that women going into paid work has resulted in greater equality in relationships

  • It seems obvious that women going into paid work has resulted in greater equality. As most women are now in paid-work this means they have more financial independence than ever before.
  • Statistics (see the next topic, link below) clearly show that the gendered division of labour has become more equal since the 1950s

To what extent is the domestic division of labour characterised be equality?

Evidence that women going into paid work has not resulted in greater equality

However, Radical Feminists argue that paid work has led to the dual burden and triple shift

One argument used to support this view is 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.

Explaining the increase in family and household diversity (part 2/3)

4. Feminism: Changing Gender Roles

Liberal Feminists and Late Modernists would point to the increasing number of women going into work as one of the most important underlying structural shifts in Late Modern Society.

Rather than needing to depend on men for their financial independence, women are now much more likely to focus on building a career before ‘settling down’ and starting a family. This goes some way to explaining the increase in single person households. The increased earning power of women also explains the growth of the number of never-married women who choose to have babies on their own. While this only accounts for a relatively small proportion of single parent households, such numbers are increasing.

Women’s increased financial independence has also led to relationships becoming more fragile and thus helps explain the increase in single parent households and single person households following divorce.

Evaluation: It is important not to overstate the extent of ‘women’s liberation’ – In 2012, women accounted for 91 per cent of lone parents with dependent children and men the remaining 9 per cent. These percentages have changed little since 1996. Women are more likely to take the main caring responsibilities for any children when relationships break down, and therefore become lone parents.

5. Social Policies

There are two important policies which lie behind many of the above changes – the 1969 Divorce Act and the 1972 Equal Pay Act.

In addition to the above, The New Right believe that overly generous welfare benefits have created an underclass in the UK, and a subsection of this underclass consists of teenage girls who choose to get pregnant in order to get a council house and live a comfortable life on welfare.

Evaluations (of the New Right): In reality, only 2% of single parents are teenagers, which is hardly a significant proportion compared to the overall numbers.

Also, it is not so much the benefits system which is to blame – The money is simply not enough to encourage someone to have a child to get housed – If you are on benefits, whether you have a child or not, you get enough to exist rather than to have a comfortable life. (The current weekly Jobseekers allowance is under £60/ week).

6. Late Modernism

Late Modern Sociologists argue against Postmodernists. The increase in family diversity is not simply a matter of individuals having more freedom of choice and choosing to live alone or become a single parent, people are forced into these options because of structural changes making life more uncertain.

Firstly, most people don’t choose to live with their parents until they are 30, and most people don’t choose to live in a multigenerational household, they do so because they have to out of economic necessity.

Secondly, most people still want to get married and have children, but fewer people do so because of an increase in ‘risk consciousness’ – There is more uncertainty about what a ‘normal relationship’ is. Changing roles of men and women and changing expectations of relationships and family life result in young people being more reluctant to settle down in a classic long term relationship.

Thirdly, Ulrich 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. People are more likely to go through a series of monogamous relationships (serial monogamy) – which means cohabiting for a few years and then back to living alone again and then so on.

Finally, Anthony Giddens 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, increasing the amount of single person and single parent and then reconstituted families.

6. Other Factors Explaining the Increase in Family and Household Diversity

  • Fewer people today are living in couples; there has been a big rise in the number of people living alone, and in 2006 almost three in ten households contained only one person. Half of all one person households are people of pensionable age. Many women in their 70s and 80s live alone simply because there are too few partners available in their age group – women marry men who are older than them and men die younger.
  • The massive expansion in higher education has seen the number of undergraduate students triple since 1970, from 414,000 to 1.27 million – this means more young adults are not in work and economically dependent on their parents for longer.

Evaluating the idea that there is increasing family diversity (part 3 of 3)

Explaining the Changing Patterns of Marriage

The main trend in marriage in the UK is that of long term decline. This post examines some of the reasons behind this, such as changing gender roles, the increasing cost of living and individualisation

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

 

Decline marriage 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

Explaining the changing patterns of Marriage in the UK

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.

4. Postmodernisation

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)

Related Posts 

For a more ‘human explanation’ check out this video – sociological perspectives on the decline in marriage

Explaining the Long Term Increase in Divorce – Essay Plan

Test Yourself 

https://quizlet.com/76813527/test/embed

Supplements

This graph is useful for contrasting the changes in both marriage and divorce…

decline in marriage increase in divorce

decline in marriage increase in divorce

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