So, What Is To Be Done About the Family?

by Carole Ferrier

© all rights reserved

What Is To Be Done About the Family? was the title of an anthology of articles edited by Lynne Segal in 1983, expressing second wave feminism’s central concern with theorising and analysing the family’s role in women’s oppression, and in maintaining what we called in the 1960s “the system”. Its title was consciously intertextual with Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet, which proposed ways of organising to overthrow an exploitative and oppressive State. In 1962, David Cooper had insisted, in The Death of the Family, that human and especially women’s oppression was grounded in the family, which “obscurely filters out most of our experience and then deprives our acts of any genuine and generous spontaneity” (Cooper 1962, 8).1 Cooper’s central argument was that the family was crucial to hegemony – whether capitalist or Stalinist – “reinforcing the effective power of the ruling class in any exploitive society by providing a highly controllable paradigmatic form for every social institution” (Cooper 1962, 5-6). Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1971) identified the family as “a force frustrating revolutionary change” (Millett 1971, 158). These critiques of the mutual dependence of the family and the oppressive State have been sidelined since the 1980s, but it is time to revisit them – perhaps particularly because, when we look back to that – history which easily slips from memory, not just of the 1950s but also the 1890s, the ways in which events unfolded then remains instructive.

Now, in early twenty-first century Australia, dominant, State-influenced discourses about “who constitutes proper families, correct mothers and the right (white) babies” are circulating pervasively, with these interchanges articulating “shared anxieties about race, (reproductive) biology and nation” that “re-constitute familiar hierarchies of meaning and merit in the realms of motherhood and family which are then materialised in current … policies on family, welfare, work and immigration” (Dever and Curtin 2004, 1). In the context out of which I write, welfare is often being challenged, re-directed or undermined, immigration policies remain heavily racially-inflected (Dever 2005), and women are being pushed back into the family to stop the gaps, in the care of  children especially (of which they are being urged to have more).

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in 1963 called the widespread malaise among women in the home “the problem that has no name” (Friedan 1963, 27). Second wave feminism frequently named it as family life. Juliet Mitchell’s Woman’s Estate in 1971 urged that the women’s liberation movement needed to “fragment [the] unity” of the family; should “concentrate on separating out the structures – the woman’s roles – which are oppressively fused into it” (Mitchell 1971, 159). Many second wave feminists shared Juliet Mitchell’s opinion that the family “embodies the most conservative concepts available: it rigidifies the past ideals and presents them as the present pleasures. By its very nature it is there to prevent the future” (Mitchell 1971, 156). Many, indeed, carried banners saying “smash the family”, and found appealing Alexandra Kollontai’s proposals for “women working equally with men, their children cared for collectively, and their household duties taken over by communal facilities” (Clements 1979, 239), when the Bolshevik government after 1917 introduced “measures tending to lift the burden of motherhood from women’s shoulders and to place it on the state” (qtd. Cliff 1984, 141).

While the second wave movement’s “femocrat” wing in Australia (which “constituted women’s gender interest as linked to the social democratic and nation building ideologies” associated with the Labor Party but also linked to the “social liberal tradition of the Liberal Party” (Eisenstein 1996, 205)) achieved major changes in social policy, in areas such as greatly increased childcare provision, and the movement’s unionist wing made progress in areas such as equal pay, there were limits to the economic and institutional reforms that capitalism could (afford to) deliver. This had been clearly recognised by some turn-of-the-twentieth-century revolutionary women who, like Rosa Luxemburg in Reform or Revolution (1898), distinguished between fighting for reforms as a way of building desire and confidence about achieving far more, and being satisfied with reforms as ends in themselves (Frölich 1972, 52-3).

However, in the 1980s, many feminists began to believe that the intensifying opposition to further advances for women (constructed as a backlash) was a reason for backing off or backing down and, in a climate of rising social conservatism in the United States, Britain, Australia and elsewhere in the 1990s, the forward impetus has largely been halted, with a return to aspects of 1950s ideologies of home and family becoming striking in many pronouncements from governmental and other institutions. Adrienne Rich wrote of the unlamented 1950s in 1971: “in reaction to the earlier wave of feminism, middle-class women were making a career of domestic perfection, working to send their husbands through professional schools then retiring to raise large families…. The family was in its glory. Life was extremely private …” (Rich 1975, 95).2  We can analyse what is going on in relation to the family and motherhood now more effectively by recalling some of the almost forgotten debates and events of the past, and particularly by recalling them via the refractive power of a (currently marginalised) Marxist feminist frame. Margaret Henderson suggests of current feminist critical practices in Australia:

a semi-genre of feminist work has been taking shape which could be termed the neo-recuperative cultural history (to distinguish it from earlier Marxist and feminist historical revisionings …) It sets out to show how second wave feminism got it wrong, whether about the media, popular culture, race, motherhood, heterosexuality, [or] the housewife … [and it] recuperates the previously maligned site, era, or figure and restores them to agency and/or political ‘complexity’. (Henderson 2005)

The problematic politics of this kind of recuperation are camouflaged, Henderson argues, in its optimistic nostalgia.

The appeal of the neo-recuperative history is its underlying optimism: no matter what gets re-observed, it is never as bad or as simple as previous accounts argued. There is always some austere hope for the past, and for those things once criticised and disavowed. (Henderson 2005)

The complementary operations of nostalgia and supposed backlash at work in contemporary Australia’s rejuvenation of the family need much better attention from feminism, including in its assessment of its own history.

