Home Sweet Home?
As the 2000 election draws near, we
presumably will hear much about the candidates family values.
Republicans and Democrats alike will invariably express their concern for,
and noble intentions toward, the families and children of America. Notably,
none of the candidates is likely to identify class inequality, institutionalized
racism, or male dominance at home and in the workplace as among the problems
faced by many families. Instead, we will witness the denigration of certain
kinds of families: Female-headed households, teenage mothers, homeless and
unemployed parents, mothers on welfare, and others will be identified as the
causes of crime, poverty, inter-generational welfare dependency, and even
While some families will be singled out for scrutiny and blame, others will
be idealized and revered. For example, at the national conventions this coming
summer, the candidates will undoubtedly pay tribute to their own, wholesome,
all-American wives and children. To garner political and popular
approval, each candidates family must approximate a particular idealthe
Ozzie and Harriet standard of white, Christian, white-collar breadwinners
and their well-behaved, well-groomed wives and children. As we saw in Hillary
Clintons case, wives who work, keep their own last names, or consider
themselves equal to their husbands are a political liability. Individuals
who commit more serious transgressions (such as out-of-wedlock cohabitation
and childrearing, atheism, or house-husbandry) simply never appear as candidates.
Indeed, despite the obsolescence of Ozzie and Harriet today (only
a small fraction of families fit this 1950s mold), American political culture
continues to idealize, and bemoan the decline of this outdated
Fears about the decay of the family have been prevalent for over
100 years. Much anxiety stems from the erroneous notion that the so-called
traditional (that is, nuclear, male-headed) familyor, simply,
The Familyis an ancient and natural institution. Consequently, non-traditional
family arrangements are pathologized as immoral and unnatural. The politics
of The Family are guided not by the real problems faced by actual families
but by this obsession with the proper family form and alarm over
alternative arrangements. Thus, in political discourse and public policy,
these ideals and fears dominate the issues of gay and lesbian families, poverty
and single motherhood, divorce, and child care. Moreover, the glorification
of The Family as the cornerstone of morality and decency has obscured the
private problems of spousal and child abuse. Finally, the politics
of the family continue to expand inequities of race, class, and gender, from
the value assigned to light-skinned babies in the U.S. and abroad,
to the marketing of genes, embryos, and surrogacy services made possible by
What is The Family?
The contemporary American notion of
The Family is rooted in middle-class, Victorian beliefs about mens and
womens proper roles in public and private life. In earlier,
Colonial times, little distinction was made between the public and private
spheres: Instead, the Colonial family was seen as a microcosm of larger society,
a little commonwealth. Headed by a patriarch, the familywhich
included not only blood kin but also servants and apprenticeswas
the site of work, worship, and legal and social authority, and thus economics,
religion, law, and politics were inseparable from family life. As such, families
performed many of the functions that have since been relegated to nonfamilial,
In the 1800s, the little commonwealth gave way to a new conception of the
familyas a haven in a heartless world. For the Victorians,
the family came to represent a bastion of morality and tender feeling, a refuge
from the new, heartless arena of commerce and industry. Thus,
the companionate family was born, and marriages were increasingly
based on notions of romantic love and emotional support. As relations between
husbands and wives became less formal and more affectionate, so too did parent-child
relations, and parents devoted more time and interest to the care of children.
Spurred by these changing cultural beliefs, as well as by shifting economic
interests, middle-class women made greater efforts to control their fertility.
Reproductive rates among white couples dropped from an average of 7.0 children
in 1800 to 4.2 in 1880.
Victorian familial relations were governed by the doctrine of separate
spheres, which asserted that men and women, by virtue of natural
differences and aptitudes, ought to occupy different realms of societymen
in the world of work and women in the home. Women were expected to serve as
nurturers and moral guardians, and men were designated as the the protectors
and the representatives of their families in relation to the outside world
as well as the ultimate source of authority in the household. Through
this division of roles, women are excluded from gaining direct access
to valued resources such as income, recognized and status-giving work, and
political authority. They are economically dependent on their husbands.
