The Family: Love It or Leave It

‘The new consensus is that the family is our last refuge; the idea that there could be desirable alternatives to the family is no longer taken seriously’


When I talk about my family, I mean the one I grew up in. I have been married, lived with men, and participated in various communal and semi communal arrangements, but for most of the past six years — nearly all of my thirties — I have lived alone. This is neither an accident nor a deliberate choice, but the result of an accretion of large and small choices, many of which I had no idea I was making at the time. Conscious or not, these choices have been profoundly influenced by the cultural and political radicalism of the ’60s, especially radical feminism. The sense of possibility, of hope for great changes, that pervaded those years affected all my aspirations; compromises that might once have seemed reasonable, or simply to be expected, felt stifling. A rebellious community of peers supported me in wanting something other than conventional family life; feminist consciousness clarified and deepened my ambivalence toward men, my skepticism about marriage. Single women were still marginal, but their position was dignified in a way it had never been before: it was possible to conceive of being alone as a choice rather than a failure.

For me the issue was less the right to be alone, in itself, than the right to take as much time and room as I needed to decide what kind of life I wanted, what I could hold out for. Intimate connections are important to me. I want a mate, or so I believe, and possibly a child. Before the counterculture existed I was attracted to the idea of communal living and I still am. Yet obviously other priorities have intervened: I haven’t found what I supposedly want on terms I can accept. The psychologist in me suggests that I don’t want it as wholeheartedly as I think, the feminist retorts that it’s not my fault if a sexist society keeps offering me a choice between unequal relationships and none, and I’m sure they’re both right. Anyway, I wouldn’t take back the choices I’ve made. I would not wish to be a different person, or to have been shaped by a different time.

Still, I can’t help being uneasy about the gap between the lessons I learned during that time and the rules of the game in this one. As the conservative backlash gains momentum, I feel a bit like an explorer camped on a peninsula, who looks back to discover that the rising tide has made it into an island and that it threatens to become a mere sandbar, or perhaps disappear altogether. If there is one cultural trend that has defined the ’70s it is the aggressive resurgence of family chauvinism, flanked by its close relatives, antifeminism and homophobia. The right’s impassioned defense of traditional family values — the common theme of its attacks on the Equal Rights Amendment, legal abortion, gay rights, sexual permissiveness, child care for working mothers and “immoral” (read unattached female) welfare recipients — has affected the social atmosphere even in the liberal, educated middle class that produced the cultural radicals. The new consensus is that the family is our last refuge, our only defense against universal predatory selfishness, loneliness, and rootlessness; the idea that there could be desirable alternatives to the family is no longer taken seriously. I’ve also noticed a rise in the level of tension between married and single people. Over the years family boosters have subjected me to my share of hints that I’m pathetic, missing out on real life, or that the way I live is selfish and shallow, or both; I’ve indulged an unworthy tendency to respond in kind, flaunting my independence and my freedom from the burdens of parenthood while implying that I see through their facade of happiness to the quiet desperation beneath. Lately these exchanges have become edgier; sometimes they explode into fights. As I said, I’m uneasy.

Of course, “family” is one of those concepts that invite stretching. One might reasonably define a family as any group of people who live under the same roof, function as an economic unit, and have a serious commitment to each other — a definition that could include communes and unmarried couples of whatever sexual preference. But the family as it exists for most people in the real world — in a social and historical context — is nothing so amorphous or pluralistic. It is an institution, a set of laws, customs, and beliefs that define what a family is or ought to be, the rights and duties of its members, and its relation to society. This institution embraces only households of people related by birth or marriage. It is rooted in the assumption of male authority over dependent women and children, the sexual double standard, and the traditional exchange of the husband’s financial support for the wife’s domestic and sexual services. It defines the pursuit of individual freedom as selfish and irresponsible (“narcissistic” in current jargon), the subordination of personal happiness to domestic obligations as the hallmark of adulthood and the basis of morals. Above all, the family is supposed to control sex and legitimize it through procreation; family morality regards sensual pleasure for its own sake as frivolous, sexual passion as dangerous and fundamentally antisocial. In a family-centered society, prevailing attitudes toward people who live differently range from pity to indifference to hostile envy to condemnation. Women who step outside the home into the world become fair game for economic and sexual exploitation; children who have no parents, or whose parents cannot or will not give them adequate care, get minimal attention from a community that regards them as aliens in a land where only citizens have rights.

