24.6.09

A Feminist Response to Lasch


It is a testimony to the impoverishment of the American Left that the only thing most of its adherents can do these days, when they are not sitting and fuming quietly, is to emulate the Right. And among the most fashionable” causes” of both Right and Left now is the demoralization of the American family. “Progressive rhetoric,” writes Christopher Lasch in Tikkun’s premier issue, “has the effect of concealing social crisis and moral breakdown by presenting them ‘dialectically’ as the birth pangs of a new order.” With those words, Lasch launches into what is by now a familiar diatribe about what he calls the liberal anemic, euphemistic definition” of the family. And it becomes hard to tell whether we’re reading Christopher Lasch : pr jerry Falwell’s latest sermon.

At issue for Lasch is whether blended families, single-parent families, gay families can rightly be called “families.” His answer is no. These may be “perfectly legitimate living arrangements,” he insists, “but they are arrangements chosen by people who prefer not to live in families at all, with all the unavoidable constraints that families place on individual freedom.”  How or why he comes to this conclusion is unclear; largely because this is a moral issue for him, not a social and political one, just as it is for Falwell and Reagan. Once cast in moral terms, one need neither present a reasoned argument nor attend to the real experience of people’s lives, a preordained notion of right or wrong is all that counts.

According to Lasch’s definition above, “constraint” becomes a crucial if not the central and defining feature of family life, while “choice” is the villain in those living arrangements to which he refuses to accord the status of “family.” There’s much to be said about his choice of words here, For even if we are willing to grant them some credibility, the issue of choice and constraint in family life is not So clear. The divorced mother of the 1980’s, for example, all too often is raising her children alone out of necessity, not choice. But even when a woman chooses to leave a marriage, can anyone seriously believe that the shape of her life is less constrained after divorce, when she almost always becomes the sole emotional and economic support of those children?

And by what reasoning do we deride that two people who live .and love in a long-term, stable relationship, perhaps even raise a child together, are any less subject to the constraints of family life simply because they sleep with someone of the same sex instead of the opposite one?  Certainly for many Americans the commitment to a marriage is itself the constraining force.  But surely no one living through an era when half of all marriages end in divorce can still believe that legal constraints alone provide the binding force on those who wed, And if it is the deeper emotional ties and attachments that make for stable relationships, then who is to say that heterosexuality supplies a monopoly on these?

There is no logic here, There is only an emotional and nostalgic wish for a past that never existed for most people anywhere in the world. The old family for which Christopher Lasch grieves was, historically speaking, a reality for a very brief period following the Industrial Revolution and even then only among a select group of people—the bourgeoisie.  Moreover, it is this very bourgeois family, whose return he calls for, that broke down under the weight of the contradictions chat surround it.

In the public arena, the family has been our hallowed and sacred institution, politicians paying it obeisance as they remind us and each other of its importance in American life.  Yet both economy and polity have failed to support it.  We are, after all, the only advanced industrial nation that has no public policy of support for the family, whether with family allowances or decent publicly-sponsored childcare facilities.

The old family for which Christopher Lasch grieves was, historically speaking, a reality for a very brief period following the Industrial Revolution and even then only among a select group of people—the bourgeoisie.

Inside the family, too, there’s conflict between our ideal statements and the reality of life as it is lived there.  We are a nation that speaks of liberty and equality for all, yet the family has been a hierchica11y ordered institution in which liberty and equality largely have been labeled “for men only.”  As long as the traditional bargain in the bourgeois family worked—that is, a woman would trade equality and freedom for economic security—that family had a chance.   But long before the emergence of the modem feminist movement this bargain had already been breached, and men in large numbers were leaving wives who were ill prepared to do so to fend for themselves and their children.

We need only look at the work of family historians to see the difficulties of family life throughout the ages—the struggle for survival that, for most families, has been arduous and exhausting, if not downright torturous.  And if these aren’t convincing enough, a Dickens novel should do the trick.

The cruelties and oppression family members pave visited upon one another, as they acted out their rage against their own instead of the enemy outside, have been well documented. And the issue of family instability that plagues us today has, in one way or another, been with us at least since the Industrial Revolution so effectively split work from family life and family members from each other. It was different then. It wasn’t divorce that divided families; it was death and desertion. It wasn’t drugs that crippled the children; it was being tied to a machine for twelve to fourteen hours a day.

Feminists have offered the first new vision in many decades of what, at its best, family life could and should be.

Yet Lasch, the historian, manages to write as if he knows nothing of all this. The family may be under threat from economic pressures, he concedes, but the real threat comes from a feminist ideology; which, in his words, “devalues motherhood, equates personal development with participation in the labor market, and defines freedom as individual freedom of choice, freedom from binding commitments.”  When over 50 percent of all married women with young children are in the labor force, it’s time to stop blaming feminists for destroying the family.  Whatever personal satisfactions these women may find at work, the cold hard fact of American family life today is that it takes two incomes to live decently and still pay the bills.

Here again, it’s hard to tell Lasch from Schlafly.  Both offer a hostile and oversimple view of modern feminism; both misstate feminist theory and ideology and misread our recent history.  A social movement like feminism does not arise in a vacuum.  Rather feminism in this modern era came to life precisely because the family itself had already failed in its function to provide for its members that “haven in a heartless world” for which so many of us yearn.  Not for women, not for children, and not for men either.

