Liberals believe that the individual should be self-determining. The traditional family, however, has a set character that individuals can't determine for themselves. Therefore, it inevitably comes under attack in a liberal society.
In what specific ways does the traditional family limit individual autonomy? First, the traditional family is "gendered." There are distinct roles for men and women as husbands and wives, and fathers and mothers. We don't get to choose which sex we are born as, so we don't get to determine for ourselves which family role we will occupy.
These family roles are also interdependent or complementary. Men and women contribute something distinct to the family and rely on each other to keep things afloat. That means that the individual is not independent, a key aim for those who seek autonomy. In particular, it is thought problematic that women in the traditional family are not financially independent.
A further issue is that the traditional family is based (ideally) on stable commitments. Individuals pledge a lifetime of exclusive commitment to each other. But that means that we can no longer self-determine at any time who we will live with or have intimate relationships with. Family commitments are too fixed in the traditional family to fit in well with the goal of autonomy.
Then there is the matter of authority. If the aim is to self-determine, then you will want to have the choice of who is put in a position of authority. But ultimate authority within a family is often wielded by a father, whose position is neither elected nor something we agree to by contract. It is also an authority which has a deep impact on us, as it confronts us as children or young adults in our daily lives and is intermixed with the personal, emotional relationship we have with our father.
Paternal authority is unchosen; we find ourselves subject to it by an accident of birth rather than through an act of self-determining will. It therefore contravenes the liberal aim of autonomy.
Finally, if we want to self-determine our living arrangements there needs to be a range of family types to choose from. If the traditional family dominates, then there is only one, uniform family type. For this reason, too, the traditional family will be condemned by liberals as an impediment to individual autonomy.
The liberal response
So the traditional family impedes autonomy in a number of ways. How do liberals respond to this?
There are liberals who think of the traditional family negatively as a restriction on the individual and who therefore describe it with limiting words like “fetter” or “prison”.
There are liberals too who give the traditional family the “social construct” treatment. They deny that the family has a basis in nature, or even much of a basis in history. Instead, it is explained as a recent invention (of the 1950s, or the early 1900s, or the late 1700s – the time frame varies) designed to serve some limited economic or class interest.
But if the family is an oppressive social construct, what should be done with it? There are radical liberals who want to abolish the family altogether. But it’s much more common for liberals to want to reconstruct the family to make it fit in better with the aim of individual autonomy.
How do liberals attempt to achieve this? Some pursue a strategy of redefining the family. They insist on an open definition of family, one in which family can be anything that we ourselves make it to be. Instead of there being a singular family type that we can’t self-determine, family is reimagined to be so fluid, multiple and diverse that we can self-author our own version of it.
Another way to liberalise the family is to loosen the commitments we make to it. Some liberals believe that family commitments ought to be constantly renegotiated. Others look on divorce as a flexible or creative recasting of family life, rather than as a form of family breakdown.
For liberals, the benefit of these looser family commitments is that the individual continues to self-determine at any time who he will carry on a relationship with.
There is another way for liberals to avoid stable family commitments. They can support the drift in society toward ever later marriage. The intention here is not so much to reject family commitments altogether, but to string out a singles lifestyle for as long as possible so that family commitments are deferred until late in life.
Liberals also seek to reconstruct the family by replacing “gendered” parental roles (father and mother) with a single unisex one. They want men and women to be equally committed to, and to spend the same time performing, the traditional motherhood role.
This has the advantage for liberals not only of making our unchosen sex not matter in the family (as parenting has become unisex), but also of removing a distinct paternal role – which overcomes the problem of an unchosen paternal authority.
Liberals do still use the term “father,” but the good father is thought of as the one most committed to a traditional motherhood role. Men in a liberal society are held to be either absent fathers or engaged maternal ones – the possibility of a distinct paternal role is no longer widely recognised.
This doesn’t mean that the maternal role is championed. In fact, it is usually looked down on as depriving women of autonomy as it does not confer financial independence or power in society. In the liberal family, the one remaining parental role is held to be a source of oppression and disadvantage.