On the left, family chauvinism often takes the form of nostalgic declarations that the family, with its admitted faults, has been vitiated by modern capitalism, which is much worse (at least the family is based on personal relations rather than soulless cash, etc., etc.). Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism is the latest polemic to suggest that radicals who criticize the family are beating a dead (and presumably mourned) horse. True, capitalism has eroded patriarchal authority; the family has been drastically altered by modern developments from industrialism to women’s participation in the labor force to the hedonism implicit in mass culture. (Personally, I prefer the present system, with its admitted faults, to one that allowed women no rights at all.) But it is perverse to deny that the family and its ideology continue to shape our lives. Most of us have been brought up by parents or other relatives. It is in the family that children discover their sexuality and learn how women and men are supposed to behave, toward the world and each other. The family is still the main source of women’s oppression and the main focus of feminist politics, which is probably why male leftists are so inclined to premature announcements of its demise.

Whether or not they work outside the home, most women base their lives on marriage and motherhood; since job discrimination ensures that women earn roughly half as much as men, and lack of public child-care facilities is a further deterrent to single motherhood, women’s employment has not ended their dependence on marriage, nor has it relieved them of the chief responsibility for housework and child rearing. Though families who conform to the classic patriarchal pattern are now in the minority, most domestic-relations laws define the obligations of husband and wife in terms of their traditional roles. So does the government. Nixon vetoed federally funded child care on the grounds that the state should not usurp the prerogative of the family, code for “Mothers should stay home where they belong and if they don’t it’s their children’s tough luck.” The Carter administration’s response to the poverty of families dependent on a female breadwinner was to suggest that federal job programs employ men, the implied purpose being to “encourage” women to get or stay married. Despite all the activism of the past 10 years, our society still regards wife beating as a private domestic matter, condones rape within marriage, hesitates to condemn men for raping independent or sexually active women, restricts women’s access to contraception and abortion, discriminates against homosexuals and even throws them in jail. In most states it is still legal to punish a spouse by using evidence of sexual “immorality” as a weapon in contested divorces and child-custody disputes. Social prejudice against single people remains pervasive: we are immature, unreliable, and incapable of deep attachments, we don’t own property, we like loud music, our sexual activities are offensive, and if too many of us are allowed in we’ll ruin the neighborhood. (The stereotype goes double for homosexuals.) Unmarried couples and groups also encounter various forms of discrimination, from difficulty in renting apartments, obtaining mortgages, and buying insurance to ordinances that limit or ban communal housing to tax laws that allow only the legally married to file joint returns.

The relation of capitalism to the family is in fact far more dialectical than analyses like Lasch’s suggest. When families were economically self-sufficient, they provided jobs for those who could work and took care of those who could not. In an industrial economy, where workers must find buyers for their labor, anyone who cannot command a living wage faces a grim existence; even the white middle-class man at the height of his earning power may find that a technological advance, an economic downturn, or an illness has made him unemployable. While government services like unemployment insurance and social security purport to fill the gaps, in practice they offer a bare minimum of protection against disaster, and do nothing to alleviate the day-to-day anxiety of coping with a hostile system. For most people, the only alternative to facing that anxiety alone is to be part of a family. At least in theory, family members are committed to each other’s survival; small, unstable, and vulnerable as the contemporary nuclear family may be, it is better than nothing.

