Sociological Perspectives on HS2

Sociological perspectives on HS2 – functionalism, marxism, interactionism, feminism and post-late modernism.

The conservative cabinet recently gave approval for the full HS2 rail line to be built, linking London to Birmingham, and later to Manchester and Leeds.

The estimated cost will be £100 billion, meaning the final cost will probably be nearer $200 billion. I know we live in a supposedly postmodern age, but the one certain thing is that private construction companies will find a way to go well over their budget when working on major public infrastructure projects.

I got to thinking what the green light for this project suggests about different sociological perspectives.

Functionalism and HS2

At a very basic level, you could argue this is a ‘functional’ project as it’s improving different connectivity across England, and supporters point to the economic benefits this project will bring to the economy: jobs in the short term and then more business (supposedly) to the North in the long term.

It’s also a very modernist project: it’s big, bold and done at the level of the nation state, and it’s about promoting economic growth.

Marxism and HS2

Marxists tend to argue that government policies which benefit the wealthy are more likely to get the go ahead than those that benefit the poor. Call be a Marxist cynic, but when I heard of a new high speed rail line between London and the North being built my first thought was ‘well that’ll be nice for city commuters’, now the can all cash in their 1M homes in the SE and buy a much larger home up north and a Monday -Thursday flat in London.

We could also be critical of this project in terms of the North-South divide – a lot of people in the North would rather we spent £200 billion over the next five-ten years on improving travel infrastructure just in the North.

A super fast rail line to a few cities up North isn’t going to benefit that many people (other than city commuters) if you can’t then get anywhere else because the local roads are still congested and the local public transport links are irrational?

I can’t imagine this project benefiting anyone in the bottom sixth of society, the kind of people who generally can’t afford to travel.

Feminism and HS2

I can’t see that much relevance in applying Feminism other than to mention that this project does seem to be very much a boys thing. I’m sure every single person I’ve seen talking in favour of it is a man.

I have, however, seen lots of women protesting against it, at various local sites where the rail is going to uproot local communities and destroy local woodlands.

Interactionism and HS2

I don’t think we can understand why this project is going ahead without taking into account the symbolic meaning of it for Boris Johnson and Brexit.

This isn’t just a physical infrastructure project, giving HS2 the green light at this point in British history is also a sign that ‘Britain can go it alone’, that ‘Britain’s building for the future’, that Britains ‘gearing up for business’ – and a whole load of other slogans are no doubt going to be attached to this by the political class for the next decade.

And it’s also a nice little personal legacy for the PM himself.

Postmodernism/ Late Modernism and HS2

On the surface there’s nothing postmodern about it this project – it’s very modern and ‘national’, however if you look into what companies are involved with constructing, and in the future running HS2, this will no doubt be a global effort.

HS2 is also a symbol of divisions in our late modern society – with half the population being against it, the other half being for it. This is hardly promoting value consensus!

One also has wonder whether building better travel connections ‘for business’ makes sense when work is changing so it’s more remote, with more people working from home.

It’s also a reminder of the challenges of politics in a Late Modern age – we simply don’t know whether this will end up being a good investment, but in the context of uncertainty politicians just have to make decisions and stick to them!

In conclusion

I’m sure HS2 is primarily being built so Boris Johnsons’s city buddies can have a better quality of life, it’ll make it feasible for them to buy a nice house up north and a flat in London and then do the Monday to Thursday commute, then go have a nice long weekend up North.

So if you’re looking for an investment, buy a house in Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds now! This isn’t financial advice!

Sources: find out more

Strictly Sociological

Who doesn’t love a bit of Strictly Come Dancing?

But if this years Strictly judges were sociologists, what perspective would they represent?

Marxist Craig Revel Horwood

The most critical judge, who doesn’t mind speaking the truth even when it makes him unpopular. The closest thing to a Marxist on Strictly, in the loosest possible sense of the word.

Black Feminist Motsi Mabuse

I’ve no idea whether she’s a Feminist, but she is black and a woman, and clearly not held back by any of that beauty myth size 0 body image nonsense, so I’m taking a cheap shot with Black Feminism, go girl!

Social Action Theorist Shirley Ballas

Of all the judges, Shirley is probably the one who looks closest at the contestants’ technique, and gives useful advice on the micro details of their performance, more so than any of the others. I guess that’s why she’s head judge, and the nearest thing to a social action theorist on Strictly.

Postmodernist Bruno Tonioli

Sooorrreey Bruno, I mean you’re lovely and all, but all you do in your feedback is tell people how fantabulous they are -and loving everything with lack of critical input, makes you a postmodernist at heart. Nice, but mostly useless, unless you’ve accepted the need for Therapeutic feedback.

