The woman question

There is a point in a young woman’s life when she suddenly ‘gets’ feminism, and it usually coincides with the birth of her first child.

From girlhood to her late twenties, she has floated onwards and upwards on a gentle wave of sexual equality and female achievement, matching point for point her future partner’s educational attainment, professional development, sexual experience and disdain for housework. The baby arrives and poof! Her salary plummets, replaced with the measly benefit of maternity pay; her future career stops soaring, plodding instead along the mommy curve of keeping one’s hand in and fitting in with the school day; and housework, once accomplished with a twice-monthly flick of a disposable duster, becomes a mounting burden that falls mainly on her shoulders (1).

This young woman may never have read Betty Friedan, whose poignant description of 1950s housewives doped up on valium while they vacuumed their souls from the living room carpet is credited with launching the modern US feminist movement. If she had heard of The Feminine Mystique, it would have been in the context of history: a sober lesson in what our grandmothers had to put up with, and a happy reminder of how much has changed (2). But now, a mother herself, she might start to connect her own feelings of lethargy, the outbreaks of panicked crying, the longing for a bottle of wine at the end of the night and the ever-present anxiety about ‘who am I?’ to Friedan’s exposition of ‘the problem that has no name’, and experience a glimmer of recognition.

But feminism, for this young woman, remains history. Betty Friedan can speak to part of her experience – the domestic drudgery that is made no more fulfilling however nice your house, or high your income; the identity crisis that results from a woman’s exclusion from meaningful work. It cannot make sense of the other glaring reality: that however confusing and frustrating a new mother might find her life, she doesn’t want her partner’s life either.

Betty Friedan was writing at a time when women’s subordination provided the means to men’s fulfilment though work and public life: the feminist movement demanded that women got a part of that too. In the Noughties, young mothers have had a part of work and public life, and are no longer expected to give it all up when they have children. Fathers do a bit more around the home than they used to, and are more involved – at the very least interested – in childcare than the stereotypical Fifties Dad. A new mother may also have a cleaner, a shirt-ironing service and the prospect of childcare on the horizon: none of which gets rid of the domestic burden, but can ease it slightly.

Despite the moanings of the mummy lit brigade in popular novels and newspaper columns, the experience of many new mothers – at least, when compared to their partners – is not a negative one. There’s a nagging anxiety and a certain sense of guilt, but time spent looking after the kids can be felt as a welcome break from the rat-race as much as it can a raw deal. More than ever before, the question of whether to stay in the home or work outside of it contains a degree of choice; and at a time when everyone is struggling to find truly meaningful work, the choice to stay home can appear attractive.

So feminism has had its day – but the battle ain’t over yet. The problem of women’s oppression is not just ‘coming around again’, as Carly Simon put it in the 1980s. It is evolving, to include men and well as women in its embrace. Specifically, as childless women find themselves equal to men according to every practical and political measure, parents are increasingly marked out as a special group, for whom the ‘right’ to be themselves is measured against their ‘responsibility’ as parents (3). From being the ‘bedrock of society’, the norm against which deviant behaviour used to be measured, parents are increasingly treated as deviants, in need of special measures to ensure that they toe the line.

We do not need a women’s liberation movement. We have been there, done that, and concluded that men are not the problem after all. What we do need, in the 21st century, is a parents’ liberation movement, to take a stand against the infantilisation and repression of mothers and fathers that seeks to undermine both our family lives and our sense of self. To understand why we need this movement, we need to appreciate just how much the politics of the family has changed – for better and for worse.

The origin of the ‘woman question’

The intellectual and practical struggle against women’s oppression has been in existence for over two centuries, since the establishment of industrial capitalism and the principle that all men are equal.

The demand for women’s equality was rooted, not in feminism, but in a powerful critique of the gulf between the ideals promised by capitalism, and what it was able to deliver. For men to be equal, society was organised in such a way that women were oppressed: not free, as men were, to sell their labour power on the market and participate in the public sphere, as a member of society, but closeted in the privatised world of Home, raising the children and providing the male wage-earner with physical and emotional sustenance.

The denial of women’s freedom to work was intimately linked to the denial of women’s right to vote: a clear symbol of their status as second-class citizens. It was no historical accident that when, in the first half of the twentieth century, the campaign for women’s suffrage resulted in a grudging and limited right to vote, other developments were happening too: the gradual loosening of restrictions on women working outside the home and playing a role in public and political life, and the relaxation of social and moral norms regulating women’s sexuality.