Capitalists have an obvious stake in encouraging dependence on the family and upholding its mythology. If people stopped looking to the family for security, they might start looking to full employment and expanded public services. If enough parents or communal households were determined to share child rearing, they might insist that working hours and conditions be adapted to their domestic needs. If enough women refused to work for no pay in the home and demanded genuine parity on the job, our economy would be in deep trouble. There is a direct link between the conservative trend of American capitalism and the backlash on so-called “cultural issues.” During the past decade, the loss of the Vietnam War, the general decline in American influence, and the growing power of the oil industry have led to an intensive corporate drive to increase profits by reducing social services, raising prices faster than wages, and convincing the public to have “lower expectations”; in the same period blatant family chauvinism has become official government policy. Under the circumstances it is not surprising that most people are less inclined to demand change — with all the risk and uncertainty such demands entail — than to cling to what they have and defend it against attack. These days “my family first” is only a slightly less insular version of the “me first” psychology the insecurity of capitalism provokes. Both are based on the dismaying knowledge that if you and your family are not first they are all too likely to be last. People who are clinging are never eager to share their branch, nor do they look kindly on anyone who insists it’s rotten wood.

Like most educated white middle-class women of my generation, I did not grow up worrying about economic survival. My central problems had to do with the conflict between a conservative upbringing and the “sexual revolution,” between traditional definitions of femininity and a strong desire for worldly achievement and independence. For me the cultural revolt began in the late ’50s, with the libertarian campaign against obscenity laws and conventional sexual morality. I was for it, but I was also suspicious, and no wonder: quite aside from my own internal conflicts, the sexual freedom movement was full of contradictions. The libertarians did not concern themselves with the quality of sexual relationships or the larger social and emotional causes of sexual frustration. They were less influenced by feminism than their counterparts in the ’20s; in theory they advocated the sexual liberation of women, but in practice their outlook was male-centered and often downright misogynist. They took for granted that prostitution and pornography were liberating. They carried on about the hypocrisy of the sexual game — by which they meant men’s impatience with having to court women and pay lip service to their demands for love, respect, and commitment. No one suggested that men’s isolation of sex from feeling might actually be part of the problem, rather than the solution.

Around the same time, more radical ideas were beginning to surface. While I was in high school I was fascinated by the beats and their rejection of the “square” institution of marriage. Later I began to read and learn from radical Freudians like Paul Goodman, Norman Mailer, Herbert Marcuse, and — especially — the original radical Freudian, Wilhelm Reich. Where Freud contended that civilization required instinctual repression, Reich argued that what Freud took to be civilization, in some absolute sense, was a specific, changeable social structure — authoritarian, patriarchal, class-bound. In Reich’s view, the incestuous fantasies, perverse impulses, and sadistic aggression that dominated the Freudian unconscious were actually the product of repression — the child’s response to the frustration of its natural sexual needs, which were essentially benign. He claimed that when his patients managed to overcome their neurotic sexual inhibitions they became spontaneously decent, rational, and cooperative; the problem, from the conservative moralist’s standpoint, was that they also developed a sense of independence and self-respect that made them question arbitrary authority, compulsive work, passionless marriage, and conventional moral and religious ideas. The function of sexual repression, Reich concluded, was to instill in children the submissive attitudes demanded by patriarchal “civilization.” Thus a truly revolutionary program could not be limited to economic issues, but must include demands for sexual liberation, the emancipation of women, and the transformation of the family. (Unsurprisingly, Goodman, Mailer, and other cultural radicals heavily influenced by Reich’s work did not pick up on his feminism.)

To my mind, Reich’s most revolutionary assertion was also his simplest (some would say most simpleminded): that natural sexuality is the physical manifestation of love. He insisted that the perception of tenderness and sensuality as separate, even antagonistic phenomena was the collective neurosis of an antisexual culture, that pornography, prostitution, rape, and other forms of alienated sex were the by-products of ascetic moralism, the underside of patriarchy, the social equivalent of the Freudian unconscious. These ideas have encountered near-universal resistance; the belief in an intrinsic split between lust and love is one of our most deeply ingrained and cherished prejudices. Most people agree that untrammeled pursuit of sexual pleasure is one thing, socially responsible relationships quite another; debate is usually over the proper ratio of license to repression. Though all democratic thought is based on the premise that freedom is compatible with civilization, that under the right conditions people are capable of self-regulation, even dedicated democrats hesitate to apply this premise to sex and family life. Radicals criticize the conservative assumption that people are innately acquisitive, violent, and power-hungry; yet most swallow the parallel idea that the sexual drive is innately solipsistic. Sex, they assume, is different. Why? It just is. Everybody knows that.

