Radical feminists see society as patriarchal: all social institutions are systematically structured to run in the interests of men and to maintain male power over women.
The traditional nuclear family is seen as one of the most important institutions which subordinates women to male power by putting women into the roles of housewives and mothers, through which they become financially dependent on men.
Physical violence against women is one of the main ways male domination over women is maintained and the ideology of the the privatised nuclear family makes it easier for men to commit domestic violence. If the family is private in makes it easier for domestic violence to continue on, hidden away from public view.
Precisely because the family is supposed to be private, victims of domestic violence are reluctant to report crimes against them and friends, neighbours and state agencies reluctant to investigate.
For radical feminists men and women have different interests and part of the radical feminist strategy is consciousness raising to help women realise this. Part of this involves challenging women’s ideas that the nuclear family set up is good, and getting them to question whether they need to have children or families at all.
Some radical feminists have suggested that in order to combat patriarchy women need to live in radically alternative family structures: such as women only households or even adopting lesbian relationships.
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’.
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:
- In childbirth, the attention focuses mostly on the well-being of the child. The mother’s health takes a back-seat.
- Mothers and babies are generally not welcomed in society – in restaurants and public transport for example.
- Women are expected to return to work shortly after giving birth, on top of all of the child care duties.
- 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.
- 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 to patriarchal families
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 of radical feminism
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, rather than her looking at him.
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.
This 2019 comparative study of the subjective well being of men and women in cohabiting and married relationships found that married women and men are no happier than those cohabiting, so at the very least we can say marriage doesn’t make you happier, and thus maybe isn’t necessary!
Evidence supporting radical feminism
Women still do more housework and childcare than men
In 2022 women did 30 minutes more housework per day than men and an hour per day more childcare.
According to a 2021 YouGov survey 38% of women in full time work say they are primarily responsible for childcare and housework compared to only 9% of men.
Around 40% of men and women say they share domestic chores and housework equally.
Things haven’t changed since 2017.
Same sex couples share domestic chores more equally
One (2020) study: Same Sex Couples Division of Labour from a Cross National Perspective found that both male and female same-sex couples divide their domestic chores more equally than opposite sex couples, and female couples share more equally than male couples.
It also found that where paid work is concerned male couples do more paid work than females: suggesting broad support for gender role socialisation norms carrying on into adulthood independently of the heterosexual family.
The shocking maternity laws in the U.S.A
25% of women in the U.S. have to return to work two weeks after childbirth (1) because their employers only give them the minimum of two weeks statutory maternity pay.
This affects women in low-paid jobs more, professional women are far more likely to get more generous maternity packages.
The problem is with social policy in America: the law only requires companies provide a minimum of two weeks paid leave, it’s a good example of social policy not working for women.
This material is mainly relevant to the families and households topic within A-level sociology.
Feminist perspectives on the family (which covers all three types of Feminism)