As Jennifer Somerville explains in her useful discussion of Feminism and the Family, early concerns about women’s oppression were articulated by thinkers who were preoccupied with the shortcomings of capitalism as a whole, not merely women’s role in it (4). John Stuart Mill, with his wife Harriet, delivered some blistering critiques of women’s subordination in a society founded on the principle of equal rights. ‘The real question is,’ wrote Mill, ‘whether it is right and expedient that one-half of the human race should pass through life in a state of forced subordination to the other half.’ (5) The Mills’ concern was not merely an abstract philosophical one. Rather, as Somerville explains:

‘[T]hey are highly critical of the cramping effects of contemporary family life. They are struck by the irony of the fact that “the progress of civilisation and the turn of opinion against the rough amusements and convivial excesses which formerly occupied most men … have thrown the man very much upon home and its inmates”, yet the domestic culture of the home, in which women have been immersed from birth, trivialises social intercourse, stultifies the intellect and privatises interests to those that directly relate to the family and its immediate social circle. In these essays, then, the domestic idyll cultivated by the bourgeois middle classes is ridiculed as emasculating both men and women and undermining the quality and robustness of public life.’ (6)

Frederick Engels’ 1884 text The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the Statestands as the landmark critique of the role played by the family under capitalism. Engels used history and anthropology to demonstrate that the modern nuclear family was not a natural, timeless, God-given institution, but one that arose from the historically specific conditions demanded by capitalism (7).

Women’s subordination within the family was not a natural phenomenon either, but came about with the transition from hunter-gatherer society (or primitive communism), in which the struggle for survival dominated everyday existence and the fruits of all labour were equally shared, to the increase in male productivity through the development of tools, leading to the creation of a surplus and a desire to pass this down to a man’s offspring. In the course of this complex historical transition, the establishment of male lineage superseded the ‘mother-right’ of primitive societies, in which there was no monogamy and the only way to establish lineage was through the maternal line. With the development of private property, the destruction of the mother-right provided the basis for the modern form of women’s oppression.

Engels’ claim that ‘the overthrow of the mother-right was the world-historic defeat of the female sex’ is well known, and has been much misinterpreted. Critics have often assumed that this reveals Engels’ romanticisation of primitive communism, and that his solution to women’s oppression was to turn back the clock. Similarly, Engels’ analysis of the role played by the modern family under capitalism has been widely twisted. Engels explained that the family is not simply a natural relationship between people, but a social and economic institution that plays a key role in the maintenance and reproduction of capitalist society. It is the basis for the reproduction of the working class, providing a space in which the wage-earner can be nourished and cared for, given some respite from the physical demands and the emotional void of the workplace, and in which he will have and raise children.

In Engels’ analysis, the creation of a private sphere of life, outside of the direct rule of the state and the market, gives the wage-earner a necessary sense of autonomy and control, along with a myriad of private responsibilities and emotional concerns that bolster his commitment to work and his desire for stability. Like Mill, then, Engels refused to accept the bourgeois idyll of family life. As he wrote in The Condition of the Working-Class in England:

‘[T]he social order makes family life almost impossible for the worker … The husband works the whole day through, perhaps the wife also and the elder children, all in different places; they meet night and morning only, all under perpetual temptation to drink; what family life is possible under these circumstances? Yet the working-man cannot escape from the family, must live in the family, and the consequence is a perpetual succession of family troubles, domestic quarrels, most demoralising for parents and children alike.’ (8)

For Engels, the family was problematic not only because it provided the basis of women’s oppression, and the denial of equal rights to half the population. In itself, this social and economic institution provided a brake on men and women’s ability for self-realisation. The privatised drudgery of domestic work, and the individualised responsibility of the man having several mouths to feed, meant that workers were alienated by day and unfulfilled by night. The logical conclusion of this analysis was that for people to be truly free, the overthrow of capitalism would also involve the overthrow of the family as a social and economic institution.

Critics have seized upon this analysis as evidence that Engels, and the Marxist critique of the family to which The Origin of the Family gave birth, was ‘anti-family’ – that he wanted all children to be raised in communist nurseries with no contact with their parents, and that Marxists despised all those who were as concerned about their children’s welfare as they were about broad revolutionary goals.

Fortunately, more sensible critics have pointed out that Engels’ opposition to the family was to its role as an institution, not as a human relationship. Capitalism’s reliance on the family to reproduce the working class both held individuals back from the pursuit of freedom, and damaged relationships within the family – between husband and wife, between parents and children. The point was never the abolition of the family relationship, but the abolition of the capitalist family in order to free people up to enjoy relationships without the burden of economic and political pressures weighing on their everyday lives. When we look at Engels today, this analysis seems as potent as ever.

Feminism: men as the problem

Early concerns about women’s oppression came out of a critique of, and a struggle against, inequality in society as a whole. Mill, Engels and their contemporaries saw women’s oppression as a human problem, which should be resolved by men and women alike. This gives us some idea about what went wrong with feminism – namely, that its identification of the problem and the solution it posed were never right in the first place.