It’s not surprising, then, to find liberals who not only want to reconstruct the family, but who also see the family as a lesser life activity. The family in a liberal society is not only subject to radical reform, but also loses part of its status.
The undefined family
We should look now at some specific examples of liberals arguing for such positions. A good place to begin is with attempts to create a more open definition of family.
Liberals think of the set character of the traditional family as limiting and so argue for a more diverse and undefined form of family life.
Susan Barclay, for example, once criticised former Prime Minister John Howard for promoting as an ideal:
the stable, quietly hard-working family, raising two or three quiet, well-behaved children.
Most people would think of this as a positive ideal. But for Susan Barclay a single, stable model of family life does not allow her to define for herself what family might be and therefore limits the very thing she believes defines her humanity, namely her autonomy:
I do not want to be ... squashed into a box defined by someone else. We have the right to choose what, and how, to be. That is the nature of being human.
Newspaper columnist Andrea Burns also had some advice for John Howard. She told him that the traditional family was unacceptable because it was not sufficiently diverse:
the days of the white bread, nuclear family are over. There are many ways to commune, love and create a home ... It’s inconsequential who makes up that circle of love...
But if the form of the family is inconsequential then it becomes difficult to define the term family – to agree on what it really is. It becomes indefinable and therefore loses meaning.
And liberals do like to keep definitions of the family as vague as possible. There’s this, for instance, from Sam Page, an executive director of Family Relationship Services Australia
The definition I like now is whoever you share your toothpaste with, that’s your family.
Even vaguer is this liberal woman’s attitude to defining motherhood:
I refuse to define my Feminist Motherhood ... I want my daughter to have a happy and successful life as an adult, which she will define individually. I will not confine my Feminist Motherhood by defining it.
But if motherhood is such an open entity that it can’t be defined, why should we respect it as something distinct and meaningful? We have no idea what it is that we are supposed to respect or admire.
This refusal to define motherhood has even crept into the corporate world. For instance, many Australians will remember the advertising slogan of Tip Top Bread: “Good on you Mum, Tip Top’s the one”. The bread company felt obliged to issue the following statement regarding this slogan:
These days, of course, the carer identified as ‘Mum’ can be any member of the family, a partner or even a flatmate …The advertising campaign uses the emotional power of ‘Good on You Mum®’ to set the scene for the new family, whatever that may be...
So mum can be anyone, male or female. And the new family is so diverse it is indefinable and unknown (“whatever that may be”). The category of family is being broadened here at the cost of its real, identifiable character.
It was exactly this problem which created a headache for a group of large American companies, including General Motors, IBM, Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble. These companies set out to create some family friendly television programmes to suit their advertising needs. The project almost failed at the outset:
The first meeting was almost the last. "It broke down because we couldn't define family," Wehling says.
It was agreed to leave the term family as an unknown, so that,
From that meeting emerged the group of advertisers called the Family Friendly Programming Forum, whose improvement plan for television included a script development fund for "family" shows - without defining what "family" was.
It’s an unusual situation: companies wanting family friendly programming but not being able to actually define what a family is.
The unfixed family
The more stable family relationships are, the more fixed they will seem – which is a problem for liberals who want the flexibility of choosing who they will live with at any given time.
It is to be expected, therefore, that some liberals will welcome the transition to less stable family relationships.
Take the philosopher A.C. Grayling. He is a liberal autonomist:
The most congenial moment in the moral progress of humanity for Grayling seems to be the Enlightenment. This is the age whose best minds affirm the fundamental good of personal and political autonomy.
Grayling has described the mainstreaming of divorce in positive terms as,
Liberating people to more generous possibilities for living flourishing lives.
The Canadian academic and politician Michael Ignatieff has described a father walking out on his sons as an “act of the liberal imagination” because it upholds an individual’s needs against “the devouring claims of family life”.
Professor Ellen Lewin, an American academic, claims that women experience divorce as a “step up” and that at the core of divorce stories “is the theme of increasing autonomy and competence”.