The socialist women around the influential late nineteenth-century activist William Lane offer an interesting instance of the contradictions of the time. Michael Wilding’s documentary fiction The Paraguayan Experiment (1985)suggested that the collapse of William and Annie Lane’s utopian colony in Paraguay was associated with backward ideologies of femininity and family (as well as racism). The New Australia Cooperative Settlement Association’s Advertisement promised to “secure the most complete homelife and the widest individuality to its members”, a life conceptualised, according to Marilyn Lake, as “straight, temperate and monogamistic” (Lake 1992, 164) and Lane indeed asserted that “if things were once fixed right we should no more need laws to make healthy men good mates than we need laws to make healthy women good mothers” (qtd. Souter 1991, 30). Clara Jones, along with Eleanor McGuire, Annie Lane’s sister, was one of the few “unexceptional” (the term used in the Advertisement in the 1893 paperbound edition of The Workingman’s Paradise, presumably intended was “unexceptionable”) single women who went; in Wilding’s novel she challenges the sexism of many of the men.3 But William Lane’s novel The Workingman’s Paradise (1892), set in Sydney, creates one of the most dynamic and radical heroines found in the fiction of the time. Nellie asserts that she will never marry or have children for, from her observations of women with their babies under capitalism, “what was bliss to the mother, stupefying her for a while to the hollowness and emptiness of her existence was the beginning of a probable life of misery for the child.” Geisner, the European revolutionary, suggests to Nellie that she has “a problem with mothers somehow”, and attempts to argue to her that a woman “should not close Life’s gate upon herself”, but Nellie is adamant: “I will give my life to the movement but I will give no other life the pain of living” (74-5). Geisner tells the hero, Ned, that there are “two great reforms which must come if Humanity is to progress…. One reform is the Reorganisation of Industry. The other is the Recognition of Woman’s Equality. These two are the practical steps by which we move up to the socialistic idea” (123). The prominence given to women’s advancement may well have been influenced by Lane’s wife Annie, recently identified as the author of the Lucinda Sharpe columns in the workers’ press previously assumed to be written by her husband (Kellett 2004, 37-38).

Human sexual energy, often called “Life” in those days, was elaborated by the sexologist Walter Balls-Headley in ways that, for “Alexa” in Maybanke Wollstenholme’s Sydney journal, the Woman’s Voice, endorsed a “rabbit-like fecundity” (18 May 1895). In Susan Magarey’s analysis, the view “enshrined man’s lust and woman’s desire for maternity at the heart of the Australian paradise, making intrinsic to it a sexual double standard within, as well as outside marriage” (Magarey 2001, 90). Magarey asserts: “First wave feminists felt they had been defeated even though they had won the vote … What went wrong?” She suggests: “A short answer to that question would take only three terms: White Australia, masculinisation of the labour market and party politics” (Magarey 6-7, 171-2). Certainly, race suicide ideologies impacted upon reproduction. Also, as Magarey says, “the first decades of the twentieth century set up new barriers between women’s and men’s work and between men and women in the labour movement” (6-7). Leontine Cooper commented upon the lack of support from men in the working-class movement for a nascent women’s unionism, suggesting in July 1891, in her Queensland Notes for the Dawn, that “the old conservative hatred of allowing women to do any work outside their homes” was shared by the male-dominated union movement. On 28 April 1894, she was reported in the Courier as arguing that “[l]abour has never yet shown sympathy for women, but with their cry ‘women’s competition means lower wages’ has kept us out of their unions and other trades” (qtd. Jordan 2004, 89, 92). Helen Hamley notes that when Emma Miller, another leading activist for women, advanced their claims for equality in a speech in 1908, a male interjector called out “Nonsense!” She retorted: “How can it be nonsense – when they prove that equality by working to support their children, and very often by working to keep their loafer husbands?” (Hamley 2004, 92). The 1907 Harvester judgement on the family wage, by Justice Higgins, Nettie Palmer’s uncle, which instituted men in the family as breadwinners was overturned when challenged, but expressed dominant thinking then in binding both genders into sex roles in the family that recent changes to the Family Tax Benefit do much to reinstate.4

The Bulletin habitually inveighed against women’s achieving economic power. When reluctantly withdrawing opposition to women’s suffrage in 1891, it invoked a likely threat to “Democracy”, because “the tendency of the feminine mind is almost invariably towards conservatism.” While the middle-class woman, due to “centuries of narrow education and irritating restrictions” was “a butterfly creature”, her “working sister … has been doomed to a barbarous existence of underpaid toil and ceaseless exertion until her intellect has become stunted and her thoughts revolve only in one narrow circle of dismal drudgery” (qtd Lawson 1983, 197-8). The poet Marie Pitt told fellow poet Dowell O’Reilly, Eleanor Dark’s father, that she was exhausted by “the hoeing of my double row, the man’s and the woman’s – the battle for a crust – the maternal ministry” (8 February 1914, qtd Bongiorno, 55). Certainly, no party addressed sexism adequately.5

But I think what centrally defeated the advance of first wave feminism was the lack of substantial change to the family. This looked more possible for second than for first wave Western feminism but, even in the campaigns for the vote in New Zealand and Australia (1894-1908), there were women who intended to go much further than strategies for reinforcing the family. Lake considers that some feminist figures played a central role (though changing work patterns were probably much more central) in changing the masculine ideal from roving solitary worker to respectable breadwinner. In her argument, they “did not seek a total independence for women but to make their dependence a happier and more secure state” and their conceptualisation of the path towards equality kept women securely within the family, as they centrally “sought to curtail masculine privilege and those practices most injurious to women and children – notably drinking, smoking, gambling and male sexual indulgence” (Lake 1992, 162-3). But, as even O’Reilly recognised: “All this pother for a Vote! Do you seriously think that is the goal of these refined, brutal, educated, criminal, intellectual, insane women?” (O’Reilly to Lou Miles, 30 November 1913, qtd Bongiorno, 54).

