Walby (1990) has explored a general movement away from ‘private patriarchy’ in women’s position in society. She comments that recent British history has seen a change in both the degree and form of patriarchy, with reductions in some specific aspects, but also counter-attack, often on new issues. Thus she argues that private patriarchy has given way to public patriarchy, and distinguishes between the two as follows:

Private patriarchy is based upon household production, with a patriarch controlling women individually and directly in the relatively private sphere of the home. Public patriarchy is based on structures other than the household,…institutions conventionally regarded as part of the public domain are central in the maintenance of patriarchy.

(Walby 1990:178)

In private patriarchy it is the individual man as husband/father who subordinates the woman, and women are excluded from the public sphere. In public patriarchy, women have access to both public and private arenas, but are subordinated within both. Women’s subordination is carried out by men acting collectively, although the household may remain a site of oppression for women as well. With the movement from private to public patriarchy, women have been segregated in, rather than excluded from, paid work. They have been less confined to the household than they were. They have been subordinated in, rather than excluded from, cultural institutions, and subjected to sexual controls in the public arena rather than from a specific husband. Women’s exclusion from the state gave way to their subordination in the state. Walby considers that, in Britain, the height of the private form of patriarchy was found in the mid-nineteenth century in the middle classes, among whom women were largely excluded from the public sphere in which many new bases of power for men were developing. Since then, and partly as a result of the successes of first-wave feminism, there has been a reduction in some forms of oppression and a movement towards the public form of patriarchy, with women, including married women, entering the public sphere, for example paid work, but being subordinated there. Marriages (the ‘private’ sphere) are more easily dissolved, although women remain responsible for child care, often under conditions of poverty. After the Second World War, women’s access to waged labour and to state social security payments expanded, effectively freeing them further from marriage. Walby, writing at the end of the 1980s, considered that we had not yet seen the full development of the trend towards a more public form of patriarchy.

But the state is itself patriarchal. On the question of lone mothers, Walby comments:

While they lose their own individual patriarch, they do not lose their subordination to other patriarchal structures and practices. Indeed they become even more exposed to certain of the more diffused public sets of patriarchal practices.

(Walby 1990:197)

Thus the lone mother’s income level and standard of living are determined no longer primarily by her husband but either by the patriarchal state or by the patriarchally structured labour market. It is the state and the market rather than the private patriarch that determine her life. ‘She substitutes public for private patriarchy’ (Walby 1990:197).

The significance of the shift from private to public patriarchy for a discussion of the Child Support Act is that the Act is attempting to reverse recent historical trends in which women have moved from confinement to and dependence on the private sphere to a subordinated position within the public sphere. Women as parents have become increasingly dependent on a collectivized system for provision for economic survival, that is social security, and on the labour market; and correspondingly they have become less dependent on the financial support of individual men. The Child Support Act quite specifically aims to reverse the latter trend, while encouraging lone mothers further into the labour market as well. Three aspects of private patriarchy are relevant in this context: the rejection of private patriarchy by women; its rejection by men; and the type of private patriarchy that the Act is likely to reassert.

Concerning the rejection of private patriarchy by women, evidence that it is women who have resisted and overturned the extremes of private patriarchy may be found in the record of first-wave feminist campaigns to gain access for women to the public sphere (Walby 1990). Inter-war or welfare feminism was particularly concerned with expanding welfare state provisions that would benefit women (Walby 1990; Williams 1989). Second-wave feminism appearing in the 1960s was inter alia concerned with the importance for women of moving beyond the narrow and confining role of ‘housewife’ (for example, Friedan 1963). The increase in divorce since the 1960s, and the fact that over 70 per cent of divorce petitioners are women (Social Trends various years), along with increased numbers of women cohabiting, and producing children without either marriage or cohabitation (Joshi 1989; Kiernan and Wicks 1990; Elliott 1991; recent editions of Social Trends), may also be pointed to as evidence of women’s ‘escape’ from private patriarchy, their rejection of life in households with men. It has been more possible for women to do this as other alternatives such as work and access to social security have become increasingly available. As Walby (1990:84) comments: ‘Given my argument that women get a raw deal in marriage, we would expect the propensity of women to live in marriages to decline the more that they have other alternatives.’