An Australian writer, Jane Caro, has also put a positive spin on unstable family relationships. She watched the 7UP documentary series which tracked the lives of a group of English children. None of the three working-class girls in the documentary ended up married with children. For Jane Caro, this means that women’s life outcomes have diversified, and can finally be self-determined:
For the first time in recorded history, women began to have choices about the kind of life they would live. Indeed, Apted’s four girls, particularly those from working class backgrounds have demonstrated precisely that. One has had a high-powered career and in the last film had chosen to become a single mother; another is a single parent due to divorce and the third, who runs a mobile community library for children, has not had children at all.
Without doubt, the increase in the choices women have about the shape their lives will take has been exhilarating, exciting and not before time.
Jane Caro looks on divorce and single-motherhood as exhilarating and exciting social trends because they allow for more choice and so permit a more self-defined life.
For some liberals, divorce is a creative rearrangement of family life, one that proves that family can be anything we want it to be:
A family law specialist, Caroline Counsel, agrees that “separation does not destroy family, it just means that parents are geographically located in different areas” ... Counsel specialises in collaborative practice, where couples are encouraged to agree on how the post-marriage family should operate. These agreements are often broader and more creative than ones that go through the courts...
“The courts haven’t led on this, they have been followers but there is scope for them to become leaders because it’s evident that families can be anything they choose to be.
How else might liberals aim to create “unfixed” family commitments? Some liberals want our relationships to be continuously renegotiated, as this means, in theory, that they are always being self-determined.
Germaine Greer, for instance, supports the trend away from marriage and toward cohabitation on these grounds:
One way of interpreting this trend is to see it as keeping the relationship in a state of constant negotiation, in which nothing can be taken for granted...
Pamela Kinnear, an Australian social commentator, agrees. Writing as a “social progressive” she disputes the idea that there is such a thing as family breakdown. She believes that what we are witnessing is a “transition to a new diversity of family forms”:
social progressives reject the notion of family breakdown and argue that we must accept the transition to a new diversity of family forms. They regard the idea of family as an evolving social construct.
According to Pamela Kinnear, individuals are no longer living their lives in terms of social categories like gender, but are starting to create new ways of life that they invent for themselves:
The social categories of the past (gender, class, race and so on) no longer serve as the framework for individual behaviour or cultural beliefs...
In the age of individualisation, previous modes of behaviour and expectations have been disembedded from society, and we are now in the process of re-embedding new ways of life in which individuals must invent and live according to their own biographies...
Her idea is that the liberal revolution is only half finished. Predetermined categories like gender have been made not to matter, but individuals are still learning to live autonomous, self-determining lives. They are only now beginning to “invent and live according to their own biographies”.
What does that mean for the family? Pamela Kinnear admits that the emerging “pure” liberal relationships will not be stable ones:
In this transition, relationships, including marriage, must be reinvented too. The downside of the 'pure relationship', freed from convention, is some instability as partners continuously re-evaluate their relationship. They ask whether it fits with their own life project to realise self-identity.
The pure marriage, for Kinnear, is one in which each spouse “continuously re-evaulates” the relationship. If the marriage no longer fits the life project of either spouse, i.e. if either spouse feels it isn’t contributing to their mission to self-create an identity, then it is over.
Pamela Kinnear has reimagined marriage and family in a way that prioritises individual autonomy but at the cost of greater instability.
Leaving it to later
There is something else you can do if you feel that stable family commitments will cramp your autonomy.
Rather than rejecting these commitments, you can defer them to some much later time in life, whilst continuing to live an independent, single person lifestyle based on career, casual relationships, travel and study.
The deferral strategy applies to both sexes, but it was particularly common amongst middle-class women in the 1980s and 90s. The American writer Kate Bolick was one of these women. In her late 20s she ended a promising relationship:
when I was 28, I broke up with my boyfriend. Allan and I had been together for three years, and there was no good reason to end things. He was (and remains) an
exceptional person, intelligent, good-looking, loyal, kind. My friends...were bewildered.
