Book Review: ‘What is to be Done About the Family?’

Women’s movement

‘What is to be done about the family?’, edited by Lynne Segal (Penguin Books)

This collection of essays by seven women looks at the family from different points of view while always keeping the oppression of women at the centre of the analysis. The first essay describes the protest movements of the 60s which rejected all traditional family values. These were short lived and led to nothing but another protest movement: the new feminism of the 70s. The next essay shows how feminists moved away from trying to live out their ideals in alternative households towards a theoretical critique of the family and finally came to concentrate on reforms, often within the Labour Party. This is followed by an attempted Marxist analysis of the particular oppression of women in capitalism, but comes to the disappointing conclusion that the problem simply lies in the social division between productive and reproductive labour. The next essays concentrate respectively on childcare, sex as a product of the family as we know it, communes as alternative families, and the Welfare State in relation to women’s economic dependence on their husbands and their need for some form of independent income. The concluding essay takes stock and tries to answer the question posed in the title of the book, but in doing so it has to admit that things have not improved very much at all and that there is no sign that they are going to.

In this book we find all the typical questions that feminists ask: Why is housework not recognised by society? How can one find security and warmth in association with other people without the pressures of family life? Can the needs of children and women be reconciled? How did women become pure providers? Why can’t housework be shared? Who is responsible for the oppression of women, capitalism or men? There do not appear, however, to be any answers to these questions nor any solutions to the problems they raise. In fact one has to feel some respect for the intellectual honesty with which these women look at their involvement as feminists and clearly see the contradictions within the movement and their failure to achieve their aims. But at the same time one cannot help wondering why, if feminists can see the drawbacks and limitations of most reforms and admit to a “depressing failure to improve women’s lot generally” (p.221) they do not turn to other solutions and start asking different questions. If they can wonder why “women who form 40 per cent of the population only get 25% of the pay” (p.221) they might consider why the working class, who form 90 per cent of the population and produce all the wealth, only own about 38 per cent of the wealth.

It seems almost as if these writers did not want to find the real solutions outside their movement. Denise Riley, in the face of all the evidence, writes:

    “But there is no automatic opposite [to the present system] — a  socialism of abundance which would pay full and imaginative attention to the needs of women with children; plenty does not spontaneously flow from a new socialist order, any more than refusing public welfare provision is a timeless characteristic of capitalism (p.129);”

and Lynne Segal includes the following comment on her concluding remarks: “But whether we like it or we don’t, family life will continue to change” (p.230). Their attitude is one of passive resignation (how ironical in committed feminists!) which leads them to fear that the system will not treat them well, or hope that it might if they plead with it as they all do at the end of each essay, giving long lists of “we want this, and we want that . . . and is it too much to ask?” The mistake they make is precisely to “ask”. If we want things to be a certain way, then we must run society ourselves instead of allowing it to be run in the interests of a tiny minority.

The word socialism is used a lot in this book, but mainly as a label that says something about the person wearing it (that she is a good sort of person who wants to improve the lot of people generally), not as a definition of a form of society. Pity. Because that form of society, run by the majority of the people in their own interests, without distinction of race or sex, without wages or money and therefore without property or economic dependence of any kind, would be a good place for a woman to live.

Christine Moss

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