Conservative ideology speaks of the family as the ‘foundation of society’ and traditional sociology has often seen it as the simplest of institutions, the building-block of more elaborate structures. Far from being the basis of society, the family is one of its most complex products. There is nothing simple about it. The interior of the family is a scene of multilayered relationships folded over on each other like geological strata. In no other institution are relationships so extended in time, so intensive in contact, so dense in their interweaving of economics, emotion, power and resistance.

This is often missed in theorizing because of a concentration on the normative standard case. Enough has been said already about how little we can rely on that concept; but it is worth noting that even families which match it to a reasonable degree are internally complex. The emotional undercurrents in the Prince household have been suggested in chapter 1. Lillian Rubin’s Worlds of Pain documents the ambivalences and complexities of conventional working-class families in the United States. Laing and Esterson’s Sanity, Madness and the Family, dealing with the more combustible materials of schizophrenia, shows the extraordinary tangles that can be produced in British families by the pursuit of respectable normality.

To understand gender and the family, then, it is necessary to unpack the family. The three structures outlined in chapter 5 provide a framework for the attempt.

The sexual division of labour within families and households has a specific literature and is well recognized. Both broad types of work and very fine details are subject to this division. In the English village studied by Pauline Hunt, for instance, wives dean the insides of window panes and husbands clean the outsides. The division of tasks is not absolute, and does change with time. There are now fewer wives than in the 1920s of whom it could be said: ‘Her husband was a steady man, but the same as other men – went out and left her to it [i. e. to bring up the children and run the home] to do as she liked.’

Yet not all the changes reduce sexual divisions. The autobiogra­phy of a shepherd’s son notes that as the eldest surviving child he had ‘to be mother’s help, to nurse the baby, clean the house, and do sewing like a girl’. That was in England in the 1830s. There are few households now that depend on children’s labour to such an extent and hence give boys experience in mothering. Studies of the changing sexual division of labour over more recent periods, like Michael Gilding’s research on the family in Sydney up to 1940, suggest that the main effects have been redistribution of housework among women rather than from women to men.

It is equally well recognized that the contemporary urban family/ household is constituted by a division of labour that defines certain kinds of work as domestic, unpaid and usually women’s, and other kinds as public, paid and usually men’s. The interplay of the structure of production inside and outside the family changes character in different class settings. In Mirra Komarovsky’s American working-class families this revolves around the husband’s wage. In a study of American bourgeois ‘lives in progress’ done at much the same time by Robert White, the connection revolves around the husband’s career. The latter case is an important qualification to Delphy’s picture of domestic labour as a form of appropriation by the husband. A professional’s or businessman’s wife may well maximise her own lifetime income by integration into a successful husband’s career.

Most households include children for a considerable part of their history, and this affects the division of labour in two ways. Childrearing is itself work, and bulks large in the sexual division of labour as a whole. Since in rich capitalist countries most care of young children is done unpaid and in the home by their mothers, this has particular prominence in the domestic division of labour. So it is not surprising that R. E. Pahl’s recent study in southern England finds the most clear-cut and conservative sexual division of labour in those households which currently have children under five to care for. The second point is made by the shepherd’s son already quoted: children themselves work, both in the home and at school. This work too is structured on gender lines. Given the points already made, it is not surprising that the study of Sydney adolescents by W. F. Connell and others found housework to be done by girls about twice as often as by boys.

The sexual division of labour reflects ideas about ‘a woman’s place’; but who defines that? As Colin Bell and Howard Newby observe, the way families work is partly a consequence of the husbands’ power to define their wives’ situation. The underlying interest appears to be consistent and strong. The patriarchal pattern, with young people subordinated to old and women subordinated to men, reappears in a long series of sociological researches on families in different countries, together with the ideologies of masculine authority that support it.

Research into family power-structure, by and large, has taken a conventional approach to the definition of ‘power’ as influence in decision-making. Other kinds of evidence suggest this is not enough. The work on domestic violence shows that force is important in many families. On the other hand the research on ‘schizophrenia’ by Gregory Bateson, R. D. Laing and others indicates the fierce emotional pressures that can be brought to bear on family members without any open command or display of power. These cases often concern the power of mothers over their children; but the prohibition on escape in Bateson’s double­bind theory of schizophrenia is also reminiscent of the ‘factors preventing women leaving violent relationships’ in domestic viol­ence research. In more ways than one the family can be a trap. Finally the marital sexual relationship can itself embody power. The topic is not very thoroughly studied but it seems likely, from evidence such as Lillian Rubin’s, that – in most cases it is the husbands who hold the initiative in defining sexual practice.

