Feminists View of the Family

Feminists have played a major part in the ideology of the family, as they provide an alternative view to the traditional sociology of the family. There are many different types of feminists; the main ones are Radical feminists. Marxist feminist and liberal feminists. Although they are categorised separately, they fundamentally believe in the same idea. Which is the dominant functionalist assumptions are inaccurate and should therefore be challenged. Functionalists believe that in the family. The role of the woman is functional when she plays a necessary ‘expressive’ role. Providing care and affection for members in a more subordinate role than that of the breadwinner husband.

One of the functionalists, Wilmott and Young, (1973), claimed that 72% of the married men in their sample help their wife in some other way than washing, even though they do fail to specify what this help is. They believe that the family is symmetrical and both husband and wife have joint conjugal roles. Which makes the family a functional institution. However, the radical feminist, Anne Oakley, points out that the fact that they say ‘helps their wife’ implies that the primary responsibility is still the wife’s.

Oakley also points out that the creation of the housewife role is a social construction and is not inevitably linked to the female role. This housewife role ensures that women stay subordinate to men, making it difficult for them to pursue careers and this role which is exclusively allocated to women, has no status, is unpaid and alienating, and yet it takes precedence over all other roles. Her conclusion is that the only way women will gain freedom and be able to develop fully as individuals in society is for the abolition of the role of housewife, the sexual division of labour, and the family itself as it is presently understood and structured.

A liberal feminist, Jessie Bernard, sees the role of housewife as the key factor in limiting the potential of women. Bernard believes that marriage is particularly beneficial for men as they are more likely than single men to have successful careers, high incomes and high status occupations. However, wives are found to express marital dissatisfaction more frequently than men, since they gain least. Margaret Benston, a Marxist feminist, states that the amount of unpaid labour performed by women is very profitable to those who own the means of production.

To pay for women 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 eamer, his wage buy the labour power of two people. In addition, the man is less likely to withdraw his labour power with a wife and children to support. Not only does the family produce and rear cheap labour, it also maintains it at no cost to the employer. The woman as housewife tends to her husbands needs keeping him in good working order to perform his role as wage labourer.

Radical feminists such as Dobash and Dobash, found through their studies that although both partners feel that marriage allows them to make some demands upon the other, there is considerable difference in their abilities to achieve their own ends when there is disagreement.

The woman is almost never in a position to coerce him by physical means and has never learned the techniques of violence nor been taught to think in terms of physical control. They therefore believe that the family is not symmetrical as Wilmott & young may suggest, as there are inequalities in the power relations, and they also see the family as a key institution in perpetuating women’s oppression, and that given the risk of male violence they would be better off alone.

Fran Ansley, a Marxist feminist, like Parsons, believes that the emotional support provided by the wife acts as a safety valve for the frustration produced in the husband by working in the capitalist system.

Feminists stress that anatomy is not destiny. In particular is Anne Oakley who presents evidence that gender roles are culturally, not biologically, determined. As children we are placed into roles, which are acceptable to society, this idea is supported by Murdock, as he believed that man provides an economic role and the female provided an expressive role.

Oakley points out that the housewife role is a social construction and is not inevitably linked to the female role. The liberal feminist, Sharpe, discusses the significance of the educational system in shaping a girls self image, as the school curriculum is gender based. Girls are also discouraged from studying science subjects by the attitudes of teachers as well as of male pupils. This study shows us that the idea that ‘anatomy is destiny’ is not realistic, as we as individuals are shaped through society and its perspectives on gender roles.

Traditional functionalists such as Murdock and Parsons have stressed the need for both parents for effective socialisation of the young, this view was revitalised by the work of the New Right theorist, Charles Murray who claims that the substantial rise in the number of single parent families, is indicitative of a rising underclass. However, Ellis Cashmore failed to find any negative effects on the individual or society although she acknowledges that financially it could be a struggle. She even suggested that having one caring parent was better than two ‘at each other’s throats”.

Many radical feminists, such as Dobash & Dobash, feel that divorce may allow women to escape the very real but difficult to measure, threat of male violence. Although the feminists provide an alternative view of the family, there are still some criticisms to be made. The Liberal feminist approach does not uncover the wider structural factors leading to female oppression, and it also does not see that patriarchy is prevalent in all situations, not just in certain areas, such as the media.

In Marxist feminism, it is believed that there is an over emphasis on the exploitation of capitalism, as women experience as much patriarchy in non capitalist societies as they do in capitalist ones, and also the target for women and for analysis should be patriarchy in whatever context. Radical feminism has been criticised as it over emphasises the extent to which women share common experiences of exploitation. Following from this, it down grades class and race relations. It also cannot account for the changes in the position of women over time and could only do this with a wider structural framework.

Feminists generally believe that the family has a key role to play in the relationship of the individual to the wider society. They believe that the family is the fundamental site of the exploitation and oppression of women, both within the family itself and in relation to society. Marxist feminists stress that the exploitation of women in the home serves the needs of Capitalism, whereas Radical feminists stress that this exploitation is based on patriarchy. Liberal feminists also believe that patriarchy is the main cause of gender inequality.

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