Campaigners for women’s rights, and different kids of ‘women’s movements’, have featured in history for two centuries: the Suffragettes being a key symbol. But when feminism is discussed today, it is associated with the post-war years; specifically, the radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s. Friedan’s Feminine Mystique was published in 1963; Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch was published in 1970. There are interesting and important differences between the key strands of feminist thought around at this time, which Jennifer Somerville examines. What feminist thought shared, however, was its emphasis on patriarchy, that is, the notion that the problem is men.

Unlike Engels’ historical critique of social laws and institutions, feminism was primarily a political critique. It started from the recognition that women were subordinated to men and assumed that, therefore, women’s subordination benefitedmen. The rallying cry of Friedan’s brand of Sixties feminism was for formal equality with men, and it emphasised the importance of women’s entry into the public sphere of work and politics as a means to that end. For Friedan in particular, the cause of the malaise affecting housewives in 1950s America was that their imprisonment in the home denied them access to meaningful (paid) work, leading to a crisis of personal identity. The National Organization of Women Friedan co-founded focused in particular on social and legislative developments to improve women’s access to work and their equal treatment when there.

The equality feminism of the Sixties had some undeniably positive effects for women. In the UK, a swathe of progressive legislation came out in the Abortion Act (1967), the Equal Pay Act (1970) and the Sex Discrimination Act (1975), all of which bolstered, both in symbolic and practical terms, women’s right to be full citizens in the public sphere, not second-class citizens sequestered at home with the kids. The emphasis on equality in the public sphere implicitly acknowledged the problem of the family, and sparked progressive discussions about the socialisation of domestic work, including childcare. The cultural and legislative changes brought about as a result help to account for the fact that, as I have argued before, it is difficult to maintain the stance that young, childless women today are oppressed, in any meaningful sense (9).

However, it is important to note that the progressive moment that carried feminism along was not a result of feminism: the Parliamentarians and campaigners who brought about the 1967 Abortion Act, for example, did not conceive it as a ‘women’s issue’ so much as a public health one; and sexual equality legislation was only one example of liberalising legislation brought in around this time. As Madeleine Sims, co-author of Abortion Law Reformed, recalls of the 1967 Abortion Act:  ‘I suppose it was in the spirit of the age to some extent. Reform was in the air. We were getting rid of the last bits of Victorian baggage that were surplus to requirements.’ (10) In the USA, the civil rights movement for racial equality was a more defining feature of the age than the women’s movement.

Furthermore, because of its emphasis on men-as-the-problem, feminism’s call for equality was undermined by its essentially divisive character. This allowed the ‘woman question’ to be quickly absorbed and transformed by the cultural re-definition of equality that began in the 1970s, and was to become the basis for an orthodoxy just as oppressive as that which trapped women in the home.

Cultural feminism: the attack on male values

If the equality feminists wanted to be treated like men in a man’s world, the culture wars of the 1970s changed all that. A new breed of feminists started to ask why women should assume that the kind of work done by men, the politics conducted by men, the art produced by men, was somehow better than that done by women in their oppressed state? Why not go back to first principles, and start from a woman-centred perspective on the world – one that rejected mainstream knowledge, law and practice as being undesirable, and set out to create a new value system celebrating women for who they already were?

Cultural feminism was a major reappraisal of the understanding of women’s oppression. The problem, in this view, was not the historically-constituted economic, political and social structure of society, but the essential problem of male power. The aim of cultural feminism was not to challenge women’s exclusion from mainstream society, but to present mainstream society as a problem in and of itself, as expressing and supporting the exercise of male power over women.

Cultural feminism conceptualised ‘women’s liberation’ not as liberation from the drudgery of the private sphere, but as liberation from men themselves, and everything that ‘male society’ stood for. The emphasis was not on changing women’s situation, but on ‘re-claiming’ women’s essential superiority through a rejection of male values and an assertion of female qualities. The demand for women’s equality was replaced with the quest for women’s self-identity – freeing women up from the norms and values peddled by patriarchal society so they could know themselves, express themselves, be themselves.

The impact of cultural feminism on the public sphere has been significant. Its attack on accepted value systems and notions of knowledge, truth, justice, democracy and equality resonated with the disillusion and dissolution embodied by broader post-modernist trends. The sentiment that history is made up of many competing stories, that being outside of mainstream society is something to be cherished rather than lamented, that the most natural and obvious-seeming relationships should be held open to question, runs deeply through the relativism of public and intellectual life today.

In art and culture, the problem of women’s exclusion from history was conceptualised, not as an historical consequence of their exclusion from public life, but as a consequence of their achievements simply never having been recognised. The canon was dominated by ‘Dead White European Males’, and this could be fixed by plundering history for unknown books that women had written, and giving them prominence and plaudits.