Furthermore, through marriage, the husband gained exclusive access to and
control over his wifes sexuality. Indeed, the familial containment of
(white, middle-class) womens sexuality was often portrayed as the basis
of social order. In many ways, these Victorian beliefs about appropriate familial
and gender relations persist to this day in American culture.
For instance, in governing the social and sexual relations between men and
women, The Family also constrains relations among men and among women. Embedded
in the ideal of The Family, as well as in Freudian psychology and current
American marital and family law, is the premise that women accept and desire
men (and vice versa) as their sexual and domestic partners. Consequently,
gay and lesbian unions have been perceived on a scale ranging from deviant
to abhorrent, or simply rendered invisible. Legal definitions of marriage
as a heterosexual institution have made gays and lesbians exiles from kinship.
The issues of marriage and family thus pose complex dilemmas for gay and lesbian
Americans: On the one hand are the many social and legal benefits of marriage
rights that heterosexuals take for granted, as well as the potential for gay
and lesbian partnerships to institute new and liberatory family forms. On
the other hand is the concern that gay and lesbian families would represent
an oppressive accommodation to a heterosexual society.
Currently, the struggles of gays and lesbians to establish and maintain kinship
relations exist within a context of resurgent hostility from right-wing political
and religious groups. Since the early 1980s, the New Right has taken on homosexuality
as a primary and urgent threat to family life. Anti-gay legislation initiativessuch
as efforts to strip gays and lesbians of their civil rights or to bar gay
and lesbian teachers from public schoolsinvoke the homosexual
threat to families and children. Constructing AIDS as a gay plague,
conservative publications feature headlines like Homosexual Diseases
Threaten American Families. In their attack on gays and lesbians, the
New Right incites popular fears that to question, challenge, or defy the ideal
of The Family is to threaten the moral and social order it purportedly ensures.
Threats to The Family
In addition to the homosexual
menace, increases in female employment, divorce, out-of-wedlock cohabitation
and childrearing, and single motherhood have also been perceived as threats
to family life, as fewer and fewer Americans live in traditional
households. Historically, actual families reached their peak prevalence during
the 1940s and 1950s (when about 60 percent of American families were traditional
families), and have declined steadily ever since. Currently, about 20 percent
of families are traditional (U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board).
This decline was largely prompted by changes in industrial capitalism. After
the 1950s, the postindustrial economy shifted from heavily industrial
labor to non-unionized clerical and service work, and the cheap labor of women
was harnessed by capitalism to accommodate the enormous growth in these sectors.
Now, a majority of women participate in paid work. The percentage of wives
in the labor force has grown from 23.8 percent in 1950, to 40.8 percent in
1970, to 54.2 percent in 1985 and is projected to reach 62 percent by 2000
(National Research Council). Currently, more than half of all mothers with
preschool-age children work outside the home. In addition to these changes,
the divorce rate has tripled in the last 50 years, and about half of American
marriages now end within 7 years. Moreover, the number of unmarried couples
cohabiting has increased fourfold since 1970, and three times as many of these
couples have children. Similarly, births to unmarried women have more than
doubled since 1970, and more than a quarter of all American families are single
parent households. All of these changes have drastically diminished the prevalence
of traditional nuclear families headed by male breadwinners.
Still, the ideal of The Family looms large in American society, and nontraditional
family and gender arrangements are commonly pathologized as the cause of a
whole host of public problems, including poverty, joblessness, and widespread
societal decay. Conservative politicians have launched a vituperative
attack on the womens movement, blaming feminist Harpies
and careerist women for rising rates of divorce, premarital and
extramarital sex, illegitimacy, and other moral crises.
Some conservatives have proposed initiatives to make divorce a more
difficult process, suggesting that a waiting period of five to
seven years be instituted to revive a culture of enduring marriage.
The family values Zeitgeist stirred many social scientists, as
well: For example, a prominent sociologist, describing Black, female-headed
families as the centerpiece in an inner-city tangle of pathology,
suggested that crime and poverty could be curbed by increasing the number
of marriageable (employed) Black men. This exaltation of The Family
as the solution to social ills denigrates other family forms as inherently
pathological and, ultimately, fails to fully attack the racist, sexist, and
classist structures that generate crime, unemployment, and poverty.