What everybody knows is not necessarily wrong. But it seems clear to me that if there were no inherent opposition between freedom and responsibility, pleasure and duty, “mere” sex and serious love, the patriarchal family would create it. I believe that sexual love in its most passionate sense is as basic to happiness as food is to life, and that living and sleeping with a mate one does not love in this sense violates fundamental human impulses. Which is to say that since passion is by definition spontaneous — we can behave in ways that inhibit or nurture it, but finally we feel it or we don’t — a marital arrangement based on legal, economic, or moral coercion is oppressive. But the whole point of marriage is to be a binding social alliance, and it cannot fulfill that function unless mates are forced or intimidated into staying together. Traditional patriarchal societies dealt with this contradiction by refusing to recognize passionate love as a legitimate need. For men it was seen as an illicit, disruptive force that had nothing to do with the serious business of family; for women it was usually proscribed altogether. The modern celebration of romantic love muddled the issue: now we want marriage to serve two basically incompatible purposes, to be at once a love relationship and a contract. We exalt love as the highest motive for marriage, but tell couples that of course passion fades into “mature” conjugal affection. We want our mates to be faithful out of love, yet define monogamy as an obligation whose breach justifies moral outrage and legal revenge. We agree that spouses who don’t love each other should not have to stay together, even for the sake of the children; yet we uphold a system that makes women economic prisoners, and condone restrictive adversary divorce laws. We argue that without the legal and moral pressure of marriage lovers won’t make the effort required to live intimately with someone else; but by equating emotional commitment with the will to live up to a contract, we implicitly define passion as unserious, peripheral to real life.

Another, equally insoluble conflict is built into the nuclear family. Children are a 24-hour-a-day responsibility, yet parents have legitimate needs for personal freedom, privacy, and spontaneity in their lives. The brunt of this conflict falls on mothers, but even if fathers shared child care equally the basic problem would remain. Child rearing is too big a job for one or even two people to handle without an unnatural, destructive degree of self-sacrifice.

A different kind of family structure could solve or ease these problems. In matrilineal societies mothers, children, and their blood relatives were the ongoing social unit, the permanence of sexual relationships apparently became an issue with the rise of patriarchy. In traditional patriarchies, the extended family at least gave parents some relief from responsibility for their offspring. The logical postpatriarchal unit is some version of the commune. Groups of people who agreed to take responsibility for each other, pool their economic resources, and share housework and child care would have a basis for stability independent of any one couple’s sexual bond; children would have the added security of close ties to adults other than their biological parents (and if the commune were large and flexible enough, parents who had stopped being lovers might choose to remain in it); communal child rearing, shared by both sexes, would remove the element of martyrdom from parenthood.

I realize that the kind of change I’m talking about amounts to a social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude. Yet to refuse to fight for love that is both free and responsible is in a sense to reject the possibility of love itself. I suspect that in a truly free society sexual love would be at once more satisfying and less terrifying, that lovers would be more spontaneously monogamous but less jealous, more willing to commit themselves deeply yet less devastated if a relationship had to end. Still, there is an inherent, irreducible risk in loving: it means surrendering detachment and control, giving our lovers the power to hurt us by withdrawing their love, leaving, or wanting someone else. The marriage contract appeals to our self-contradictory desire to negate that risk, nullify that power. I don’t mean to suggest that people who reject marriage are less afflicted with this desire than anyone else; remaining single can be an excellent way of distancing oneself from love, or avoiding it altogether. But I am convinced that contrary to its myth, the institution supports our fear of love rather than our yearning for it. We can embrace marriage, hoping to transcend its contradictions, or reject it, hoping to find something better; either way we are likely to be disappointed.