Frank Bongiorno has documented the “sexual radicalism” that was “a minority tradition” at the turn of the twentieth century. Among this minority, writing women found themselves hampered both by children and by the dominant ideologies of maternity held, to some extent, even by the male socialists with whom they associated. O’Reilly wrote to Bernard O’Dowd regarding “the intellectual woman” that “her soul refuses to die at the dictate of Motherhood – hates it – abominates it – has closed in death-grip with it now, throughout the white races” (5 October 1912, qtd Bongiorno, 53). Kate Stone, writing as “Sydney Partridge” commented: “no woman of powerful intellect should ever marry unless she would be content to sink herself in her children, in doing which she gains nothing unless her desire for domesticity is stronger than her genius” (Women’s Page, Worker 3 February 1910: 7). By contrast, John Garth, in August 1908 in the Australian Magazine, wanted to attribute to the Australian “girl” a “charming unconcern with which on assuming her matron’s robe she allows the interests of domesticity to completely subjugate that other side of her mind which has been educated into activity”, as well as being “an ideal mother from the nursery point of view” (qtd Pearce 1992, 66, 68).

Even in the role of daughter in a family, domesticity could be forced upon women – including those who aspired to a career. As Susan Gardner pointed out of My Brilliant Career, its heroine does not have a profession, only endless exhausting physical work (Gardner 1992, 27). “If there was a budding Madame Curie, or a female Pasteur or Einstein, or a Charlotte Bronte in Australia, she’d still be compelled to be a charwoman: it’s the supreme occupation of my countrywomen”, says Freda Healey in Back to Bool Bool (Franklin 1931, 66). Like Geisner in The Workingman’s Paradise, O’Reilly saw biology as having some determination of destiny. In relation to Marie Pitt, he told Gilmore: “What ever she may think she is, Life knows her as nothing but the mother of her children” (19 November 1913, qtd Bongiorno, 54). Gilmore had written to O’Reilly regarding her own child, that he was “nearly or quite six years old before I allowed myself to write more than letters for fear of in some way robbing him by some neglect or want of interest” (22 October 1912, qtd. Bongiorno, 54),  although she also commented that he did not seem to be doing any better as a result than other women’s children as a result of  her particular construction of what she had described with some irony  as `an island out of the world and an oasis out of struggle’ (Worker 6 February 1908, 9).

Gail Reekie sees “feminism and nationalism” as operating as “opposed and mutually exclusive categories” (Reekie 1992, 147) in the imagination, or the invention of Australia. But with motherhood and the family so decisively meshed with the Australian colonial and capitalist project, can strands of feminism that do not contest the family be seen as opposed to nationalism? A hundred years ago there was a perception of a “Birth Strike”. In February 1901, the Australian Women’s Sphere observed “emancipated women are in revolt against maternity, as it has been known in the past, against enforced maternity”. The Royal Commission on the Decline of the Birthrate in NSW met in 1903 and reported in 1904 on its falling, between 1870 and 1900, from an average of 7 to an average of 4 children. Socialists concerned about the Nation wanted to keep women in the home and family. Pitt was unfazed by the decline, and applauded “the greatest strike in world history – the revolt of the slave bearers.”

Slave mart bosses may bluster as they please, medical missionaries in the pay of fat fleshmongers may talk learnedly and threaten dire evils to prudent mothers of three or less, and suave magnates of Christianity may prate of the sin of ease or pleasure until they go black in the face – the strike is going, is going like a forest fire with a 65 miles an hour gale behind it, and it will only stop when human life has become of more importance than successful commercial exploitation of human life, which is what the present Capitalistic system stands for. (Socialist 8 March 1912: 2)

The dominant suffragist discourses presented women’s vote as strengthening the family, and it is perhaps for this reason that the struggles for the vote were not of great interest to second wave feminism. Daley and Nolan in Suffrage and Beyond suggest that the perception that women’s suffrage had a “narrow class and racial base” and a “commitment to liberal politics”, might be a distorted one, along with the stereotype of the suffragists as “fearsomely respectable, crushingly earnest, socially puritanical, politically limited and sexually repressed” (Daley 1994, 1-2). They also suggest, on the other hand, and in a striking example of recuperative thinking, that third wave or post-feminism encourages a different reading because possibly “our disappointments with ‘second wave’ feminism has made us more sympathetic to the ‘first wave’. The fruits of the ‘second wave’ have not been as bountiful as feminists had hoped. Perhaps the constant threat of backlash and the rise of the new right has led historians to be more tolerant of the suffragists” (Daley 1994, 7).