Given some awareness of this, it is understandable that critics of marriage like Emma Goldman should declare the husbands’ ‘protection’ of their wives a farce. It is also understandable that one way of handling a strong power imbalance is to build a praxis of compliance. Marabel Morgan’s stunning The Total Woman, a Florida dream of being totally subordinate and loving it, is at the same time a shrewd how-to-do-it manual for this kind of practice. It is notable that her right-wing religion and social outlook are strongly flavoured with eroticism. In getting the husband to stay home, it is the wife’s business to titillate:

‘For an experiment I put on pink baby-doll pyjamas and white boots after my bubble bath. … When I opened the door that night to greet Charlie, I was unprepared for his reaction. My quiet, reserved, nonexcitable husband took one look, dropped his briefcase on the doorstep, and chased me around the dining-room table.’

The power of husbands shows in the family, but it is certainly not based in the family alone. Studies of the erosion of patriarchal authority by migration, such as Gillian Bottomley’s research on Greek families in Australia, show that domestic patriarchy is dependent on support from its environment. Even without the drastic upheaval of migration, this support has not always been consistent or sufficient. The family sociologies, even in the 1950s, found some power-sharing between husbands and wives. As noted in chapter 5 some families show a pattern of eroded patriarchy, where a claim to authority is made by the husband but is not successful – where wives control the household in reality. Under the impact of the New Left and feminism in the 1970s, conscious attempts have been made in some families and households to dismantle power relations altogether. This has not been easy, but a certain amount of experience about egalitarian households has now accumulated.

Marabel Morgan’s white boots point daintily towards the connection between domestic power and the structure of cathexis. Of all aspects of the family this is perhaps the most researched, since it is the main subject-matter of psychoanalysis. The theory of the Oedipus complex is a map of the emotional interior of the family. However the yield for social theory from some eighty years of psychoanalytic investigation is much less than the volume of evidence would suggest. This is partly because what psychoanalysts publish in their journals is so strongly framed by questions about therapy. But part also is a result of the influence of the normative standard case as a presupposition in Freud’s own writings and in most psychoanalytic thinking since.

When a psychoanalyst is led to question this norm the results can be striking. A notable example is Anne Parsons’s study of a non – Oedipal ‘nuclear complex’ in Naples. Cultural and psychological evidence here shows a family pattern where the mother is central, the father has little real domestic authority and the mother-son and father-daughter relationships are emphasized more than same – sex identifications. This highlights the importance of cross-sex relationships in the formation of femininity and masculinity, and suggests a kind of discontinuity in the history of gender that bears thinking about in other contexts. The evidence on sexual abuse similarly indicates the charged character of cross-sex relationships within the family.

The shadow structure of cathexis suggested in chapter 5 is clearer for the family than for any other case, again because of the concentration of psychoanalytic research. Phyllis Chesler in About Men suggests its importance when noting the degree of hostility between fathers and sons that persists despite identifi­cations. She speculates about a connection with larger patterns of violence between men. Repressed fear and hatred is a possible though certainly incomplete way of explaining how large numbers of men are motivated to staff the institutions of violence. It is not, of course, any explanation of how those institutions work on the large scale.

At several points already the interplay between structures within the family has been evident. Wage and career affect domestic power; domestic power affects the definition of the division of labour; Marabel Morgan eroticizes powerlessness. The very ideas of ‘the housewife’ and ‘the husband’ are fusions of emotional relations, power and the division of labour. The gender regime of a particular family represents a continuing synthesis of relations governed by the three structures.

This synthesis is not trouble-free: the components of a family gender regime may contradict each other. In the traditional patriarchal household, a marked sexual division of labour actually places some limits on the patriarch’s ability to exercise power, since women monopolize certain kinds of skill and knowledge. Vanessa Mahler describes a considerable degree of psychological independence for women in Moroccan culture, where patriarchal domination is massive and the division of labour strong. A very sharp division of labour may produce a degree of segregation of daily life that makes it difficult to sustain patriarchal power as a routine. This is suggested, for instance, by Annette Hamilton about Australian Aboriginal societies.

Such contradictions mean potential for change within the family as an institution, most likely to be realized when its context changes markedly. The case of migration has been mentioned. Another powerful pressure is the arrival of capitalist market relations in a non-capitalist setting. The pressure is not all in the one direction. A study of peasant households in Mexico by Kate Young shows a splitting of family patterns as class stratification develops, with gender regimes moving in different directions.