Why did she do it? She tells us that:
In the months leading to my breakup with Allan, my problem, as I saw it, lay in wanting two incompatible states of being—autonomy and intimacy...
She had been brought up to believe that autonomy should be prized more highly than a committed relationship:
...the elevation of independence over coupling is a second-wave feminist idea I’d acquired from my mother...
I was her first and only recruit, marching off to third grade in tiny green or blue T-shirts declaring: A Woman Without a Man Is Like a Fish Without a Bicycle, or: A Woman’s Place Is in the House—and the Senate, and bellowing along to Gloria Steinem & Co.’s feminist-minded children’s album, Free to Be...You and Me....
...my future was to be one of limitless possibilities...This unfettered future was the promise of my time and place...We took for granted that we’d spend our 20s finding ourselves, whatever that meant, and save marriage for after we’d finished graduate school and launched our careers, which of course would happen at the magical age of 30.
It was the independent, single girl lifestyle that she associated positively with "limitless possibilities" and an "unfettered future". Little wonder then that marriage and family fell in priority; she didn't reject them entirely, but she took for granted that they could be safely deferred to some later time in life.
But marriage and family never came:
Today I am 39, with too many ex-boyfriends to count and, I am told, two
grim-seeming options to face down: either stay single or settle for a “good
enough” mate. At this point, certainly, falling in love and getting married may
be less a matter of choice than a stroke of wild great luck.
She's not alone in finding herself in this position. Eleanor Mills writes that:
One in five females of my generation will never have children; and the Office for National Statistics reports that the more successful you are professionally, the less likely you are to breed. When I look at the women I know who at 40 are single and childless and don’t want to be, my heart aches for them. It is never the ones you’d expect. Many of my singleton friends are at the particularly attractive end of the spectrum; if you’d met them at 20, at university, and been told that at 40 they’d be — unwillingly — alone, you never would have believed it.
She explains the situation this way:
I don’t think my single friends are on their own because they are too picky. I think it is because as a generation we were bred not to prioritise finding a husband and having a family...
No one, not my family or my teachers, ever said, “Oh yes, and by the way you might want to be a wife and mother too.” They were so determined we would follow a new, egalitarian, modern path that the historic ambitions of generations of women — to get married and raise a family — were intentionally airbrushed from their vision of our future.
...If you want a family, that has to be a priority. My friends and I just assumed the right man would appear at some point.
There was a generation of middle-class young women who were raised to prioritise an independent, single-girl lifestyle. Marriage and family weren't entirely dismissed, but were taken for granted and deferred till later in life. The result was a disruption in family formation in which some of these women, to their regret, were never able to marry and have children.
In the traditional family our sex does matter: there are distinct and complementary roles for men and women as husbands and wives and fathers and mothers.
It is a form of family life that liberals cannot easily tolerate. Liberals think of individual self-determination as the highest good, but our sex is not something we can choose for ourselves. This leads to the idea that our sex should be made not to matter in family life.
Liberal societies therefore have shifted toward an ideal of a single, unisex parental role, based on the traditional motherhood role.
This is one of the ways that liberalism is anti-paternal. The convergence into a single, unisex role is achieved at the expense of fatherhood.
Sara Ruddick expressed this idea clearly in her book Rethinking the family
. She declared that she looked forward,
to the day when men are willing and able to share equally and actively in transformed maternal practices ... On that day there will be no more 'fathers,' no more people of either sex who have power over their children's lives and moral authority in their children's world ... There will [instead] be mothers of both sexes.
Note that Sara Ruddick not only wants there to be “mothers of both sexes” rather than fathers and mothers, but that she associates fatherhood negatively with “moral authority”. That is because paternal authority is unchosen and therefore violates the liberal ideal of autonomy - a second way in which liberalism is anti-paternal.
She’s not alone in pushing men to adopt a more maternal parenting style. James Garbarino, the president of an institute for the study of child development, has expressed the view that,
To develop a new kind of father, we must encourage a new kind of man...we need to ask, "Why can't a man be more like a woman?"