Until recently I had no doubt which route I preferred. I had married at 20, left three years later, and though I did not rule out marrying again if I had some specific practical reason, the idea bothered me the way the thought of signing a loyalty oath always had. It was not the public, ceremonial aspect of marriage I objected to — I thought the decision to share one’s life with a lover was worth celebrating — but the essence of marriage, the contract. Whatever two people’s private view of their relationship, however they might adapt the ceremony, in getting legally married they officially agreed to be bound by the rules of a patriarchal institution — one of which was that the state defined the circumstances in which they could be unbound. Besides, most people made endless assumptions about married couples and treated them accordingly; it wasn’t so easy to get married and pretend you weren’t.

I was also put off by the marriages I observed; domestic life as most of my peers lived it made me feel claustrophobic. What disturbed me was the degree of emotional repression most “successful” (that is, stable and reasonably contented) marriages seemed to involve. Given the basic contradictions of the family, it inevitably provoked conflicts that had to be submerged. But the conditions of contemporary middle-class marriage — the prevalence of divorce and infidelity, the emergence of feminism, the nagging ambivalence about whether we were supposed to enjoy life or be Adults — tended to bring those conflicts into the open, requiring a whole extra layer of evasions to keep them at bay. While some couples had managed to fight out the battle of the sexes to a real understanding instead of a divorce, most successful marriages I knew of were based on a sexist detente: the husband had made it clear that he would not give up certain prerogatives and the wife pretended not to hate him for it. Add a bit of sexual and emotional boredom in an era when not to be madly in love with your spouse was a social embarrassment, and it was not surprising that so many “happy” couples radiated stifling dependence or low-level static. No, I would think, with a fair amount of smugness, better alone than trapped.

But the year I turned 35, an odd thing happened: I had a persistent fantasy about getting married. It was — on the surface at least — a fantasy of triumph. At the time of my actual marriage, I had felt that my life was totally out of control. I was a scared kid making a promise I suspected I wouldn’t keep, at a conventional wedding I didn’t want, in a dress I’d been talked into getting. A rabbi I hardly knew presided over the traditional Jewish ritual, in which the bride gets to say precisely nothing. Since then I had, as they say, come a long way, but it had been a rocky trip. While I had rebelled against the idea that a woman needs a man to run her life, I had struggled with an undertow of conviction that such rebellion was disastrous hubris. On the level of social reality, this made perfect sense; if feminism had taught me anything it was that the liberated woman was a myth, that women who deviated from prescribed feminine behavior always paid a price. But the connection between the personal and the political is usually more convoluted than it seems. In fact, my conflict had less to do with the real social consequences of nonconformity than with an unconscious fear that I could not, after all, be female and yet competent to make my way through the world. In my relationships I had found it hard to draw the essential line between the power men have over women and the power all lovers have over each other — but I had begun to understand that what I was really fighting, more often than not, was the power of my own worst impulses to give in, give up and be dependent.

That year I felt the struggle was paying off. Some balance had shifted; emotionally I was on my own in a way I had not been before. And so my marriage fantasy was a kind of exorcism. Now that I was strong enough to love a man and preserve my identity, confident enough to make a choice that wouldn’t be easy to get out of, I would do it over again and do it right — I would get to talk, play rock and roll, wear what I pleased. By marrying I would beat the system, give the lie to all the old farts who insisted that women could not have autonomy and love too. As the noted feminist Mick Jagger was to put it a couple of years later, American girls want everything — and I was no exception.

Though I sensed an underside to all this, I was too proud of my psychic victory to realize I was doing yet another version of the liberated woman tap dance, one that contained its own negation. These days the formula is familiar: women, we are told (often by women themselves) are now free enough so that they can choose to be sex objects/wear six-inch heels/do the housework without feeling oppressed. The unspoken question, of course, is whether women can refuse to be sex objects/wear six-inch heels/do the housework without getting zapped. When women start answering, in effect, “We’ve made our point — let’s not push our luck,” it is a sure sign of backlash. And in retrospect it seems clear that my sudden interest in marriage (it’s just a silly fantasy, I kept telling myself) was an early sign that the backlash was getting to me. As it intensified, I found myself, in moments of rank self-pity, thinking about marriage in a very different spirit. Okay (I would address the world), I’ve fought, I’ve paid my dues. I’m tired of being a crank, of being marginal. I want in!

