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Home Sweet Home?
The politics of the family in America
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 moral decay.
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of families fit this 1950s mold), American political culture continues to idealize, and bemoan the decline of this outdated family form.
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 reproductive technologies.
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, public institutions.
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 interests.
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.