Similarly, Diane Ehrensaft in Parenting Together
has endorsed the idea of men and women "mothering" their children together and Andrew M. Greeley would like society to administer a "dose of androgyny" to men and "insist that men become more like women".
I’m reminded too of the Nescafe advert which ran on Australian TV and which included in its jingle the lyrics:
You can be mother when you are a man ...
Open your mind you know that you can.
What is the logical consequence of believing that there is only one unisex parental role based on motherhood tasks?
It means that the male role within a family becomes less necessary. If men have a distinct role as fathers, i.e. if they contribute something different to their wives, then they aren’t easily displaced.
But if the male role is no different to the female one, then their role might be helpful but it isn’t necessary. This is a third way in which liberalism is anti-paternal.
Englishwoman Laurie Penny has seized upon the decline of a distinct male provider role to inform men of exactly this point:
...since feminist liberation, we have been enabled to provide for ourselves and our children on a more basic level. If that alienates men from their traditional roles of breadwinner and head of the table then too bad...
So, precisely in what way do children ‘need’ fathers?...The plain fact is that now that women are allowed to financially provide for themselves, we no longer need husbands to raise children...
What women could do with, fundamentally, are wives – other people, male or female, to share the load of domestic work and money-earning in a spirit of genuine support and partnership. When more men can stomach seeing themselves in the role of 'wife and father', then we’ll have a basis for negotiation...If you’re truly man enough to be a wife and father, bring that to the table and we'll talk.
She is saying that children no longer need fathers – and if liberalism is correct about a unisex role then she is right. If men and women are no different, and have no different role to play, then why logically would children need a father in the house?
Penny Laurie is telling men that as their role as a father is no longer necessary they should aim to be one of the wives of either sex in the home. In doing so she is being consistent in applying liberal ideas about unisex parenting.
Another liberal who is radically consistent in applying the theory is Professor P.Z. Myers. He very much supports the idea that the male and female role within the family should be a unisex, interchangeable one.
He was therefore critical of Archbishop Nienstedt who asked,
What will happen to children growing up in a world where the law teaches them that moms and dads are interchangeable and therefore unnecessary?
Professor Myers’ ominous reply was this:
I think a world where moms and dads are interchangeable in their roles and responsibilities in child-raising would be a fine place to live. Aside from nursing (and again, biologists will fix that someday, too)...
He so much wants parenting roles to be interchangeable that he hopes that men can be genetically re-engineered to be able to breastfeed children.
That is the logical extreme to which a visionary scientist like Professor Myers is willing to take the idea of a unisex parental role.
One critic of the liberal view of the family is the American writer David Blankenhorn. In his book Fatherless America
he argues that men should not abandon a distinctly paternal role.
How does Blankenhorn explain the push toward a new fatherless family?
He explains it, as I do, in terms of autonomy. He believes that there are people who see socially defined roles, such as those of father and mother, as restrictive. These people believe that they are freeing individuals by replacing such socially defined roles with self-determined ones.
Blankenhorn quotes as an example of this the views of the very liberal Mark Gerzon. Gerzon celebrates the new family on the grounds that:
Couples may write their own scripts, construct their own plots, with unprecedented freedom...a man and a woman are free to find the fullest range of possibilities. Neither needs to act in certain ways because of preordained cross-sexual codes of conduct.
“Writing your own script” is liberal-speak for rejecting what is predetermined (or, as Gerzon puts it, “preordained”) in favour of what can be self-determined. Gerzon considers this to be an “unprecedented freedom”.
Blankenhorn recognises that this vision of freedom is part of a reigning orthodoxy:
In many ways, it is a bracing, exhilarating vision, bravely contemptuous of boundaries and inherited limitations, distinctly American in its radical insistence on self-created identity...It is the reigning ethos of much of contemporary American culture.
