Radical feminists see society as patriarchal – a simple definition of patriarchy is provided by the London Feminist Network – ‘Patriarchy refers to a society in which there are unequal power relations between women and men whereby women are systematically disadvantaged and oppressed’.
Most radical feminists see the family as a important in maintaining male power. Below I restrict myself to focusing on the work of one radical feminist – Germaine Greer.
Germaine Greer – The Whole Woman and The Family
Germaine Greer (2000) argues that the family continues to disadvantage women. She focuses on looking at the role of women as wives, mothers and daughters.
Women as Wives
Greer argues that there is a strong ideology suggesting that being a wife is the most important female role. The wives of presidents and prime ministers get considerable publicity, but often have to be subservient to their husbands. Such a role demands that the woman…
‘Must not only be seen to be at her husband’s side on all formal occasions, she must also be seen to adore him and never to appear less than dazzled by everything he may say or do. Her eyes should be fixed on him but he should do his best never to be caught looking at her’.
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’?
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.
A problem with Greer’s work is that it makes sweeping generalisations which are not backed up by evidence. In fairness it took me a while to find the above picture of the Camerons, most of them seem to involve them looking at each other!
Jennifer Somerville in particular is very critical of Greer, arguing that she does not take into account the progress women have made in terms of family life in recent years.
Feminist perspectives on the family (which covers all three types of Feminism)