Although the vote in bourgeois democracies means little, being excluded from the vote (as non-whites systematically continued to be for decades after Federation) had to be combated.6 While Louisa Lawson, along with Rose Scott, focussed upon “the burden of wives and the degradation of mothers,” she did expect that “in the ballot lay the power to change relations between men and women and ultimately to create a better world” (Lake 1992, 20). There was considerable anxiety in the ruling class about the prospect of substantially changed gender relations. Among Queensland parliamentarians, Thomas Byrnes in 1894 considered that women’s suffrage would produce “a sudden and violent revolution not only in our political system, but in the innermost portions of society” that would “interfere with the social arrangements that have existed from the beginning of civilisation” (qtd McCulloch 2004, 29). Donald MacKintosh certainly did not see men as eager to take on ‘women’s’ work, and was concerned in 1903 that “[i]f they get the franchise, they will be saying to their husbands, ‘Look here, I am going to a meeting. You can stop home and mind the children’ … By and by there will be no children at all” (qtd. McCulloch 2004, 26).

The Domestic Man had been ridiculed in the Bulletin in 1888: “All our moral and mental life is the moral and mental life of men who are half women in their habits, men breathing always a domestic atmosphere” (3 November 1888, Lake 1992, 158). Henry Lawson’s poem, “The Vagabond”, included these lines:

Sacrifice all for the family’s sake
Bow to their selfish rule.
Slave till your big soft heart they break
The heart of the ‘family fool.’
(Bulletin, 31 August 1895, 28.)

Reading women’s writing or writing like women also showed a deficient masculinity. In the Bulletin in 1923, Vance Palmer suggested: “A man wants vivid character, robust humour, a tough philosophy, and tragedy without a superfluity of tears. The atmosphere of women’s novels is not good for him: it is warm and enervating, like a small room heated with an asbestos stove” (19 April 1923). In actuality it was the woman who might have much more believably been constructed as the “family fool”. Annie Lane wrote: “when I hear men getting indignant I always feel inclined to ask them how they like being treated as a woman now” (Worker 16 July 1892).

Adrienne Rich suggested in 1971 that “nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite, or to call experimentally by another name” (Rich 1975, 96), pointing to the role that literary representation can play in cultural critique. As Nicole Moore has argued, literary representations by women “can be seen to contest public-private divides, to assert the abiding presence of women as historical subjects in narratives of struggle, and in many ways, thereby, to constitute ongoing examples of feminist analysis and political critique” (Moore 2002, 151). Many of the first wave literary representations by women, including stories such as Leontine Cooper’s “Only a Woman”, that depicts a woman’s attempts to resist violence and appropriation of her money by her husband, or Barbara Baynton’s “Squeaker’s Mate”, which shows how little mateship there might be within the walls of the home, demonstrate that Australian women’s fiction has been a significant site in which women’s oppression within the family has been encoded and protested. Miles Franklin’s family were reportedly not impressed by what was taken as their depiction in My Brilliant Career(1901); Christina Stead in For Love Alone (1940) and The Man Who Loved Children (1944) exposed the covert aggression within the family, but felt compelled with the latter novel to move its location to the United States – “to shield the family. I mean it would have been a bit too naked” (Whitehead 1974, 242).

Lorraine Mortimer describes how, on re-reading Simone de Beauvoir, she was struck by her portrait of “the sheer difficulty of a woman making a choice to be a full human being”. Mortimer also draws attention to Beauvoir’s comments upon motherhood, and of “women who eagerly seek the possibility of alienating their freedom to the advantage of their flesh … she is life” (Mortimer 2000, 185, 191).7 Sonia Kruks has suggested that, particularly with the rise of ‘gynocriticism’, Beauvoir became an uncongenial figure, “accused of taking masculine values as the norm to which women should aspire, of disparaging the female body … and of dismissing motherhood as inimical to women’s liberation” (Kruks 2005, 288). Julia Kristeva’s assertion in “Women’s Time”, that the generation of “suffragists and existential feminists” was definitively past, she suggests, also contributed to a partial eclipse of Beauvoir’s influence. The Second Sex (1949) comments disparagingly upon the development of everyday femininity: “she is already a little woman … this stage in most women traditionally remains more or less infantile” (266). The little women and good wives of Alcott’s titles, as angels in the house, still lurked for Beauvoir. Hêlêne Cixous wrote:

coming today out of their infans period and into the second `enlightened’ version of their virtuous debasement, they see themselves suddenly assaulted by the builders of the analytic empire and, as soon as they’ve begun to formulate the new desire, naked, nameless, so happy at making an appearance, they’re taken in the bath by the new old man, and then, whoops! luring them with flashy signifiers, the demon of interpretation, oblique, decked out in modernity – sells them the same old handcuffs, baubles and chains. (Cixous 1975, 262-3)

We could remember also Adrienne Rich’s words:

to be maternally with small children all day in the old way, to be with a man in the old way of marriage, requires a holding-back, a putting aside of that imaginative activity, and seems to demand instead a kind of conservatism. (Rich 1975, 96)