But it is not a vision that Blankenhorn can accept:
I dispute it because it denies the necessity, and even repudiates the existence, of fathers' work: irreplaceable work in behalf of family that is essentially and primarily the work of fathers.
I dispute it because it tells an untrue story of what a good marriage is. In addition, I dispute it because it rests upon a narcissistic and ultimately self-defeating conception of male happiness and human completion.
...androgyny and gender role convergence reflect the ultimate triumph of radical individualism...it is the belief, quite simply, that human completion is a solo act. It is the insistence that the pathway to human happiness lies in transcending the old polarities of sexual embodiment in order for each individual man and woman to embrace and express all of human potentiality within his or her self...Now each man, within the cell of himself, can be complete...
This idea, so deeply a part of our culture, is fool's gold. It is a denial of sexual complementarity and ultimately a denial of generativity...Especially for men, this particular promise of happiness is a cruel hoax. Like all forms of narcissism, its final product is not fulfilment but emptiness.
What liberalism asks men to accept is that they are to be liberated from being fathers – at least fathers with a distinctly paternal role.
This explains the attitude of Sara Maitland who associates fatherhood negatively with authority. She has confessed her desire to,
...cast out the Father in my head who rules and controls me ...This frightens me; I want to protect my father and my love for him. I do not want to kill him, to see him dead. I want to set the man free from having to be a father.
That is an anti-paternal understanding of what freedom means. It is freedom from fatherhood, rather than freedom to be a father.
You might think that motherhood would fare better. After all, the new unisex parental role is drawn from the traditional motherhood role.
But unfortunately there is a logic to liberalism by which motherhood is also reduced in status.
In part this is simply because the maternal role, just like the paternal one, is based on something predetermined rather than self-determined, namely our sex. Therefore, there are liberals like Alison Croggon who view the maternal role negatively as a restriction on the individual:
the role - rather than the task - of motherhood is an iron cage
There are liberals too who dislike the connection between motherhood and a woman’s biology. After all, the liberal theory is that we become human through self-defining or self-determining acts. But motherhood is something common to all females, human and non-human, as a matter of inherited biology. So it is dismissed harshly by many liberals as a mere “biological destiny”.
Motherhood also offends some liberals because it leaves women relatively dependent on others for support; thereby contravening the goal of autonomy.
Here is Kate Millett putting the full-blown liberal view:
In terms of activity, sex role assigns domestic service and attendance upon infants to the female, the rest of human achievement, interest, and ambition to the male. The limited role allotted the female tends to arrest her at the level of biological experience. Therefore, nearly all that can be described as distinctly human rather than animal activity (in their own way animals also give birth and care for their young) is largely reserved for the male.
If you really believed the theory, you would not want as a woman to prioritise motherhood. It loses its place at the centre of life and becomes instead a limiting and non-human activity.
What are women expected to prioritise instead? There is a simple answer: careers. Careers fit in better with autonomy theory because they can be individually chosen (i.e. they can be thought of as a uniquely chosen life path in contrast to the predetermined role of motherhood) and because they are thought to leave women less financially dependent on men.
Fiona Stewart gave voice to such liberal attitudes in 2004 when a baby bonus was introduced in Australia. She was concerned that some young women might not prioritise education and careers over motherhood:
Everyone in the youth sector was - and still is - committed to encouraging girls to see motherhood as one of many choices. To move away from the historical model of "the baby maketh the woman"...This strategy of encouraging choice over biological destiny was aimed particularly at girls from non-English-speaking backgrounds... If we have to pay women to have children...it should be done in a way that ensures that education and career still come first.
And there’s this from American professor Laura Kipnis:
For the first time in history, women are relatively free from traditional fetters. No longer is womanhood synonymous with motherhood...
...with more control over maternity, record numbers of women are now participating in the workforce, meaning that womanhood is no longer synonymous with dependency. In fact, women can now be entirely free from men should they so choose.
The language used here is typical of liberalism: motherhood is thought of as closing off choice and therefore as being a “fetter.” And it is associated negatively with dependency. What is thought to matter to women is not the freedom to marry well and have children but the freedom to live apart from men.