At work, structural barriers to women’s employment were seen as less important than the behaviour of the men whom they worked with – sexist language and behaviour, male attitudes that made women feel unconfident in asserting their own self-identity. These problems were resolved with legislative and quasi-formal developments such as speech codes, and a growing cultural awareness of the problem of causing offence (11).

Cultural feminism attacked prevailing sexual morality, by declaring war on the prudery and sexual ‘double standards’ of the age. The assertion of female identity through the pursuit of sexual openness and gratification was perhaps the most immediately obvious consequence of the impact of women’s liberation in the 1970s and 1980s, with women asserting their right to wear revealing clothes and engage in sexual experimentation.

It was also the most contradictory strand of cultural feminism: while radicals like Erica Jong preached the virtues of the ‘zipless fuck’, the likes of Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin declared war on pornography, claiming that was an expression of male power and misogyny, which by its very existence abused women. Cultural feminism, while self-consciously radical and open on one hand, was deeply censorious on the other. Were these newly-liberated women truly authors of their own destiny – or were they still victims of male power, in need of protection from a higher authority?

Victim feminism

Thanks to cultural feminism and the broader permissive moment of the Sixties and Seventies, today’s generation of young women have gained the ‘right’ to wear very few clothes and to engage in casual sex. But when it comes down to it, the censoriousness and new prudery of the anti-pornography brigade has had the most significant impact upon sexual morality. Cultural feminism gave birth to the strand described by Katie Roiphe and others as ‘victim feminism’, in which an obsession with male sexual abuse – through pornography, ‘date rape, and domestic violence – became the defining feature of the self-styled ‘women’s movement’ of the 1990s (12).

The most significant impact of cultural feminism was in the domain of interpersonal relations. By replacing the idea of a social battle for women’s equality with an individual struggle against male power and an assertion of female identity, cultural feminism brought the concept of women’s liberation right into the most intimate relations between men and women. Encapsulated by the famous phrase ‘the personal is political’, women who were dissatisfied with their lot were encouraged to look inwards – to their own actions, self-confidence, and intimate relationships.

In latter years, it has become fun to make fun of the wacky women’s lib movement ‘consciousness-raising groups’ and find-the-clitoris seminars, in other words, that strand of lesbian separatism that argued that all heterosexual relationships were abusive by definition. But in today’s era of identity politics, the notion that ‘the personal is political’ is taken to be self-evident. What used to be considered as social problems, arising from the particular structure of society – male violence, female dependence – are now assumed to be personal problems, to be dealt with on an individual level.

Victim feminism posed the problem squarely in terms of male attitudes and behaviour, with individual women as victims in need of protection. Issues such as rape, domestic violence and child abuse came to the fore as the most shocking examples of male depravity. The problem of the family was presented, not as one of a social and economic institution damaging its members’ potential for self-realisation and fulfilling personal relationships, but as a site for men to exercise their power over women through all manner of unspeakable practices.

In the worldview of victim feminism, the family was problematic not because it was an oppressive institution, but because of the human relationships it contained.

Identity politics and therapy culture

Victim feminism, like equality feminism, did not make gains in isolation from broader developments in society. Just as the gains won by equality feminism were intimately linked to those made by other progressive causes, victim feminism came to the fore as a strand of the broader shift away from the politics of equality and towards the pre-eminence of ‘identity’. From Dead White European Males to religion, patriotism, and the Protestant work ethic, the culture wars threw all previously-accepted ideologies and practices into turmoil. One major legacy of the Sixties and Seventies was a movement away from a conceptualisation of the ‘social’ and a desire to reform institutions through politics, and a shift towards the emphasis on the personal, to be managed through therapy.

In The Culture of Narcissism (1979), Christopher Lasch presciently describes and condemns the birth of ‘the therapeutic sensibility’, in which people hunger ‘not for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security’. (13) His book is a devastating critique of the way that the cultural turn towards ‘a narcissistic preoccupation with the self’ has led to a turn away from concern with community and society; a contemptuous desire for distance from the past, while refusing to acknowledge any of the lessons of history; and ‘the void within’ – the ‘search for psychic peace’ that spurs the self-absorbed identity politics of the late 1970s.

