5.4.4 Feminist Perspective on the Family

The feminists' contribution to the study of families is of considerable importance. They have had a greater influence on the analysis of the family than any other theoretical approach. It is therefore of great relevance for us.

Different types of feminism have emerged over the years, each with a special focus or emphasis. We shall not look at each of them in detail, but shall rather seek out what the feminists in general have said about the family and mention one or two of the branches of feminism.

In general, the feminists have sought to analyse the impact of family life on women. Despite the numerous differences in their approach and main concern, different feminists tend to agree that women occupy a subordinate position in the family and are exploited in various ways. The Marxist feminists consider capitalism as the main exploiter. This exploitation is seen in terms of the unpaid work they carry out at home. Like the Marxist, they believe that the family also serves capitalism by reproducing the future labour force, but they also assert that it is not the family as such that suffers more, but the women. It is women that bear the children and assume the main responsibility for their care. Women are also exploited in that they are expected to provide outlets for all the frustration and anger that their husband experience at work and therefore prevent them from rebelling against their employers.

Radical feminists agree with other feminists about the disadvantage that women suffer in families. Yet, they do not consider capitalism as the main source of exploitation. Their focus is on men and the patriarchal nature of the society. Christine Delphy and Diana Leonard (1992) argued that the inequalities between partners in the home are a result of the fact that most of the heads of households are men. This implies that men have more decision-making power, consume more of whatever the family has, retain control over finances (even when they are unemployed and it is the women who earn the money) and benefit from women's domestic work and emotional support. Women, on the other hand, are expected to carry out free domestic work, even when they are in paid employment, cater to the needs of their husband (emotional, sexual, physical) and spend their time in raising the children at whatever cost to their own paid work or other activities and projects.

This is the way in which feminism in general has perceived the position of women in the family. However, there exists yet another branch of feminism that is worth noting. It is what is termed ‘difference feminism'. Difference feminists, such as Linda Nicholson (1997) and Cheshire Calhoun (1997), have criticised the other types of feminists for neglecting to take into consideration the fact that women in different types of households experience family life differently. They argue that it is not possible to say that all women are exploited in the same way in all types of families. Difference feminists assert that many factors shape the experience that women have of family life. Such factors are social class, race, sexual orientation (lesbian or heterosexual couples) and family structure (nuclear family, extended family, single-parent families and so on). This adds a new dimension to the study of family as it links family experiences to other influences in society, demonstrating that the family is not an isolated unit but rather an integral part of the social system.