Functionalist Len Goodman

Well as near as you can get – he was born in the 1940s, the Functionalist era, and he inspires Value Consensus nearly as much as David Attenborough. I mean, everyone loves Len don’t they?

And the fact that he’s retired reminds us of just how dated Functionalism is!


I’m sure you can use anything to teach the perspectives for A-level sociology.

Just a bit of pre-Christmas fun! I enjoyed writing that, cheers!

Sociological Perspectives on Social Policy and the Family

Sociological Perspectives influence ideas about social policies. Views range from the New Right who believe in policies to support the traditional nuclear family to Radical Feminists, some of whom argue for the abolition of the nuclear family.

Sociological Perspectives on the family include Functionalism, Donzelot’s conflict perspectives, Liberal and Radical Feminism, the New Right and New Labour.

There are several social policies you can apply these perspectives too: everything from the 1969 Divorce Act to the 2022 marriage act.

Perspectives on family policy summary:

The two grids below summarise what family policies different sociological perspectives might support or criticise.

summary grid on sociological perspectives on family policy
summary grid on sociological perspectives on family policy

The main blog post below goes into much more depth….

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.

Criticisms of the functionalist perspective

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.

Criticism of Conflict perspectives

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.

This post has been written primarily for students of A-level sociology, and is one of the main topics in the families and households module, usually taught in the first year of study.

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A Radical Feminist Perspective on the Family

the norm of the traditional, privatised nuclear family can disadvantage women who would be more free in women only households.

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’.

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 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. 

(1) (2020) Why one in four women in the U.S. return to work two weeks after childbirth 

Related Posts

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)

The Liberal Feminist Perspective on the Family

The Marxist Feminist perspective on the family

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 family is the primary institution which socialises individuals into these gender roles.

The proof for gender being constructed (rather than biologically determined) is found in the sometimes radically different behaviour we see between women from different societies: i.e. different societies construct being a “women” in different ways (and the same can be said for differences between men in different societies as well).

Overview of Feminist Perspectives on the Family

This post summarises Feminist perspectives on the family covering:

  • An overview of Feminism in general
  • Liberal Feminism
  • Marxist Feminism
  • Radical Feminism

All sections include what different Feminists think about the role of the family in causing gender equality, their ideas about solutions to inequalities and criticisms.

Feminist theory of the family mind map

The content below is primarily designed to help students revise for the AQA A level sociology paper 2, families and households option. 

Feminism and the Family

Feminists have been central in criticising gender roles associated with the traditional nuclear family, especially since the 1950s.  They have argued the nuclear family has traditionally performed two key functions which oppressed women:

  1. 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.
  2. socialising women into accepting the “housewife” role as normal, which limited women to the domestic sphere and made them financially dependent on men.

Essentially, feminists viewed the function of the family as a breeding ground where patriarchal values were learned by individuals, which in turn created a patriarchal society.

For the purposes of teaching A-level sociology Feminism is usually to be split (simplified) 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.

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 – women do most of the childcare within the nuclear family, part of which involves socialising them to accept the authority of their parents, which gets them used to the idea of being obedient to hierarchical authority more generally, which is what their future capitalist employers need. They are thus socialising the next generation of workers, and they do this for free because their domestic labour is unpaid.
  2. Women absorb anger – Think back to Parson’s warm bath theory in which women help men destress after a hard day at work and thus help keep industrial capitalism going. The Marxist-Feminist interpretation of this is that women are just absorbing the anger of the proletariat, preventing this anger from being directed towards the Bourgeois, and thus preventing revolution and the downfall of capitalism.
  3. Women are a ‘reserve army of cheap labour’ – the fact that women’s ‘normal’ role in the nuclear family restrictions them from working, but they are nonetheless there in the background, in reserve. This prevents men from striking to demand higher wages because the Bourgeois could potentially take on female employees at lower wages if male employees start to play up.

Key thinker – Fran Ansley (1972)

Ansley 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.  

Ansley famously referred to women as ‘the takers of shit‘ within the nuclear family under capitalism.      

Key thinker: Laurie Penny

Laurie Penny argues that neoliberal capitalism has encouraged women to seek self-empowerment and freedom through consumerism (by buying high heals and overt expressions of sexuality, for example).

The problem is that only a relatively few women earn enough to be able to ‘consume their way’ to liberation and so this isn’t a solution for the majority of women.

In reality many women work very long hours in unpaid domestic roles or low paid unskilled jobs, and it is mainly the exploitation of women which sustains both patriarchy and capitalism.

