The ‘crisis of the family’ has not ushered in Armageddon, despite the confident predictions made a decade ago. Indeed with the current conservative ascendancy in Western politics it is easy to feel that the cultural and sexual radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s has gone for nothing. Yet rhetoric about threats to the family and the decline of family values is not to be dismissed as a tactical ploy. It is a pointer to real changes, real tensions and fears. Nor have the sexual liberation movements been dispersed, however far short their accomplishments have fallen of the hopes of 1968-75. A political force was created then which is still active and in some situations effective. If the idea of a full-blown crisis of the gender order is exaggerated, it is undeniable that we are in the presence of powerful tendencies towards crisis. The political conflict over issues of gender and sexuality is structured around those tendencies and the historical possibilities they open up.
In Legitimation Crisis Jurgen Habermas analyses the concept of ‘crisis tendencies’ in relation to the class dynamics of late capitalist societies. The details of his analysis assume a generative nucleus (or ‘principle of organization’), which I have argued in chapter 3 and 5 is not applicable to gender relations, and may be misleading for class relations too. Yet the concept of crisis need not depend on a postulate of systematicity. It can be applied to a historically composed gender order, or to the gender regime of a particular institution, provided it is possible to distinguish historical developments that call into question the properties of the gender order as a whole from those that can be contained locally. For instance the political processes that allow an Indira Gandhi or a Margaret Thatcher entry to power are not crisis tendencies in terms of the overall structure of men’s dominance. They do not imply an improvement in the conditions of practice for women generally; in fact with Thatcher it has been the reverse.
The following discussion explores possible crisis tendencies in the gender order of the rich capitalist countries. I take the major structural features of this gender order, produced by the history sketched in the last section, to be (a) the gendered separation of domestic life from the money economy and the political world; (b) heavily masculipizecLcore institutions and a more open-textured periphery; (c) institutionalized heterosexuality and the invalidation or repression of homos£xualitv. These patterns sustain (d) the major pattern of- sexual politics, the overall subordination of womenJby-*»e«v If this is broadly correct, the analysis of crisis tendencies is a question of identifying dynamics which have the potential to transform these four features, and thus change in fundamental ways the conditions of future social practice.
The debate on the ‘crisis of the family’ provides a useful starting – point on the assumption that it provides evidence of real crisis tendencies, though misunderstood because conservative sexual ideology reifies the family as the basis of society. The discussion in chapter 6 of the dynamics constructing the family raised two points highly relevant here: the dependence of the family form on other institutional structures, notably the state; and the weakening of legitimate patriarchy as the form of authority within the family. There is an obvious parallel between the latter and developments within the state connected with women’s gaining citizenship rights.
On these bases we may define a tendency towards a crisis of institutionalization, a weakening in the ability of the institutional order of family-plus-state to sustain the legitimacy of men’s power.
The long-term political source is the importance of generalizable claims to equality as the basis of legitimacy of the state. This claim has operated in class relations (as argued by T. H. Marshall), race relations (the civil rights campaign for American blacks being an immediate source of the New Left and the new feminism) and global politics (decolonization). Nothing has prevented it having an impact on gender relations. Responding to challenges to the legitimacy of the political order, or even to the government of the day, involves the state in strategies that inevitably disrupt the legitimacy of domestic patriarchy.
Some are quite direct: funding women’s education on a scale comparable with men’s, providing machinery for no-fault divorce, funding women’s refuges and training police for intervention in domestic violence, and so on. Others are more indirect, such as the changing provisions about property, taxation and pensions that treat a married woman as a person in her own right. There need be no intention to undermine domestic patriarchy. The machinery of these policies – divorce courts, the police, etc. – become the sites of a political struggle in which masculine prerogatives are defended, often successfully. An example is divorce proceedings involving lesbian mothers, in some of which attacks on lesbianism are made and influence decisions on the custody of the children. Nevertheless the whole process destroys the taken – for-grantedness of patriarchal authority on which the simple reproduction of power inequalities rests.
The result is not an automatic disruption of the institutional order of power, but must be an increasing vulnerability to challenge. Whether and how challenges develop is a further question. Conditions for the challenge that did develop in rich capitalist countries in the 1960s and 1970s include, at a minimum, the fact that women had easier and more reliable contraception (the Pill, intra-uterine devices, etc.); the growth of women’s higher education to a mass scale; and the sharpening contradiction, for groups of younger women radicalized in the anti-war, civil rights and campus struggles of the 1960s, between the rhetoric of equality and the practice of sexual oppression in the radical movement itself.
The advent of the Pill in the late 1950s was denounced as a giant step towards a general breakdown of morality, a theme still pursued by the Pope. Once again the rhetoric of the Right is a useful guide to underlying tensions. We may define a complex but powerful tendency towards a crisis of sexuality, in which hegemonic heterosexuality comes unstuck as a stable resolution of the issues of cathexis and motivation.