For example, as no fault divorce has become increasingly common,
so has the impoverishment of divorced women and their children. More than
one-half of these single-parent households live below the poverty level. Indeed,
while mens average standard of living rises 42 percent after divorce,
that of women falls by 73 percent. Much of this economic injustice can
be traced to the development in the 1970s of no fault divorce laws, which
presume that women will become self-supporting after divorce. In contrast
to earlier divorce laws which favored the innocent party who opposed
the divorce (most often, dependent wives), courts have begun to treat women
and men as equals. For example, whereas courts once typically awarded women
the family home, now it is increasingly common for courts to order the home
sold and the profits split equally. For homemakers in particular, forced
sale of the family home can mean the loss of not only her marriage, occupation,
and social status, but also her home of many years…[What] is in fact happening
is neither equal nor equitable…because even when the division of tangible
property is fairly equal, what is in fact most families principal
asset [that is, the husbands earning power] is largely or entirely left
out of the equation. Thus, alimony payments are awarded even more rarely
than before, and now they are typically arranged as transitional,
short-term awards. In 1978, for instance, only about one-sixth of divorcing
wives received alimony payments, and the average alimony award in 1984 was
just $350 per month for a median duration of 25 months. Compounding this equal
division of marital assets is womens greater responsibility for children.
In about 90 percent of cases, women are awarded custody and consequently have
larger households with greater economic needs. However, child support payments
are often inadequateaveraging $200 per month in 1985or, in 54
percent of cases, fathers simply neglect to make payments.
This combination of low income and high economic need often results in severe
economic dislocation for divorced women and their children. Notably, recent
research indicates that the stressful effects of this dislocationimpoverishment,
loss of the family home, school relocation, and amplified anger and bitterness
between parentsare largely responsible for the emotional and behavioral
problems children may experience after divorce. While divorce is perhaps unavoidably
difficult for children, minimizing its economic repercussions for women and
children certainly offers more therapeutic promise than conservative proposals
to save or revive The Family by preventing unhappy,
incompatible couples from divorcing.
Spousal and Child Abuse
The deep-seated belief in the morality
and decency of The Family has also tended to obscure the problem of domestic
violence. In American culture, violence against women (most notably rape)
and the abuse of children are most commonly imaged as crimes committed by
strangers. Take Back the Night rallies on college campuses, coverage of rape
and child abuse in the mass media, and campaigns by child savers
to locate kidnapped and missing children often neglect to mention that women
and children are most likely to be physically and sexually abused by members
of their own families. Moreover, the popular emphasis on crimes committed
by strangers plays on racist and classist stereotypes.
In contrast to such popular representations, social scientific research on
child abuse reveals that the vast majority of perpetrators are family members.
For example, a 1984 study of child abuse revealed that, of all abuse reports,
94.2 percent record a parent as the abuser. Of sexual abuse reports, 77.4
percent cite parents as the perpetrators. Other relatives are responsible
for 4 percent of all abuse and 16.3 percent of sexual abuse. Non-relatives
perpetrate only 1.8 percent of all abuse and 6.3 percent of sexual abuse.
An historical study (Gordon and OKeefe) of incest in Boston from 1880
to 1960 obtained similar findings and revealed that 95.8 percent of incest
victims were girls.
Recent research on spousal abuse also documents the common occurrence of domestic
violence. A recent study (Strauss, Gelles, and Steinmetz) questioned married
couples about the occurrence of various violent acts. Nearly a quarter of
the couples reported incidents of pushing, grabbing, or shoving, one fifth
reported slapping, and one in ten experienced kicking, biting, or hitting.
Furthermore, 6 percent reported having beaten up their spouse, and 4 percent
reported having used a knife or gun. Perhaps the most disturbing findings
were couples assessments of a couple slapping each other:
9 percent of husbands and 5 percent of wives rated this violence as at
least somewhat necessary; 15 percent of husbands and 9 percent of wives
rated it as good; and 28 percent of husbands and 23 percent of
wives rated it as normal. Such studies suggest a stark contrast
to the popular adulation of The Familyfamily life as a primary arena
of conflict and abuse.