Australian newspaper columnist Alan Howe is another liberal who belittles motherhood as being a preordained role:
It used to be that your early 20s were an ideal time to have children. Newly married and generally expected to do little more than care for little nappy-clad economic stimulation packages, women's lives were often predetermined events.
But as educated, ambitious waves of women entered the workforce...things changed
Mothers “do little more” than care for babies complains Alan Howe. He does not, as a liberal, accord motherhood a high status.
Kasey Edwards is a Melbourne woman who was brought up to be career ambitious. She rose high in the corporate world but at age 30 ditched her career because she felt the corporate drudgery to be unfulfilling. What was she to do instead? She felt the urge to have children but resisted it on these grounds:
I'm prepared to accept that having kids could be one answer to being thirty-something and over it, but I don't want to accept that it is the answer. It seems so stiflingly predetermined to think that it doesn't matter who we are or what we have done with our lives up until now, we all have to breed in the end.
Motherhood has lost prestige in her eyes because it is not a uniquely self-created life path.
Here is a more radical interpretation of autonomy theory by an American feminist blogger:
Women, however, particularly women with children, don’t have access to the full menu of choices. In our culture “motherhood” is a kind of prison...
As for freedom from biology... there can be little argument against the notion that females bear a disproportionate burden, biology-wise...That women have to do the pregnancy is not a “cultural construct.” What Firestone and others have postulated is that until women are liberated from this burden, their personal autonomy will always be compromised...by the actual physiological process of hosting a parasite for nine months.
If the point of life really is to maximise autonomy then it makes sense to treat motherhood negatively as a limitation (a “prison” is the term used above) and pregnancy as a biological burden from which women are to be liberated.
Former New Zealand Prime Minister, Helen Clarke, took this negative view of motherhood. She once justified her childlessness on the grounds that,
You’ve got better things to do with your time, unimpeded.
The seeds of this anti-maternal attitude were sown early. In 1892 Elizabeth Cady Stanton made a speech to a U.S. senate committee. She told the committee that the aim of life was the “self-dependence of every soul” and that women had a “birthright to self-sovereignty.” Woman, she declared, “as an individual...must rely on herself.”
This female autonomy was to be achieved through education and careers. And, predictably, family relationships were radically reduced in status. Elizabeth Cady Stanton described them as “incidental” to life:
...it is only the incidental relations of life, such as mother, wife, sister, daughter, which may involve some special duties...
In the introduction to a book Elizabeth Cady Stanton edited in 1881 there is a longer treatment of the same theme. She wrote of her own sex that:
Womanhood is the great fact in her life; wifehood and motherhood are but incidental relations...Custom and philosophy, in regard to woman's happiness, are alike based on the idea that her strongest social sentiment is love of children...But the love of offspring, common to all orders of women and all forms of animal life...calls out only the negative virtues that belong to apathetic classes, such as patience, endurance, self-sacrifice...
Maternal love isn’t seen as meaningful when you believe that independence and self-assertion are what really matter in life.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was very radically individualistic. She thought that society should be structured around “the isolation of every human soul”.
But most of us don’t share that view. Most of us do want a degree of independence, but we also want to be fulfilled in our relationships with others and we don’t care if those relationships are preordained – they still matter.
Take Lori Gottlieb. She and a friend decided “in a fit of self-empowerment” to have their children as single mothers. In doing so she went further than most women in the pursuit of a life independent of men.
But even in her case “self-empowerment” was not what she most valued. She has described a moment when she and her friend were having a picnic in a park and watching their children play:
“Ah, this is the dream,” I said, and we nodded in silence for a minute, then burst out laughing. In some ways, I meant it: we’d both dreamed of motherhood, and here we were, picnicking in the park with our children. But it was also decidedly not the dream. The dream, like that of our mothers and their mothers from time immemorial, was to fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after. Of course, we’d be loath to admit it in this day and age, but ask any soul-baring 40-year-old single heterosexual woman what she most longs for in life, and she probably won’t tell you it’s a better career or a smaller waistline or a bigger apartment. Most likely, she’ll say that what she really wants is a husband (and, by extension, a child).