In Lasch’s view, there is little doubt that the individualistic ethos preached by victors of the culture war is anything other than a ‘dead end’ of unfulfilling self-obsession. Two years previously, his book Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged, provided no less harsh a critique of the invasion of the family life by the combined forces of commercialisation, medicalisation and therapy which weakened the spontaneous bonds of authority and affection with the result that:

‘The citizen’s entire existence has now been subjected to social direction, increasingly unmediated by the family or other institutions to which the work of socialisation was once confined.’ (14)

As Lasch’s study of the gradual corrosion of family life makes clear, feminism is only part of the story. As society fell out of favour with traditional values and ways of doing things, openly doubting the possibility of self-realisation through waged work, the validity of religion, and the necessity of self-sacrifice, ‘the family’ as traditionally constituted and validated was exposed to a number of new pressures and influences. Importantly, parents lost both their own sense that they were the ultimate authority over their children, and society-at-large lost the desire or will to trust parents with the socialisation of children. The ‘heartless world’ extends ever more intimately into the ‘haven’, and begins to appropriate its role.

However, the role played by feminism in legitimating this process of family take-over is crucial. Compared to the conservative fears about family breakdown that were prevalent at this time, the concept of ‘women’s liberation’, for all its faults, had symbolised a positive and radical critique of the family.

At least since the beginning of the twentieth century, social theorists were worrying about the effect that progressive social change, including the shift towards ‘companionate marriage’ in which individuals married for love rather than social arrangement, was having on the stability of the family unit. For example, an article in the American Journal of Sociology in 1925 warned that ‘[t]he family is in transition, due to changes in ways of living’. Furthermore:

‘The former dominance of man in the family is passing as a result of woman’s increasing educational and industrial opportunities and experiences. Both marriage and parenthood are feeling the influences of our modern culture. Parenthood is becoming more and more a choice. The responsibilities of parenthood, especially in our cities, are also largely decided by the inclination of individual parents.’ (15)

The ruling elite has always been conscious of the importance of the family in maintaining equilibrium under capitalism, and of the pressures threatening to pull the family apart. By refusing to endorse the bourgeois idyll of family life as the only way in which individuals could conduct intimate relations and raise children, the Marxist critique of women’s oppression sought to show that the crisis of the bourgeois family was to be expected, and that it could be overcome through imagining a new form of social organisation. Equality feminism, with its cultural appeal to middle-class women, was important in revealing the problem of the family-as-institution in its own, more immediate, terms. Betty Friedan didn’t want a socialist revolution, but she was prepared to be uncompromising about the repressive effects of the ‘comfortable concentration camp’ of the Home.

With the arrival of victim feminism, the reason why the family was a problem for women became re-articulated. It was no longer a structural problem of the relationship between the family, the market and the state, but a personal issue – the problem of violent, abusive men, and those who refused to share the housework. The solution to the ‘woman question’, too, was reposed: it was no longer argued that women should get out of the home and into the public world, but that the state should come further into the home and the private sphere, in order to protect women and children from the excesses of their male partners.

In this way, state intervention into the family became legitimised – not just as a necessary evil put in motion by the ruling class to prevent family collapse, but as a positive force for good, demanded by families who wanted more official therapeutic ‘support’.

The therapeutic state

Intervention by the state into family life is not new. Concerns about infant health, children’s education, crime and social disorder have led to a number of interventions over the past century that ensure that in living memory, parents have not simply been left alone to get on with raising their children. The benefits system established by the post-war Welfare State in Britain provides a clear example of the breadth of state intervention, where economic needs are partially met in exchange for a portion of a family’s privacy and autonomy.

What has changed in the past 25 years, since Lasch was writing and the culture wars still raging, is the character of state intervention into family life. Epitomised by the British welfare state, previous forms of intervention were designed with the goal of keeping the family together (for example, the Married Couples’ Allowance) and preventing families and children from suffering the worst immiseration. The controversy over benefits to single mothers that raged throughout the 1980s encapsulated some of the tensions within this approach, that is to say, benefits provided by the state could be seen as ‘awards’ for deviant behaviour (for example, ‘giving’ council houses to single mothers). Yet facing the economic and social realities of the time meant that such ‘deviant’ parents had to be given some means of survival.

Traditional post-war forms of family support always insisted that they were just that: rewards or handouts given out in the expectation that people would endeavour to live as functioning nuclear families, and take seriously the fact that raising their children was their responsibility. State intervention was conducted with care, because of nervousness about undermining the privacy and autonomy that families required in order for parental responsibility to be real. Even by 1997, with the electoral victory of New Labour in Britain and the self-conscious shift to the new politics of the ‘Third Way’, policymakers were careful to pay lip-service to the notion that they were reluctant to intervene in family life, and did not want to be seen as ‘lecturing and hectoring’ parents.

How all that has changed in 10 years. Any family policy document produced by New Labour today contains the carefully-studied phrase ‘parents as partners’. From education to nutrition to youth crime, parenting is posed as a process of working ‘in partnership’ with the state, via its ever-expanding layer of professional childcare workers / mentors / teachers / health workers. ‘Lecturing or hectoring’ parents has become the only vocabulary in town, as parents are sternly instructed that they will be issued with Parenting Orders if their children play truant too much, drink too much, or generally behave ‘anti-socially’.