As a single woman, and a writer who will probably never make much money, I feel more vulnerable now than I ever have before. My income has not kept up with inflation. I am approaching the biological deadline for maternity, confronting the possibility that the folklore of my adolescence — if a woman doesn’t settle down with a man before she’s 30, forget it — may turn out to apply to me after all. I am very conscious of the sustenance I have always gotten (and mostly taken for granted) from the family I grew up in: the intense bonds of affection and loyalty; the acceptance born of long intimacy; the power of “we,” of a shared slant on the world, a collective history and mythology, a language of familiar jokes and gestures. In some ways I have re-created these bonds with my closest friends, but it is not quite the same. The difference has to do with home being the place where when you have to go there they have to take you in — and also being (as the less-quoted next line of the poem has it) something you haven’t to deserve. I have friends who would take me in, but on some level I think I have to deserve them.

Around the time I began having these feelings, but before I had quite faced them, I broke a long-standing taboo and had a love affair with a married man. At night I would sit in my kitchen arguing with myself, debates that usually began with the reflection that what I was doing was selfish, irresponsible, and an egregious breach of female solidarity. But goddammit, I would protest, I refuse to define it that way! I really believe there’s such a thing as a basic human right to love whom you love and act on it.

But if you’re hurting another woman? Making her unequal struggle with this whole fucked-up system more difficult?

Well, the fact is, it hurts if your mate wants someone else! That’s an inescapable part of life — no matter what the almighty contract says!

Oh, yeah, right — life is unfair. And the children?

Silence, more coffee.

I never did resolve that argument; it just settled undigested in my stomach. Afterward, I had to admit I could not come up with a handy moral, except perhaps that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Morals aside, there was the matter of all those unacknowledged illusions about what I could get away with — humiliating perhaps, humbling certainly. At odd moments an old image would float into my mind. Once, as a bus I was riding in pulled out of a station, a silly-looking dog danced alongside, coming dangerously close to the wheels and yapping its lungs out. The bus rolled on.

Recently a friend reminded me that in the early, heady days of feminist activism I had said to her, “We’re not going to see the results of this revolution in our lifetime; we’re making it for the women who come after us.” A judicious and sensible comment, but I’m not sure I ever really meant it. The reason feminism touched me so deeply was that I wanted the revolution for myself; I can’t help being disappointed and angry that it is turning out to be every bit as difficult as I claimed to believe. Reaction is always temporary, I know that — what I’m afraid of is that it won’t end in time to do me any good. But I also realize that kind of pessimism feeds the reaction and is in fact part of it. For all the external pressures that have contributed to the retrenchment of the erstwhile dissident community, in a sense reaction was built into its passionate optimism. The mentality that currently inspires ’60s veterans to say things like, “We didn’t succeed in abolishing the family. This proves we were wrong — the family is necessary,” is of a piece with the counterculture’s notorious impatience. Our ambitions outstripped both the immediate practical possibilities and our own limitations. People turned themselves and each other inside out; terrible bitterness between women and men came to the surface; everything seemed to be coming apart, with no imminent prospect of our finding a better way to put it back together. A lot of people were relieved when the conservative mood of the ’70s gave them an excuse to stop struggling and stretching themselves to uncertain purpose; a lot of men were particularly relieved when the backlash gave them support for digging in their heels against feminism. Some former rebels have turned against their past altogether, dismissing their vision as adolescent extravagance, reducing a decade of history to the part of it that was — inevitably — foolish and excessive. Many more have responded to the reaction with confusion and malaise. If women must reconcile their raised consciousness with the limits of a conservative time, men are torn between their more regressive impulses and their desire to be (or be thought) good guys. Increasingly, both sexes tend to define feminism and related cultural questions not as public issues calling for political action but as a matter of private “lifestyles” and “options.” This sort of individualism is not only a retreat from ’60s radicalism but in very real ways an extension of it — a more modest liberal version of the counterculture’s faith that simply by dropping out of the system we could have the world and have it now.