To the outside world, of course, we still call ourselves feminists and insist — vehemently, even — that we’re independent and self-sufficient and don’t believe in any of that damsel-in-distress stuff, but in reality, we aren’t fish who can do without a bicycle, we’re women who want a traditional family.
For Lori Gottlieb, being a wife and mother are not “incidental” relationships. They were once part of her dreams and longings. And yet they don’t fit in well with the ruling ideology of our society. It’s not easy for liberal intellectuals to view motherhood as promoting female autonomy and so the maternal role, just like the paternal one, has lost status in the modern West.
The utopian family
Various thinkers over the years have attempted to envisage a utopian family life. Their aim has been to imagine an ideal family system, one that recasts family relationships to best reflect the principle of individual autonomy.
Aldous Huxley was an interesting intellectual figure of the twentieth century who drew on a range of philosophies in his works. He created a fictional utopian society, that of the Palanese, in his novel Island
, published in 1962. The Palanese family system is clearly based on the principle of autonomy. The Palanese do not raise their children in a nuclear family but through Mutual Adoption Clubs (MACs). These clubs are made up of twenty couples who together look after 50 or more children. The children do not stay with any particular couple but move about.
According to the guide to the island, the new family system is superior to the traditional “bottled up” nuclear family because it produces,
An entirely different kind of family. Not exclusive, like your families, and not predestined, not compulsory. An inclusive, unpredestined and voluntary family.
In this utopian family the ties of kinship have been broken. Children are no longer raised by their biological parents. That makes sense under the terms of autonomy theory as it means that the family unit is no longer biologically predetermined (“compulsory”), but is self-determined (“voluntary”).
This “liberation” from ties of kinship was also a feature of the utopian new family imagined by Germaine Greer in her influential work The Female Eunuch
. Greer suggested that children should be raised in a "rambling" family structure on communal farms, which the parents would visit "when circumstances permitted." Some parents might "live there for quite long periods, as long as we wanted to." Greer didn't think it necessary that her child should "know that I was his womb-mother".
The relationship between parent and child was once again to be a voluntary, flexible, open, non-biological one.
In the 1890s, a Chinese intellectual by the name of Kang Youwei set out to modernise China along Western lines. He wanted to introduce not only Western science but also a philosophy of individual autonomy:
...he proclaimed the equality of humanity as well as a notion of individual autonomy.
His vision of family life has been described as follows:
He was perhaps the most influential politico-philosophical writer of the 1890s in China ... Although Kang had not yet formulated the principles of his utopian vision by the 1880s, many of his radical notions were already developed.
Marriages should be freely contracted and subject to change; children should be raised in public nurseries with no filial obligations (nor would parents have obligations toward their children)...
So family relationships were to be flexible (subject to change); children were to be raised outside of the family; and parents were to have no obligations toward their children (or vice versa).
In the 1840s, John Humphrey Noyes established his utopian Oneida Community of several hundred people in the United States.
Noyes saw himself as an enlightened, progressive thinker, committed to freedom, equality and feminism (he mixed together science and the Bible as sources of authority for his theories).
Once again, ties of kinship weren’t allowed at Oneida. Children were allowed to remain with their biological mothers for 15 months for the purposes of breastfeeding. After that they were to be raised by experts and rotated at night between different members of the community according to a principle of non-attachment.
And that is the trade-off. If you want inclusive, open, flexible and self-determined relationships – relationships that can easily be changed or substituted – then you won’t want deep attachments to form, not even the natural attachment between mother and child.
But the question has to be asked whether it is really non-attachment that we want when it comes to our closest relationships.
The Oneida experiment ended when a generation of children was born and the parents lobbied to be allowed to marry and form stable family units. The parents ultimately chose attachment over radical autonomy.
Next chapter: Ch.5 Nation & ethny