The problem is that the meaning of these trends is ambiguous for women. For one thing, divorce and other forms of lone parenthood, as Walby fully acknowledges, often lead to a life of poverty on low wages or benefits (Burghes 1993). The Child Support Act reflects a concern about the dependence on benefits but not necessarily about poverty as such. It attempts to make women dependent on individual men again, but not necessarily better off. A related problem is that it is not clear how far single-person/lone-parent living and independence from men represent a positive choice for women. Is it in fact men who have deliberately moved away from private patriarchy? This is the second point to be considered.

In the discussion of the rejection of private patriarchy by men, two authors quoted by Walby are relevant to the notion that men have also resisted the strictures of private patriarchy. These are Brown (1981) and Ehrenreich (1983), who suggest a reduction in commitment to the family on the part of men. Brown examines the relationship between children and parents over the last century or more and the shift from father custody to mother custody when relationships end. It seems ‘natural’ today that mothers keep the children on marriage break-down, yet this is a recent phenomenon. She explains this mainly in terms of the declining value of children as an economic asset (labour) due to extended education and the development of capitalism. Children have become a costly burden, an obligation. As fathers no longer benefited from children in the same way as they had, they were happy to let custody go to mothers. Custody shifted from father-right to mother-obligation. At the same time, women are increasingly under the control of public patriarchy. Significantly in the light of the passing of the Child Support Act in Britain a decade later, Brown comments on the increase of the power of higher-level, ruling-class men, over all women within public patriarchy, and the decrease of the power of lower-level men over any women. However, the main point relates to the decline of private, family patriarchy and of its value for men. Men are more able to cut their losses and meet their needs elsewhere when the benefits of being a private patriarch fail. Along similar lines, Ehrenreich (1983) suggests that men have since the 1950s revolted against the situation where they are the source of economic maintenance for women and children. For men, families became a responsibility rather than an asset. The focus of Ehrenreich’s book is the ideology surrounding the breadwinner ethic and how it collapsed over the thirty years between the early 1950s and the early 1980s.

Following these arguments, the decline of marriage, the increase in less committed and less long-term sexual relationships, and the rise of lone motherhood, reflect preferences on the part of men. Some aspects of private patriarchy have perhaps proved onerous to men, and they have taken advantage of the movement of women into the public sphere to abandon their role as individual ‘patriarchs’. This tendency has perhaps been exacerbated by some demands from women for greater equality within marriage, and an increase in the responsibilities and financial burdens of parenthood. It is the case that men have increasingly disappeared from the parent-child unit, whether after separation or divorce or because they were never part of this unit in the first place; and various studies have shown that they tend to lose contact with their children after divorce (Wallerstein and Blakeslee 1989).

Both the moral lobby (Dennis and Erdos 1992) and the government have been concerned about the decreasing involvement of fathers in families. The Child Support Act represents a rather drastic and clumsy attempt to halt this movement away from fathering. On a strict biological interpretation of parenthood, as found in the Act, men acquire lasting parental (financial) responsibility not only from marriage or cohabitation but from any sexual relationship that leads to a birth (unless the child is adopted) including the very casual and tenuous. The fact that some men seem to be denying paternity in an attempt to avoid maintenance payments is but one indicator that this view of parenthood is not universally shared.

Following the Child Support Act it is now more difficult for men to evade financial responsibility for children. But it may be that the government stress on such parental responsibility and the exertions of the Child Support Agency will induce men to retreat even further from the disadvantaging status of parenthood by evasion, disappearance, denial of paternity, or by attempting to ensure that paternity does not follow from sex.

In this context, what can be said of the re-creation of ‘private patriarchy’ by the Child Support Act? The Act will not straightforwardly re-create or reassert the private patriarchy of earlier times. Lone mothers are not being forced or explicitly pressured to form households with the men who are the fathers of their children, or even with other men. The type of private patriarchy that the Child Support Act is endeavouring to reinstate is a financial dependence of lone parents (mothers) on absent biological parents (fathers). It is dependence as far as the mothers are concerned, and responsibility as far as the fathers are concerned. Mothers are not being required to ‘do anything in return’ for this support—to provide services for the men, live with them, or allow them greater access to the children, although some men may well seek some returns. And the maintenance will in principle be enforceable as a legal right. In that sense it is only a partial private patriarchy that is being sought. Also some women will resist pursuing fathers for maintenance notwithstanding the benefit penalty (Child Poverty Action Group 1993b), and so will avoid private patriarchy, at a price.