From midwives and hospitals at a baby’s birth to schools, parents are given a bewildering amount of information and exhortation about what to feed their children, how to touch their children, what to talk to their children about, and how to exercise their civic responsibilities in recycling and rubbish management. There no longer seems to be any sense that society-at-large should treat parents with the minimum respect, let alone the reverence that was once accorded the nuclear family. On the contrary – parents can be told to do anything, so long as it is ‘for the sake of the children.’

State intervention is no longer geared towards keeping the family together, but on constructing direct relationships between the state and each family member – mother, father, each separate child. The autonomy of the family, once considered so crucial to its effective functioning, is now treated as a barrier to the therapeutic dynamic, which seeks to break down family member’s reliance upon one another, substituting an official ‘partner’ for a parent.

How did we get to this point, so quickly and with so little opposition? In his 2004 book Therapy Culture, Frank Furedi examines the process by which the therapeutic dynamic has become entrenched in today’s society (16). Twenty-five years on from Lasch’s ‘culture of narcisssism’, therapy culture has become the defining process by which individuals find meaning, and the political class exercises control.

As individuals peer into ‘the void within’, searching inside themselves for meaning in their lives, they withdraw from spontaneous emotional connections with others, leaving them increasingly vulnerable and isolated. The political class, lacking its traditional ability to engage people through politics or a sense of shared values, uses this anxiety to feed its own instrumental ends.

Furedi explains:

‘Previous moral codes sought to control sexual activity to prevent transgressions of the moral order. Today’s therapeutic world-view seeks to justify the need to manage all forms of informal relationships … As Christopher Lasch noted, therapeutic culture is characterised by a “thorough-going disenchantment with personal relations”…The targeting of informal relations preys on this disenchantment. It feeds on prevailing anxieties towards relationships and strengthens the public’s fears towards them.’ (17)

As the sense of meaning that is available in the public spheres of work and politics diminishes, people increasingly seek meaning and recognition through their personal lives and in the informal relationships that they create. The intense relationships within the family – between mothers and fathers, between parents and children – are the most profound of all informal relationships, and thus the ones that provoke most anxiety. By insinuating itself into these informal relationships, by telling parents how to parent and couples how to conduct their sex lives and share the housework, the therapeutic, parasitic state feeds off our anxieties and creates a demand for its dubious ‘expertise’.

Today’s state intervention into family life is not premised on practical support to preserve the family as an institution, but therapeutic intervention into the emotional relationships within the family, designed to encourage distance from each other and dependence upon the state.

Whatever happened to equality?

Today’s young mother sees the relevance of feminism in the drudgery, anxiety and isolation that falls on her shoulders once she gives birth. But she also understands its irrelevance to the world we live in today. In Betty Friedan’s time, women wanted to experience the public world in full. Today’s generation of parents has had the opportunity to do that – and concludes that this is not the path to fulfilment after all. Personal fulfilment, it is assumed, is arrived at through personal life; and by extension, through having a family. The shock comes through the recognition that fulfilment through family life is the least achievable goal of all.

The hit US TV series Desperate Housewives depicts the boredom and neurosis of the happy-ever-after that young women used to envy: affluent, skinny, overdosing on leisure time. The high-achieving, picket-fenced ambition of the young American has been exposed as shallow and meaningless. The numerous popular novels set likewise in the affluent suburbs of Connecticut paint an identical picture, and some shed light on the plight of the fathers – the mind-numbing commute to Wall Street, the guilt and dissatisfaction that comes from doing a job you despise, the identity crisis that arises from feeling trapped by fatherhood into continuing on the conveyor-belt of money-making and spending your money on schools for the kids that will never be good enough, and home furnishings that you don’t even like.

For bright, wealthy young Americans – until recently considered to be the most privileged and envied group in the world – the American Dream is often depicted as having gone sour; and the only way out is to abandon your family and somehow learn to ‘be who you are’. In the British version of such novels, the young mother protagonist spends a lot of time fantasising about having an affair or worrying about her partner having an affair, before they accept that this is their lot and settle down, making do with a good haircut and a bit of part-time work.

This cultural motif is important, because it highlights what has changed in the conceptualisation of ‘women’s liberation’. Even when the story being played out is one of women’s oppression ‘coming around again’, with women’s domestic load compared to men’s ability to come home from work and just play daddy, there is no conviction anymore in the idea of the patriarchy. Now the unfulfilling character of work and public life has been laid bare, nobody now really thinks that men get a great deal either.

