The idea that the nuclear family is closely tied to the oppression and exploitation of women is common in much revolutionary thought. Whether it’s radical feminism or Marxism, criticism for the nuclear family and its role in keeping women’s status low and lives difficult isn’t hard to find. The reasons cited for this may vary across the various political theories, but the nature of the beast is well understood and recognized. It is through this lens that we should view the recent lawsuit filed in Connecticut by women’s groups to stop the U.S. government’s federal Responsible Fatherhood Programs offered under the Grants for Healthy Marriage Promotion and Responsible Fatherhood legislation passed in 2006. The grounds for the lawsuit are that these programs violate Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
I have written about my support for Title IX in the past. While many in the U.S. equate it with organized sports in educational institutions, the law’s impact and intent is much wider than that. Yes, it is an act of reform rather than what is generally understood as a revolutionary act. I would argue, however, that it’s time to recognize that much of the work done to reform the treatment and status of women within the law is actually far more radical and socialist than the endless theorizing or talk of some nebulous, as-yet-unseen revolution that is carried out by many within both the radical feminist and the socialist camps. In her introduction to the 1972 edition of Frederick Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, anthropologist Eleanor Burke Leacock wrote:
[W]orking-class women, not only in their obviously basic fight on the job but also in their seemingly more conservative battles for their families around schools, housing and welfare, are actually posing a more basic challenge than that of the radicals. By demanding that society assume responsibility for their children, they are attacking the nature of the family as an economic unit , the basis of their own oppression and a central buttress of class exploitation. (Intro, pp. 44-45)
Now, I would deny Leacock’s assertion that the family is the basis of women’s oppression*–it is a patriarchal and capitalist tool in our oppression–but I otherwise agree with this take on the use of so-called “liberal reform” measures as a way to attack the structures of patriarchy and capitalism. It is through that lens that we should view this lawsuit.
So, what is the basis of the lawsuit? The complainants argue that the Responsible Fatherhood Programs offer education that is funded by the U.S. government. This includes job skills, which should be a special point of contention. Those educational programs either offer their services on reduced bases to women or exclude women altogether. They also argue that denying women from federally-funded programs is a violation of equal protection under due process.** Those are the legal grounds of the lawsuit, but they are not why I support this filing. The most offensive part of the program is its championing of marriage as the ideal and in the best interests of government and society.
These programs have a major component aimed at encouraging “healthy” marriage. What that means, we can only guess. After all, some of the money for these “healthy marriage” programs in my state goes to religious organizations. In fact, the state explicitly encourages such organizations to apply for grant money:
The American people have long shown their considerable compassion and generosity through a broad range of community-based entities, including a diverse group of faith-based organizations. Faith-based groups provide critical human services, and, in emergencies, they consistently stand shoulder-to-shoulder with government in the first line of response. Our nation is stronger for their work.
We already know the view of marriage that is touted by the majority of religious organizations. We’ve read their texts and seen their behavior. It doesn’t take a radical feminist to analyze the “skills” that are most likely to be touted by faith-based organizations when it comes to marriage–especially in a state like Arizona, which is dominated by Catholics and Mormons. Are we to stand by while the government funds these organizations?
Of course, even if administered by secular organizations, the focus on marriage and the nuclear family as the desired environment for child rearing is essentially regressive and capitalist. This is not to say that the role of men in child rearing is trivial or unimportant. I will also not deny that within the society we now live, there are very real advantages to raising children within a marriage. From social pressure to health care to tax breaks, the government and social institutions push marriage as the desired state of being in many ways, especially when children are involved. In fact, this is the very reason my spouse and I chose to marry 21 years ago. That doesn’t mean they are right, and it doesn’t mean this is what we should be fighting for.
*I do believe that women’s childbearing capacity is the basis of our oppression and exploitation, though. I believe that control of women’s reproduction led to the creation of the family as the basic economic unit, and that is closely tied to the development of goods-as-commodities, surplus and an assumption of patrilineal inheritance as the “natural” order of things. I also believe that patriarchy grew out of that, but has taken on a life of its own that can and does persist even outside capitalism. I have outlined that, essentially adapting Engels’ paradigm, in other writings. It is true that this particular pattern did not unfold exactly the same in every society. However, it is primarily true–especially in Western cultures and those cultures subjugated by Western cultures–and, as such, is a useful paradigm. To say that there is no real reason, that patriarchy arose simply because that’s just how men (and, by extension, women) are is an essentialist view, and I reject essentialism.
**It is important to head off any “what about the men” objections here by noting that there are federally-funded programs that help only women and children, such as the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. However, these programs help women to the exclusion of men only insofar as those women are pregnant or breastfeeding. They also exclude women who are not pregnant or breastfeeding, even if they are mothers of young children. This is a very real biological difference based upon sex, and one in which men cannot biologically participate. It is in no way the same as excluding women from educational programs simply because they are women.