In her article of fifteen years ago, Gail Reekie declared that “two decades of feminist scholarship fail[ed] to challenge the maleness of the national vision” (Reekie 1992, 146). The new national vision that purports to consist in “how to improve opportunities for women, create the most female-friendly environment in the world”, as envisaged by Peter Costello (Gittins 2006, 19), is highly specious and we should view with suspicion the kinds of things he has in mind in relation to the old tale of what women want. The task of emancipation was never going to be easy. When Kollontai had talked about transformed relationships in “Make Way for the Winged Eros” (1923), as Cathy Porter has pointed out: “Few in Russia understood her writings on the complete psychological emancipation of women” (Porter 1980, 417), and the defeat of the Russian attempts in the rise of Stalinism enabled a pervasive pessimism about how far such attempts could be successful that waned in the 1960s but is on the rise again from the 1990s. As Uma Narayan suggests:

Inherited pictures of gender roles and family and social arrangements are often central elements both to one’s sense of self and to one’s sense of one’s social world. This is often true even when these roles and arrangements are, and are even experienced as, oppressive and restrictive. Rethinking them, and opening oneself to the process of collectively transforming them, is often likely to be an emotionally painful process (Narayan 1997, 36).

Has the 1980s shift to difference feminisms meant that we have fewer tools to cut through the ways in which femininity is invoked in current conservative discourses?

Rita Felski suggests:

Insofar as ontologies of sexual difference presume the overarching significance of the male-female distinction, which is only subsequently “filled in” by the particulars of class, race, sexuality, and so on, they cannot account for such a refusal to prioritise gender except in terms of some notion of false consciousness or its equivalent. (Felski 1997, 8)

Contradictorily, the second wave movement’s necessary taking up of racial politics (since gender is articulated so differently for different groups of women) produced some difficulties for the further development of a critique that problematised the family. It remained in some ways a haven in a world much more heartless for non-white and non-middle class people. The Black family had been systematically undermined – under slavery in the United States, and with colonisation in places like Australia – and Cassie Premo Steele shows how, often, the history of “sexual matrilineage” is invoked in order to resist this, with Audre Lorde declaring, in her recuperation of Afrekete as “both mother and master, nurturing and philosophical; s/he shows that the values of `female’ mothering and `male’ competence with language and meaning are equally necessary in order to survive” (Steele 2004, 161).8 Toni Morrison makes an argument that might seem to apply mainly to Black women who are middle class:

I tried hard to be both the ship and the safe harbour at the same time, to be able to make a house and be on the job market and still nurture the children … No one should be asked to make a choice between a home or a career. Why not have both? It’s all possible. (Taylor-Guthrie 1994, 195, 197)

Feminisms that lacked the analysis that the oppression of non-white women came from a white society in which ideologies of private property were as central to its family structure as to its imperialist adventures, were vulnerable to deciding that critiques of the family should be toned down because they went too far in seeming to denigrate non-white families whose survival was (and continues to be) problematic under the imperatives of (post)colonialism. With the growth of global critiques in the 1990s, there is also an awareness of how “the First World maintains its lifestyle by a global transfer of emotional services associated with a woman’s traditional role – childcare, homemaking and sex – from poor countries to rich ones” (Stephens 2005, 77). As mobilised by commentators such as Julie Stephens and Anne Manne, however, this becomes centrally an argument about how other women are “employed to fill the care-deficit by nurturing the families of rich first-world women” (Stephens 2005, 78), with the main problem being identified as the apparent care-deficit now shown by many biological mothers.

The oppression of women through patriarchal ideologies and double standards, and through lack of economic independence, is experienced more intensely by those who are not white, and the feminist critique of the family is complicated by the systematic destruction of Indigenous family life throughout white Australian history. Ruby Langford Ginibi had to engage in “gut-busting” fencing and other physical labour to feed her large family. For Indigenous women, another aspect of their oppression is the strong pressure to take on the “shame” of the whiteman’s repressed and distorted sexuality. A distinctive feature of Ginibi’s narratives – differing from precursors such as Monica Clare and Glenyse Ward, or those writing at the same time such as Sally Morgan and Doris Pilkington – is a refusal to adopt a self-construction of ‘morality’ and respectability. This was too much for Mary Rose Liverani who reviewed Ginibi, as Jo Robertson has documented, not just as a bad writer but also a “bad mother” (Robertson 1992, 117-18). Ginibi talks about her relationships with different men, her difficulties with her children, and her periodic over-use of alcohol. Her four books offer a political critique of the near-impossibility of family life for Aboriginal women, and the frustration is expressed in increasingly forceful language. In Haunted By the Past, her son Nobby recalls: “The house was always full of kids – all annoying the shit outa Mum!” Ginibi’s struggles as a serial single parent are exacerbated by poverty and racism. “Where the fuck were their fathers? I often wondered. They were well and truly there at the making of those kids but not for the responsibility of rearing them” (Ginibi 1999, 123). Domestic service in the homes and families of others also frequently undermined Black women’s homes and families. As Jackie Huggins has remarked, much second wave feminism was about how women could get out of their kitchens but many black women had never had their own to get out of. Ginibi struggled to get a housing commission home at Green Valley, after what she calls, in Don’t Take Your Love To Town, “fantasies about getting a roof over the kids’ heads and having taps and floors” but, when there, she was isolated from the support of her community. Boni Robertson draws attention to the “continuation of a socio-political legal system that continues to police Aboriginal women and men, and to remove children, as evidenced in the high number of child protection notifications that deem Aboriginal children to be at risk” (Robertson 2005, 42).