In the previous section and in chapter 6 I argued that heterosexual masculinity was historically constructed by the exclusion of particular forms of desire and relationship, which were split off into marginalized masculinities, most significantly homosexual. It can be argued that a comparable process has operated in the construction of modern femininity, though the resulting patterns are not symmetrical because of the structure of power (see chapter 8).
In the ideal couple relationship defined by hegemonic heterosexuality, and theorized as ‘the family’ by Talcott Parsons, a stable reciprocity of cathexis is achieved. But it is achieved only by a process of repression, both internal and external, which creates resistances and oppositions. Externally these include the ‘wild’ masculinities discussed above, and the bonds among women theorized by Adrienne Rich as the ‘lesbian continuum’. Internally the opposition includes a range of forbidden impulses and attachments, evidence on which has emerged mainly in psychoanalytic research (see chapter 9 on the ‘layering’ of gender in personality).
Hegemonic heterosexuality, then, is not a natural fact but a state of play in a field of power and cathexis; at best an ongoing accomplishment. The accomplishment may cease, the state of play alter. The resistances and oppositions amount to a crisis tendency if the social supports of the process of repression prove inadequate, are weakened or altered in ways that allow the emergence of alternative patterns of sexuality on a significant scale.
Several arguments point to this possibility being realized. As suggested in the previous section, the logic of fixation involved in the creation of hegemonic heterosexuality is not obliged to stop within the relationships making up the family. It can and does go on to create an increasingly externalized and alienated sexuality which, while admirably suited to commercial exploitation, corrodes reciprocity at a personal level. Barbara Ehrenreich picks up an important dimension of this in her argument about the ‘flight from commitment’ among heterosexual men in the United States.
There are also arguments that suggest a dismantling of heterosexuality itself. Herbert Marcuse’s well-known thesis that genital primacy in sexuality was a product of a level of repression now superseded in advanced capitalism suggests the emergence of a polymorphous sexuality. Theorists such as Mario Mieli have argued that gay relationships are the key to emergent forms of liberated sexuality. One current of feminist theory from Jill Johnston on has seen the centre of feminism as coinciding with the development of lesbian sexuality.
The economic trend most often seen as evidence of a crisis of the family is the rising proportion of married women in ‘the workforce’: 42 per cent at the beginning of the 1980s in Australia. This need not represent a breakdown at all. Much of it is produced by the need for a second income to sustain conventional family patterns. The very high proportion of employed women who are part-time workers underlines the point.
Yet the effects of large-scale and long-term employment of married women are more subversive than the statistic itself. On the one hand a wife’s wage — even if firmly defined as a ‘second income’ – is a power resource in domestic politics and feeds into the crisis of domestic patriarchy noted above. On the other hand the fact that large numbers of women are now employed for long periods of their lives in the largely segregated labour market documented in chapter 5, creates a new political situation in the workplace.
It is often remarked that domestic labour in suburban houses separates women from each other physically. It is also remarked that heterosexuality separates women from each other emotionally. The concentration of large numbers of women at the point of production in industry is one of the strongest tendencies working in the opposite direction. A parallel development in relation to consumption has been important in gay men’s politics, with the growth of commercial venues. The gay liberation movement in New York sprang directly from a mobilization in defence of such venues against the police, the ‘Stonewall riots’.
What these points imply is a tendency towards a crisis of interest formation, the emergence of bases for the social constitution of interests that cut across patterns of interests compatible with the existing gender order. The definition of a married woman’s interests as being essentially those of her husband and children is the hegemonic pattern; the definition of her interests as those of a group of exploited women in a factory is subversive. As with institutionalization, it is a further question whether these possibilities are realized, whether new interest groupings are formed. Ruth Cavendish’s Women on the Line provides a fascinating case where this did happen. The general issue of working-class feminism will be taken up in chapter 12.
The three tendencies defined here are certainly not a complete map of the structural tensions of the current gender order. A fuller account would address the interactions of structures, such as the contradictions surrounding childcare, women’s employment and fathering; and the problems of the hegemonic definition of sexual character, femininity and masculinity. This may, however, be enough to establish how an account of crisis tendencies can provide the rational link between structural analysis and liberation politics that is missing from sex-role theory and categoricalism. The emergence of women’s liberation and gay liberation movements did reflect crisis tendencies of a general kind, though not a general crisis. Crisis tendencies are uneven in their impact; while acting generally, they are likely to come to a head in quite specific milieux. In this case the milieu most affected was the younger intelligentsia of large Western cities. Some of the reasons and consequences will be discussed in Part IV after the constitution of sexual character has been considered. *