That we did not manage in a few years to revolutionize an institution that has lasted for thousands, serving indispensable functions as well as oppressive ones, is hardly something to be surprised at or ashamed of. Rather, what needs to be repudiated is the naive arrogance implicit in slogans like “abolish the family” and “smash monogamy,” in the illusion of so many counterculturists that revolution meant moving in with a bunch of people and calling it a commune. Far from being revolutionary, the cultural left was basically apolitical. That so much of its opposition was expressed in terms of contempt for capitalism and consumerism only confirms how little most ’60s radicals understood the American social system or their own place in it. There is a neat irony in the fact that leftists are now romanticizing the family and blaming capitalism for its collapse, while 10 years ago they were trashing the family and blaming capitalism for its persistence. Ah, dialectics: if an increasingly conservative capitalism has propelled the ’70s backlash, it was a dynamic liberal capitalism that fostered the ’60s revolt. The expansion of the American economy after World War II produced two decades of unprecedented prosperity, which allowed masses of people unprecedented latitude in making choices about how to live. Just as more and more people could afford to buy houses, cars, and appliances, they could choose to work less — or at less lucrative occupations — and still earn enough to survive without undue hardship, especially if they didn’t have kids to support. As a result a growing minority — particularly among the children of the upper middle class — felt free to question the dominant social arrangements, to experiment and take risks, to extend student life with its essentially bohemian values into adulthood rather than graduate to professional jobs, nuclear families, and the suburbs.

What most counterculture opposition to capitalism amounted to was this minority’s anger at the majority for refusing to make the same choice. Even the organized left, which should have known better, acted as if the way to change American society was for each person individually to renounce the family, material comfort, and social respectability. That most people were doing no such thing was glibly attributed to sexual repression, greed, and/or “brainwashing” by the mass media — the implication being that radicals and bohemians were sexier, smarter, less corrupt, and generally more terrific than everyone else. Actually, what they mostly were was younger and more privileged: it was easy to be a self-righteous antimaterialist if you had never known anxiety about money; easy to sneer at the security of marriage if you had solicitous middle-class parents; easy, if you were 20 years old and childless, to blame those parents for the ills of the world. Not that radicals were wrong in believing that a sexually free, communal society was incompatible with capitalism, or in perceiving connections between sexual repression, obsessive concern with material goods, and social conformity. But they did not understand that psychology aside, most people submit to the power of institutions because they suffer unpleasant consequences if they don’t. It made no sense to talk of abolishing the family without considering the genuine needs it served and organizing against the social pressures that inhibited us from satisfying those needs in other ways. In the ’70s the left itself would provide the best illustration of that truth: it was when economic conditions worsened, around the time most ’60s rebels were reaching an age where anxieties about the future were not so easy to dismiss, that radicals began to change their line on the family.

But if the political myopia of the counterculture was partly a matter of class and age, it was even more a matter of sex. Like every other segment of society the counterculture was dominated by men, who benefited from the male privileges built into the family structure and so did not care to examine it too closely. While they were not averse to freeing themselves from their traditional obligations in the family, they had no intention of giving up their prerogatives. To support a woman, promise permanence or fidelity, or take responsibility for the children one fathered might be bourgeois, but to expect the same woman to cook and clean, take care of the kids, and fuck on command was only natural. Despite an overlay of radical Freudian rhetoric, their sexual ethos was more or less standard liberal permissiveness; they were not interested in getting rid of the roles of wife and whore, only in “liberating” women to play either as the occasion demanded.

It remained for the women’s liberation movement to begin to understand the family in a political way. Radical feminists exposed the hypocrisy of a “cultural revolution” based on sexual inequality, attributed that inequality to the historic, institutionalized power of men as a group over women as a group, and called for a mass movement to end it. Feminism became the only contemporary political movement to make an organized effort to change, rather than simply drop out of, the patriarchal family.