In the early twenty-first century, there is a perception of a new “birth strike” – perhaps especially among those assumed to be the most desirable class of mother. In 2001 an article in the Australian by Mike Steketee talked of “couples increasingly abandoning the idea of children on the career altar” (Steketee 2001, 22). At the same time, the growth of non-traditional families is discouraged by various means. In 2000 when the Lisa Meldrum case ruling allowed single women and lesbians to access reproductive technologies (currently associated with 2.5 percent of births in Australia), John Howard denounced it as “a denial of the rights of  children”, echoing George Pell, who had suggested that the way was now open for “a massive social experiment on children” (qtd. Rees 2001). Several bishops appealed the case and the government tried to amend the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984 in order to discriminate in this area. In 2004, anxiety in some quarters about a “gayby boom” was produced by an ABC Playschool programme that showed a child in Sydney with two mothers. Recently, (married) Australian women were exhorted by the Treasurer, Peter Costello, to have three children:  “one for the father, one for the mother and one for the country” (variously reported with changes to “husband”, “wife” and “nation”,  qtd. Baird 2005, 103). In the recent debates about paid maternity leave, Tony Abbott stated that a compulsory paid leave system would only be implemented over the “government’s dead body” (Age 22 July 2002, cited Dever and Curtin 2004), and the government seemed determined that the cash payment of $3000 offered for each should seem to be a gift, rather than something won through union struggle.9

Organised religions also have a large investment in the maintenance of traditional families, and they have been gaining ground in some quarters since the 1990s. Helene Cixous urged in 1975: “let the priests tremble, we’re going to show them our sexts!” (Cixous 1976), while back in 1885 Henrietta Dugdale, president of the first suffrage society in Victoria, gave a paper to the Eclectic Association called “Male Bias”, in which she argued that religions were oppressive, most especially to women, because they had all been devised by men (Magarey 2001, 25). Barbara Ehrenreich draws attention to two fundamentalisms, apart from the Islamic ones much conjured currently by Western hegemonies – fundamentalist Christian and orthodox Jewish – and suggests all three “aspire to restore women to the status they occupied – or are believed to have occupied – in certain nomadic Middle Eastern tribes” (191). Or, as some 1960s feminists put it, a “barefoot and pregnant” status. Robin Morgan recorded that Gerry Falwell blamed “pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians”- who had “tried to secularise America” – for the wrath of God that descended on 9/11 (Morgan 2002, 24). In recent years, the feminist internationalist critique has been called upon to complicate itself by addressing the different roles that the family and family ideologies play in, for example, various Muslim contexts. Andjelka Milic comments upon how Serbian women raped in the war of the 1980s became “the property of the national collective, and hence its sacred inviolable borders. Violation of this common property by rape meant symbolically trespassing on the enemy’s territory and brutally destroying its physical integrity” (qtd. Price 2002, 257). The centrality of patriarchal ideology to ethnic nationalism means that, in masculinist militarism, the family symbolises the enemy’s weakness.

In the face of new and complicated challenges in international politics, the 1990s-on look like a period of quietism and individualism for much Western feminism. Rita Felski in discussing 1980s feminist thought in relation to “the equality/difference distinction” identifies a “necessary interdependence and complex slippage between these terms” (Felski 1997, 18). The term “equality” always had its own problems but, while Rosi Braidotti asserts that “sexual difference is primarily a political and intellectual strategy, not a philosophy … [that] emerged mostly out of the political practice of Continental feminism in the 1970s as an attempt to move beyond some of the aporias and the dead ends of equality-minded, marxist-based feminism” (Braidotti 1997, 26), the turn of feminism to difference in the 1980s has risked restoring many of the old constructs of the masculine and the feminine from a century or more ago. In the 1970s and 1980s, Christine Bolt suggests, second wave feminism “pointed out the crudeness of old socialism’s assumption that the inclusion of women in the paid workforce would lead to their liberation.” It also “indicted its inadequate treatment of sex, and censured its enduring association of women with the private sphere” (Bolt 2004, 178). But in throwing out “old” socialism, have many babies gone with the bathwater? As Lynne Segal mentions in Why Feminism, “[f]eminism has been widely accepted … especially insofar as it applauds a gentle type of care-ethic, the affirmation of a benevolent ‘femininity’, open and sensitive to the needs and vulnerabilities of others” (Segal 1999, 227). What this increasingly influential strand of feminism ignores is that it was the vulnerability of women, produced centrally by their roles within the family, that gave rise, in the first place, to the struggles and campaigns that this article discusses. And how far women are now supposed to take account of the needs of others is perhaps indicated in the reported research of Steve Biddulph:

I had started out as a believer in the ideal of quality nursery care and the role it played in allowing women to broaden their lives … but … the reality never matched the fantasy. The best nurseries struggle to meet the needs of very young children in a group setting. The worst were negligent, frightening and bleak: a nightmare of bewildered loneliness that was heartbreaking to watch. Children at this age – under three – want one thing only: the individual care of their own special person. (qtd. Totaro 2006, 1)

In the face of feminism’s offensives on many fronts from the 1960s, the rhetoric of conservative forces had changed little, but they were very much on the back foot. By 1986, the view expressed in a typical example, from Eoin Cameron of the Queensland National Party, was gaining ground again:

we are on about supporting the family and giving women incentives to stay at home and look after the family and bring up young Australians as they ought to be brought up, not in some socialised, ratbag, Russianised-type childminding centre set up at the factory door. (CPD 10 April 1986: 2045)