Furthermore, the reinstitution of this type of partial private patriarchy has quite clearly come from that embodiment of public patriarchy, the state. It may be seen as an expression of public patriarchy that a male-dominated government and legislature should pass an Act reducing female dependence on public funds and increasing such dependence on private sources and individual men. Men acting collectively have been moving to shift a perceived burden onto some men as individuals. The (mis)perception that the Child Support Act would only adversely affect ‘feckless’ men who paid little or nothing facilitated this political aim. Also, some of the Act’s explicit, albeit subsidiary, agenda is to encourage lone mothers into the labour force. This is an encouragement of an alternative form of public patriarchy: women should gain their livelihood from selling their labour in a male-dominated labour market, as a preferable alternative to claiming state benefits. This would therefore not constitute a reassertion of private patriarchy.

What of the longer-term effects? As a result of the Child Support Act, will women take even greater precautions against pregnancy with a non-committed partner, will they make more efforts to remain with a partner they already have when he is the father of their children, will men be more cautious about casual sex, and will they feel a firmer commitment to remaining with a partner who is the mother of their children, and with the children? If such trends become noticeable—and these aims could well be part of a hidden agenda in the Act—then private patriarchy will be strengthened in a more general sense. That is, women will in practice be more subject to the control of individual patriarchs than they have been in the recent past. On the other hand, men’s ‘flight from fatherhood’ may be intensified.


The Child Support Act appears to be part of a project of rolling back the state rather than an attempt to invoke parental responsibility or private patriarchy as such. Men are being told to pay more and lone mothers are being forced into greater financial dependence on individual men, but mothers are also being encouraged—or pressured—into the labour market. The primary concern is to get lone mothers off the state’s back. The Child Support Act, it is argued, is about ‘less state responsibility’ (Eekelaar 1991). But I maintain that the Act does have important implications for both parental responsibility and private patriarchy, as I analyse it in relation to women, men, children and families.

Is the Child Support Act anti-feminist and anti-women? The adverse effects for women are greater dependence on individual men, possibly more control by men, and possibly loss of income in cash and/or kind due to a combination of factors. A reversion to a degree of private patriarchy conflicts with feminist aims. The beneficial effects for women include raised income for some, and perhaps easing of the path into employment. Also in the category of adversely affected women are those whose present partner is an absent parent in relation to someone else. Some of these second families will experience, and are already experiencing, a dramatic drop in standard of living. In some cases, second wives or partners are being expected to contribute indirectly to the maintenance of their partner’s former family.

Is the Child Support Act anti-men? Absent fathers in work are experiencing marked loss of income and are protesting bitterly. Some clearly feel a sharp sense of injustice. However, some in the stepfather category who do not have children of their own in another household may experience an easing of their circumstances, with raised maintenance payments for their stepchildren coming into the household.

Is the Child Support Act anti-child? Absent so far from this discussion is the child as a separate entity. One aspect of the Act that has been defended is its role in making more open the actual financial costs of raising a child. Some maintenance awards under the old court-based system were absurdly low in relation to the true cost of child maintenance. The needs of children are thus more explicitly asserted. Nevertheless some children will undoubtedly suffer, chiefly those in the various types of household where income drops, and those who have reduced contact with their absent parent because he or she feels financially unable to visit them, have them to stay, and take part in other aspects of the parental role. Conversely, some absent parents may demand contact where it has not occurred before (maintenance payments can be reduced where children stay with the absent parent part of the time), and this will not necessarily be in the child’s interests. Conflicts between adults, possibly involving violence, are likely to affect the children.

Is the Child Support Act anti-family? Relationships may be put under strain by the Act and its provisions. These include relationships between former partners whose existing arrangements and agreements are disrupted, and relationships between present partners where maintenance payments to a former partner create financial stress, or where, for example, the Agency’s inquiries bring to light the existence of an extra-marital child. It cannot be determined at the time of writing whether these stresses will feed into further separation or divorce and family violence, but they may well do so. The short-term priority of the Act is not to strengthen or facilitate family relationships but to raise money. However, there is the possibility that it will produce more cautious and more committed, rather than just more inescapable, relationships in the future. Conversely, it may encourage men to fly further from commitment, because the responsibilities of non-resident fatherhood have become more onerous. Other overall effects on ‘the family’, as an institution with diverse forms, are yet to be seen.