Feminist consciousness-raising and analysis produced a mass of information about the family as an instrument of female oppression. But on those aspects of family chauvinism that did not directly involve the subordination of women, the movement had little to say. (There were individual exceptions, notably Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex.) Radical feminists tended to be skeptical of the counterculture’s vision of a communal utopia. Many defended the nuclear family, arguing that it was not marriage, only traditional marital sex roles that oppressed women; at the other extreme were factions that challenged the value of heterosexuality and even sex itself.

In a sense, radical feminism defined itself in opposition to the psychological explanations of behavior so prevalent on the left. Most early women’s liberationists had come out of a left-counterculture milieu where they were under heavy pressure to go along with the men’s notion of sexual freedom. As soon as feminism surfaced, the left began to resist it by arguing that the conventional pattern of male-female relationships was the result of capitalist conditioning, that men were not oppressors but fellow victims. As feminists pointed out, this argument ignored the advantages men’s privileged status conferred, their reluctance to give up those advantages, and the day-to-day social and economic constraints that kept women in their place. In effect it absolved men of all responsibility for their actions and implied that women could remedy their condition simply by straightening out their heads.

Vital as it was to combat the left’s mushy, self-serving psychologism, radical feminists have tended to fall into the opposite error of dismissing psychology altogether. This bias has been particularly limiting when applied to the crucial subject of sex. Feminists have been inclined to blame women’s sexual problems solely on men’s exploitative behavior and lack of consideration for women’s needs, whether emotional or specifically erotic. The criticism is accurate so far as it goes. But it is impossible to understand female — or for that matter male — sexuality without acknowledging the impact of growing up in a culture that despite its surface permissiveness is deeply antisexual. A distorted, negative view of sex is basic to patriarchal psychology: since girls learn to regard their genitals as a badge of inferiority, boys to equate theirs with dominance and aggression, sexual pleasure gets tangled up with sadistic and masochistic feelings and hostility between the sexes. At the same time, both sexes have a powerful emotional investment in traditionally masculine and feminine behavior because they associate it with their sexual identities and with sex itself.

Just as a real sexual revolution must be feminist, a genuinely radical feminism must include a critique of sexual repression and the family structure that perpetuates it. Yet the two questions remain distinct in most people’s mind — a distinction that contributes to the backlash, since it allows people to succumb to family chauvinist attitudes without confronting their antifeminist implications. As it so often does, the right has a clearer grasp of the problem than its opposition, which is one reason “pro-family” reactionaries have been more politically effective than feminists who protest that they’re not against the family, they just want women to have equality within it. The issue of family chauvinism is at the core of the conflict between feminist and antifeminist women, as well as the antagonism that smolders even in sophisticated feminist circles between wives who feel that single women do not support them or understand their problems and single women who feel that wives are collaborating with the system. While feminists have rightly emphasized the common oppression of married and single women and the ways men have pitted us against each other, this kind of analysis ignores the fact that the family has its own imperatives: just as women can ally with men to defend the interests of a class or race, they can share their husbands’ family chauvinism. Women in a patriarchy have every reason to distrust male sexuality and fear their own. Under present conditions, heterosexuality really is dangerous for women, not only because it involves the risk of pregnancy and of exploitation and marginality, but because it is emotionally bound up with the idea of submission. And so long as women are economically dependent on their husbands they cannot afford to countenance the idea that men have a right to anything so unpredictable as passion. As a result women are as likely as men — if not more so — to see the family as our only alternative to unbridled lust and rapine.

To regard marriage and singleness simply as “options,” or even as situations equally favorable to men and oppressive to women, misses the point. The institution of the family, and the people who enforce its rules and uphold its values, define the lives of both married and single people, just as capitalism defines the lives of workers and dropouts alike. The family system divides us up into insiders and outsiders; as insiders married people are more likely to identify with the established order, and when they do they are not simply expressing a personal preference but taking a political stand. The issue, finally, is whether we have the right to hope for a freer, more humane way of connecting with each other. Defenders of the family seem to think that we have already gone too far, that the problem of this painful and confusing time is too much freedom. I think there’s no such thing as too much freedom — only too little nerve.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 8, 2019