Feminists should be campaigning for better working conditions for women, and if women realised their power and just stopped working they could bring capitalism down, but this kind of activism is not very sexy or exciting and women remain ‘distracted’ with consuming their way to liberation.

You can read more about Laurie Penny’s views in this interview.

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.

Two specific solutions include campaigning for better pay and conditions in jobs where mainly women work, such as cleaning and caring jobs.

Another solution is paying women for housework and childcare, thus putting an economic value on what is still largely women’s domestic work.

Evaluations of Marxist Feminism

  • One criticisms 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.
  • If you look at the United Nation’s Gender Equality Index (2) 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. This correlation isn’t perfect, but you can clearly see wealthy European countries such as Finland at the top and poorer sub-saharan African countries near the bottom.
  • The idea that women act as a reserve army of labour is less and less relevant every year: the employment rate for men in the UK in December 2022 was 79% for men and 72% of women, only a 7% gap.
  • However if we look at part time employment rates there is still more potential for women to do more work as women are more likely to employed than men: 38% of women worked part-time, compared to only 18% of men (1)

Radical Feminist Views of the Family

(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 nuclear family is where this system of oppression starts, it is the foundation on which patriarchy is based and thus should be abolished.

Against Liberal Feminism, they argue that paid work has not been ‘liberating’. Women’s lives within the family have not simply become better because they now have improved job opportunities and pay which is more equal to men’s.

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 Crime Survey for England and Wales domestic violence accounts for a sixth of all violent crime and nearly 1 in 5 adults will experience domestic violence at some point in their lives, with women being more than twice as likely to experience it than men.

Kate Millett: On the sociology of Patriarchy

Key thiker –Kate Millet (see below) was one of the leading American Second Wave Feminists in the 1960s and 70s and is one of the best known radical feminists.

“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.”

Solutions to gender inequality

Radical Feminists advocate for the abolition of the traditional, patriarchal 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 extreme radical feminists also practise political lesbianism and political celibacy as they view heterosexual female relationships with men as “sleeping with the enemy.”

Radical feminists also argue for more support for female victims of domestic violence to help women out of abusive relationships.

Evaluations of Radical Feminism

  • There is still evidence of the dual burden and triple shift on women. Women do twice as much childcare than men and spend 64% more time doing domestic chores.
  • The ME TOO campaign and the Harvey Weinstein scandal both show that harassment and sexual abuse of women remain common.
  • Ignores the progress that women have made in many areas e.g. work, controlling fertility, divorce.
  • Too unrealistic – due to heterosexual attraction separatism is unlikely.
  • Ignores domestic/emotional abuse suffered by men who often don’t report it.

Liberal Feminism

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

Liberal Feminists do not emphasise the role of the family in perpetuating gender inequality in society as much as Marxist or Radical Feminists.

According to liberal Feminists gender inequalities are primarily caused by inequalities in the public sphere rather than inequalities in the home. Prior to 1972 the main problem was the lack of equal pay in work between men and women, and today two problems include:

  • stereotypical subject domains in education steering women into lower paid jobs such as health and social care.
  • unequal maternity and paternity pay encouraging the woman to take more time of work than the man following the birth of a new child.
  • lack of free child care preventing women from returning to work earlier.

Solutions to Inequality

Liberal Feminists tend to focus on achieving greater equality of opportunity in the public sphere: focussing on achieving equal access to education, equal pay, ending gender differences in subject and career choice won primarily through legal changes.

In Liberal Feminist theory if women have an equal chance as men to pursue careers outside of the family, they are free to choose NOT to be housewives and mothers.

We have made enormous progress towards equality in the public sphere in recent decades, and all that remains is ‘tweaking’ in certain areas, such as improving equality in higher managerial positions: there are still very few women employed at the senior executive levels.

Two social policies liberal feminists would support include the 2015 shared parental leave act in which the mother and father can share the mother’s maternity leave between them and the forthcoming 2024 act which proivdes free childcare for children down to 9 months of age.

Key Thinker: Jenny 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.

Jennifer Somerville

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.

For a more in-depth exploration of Somerville’s work you can read her book, published in the year 2000: Feminism and the Family: Politics and Society in the UK and the USA.

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 Liberal Feminism is an ethnocentric view – it reflects the experiences of mainly white, middle class women.
  • 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 (see further below) argue that she fails to deal with the Patriarchal structures and culture in contemporary family life.
  • Despite policy changes which have made work more equal, slight gender inequalities remain in the UK!
A Level Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle

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

Families Revision Bundle Cover

The bundle 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/ Find out More

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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
  • (1) House of Commons library: Women in the UK Economy.
  • (2) The Gender Equality Index.
  • (3) The Guardian: The End of Lockdown and Domestic Chores.

(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