Women and Children Last
The glorification of The Family, combined
with the prevailing economic attitude that workers are dispensable, has also
shaped American child care policy. Unlike other Western, industrialized nations,
the United States has no national child care system. Only during World War
II, when womens labor was urgently needed to fill jobs in the defense
industries, did the Federal Government make child care services broadly available
at no cost to working mothers. Through the Lanham Act, over $75,000,000 in
federal and state moneys funded the establishment of child care centers serving
about 600,000 children. Still, only approximately 40 percent of the countrys
child care needs were met, and critics charged that the centers were mere
baby parking stations with little concern for child welfare or
education. When the war ended, the limited funding provided by the Lanham
Act was abruptly discontinued, reflecting the view of day care that
persists to this day, namely, that broad programs are at best a necessary
evil appropriate to crisis conditions rather than a universal right. Social
policy embraced The Family as a guiding principle to be preserved and enforced.
Indeed, while womens experiences during the war demonstrated their capacity
to perform mens work, society maintained that a womans
place was in the home.
Under the Nixon administration, the ideology of The Family again guided the
provisioning of child care services. In 1970, The Comprehensive Child Development
Act was proposed to make day care available at an affordable price to all
working mothers and single parents. Fees for services would be levied on a
sliding scale. Even though Nixons own White House Conference on Children
in 1970 had identified child care as one of the major problems facing
the American family in 1971 Nixon vetoed the Act on the grounds that
it would weaken the family. In turn, the policy devised by Nixons
administrationthe Work Incentive Program (WIN)proposed to provide
child care assistance only to the poor, as a work incentive.
Nixons policies aimed not to assist or retrain the poor but to transform
welfare recipients into a cheap source of labor. In justifying such programs,
the House Ways and Means Committee asserted that the child of a family
eligible under these programs will benefit from the contribution of quality
child care and the example of an adult in the family taking financial responsibility
for him. Corporations, who stood to benefit directly from such programs,
agreed: …it is important for the government to encourage programs
for developing human resources to prevent children from being transformed
into unproductive citizens by the deadening effects of poverty…The child
will have as a model a working parent, rather than welfare support. Moreover,
he will gain a familiarity with the world of work, and feel at home there.
While universal child care posed a threat to The Family,
child care for the poor was held to a very different standard.
Likewise, in recent years, many family values politicians who
oppose a national child care system simultaneously endorse day care as a means
of reducing welfare rolls. Out of the welfare-reform movement,
workfare proposals make child care services available in order
to move poor mothers off of public support and into low-paying, unskilled
jobs. In other recent efforts, welfare recipients have been required to perform
unpaid work in exchange for their support stipends and child care services,
although advocates of the poor have successfully challenged many of these
initiatives. Thus, federally funded child care continues to be portrayed as
a necessary evil, a remedy for welfare dependency but not an entitlement for
all parents. As in the past, policymakers glorify the sacred institution of
The Family while barring the poor from entry.
Adoption and Reproductive Technology
Racism and economic exploitation also
undergird the practices of adoption and infertility treatment. In the case
of adoption, white and Black illegitimate children have been assigned different
values, and white and Black unwed mothers have faced different
social and economic pressures. The practice of adoption became socially acceptable
after World War II, as non-marital sex and pregnancy among whites became more
common and were increasingly seen as the outcomes of treatable, emotional,
and environmental problems, rather than as immutable, biological inferiorities.
Since white babies were no longer perceived as the tainted offspring
of fallen women, infertile couples became more interested in adopting
them. As the demand for these babies grew, white teenage girls experienced
enormous pressures to give up their babies for adoption. Public agencies,
national service organizations, and maternity homes not infrequently
resorted to questionable tactics, including selling babies for profit.
Some babies were forcibly confiscated at birth, and other mothers were falsely
told that their babies had been stillborn. Meanwhile, Black babies remained
tainted by their illegitimacy. In contrast to their white counterparts,
Black teenage girls were expected to keep their children, who had little value
on the adoption market. Moreover, some state policies punished Black mothers
for producing costly and undesirable citizens by cutting off their welfare
benefits, sterilizing them, or incarcerating them for illegitimacy.