When in 1996 a Coalition government led by John Howard replaced the federal Labor government that had ruled for 13 years, notions of family values, with the family as ‘the corner stone of society’ and of one nation, were central to their ideologies, ‘for all of us’. In 1999 on talkback radio, Howard asserted that it was:

unfair that when a mother, or father for that matter, elects to stay at home and provide full-time care for their children and their young, they tend to get sneered at and look down upon and treated as second class citizens. And I think that is wrong, and the stridency of some of the ultra feminist groups in the community who sort of really demand that every mother be back in the workforce as quickly as humanly possible, now that is ridiculous. (Howard, Alan Jones 2UE 16 March 1998, qtd. Dever and Curtin 2004, 4)

In April 1999, then Victorian premier Jeff Kennett told girls at the McRobertson Girls High School, according to Mary Helen Woods from the Australian Family Association, that they should not “get so successful in other areas that they put aside childbearing”. She endorsed these sentiments with turn of the previous century rhetoric: “I think we live in a rich, large, almost empty land and that, ultimately, we won’t be able to keep it. It would be better if we populate it ourselves” (cited Dever 2005, 45). In early November 2004 there was also an extraordinary intervention by the Governor General, in which women were exhorted by a military figure to avoid terminating any life. This was in the context of contraception being preferable, but it could only contribute to positions in which abortion is men’s business, as men’s rights in enforcing compulsory maternity are re-posed (Australian 13 November 2004).

Another sign of the times is Australian columnist Kate Legge’s eagerness in falling upon Anne Manne’s Motherhood:

She wants a new work and family balance to challenge the commercialisation of mothering in childcare centres open from morning until night with barely any serious public debate beyond questions of access and affordability … Motherhood offers a politically incorrect challenge to modern acquisitiveness and feminism’s acquiescence in convenience mothering or the McDonaldisation of childhood. (Legge 2005, 25)

Legge conjures a position for women reminiscent of Mary Gilmore’s predicament. “Her 1997 essay, which was the seed for this book, described reluctantly leaving her daughter in a creche so she could swim therapeutic laps for her sore back…. Concern prompted her to return after a few minutes and the desolation on her daughter’s face confirmed a road not taken” (Legge 25). This is all very well, but clearly wishing will not produce more sharing of domestic labour, even in the middle-class family. It appears that her husband (who “emerges briefly from his study” during the interview) did not emerge to look after the daughter during the swimming pool visits. Really, this is a recuperation of “maternal deprivation” as deduced by John Bowlby from his observation of, for example, “44 juvenile thieves” in 1944, that led him to believe that “family experiences were a much more important, if not the basic cause of emotional disturbance” (Bretherton 1992, 761). This was of course Laing and Cooper’s view too, but Bowlby’s research fitted with pushing women back into the home in post World War Two agendas. Emotional encounters that lead to the conclusion that “children need most … the passionate partiality of parental love” (Legge 2005) are currently popular with the columnists – but there are cool eyes about too to demystify these constructs (see eg. Cannold, 2005, Baker 2006).

Manne opens her excerpted book (perhaps surprisingly, in Arena) with Arlie Hochschild’s comment:  “[a]re we OK with the fact that baby may say their first word to the childcare worker and grandma her last word to the nursing home aide?”, which might be seen as constructing desirable femininity as perpetual nurturance. Is it expected that mothers and daughters should be bound into a cycle of exhausting and debilitating emotional and physical nurturance because nothing better can be imagined than the capitalist nuclear family? Further, this family in its idealised form is not that prevalent.  As Jane Lewis notes: “the ‘facts’ of family change are real and hard to exaggerate. In one generation, the numbers marrying have halved, the numbers divorcing have trebled and the proportion of children born outside marriage has quadrupled” (Lewis 2002, 4). As Lesley Patterson and Celia Briar point out:

[c]hildren are less likely to spend their childhoods living in the house of both parents, and in all liberal welfare societies the proportion of family households headed by a lone parent has increased. In these households, most parents are mothers (something that has notchanged), most of whom are parenting alone as a result of relationship breakdown (something that has changed). (Patterson and Briar 2005, 48)

Patricia Short, in her “Conclusion” to Motherhood: Power and Oppression, draws attention to some key features of “relations of ruling” within the institution of motherhood: these include “an ascendant, essentially individualised and isolated form of mothering, a duplicitous affirmation of the intensity of mothering, and strategic confinement of the physical/corporeal and emotional experiences of mothering” (Short 2006, 286). For Short, “dominant relations of maternity promote and support the physical and emotional intensity of mothering insofar as they legitimate the economic dependency of mothers and children within the family household” (Short 2006, 289), and this conclusion is particularly relevant to, for example, the work of Anne Manne, who presents as ingenuously unaware of how far her orientation feeds into the right wing agendas of the current government.