Lasch rails at women who have demanded change in the structure of roles in the family, all the while refusing to acknowledge the inequities of traditional family life, from female infanticide to battered women. He laments the demise of the family wage system—that is, the system whereby the wages of one worker could support a family—and argues that it is the breakdown of this wage system that has driven women into the labor force in such large numbers.  But what family is he talking about?  Except for a few of the economically privileged, this family wage that he mourns so deeply has never been enough to support the family adequately.  In fact, women in working-class families have always had to supplement their husband’s wage, whether by taking in washing or working in the factories.

It certainly is true that feminists have been in the forefront of the struggle for change in the family.  But instead of being on an inevitable collision course with the family, as Lasch insists, feminists have offered the first new vision in many decades of what, at its best, family life could and should be: Two adults who are equally responsible for the economic, social and emotional well-being of the family, both sharing childrearing, one of life’s most difficult but ultimately most gratifying tasks from which men have been excluded far too long by current familial arrangements.

No one will deny that there’s a deep concern abroad today, that many Americans fed bruised and angry in the aftermath of two decades of social upheaval.  It’s undeniable, also, that such periods of social unrest anywhere have both positive and negative effects. But a little history is useful in putting both into perspective.

The sixties started with the movement for sexual freedom that coexisted with a movement to humanize the work environment. That, in some important way, was what the famous free Speech Movement at Berkeley was all about—a movement to bring bureaucratic regulation within human control. The decade ended with the emergence of the modern feminist movement whose major commitment was and is to reorder the rules of love and work in the interest of a more human and humane society for all.

Yes, we sometimes got lost en route. Sexual freedom and the search for sexual intimacy became corrupted by the promise of instant gratification. The concerns about humanizing work and reordering life’s priorities were trivialized and aborted by an ethic that exhorted us to “Tune in, turn on, and drop out.” Words like struggle, commitment, responsibility were scorned.  And the way of life—both good and bad—that such words undergird was consigned to oblivion. In that context, the human potential movement in psychology talked about developing our potential for intimacy, self-awareness and personal growth but offered instead only a narcissistic sham where people searched frantically, but always in fleeting and inconstant encounters, or a connection both to a self and to an “Other.”  Finally, along with all its positive impact, the feminist struggle to make the family a more egalitarian institution, to equalize the power relations between men and women there and elsewhere, left both feeling sometimes wounded, sometimes embittered, and almost always without the old familiar ways of dealing with each other.

But on the positive side, important gains have been made, while we also seem to have come back to some balance on many of these issues.  In the private arena, the tremendous sexual repression of the past has been lifted and, at the same time, an ethic that calls for more sexual responsibility has been emerging in recent years.  We may still have a way to go to make our interpersonal relationships all that we want and need, but the enormous success among men as well as women of my own Intimate Strangers—a book that offers no easy answers, whether in the bedroom, the living room or the kitchen—is itself testimony to our willingness to engage the struggle.

In the public sphere, the gains are more visible. There is no longer exclusively women’s work and men’s work, whether in the elite building trades or in the professions.  Sex discrimination has not ended, to be sure.  But today’s children will feel no surprise at the sight of a woman pilot or plumber. And already the sound of a male voice on an AT&T line no longer gives any of us a jolt.

Some of these changes are relatively broad and deep; others are still symbolic only.  All of them stand, also, alongside a set of problems that have yet to be tackled—the increasing feminization of poverty, the double shift to which most women who work outside the home are consigned, the lack of childcare facilities. Still, the fact that there are problems yet to be met and mastered should not disable us from seeing and appreciating the gains.

Certainly there’s work ahead if family life is to fulfill our ideal vision. But it is not a return to a past we need, a past where the constraints were so great that neither men nor women were expected to enjoy what we so delicately called “ connubial relations,” where divorce was either illegal or so socially unacceptable that the only alternative for men was desertion and for women, stoic endurance. Instead, we must reorder our social priorities in ways that support rather than hinder family life.

For at least the last one hundred and fifty years, the major threat to family life has been the organization of work. If the family is to survive, we need to think creatively about reorganizing the world of work to honor family life and give it the priority it deserves.  This means, among other things, a shorter work week ‘or both men and women, benefit packages that permit I substantial amount of time off when a child is born, adequate and affordable child care facilities.

The Left has much to criticize itself for, not least for laving lost touch with the American consciousness, with the hopes, the dreams and the fears of most of our people.  But that doesn’t mean joining the Right in their unrealistic attempts to turn back the clock to a world that never was.  Nor should we be supporting their insistence that there are simple and easy answers to the hard issues our society faces, whether about the family or about any of the other arenas of both public and private life in which problems abound. It is indeed, as Lasch argues, time for those of us who call ourselves progressives or, dare I even say the word, radicals to take stock of where we have been and to begin to define an agenda for the future that takes account of the legitimate concerns of most Americans. But he is wrong when he seeks to do so by pandering to the worst elements of the existing popular consciousness.

For at least the last one hundred and fifty years, the major threat to family life has been the organization of work.

Until now, I have been one of Christopher Lasch’s defenders, arguing that, despite serious flaws in his analysis, he has had the courage and imagination to raise questions that others on the Left have failed to confront. But it seems to me now that his rage and fear about the state of society has led him to the kind of analysis this article displays, whether about the family or about the role of religion in politics. In both, he treads on dangerous ground. For despite a sometimes trenchant critique of the positions of the Right, the Ultimate effect of what he has written is to show that they are not on the wrong side, only that they misunderstand the source of the problem. In doing so, Lasch has given over to the meanest and most reactionary forces in our land the power to set the terms for our own debate—a  mistake the Left has made before and always has paid for dearly.

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See also: Why the Left has No Future & What's Wrong with the Right by Christopher Lasch

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