The demands that men should do more shared parenting, shared housework, shared maternity leave come very much from a policy perspective: in fact, the earnest new dads depicted in popular culture for the most part try very hard to share in their partner’s misery, and this just seems to make everything worse. So we end up in something of a bind. It is no longer considered that women need to be liberated from the home – because where would they go? To work, which seems to promise no more fulfilment? And nor do women want to be liberated from men, because it is patently clear that men don’t gain from the domestic grind either. So it is another dead end, where therapeutic fatalism – finding ‘coping strategies’ that work – seems to offer the only conclusion.

If the upshot of all this was that sexual equality is not enough, that would not be so bad. Ambitious social critics have historically understood that women’s equality would not change the world: rather, it would clarify what it was about the world that needed to be changed. By achieving sexual equality, and de-masking the notion of patriarchy as the divisive myth that it was, it becomes clearer to focus on what is the cause of so much drudgery and dissatisfaction in society: capitalism, and the way that alienates people from their work and restricts their personal relationships through fostering the stifling institution of the nuclear family.

But clarifying the ‘real problem’ means little in the context of today, where the therapeutic sensibility has focused individuals on a fruitless quest for personal identity and increased their dependence on the state. In an era of diminished subjectivity, therapeutic fatalism is one depressing outcome. The other is the systematic denial of parents’ ability to exercise control even over their narrow arena of their lifestyle and personal identity.

Competing rights

A recent development in the new politics of the family has been the rift that has opened up between parents and non-parents in the modern conceptualisation of rights. At the very time that men and women have gained equal, formal rights – to work, to vote – the importance and attraction of the public sphere has diminished and these rights are not considered to mean very much. Insofar as people understand and prize their rights today, it is in the therapeutic sense of expressing their personal identity.

Dropping out of college, going out to a restaurant or bar, smoking the odd cigarette or spliff, generally doing what you want to instead of what you think you should – all these things may seem like a poor notion of rights. But in a society that prizes self-actualisation above all else, being able to make such petty decisions about how to live one’s personal life and spend one’s leisure time acts as an important marker of individual autonomy. That is why the UK government’s ongoing war on people’s lifestyle choices – smoking, drinking, eating too much – should be understood as an actively repressive manoeuvre, rather than simply a misguided public health campaign.

In an era when people no longer have the ability to act as political subjects in the public sphere, their only site of action and decision-making lies within their selves. By seeking to manage ever-more intimate areas of people’s lives, the therapeutic state diminishes still further individuals’ sense of self-hood and autonomy.

As has been argued at length on spiked, this repressive trend is active enough, and damaging enough, in relation to all individuals. But when targeted at parents, it has an extra edge. With the birth of a baby, the ‘rights’ that society has taught you to cherish – to do what you want to do, be what you want to be – suddenly cease to exist at all.

This is not because the practicalities of parenthood make it more difficult to go out, change jobs, cope with a hangover – practical restrictions that are part and parcel of having children, and which people have always dealt with. It is because you are told, in no uncertain terms, that what you want to do conflicts with what must be best for your child. Children’s ‘rights’, in this tortured perspective, trump adults’ ‘rights’: the parent is no longer a citizen, but a handmaid to the child.

‘Children’s rights’ is a relatively new concept, and one that owes much more to the growth of identity politics than it does to established notions of formal equality. Children, by definition, are dependents – giving rights to children, in a classical sense, is meaningless, because they lack the capacity to exercise those rights. But this modern, identity-based concept refers to conferring recognition upon children as people who are separate from their parents.

The loose discourse of children’s rights that governs parenting policy today therefore marks a major shift in the conceptualisation of family autonomy and parental authority. Children are no longer the responsibility of their parents, whose job it is to socialise and care for them except in drastic circumstances where the state will step in. Children, from the moment they are born, are considered to have their own personal needs and desires, which must be fulfilled. The role of parents, in this view, is to fulfil those needs and desires, even when it means sacrificing their own.

As I have argued previously on spiked, in reality the distinction between children’s interests and those of their parents is nonsensical (18). Families are a relationship, not a collection of fully-formed individuals with competing interests; and parents historically have been trusted to negotiate that relationship for the general good of the family as a whole. But the fact that the notion of competing interests between parents and children forms the backbone of parenting policy plays a significant role in how the state has reorganised its relationship with the family as an institution.

We live in a society where people view their rights in terms of their ability to exercise their personal identity. This view is accepted, even encouraged, by the ruling elite, keen to perpetuate the myth that we can indeed be what we want to be and do what we want to do. When it comes to parents, however, the ‘right’ to exercise one’s identity – eat what you want to eat, drink what you want to drink, raise your kids how you see fit – is denied by virtue of the fact that, as parents, any ‘rights’ you may have are subordinate to those bestowed upon your child by the official child-rearing orthodoxy.