Race continues to govern the practice of adoption in the United States. Currently,
most public and private adoption agencies utilize race-matching
policies, which have generally structured adoption in imitation of biology
and reflect widespread and powerful feelings that parent-child relationships
will work best between biologic likes and related fears that parents will
not be able truly to love and nurture biologic unlikes…Children in need
of homes are divided into black and white pools, and the children in the black
pool are then classified by skin tone, and sometimes also by nationality,
ethnicity, or other cultural characteristics. The prospective parent pool
is similarly divided and classified. An attempt is then made to match children
in the various black categories with their parent counterparts.
The goal is to assign the light-skinned black child to light-skinned parents,
the Haitian child to Haitian parents and so on.
These race-matching policies emerged out of genuine concern for minority children.
In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers expressed fears
that the practice of placing Black children with white parents was a form
of genocide, endangering the childrens total sense
of themselves. However, 54 percent of children available for adoption
are non-white, while 87 percent of prospective parents are white. Consequently,
a great many non-white children needlessly languish in foster care, as white
couples willing to adopt transracially are prevented from doing so. Ultimately,
prohibitions on transracial adoption stand in the way of placing the
children in need of homes with available adoptive families. In place
of these race-matching policies, Bartholet suggests a truly mild preference,
so that in situations where qualified black and white families are waiting
to adopt, children can be assigned on a same-race basis. There is some reason
to think that this limited form of race-matching would serve childrens
Nonetheless, among prospective parents, the search for biologic likes
predominates, and racism continues to assign different values to white and
non-white children. Most white adopters desire white babies, so many older
children and nonwhite babies in foster care are never adopted. White couples
who are not able to find suitable children in the United States
are increasingly turning to international adoption, locating light-skinned
babies in South America, eastern Europe, and the independent republics of
the former Soviet Union. Additionally, Oriental babies are increasingly
exoticized, and a growing number of adoptive couples now seek babies in China
and other poor and war-torn Asian countries.
Additionally, the development of reproductive technologies has made it possible
for middle- and upper-class Americans to increasingly control the genetic
makeup of their adopted offspring. Eggs, sperm, embryos, and uteri are now
commodities, available for a price at clinics specializing in artificial insemination,
in-vitro fertilization, and surrogacy. Fees paid to donors are unregulated
by law, determined instead by free-market forces. Sperm donation,
while not particularly profitable for donors, requires relatively little trouble.
In contrast, surrogacy and the harvesting of eggs place considerable physical
and emotional demands on female donors. In 1993, the fee paid for egg
donation was $1,500-2,000, a considerable sum for many poor women.
Surrogacy services reportedly start at $10,000. Few protective legislations
govern these reproductive transactions, which, notably, are most commonly
motivated by a mans desire to parent his own genetic product.
The marketing of reproductive services thus extends adoptions history
of racism and economic exploitation, as multitudes of nonwhite orphans go
unadopted and poor womens bodies are harnessed to serve wealthy couples
(and particularly mens) preferences for biologic likes.
The politics of the family conceal and
perpetuate the harsh reality of American family life: Gay and lesbian families
are excluded from the social benefits and legal protections of marriage; racism
and class inequality keep millions of families in dire poverty; single and
divorced mothers and their children face economic and social dislocation due
to inequitable compensation in the workplace and the courts; domestic violence
against women and children is all too common a private problem;
and growing numbers of poor women in the U.S. and abroad market their reproductive
capacities in order to make ends meet. While both Democrats and Republicans
talk of family values, they disregard these real problems. Instead, as the
2000 election nears, politicians are likely to subject non-traditional
families to renewed scrutiny and reproach. As the millennium begins, the politics
of the family perpetuate inequalities of gender, race, and class in an ongoing
effort to resurrect The Family of the Victorian Era. Z
Susan Chimonas is a graduate student and lecturer in Sociology at the University
of Michigan. Her dissertation examines the politics of the family in popular
culture and social policy.