I think that feminists in Australia are not currently anxious enough about the family. The system around us is expressing anxiety, in the tired old ways – One Nation patriotism, concern about the lack of jobs for ‘breadwinning’ men, particular constructions of masculinities in political rivalries (including in organisations such as the now destroyed ATSIC), worries about boys’ education or concern about ‘protecting’ girls and women from sexual assault – that often manipulate previously unresolved issues for feminist theory, and seem to require that we back off. Anxiety about the family and sex roles is all around us but it is being driven by ideologies that can be identified in the late nineteenth century and resurface in variant forms in  the 1950s – centrally, ideologies that fear greater economic and, especially, psychological freedom for women. The context of the survival of these ideologies is the denial that the things I list above are not present in and often attributable to the family. And also being perpetuated is the illusion, as Anne Summers ironically puts it, that the aims of feminism have been fulfilled: “almost always there were cultural or attitudinal barriers that kept women confined to a narrow range of activities, if indeed they could participate much at all working outside the home. This is no longer the case. Women can now do anything. The struggle for equal rights is over. We won. Mission accomplished” (Summers 2003, 2).

For Gail Reekie, histories of the nation have to submerge reproduction, specifically female experience, into the private sphere. But one of the main problems of much feminism has been its implicit, apparently necessary validation of the private sphere. Why is the private the private and the public the public? Women did not persist with continuing to consider what was to be done about the family, and many were more or less satisfied with welfare reforms (now being undercut and re-structured, particularly for Indigenous people among others). Hester Eisenstein, while praising the achievements of the femocracy, was ten years ago increasingly alert to the problems for feminism of “of an alliance with the state, when its role in Australia had become … more and more the willing agent of international capitalist interests” (Eisenstein 1996, 215), and wars of the West in Iraq and Afghanistan have been good examples of where these led. Zillah Eisenstein’s injunction to “rethink as overt the covert realms of power that are not being named” remains very useful advice. In 2004 she wrote: “[r]emembering at this moment is subversive and stands against the erasure of political history” (Eisenstein 2004, 149-50).

Those still advocating thoroughgoing change are currently in a climate, in the West at least, where fear of change is being fostered. As Narayan suggests:

in a global period where the shapes and structures of life are changing rapidly all across the world with attendant dislocations and profound uncertainties … critical social theories, including feminism, that seem to call for even more change will face a difficult and uphill battle. (Narayan 1997, 36)

What we certainly have to do is identify and resist those neo-recuperative strategies that collude with the current dominant suggestions that second wave feminism went too far; continue at least to occupy what Jane Gallop calls the “resisting edges” (Gallop 1992, 241). The persistence in current radical thinking of an inadequate engagement with the family and its motherhood statements  should be giving us anxiety, but with ends in view totally other to those historically articulated within the hegemonic Australian view of the world.



1. The anti-psychiatry of R.D. Laing and Cooper became unfashionable in the 1980s, with Elaine Showalter in The Female Malady suggesting that what she saw as his turn to conservatism was predictable.

2. Centrally facilitating the rise of second wave feminism was another material factor – the widespread availability of the contraceptive pill. This appeared in the Courier-Mail, looking more like a mint, on a woman’s tongue on the cover of the sexual politics number of their Millennium supplements at the end of 1999. Along with changes to abortion laws, reliable contraception meant that having sex did not have to lead to likely compulsory maternity, seen by Shulamith Firestone in The Dialectic of Sex (1971) as the most oppressive thing in women’s lives.

3. Racial anxieties were shared by some of the women: Mary Gilmore left Cosme largely because of those “who openly break the teetotal and colour clauses” and because it was “only a matter of time before there is intermarriage among the natives” (qtd. Pearce 74 citing Souter 193).

4. Lawson in the Dawn had proposed wages for housework in March 1893. One of the most impassioned critiques of housework was made by Lenin, who wrote of a woman’s domestic labour: “she continues to be a domestic slave because petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades her, chains her to the kitchen and the nursery, and she wastes her labour on barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-wracking, stultifying domestic drudgery” (qtd. Cliff 1984, 140).

5. Joyce Stevens’ Taking the Revolution Home and Joy Damousi’s Women Come Rally are accounts of how difficult sexual politics were for the Communist Party of Australia, and Bolt’s Sisterhood[?] Questioned? gives many examples of the failure of the Labour parties to support women’s right to (paid) work.

6. The Commonwealth Franchise Act of June 1902, not long after the first Act of the new Australian parliament after Federation which instituted the White Australia policy regarding immigration, “simultaneously enfranchised all `white’ women and men and disenfranchised all `black’ women and men” (Magarey 2001, 155).

7. The fiftieth anniversary of The Second Sex produced many conferences that gave rise to re-thinking of Beauvoir’s work. The Brisbane conference at which Mortimer’s paper was given was no exception.

8. Steele does also refer, though, to Suzette Henke’s reading of Audre/Zami as breaking down the binary oppositions between male and female and body and spirit (Steele 2004, 163).

9. In 1912, the Labor government introduced a five pounds maternity allowance (not available to Indigenous mothers). This was before the First World War in which 60,000 Australian soldiers died. Of the 55,000 who came back, many had VD. Marion Piddington’s Vita Nuova (1916) proposed a type of artificial insemination. Ironic critiques of dominant ideologies in relation to motherhood and the family are much less common now than they were during second wave feminism, but one satirist who has not lost her sting is Debbie Harman Qadri with her Bad Mother cartoons (featured extensively in Hecate and the Australian Women’s Book Review, and see also Harman Qadri 2004).


Carole Ferrier is a Professor in the School of English, Media Studies and Art History and has published widely on Australian women’s writing, and on feminism and socialism in relation to literature and culture. She has edited Hecate for the past 32 years.



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