The assumption that parents’ rights conflict with children’s rights leads to the policy perspective that, in order to preserve children’s rights to a healthy, wholesome, high-achieving life, parents have a duty to put their own quest for self-identity on hold, and ‘for the sake of the children’ bow to the dictates of the state.

From the bizarre sledgehammer rule that parents must not take their children on holiday in term-time to the insidious attempts to use schools, doctors and TV chefs to determine the content of the family meal to the endless Parliamentary discussions about whether parents should be able to smack their children and if so, how hard, to the tacit encouragement that fathers, like mothers, should not have full-time careers but instead make do with tricky ‘flexible working’ arrangements, the clear trajectory of policy is to use the children to exercise increasing amounts of control over the minutiae of their parents’ lives.

This is a deeply repressive and divisive shift. By setting parents apart from non-parents one clearly-defined section of society that cannot pursue its quest for self-fulfilment, we can see a version of women’s oppression being played out again, with all the bitterness and obfuscation that this caused. And by seeking to manage the relationships of family life, the therapeutic state is setting parents against each other and making them resentful of their children, while encouraging children to disregard their parents’ authority and seek recognition from outside the home: the heartless therapeutic state.

Why we need a parents’ liberation movement

Despite the cogent critiques of the family that have been developed over the past 200 years, and the Establishment’s ongoing worry about the ‘crisis of the family’, the role played by the family as an economic institution is arguably as strong as ever (19). People still live in families, take financial and legal responsibility for their children, feed, clothe and house themselves, and play a profoundly useful role in the maintenance of capitalist society.

And in many of the ways articulated by Mill, Engels and Friedan, the family as an institution still sucks. The drudgery of domestic work, the privatised character of its existence, the mundanity of everyday life played out through interaction with the same small group of people in time- and money-pressured circumstances: this is far from ideal as a way of organising social life.

But the family is also a relationship – an intense, intimate, deeply precious relationship in a world where people are increasingly drawing back from contact with each other. It is one area of life where relationships continue to be spontaneous, non-contractual, and long-lasting. If these relationships are stripped away, the family will only be an economic institution: and a profoundly limiting and joyless one at that.

One might not care too much about our modern ‘identity rights’ when it comes to teenagers being allowed to wear chastity rings to school, or having our most garbled opinion respected at every turn. But when it comes to conducting family life according to political prescription, we should hold fast to the principle of making our own life choices, and doing what we think best.

The family is an area of life where concepts such as autonomy and privacy are genuinely meaningful, and where threats to these principles pose a clear and present danger to our ability to have some control over our lives. That we retain a sense of adult authority is as crucial for ourselves as it is for our children.

This essay was originally published in the spiked review of books in June 2008, and republished in October 2016.



(1) The Second Shift, Arlie Hochschild, Penguin (London) 2003

(2) The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan, W. W. Norton and Company (New York and London), 2002 (reprint edition)

(3) See Women: are we equal now?, by Jennie Bristow, 21 May 2004.

(4) Feminism and the Family: Politics and society in the UK and USA, Jennifer Somerville, Macmillan (Hampshire and London), 2000

(5) Feminism and the Family: Politics and society in the UK and USA, Jennifer Somerville, Macmillan (Hampshire and London), 2000: p33

(6) The Subjection, John Stuart Mill, Virago (London), 1983: pp175-6 (original from (1869). Cited in Feminism and the Family: Politics and society in the UK and USA, Jennifer Somerville, Macmillan (Hampshire and London), 2000: p32

(7) The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Friedrich Engels, Junius Publications (London), 1994

(8) Cited in Feminism and the Family: Politics and society in the UK and USA, Jennifer Somerville, Macmillan (Hampshire and London), 2000: p36

(9) See Women: are we equal now?, by Jennie Bristow, 21 May 2004.

(10) Abortion Law Reformers: Pioneers of Change, Ann Furedi and Mick Hume (eds), bpas (London), 2007

(11) Discussed at length in Ceasefire!: why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality, Cathy Young, Free Press, 1999; and in Who Stole Feminism?: How Women Have Betrayed Women, Christina Hoff Summers, Simon and Schuster, 1995

(12) The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism, Katie Roiphe, Back Bay Books, 1994

(13) The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, Christopher Lasch, Warner Books (New York), 1979: p33

(14) Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged, Christopher Lasch, W. W. Norton and Company (New York and London), 1977: p189

(15) ‘Social Influences Affecting Home Life’, E. R. Groves, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 31, No. 2., September 1925: pp. 227-240

(16) Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age, Routledge (London and New York), Frank Furedi, 2004

(17) Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age, Routledge (London and New York), Frank Furedi, 2004: p80

(18) See Guide to Subversive Parenting. Rule 1: You and your child have the same interests, by Jennie Bristow, 19 March 2007

(19) See What future for the family?, by Jennie Bristow, 17 November 2004

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