Feminists, such as Ann Oakley, agree with Marxists and functionalists that the family is essentially a conservative institution that preserves the social order. They disagree with functionalists and agree with Marxists that in doing so it benefits only a powerful group within society. For feminists, this group is men. They argue that families preserve, support and embed patriarchy.
Liberal feminists focus on striving for legal equality between the sexes. The family has long been a clear source of inequality. Marital rape was not formally recognised as a crime in the UK until 1991 (because of the notion that marriage gave a man “conjugal rights” that could not be withdrawn save through annulment or divorce). Divorce laws have been reformed on many occasions to make them more equal, but it used to be much easier for a man to get a divorce than a woman (see a later section), etc. Liberal feminists argue that most of those battles for legal equality have been won, however there is clearly still inequality between the sexes (for example, in relation to domestic work - see a later section). They put this down to the need to also change cultural values in society.
As such, while families currently play a part in the oppression of women, they do not have to: it is possible to have family life and gender equality.
Radical feminists do not believe that changing the law will ever be enough, on its own, to end the oppression and subjugation of women. They argue that men will always oppress women and the family is a vehicle for that oppression. As such women should find alternative ways of living where they are not subject to male oppression. This has led some radical feminists to favour gender separatism.
Radical feminists argue that girls are socialised (not least through families) to believe that oppression and inequality are normal and therefore they accept the inequality of family life: indeed they dream of it and work for it.
Marxist feminists argue that families help to preserve both capitalism and patriarchy, and that the two work hand in hand. They point out that the capitalist system gets the benefit of unpaid female work as their workforce (and the next generation) are fed, looked after and kept happy to ensure they keep working hard and making profits for the bosses.
As with Marxism, feminists may paint too negative and gloomy a picture. While some families may be unequal and male-dominated, there may well be families that are much more equal.
Some criticise feminists – especially radical feminists – for presenting women as too passive. Postmodern feminists, for example, would point to how women do not have to accept patriarchy or inequality, and do not have to make a choice between family life and equality: they can take the initiative and resist oppression and assert their own power.
Again, some of these ideas are criticised for being out of date: most women work now, and so the nature of family life has inevitably changed in response to this. As we shall see, not all feminists agree that it has necessarily changed for the better.
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