THE BACKLASH/THE DISCOURSE OF DERISION
There are commentators, mostly but not entirely men, who attribute to feminism as a social and ideological movement, and therefore partly to feminist sociologists, an enormous negative influence. Contemporary Sociology, the ASA’s journal of book reviews and review essays, carried five essays on the state of the discipline in the May 1999 issue, with the specific focus of ‘values, science, social movements, and sociology’ (Risman and Tomaskovic-Devey, 1999: viii). The first such essay, by Jonathan Imber (1999) who teaches at Wellesley, a college founded by feminists in the nineteenth century, attacks feminist sociologists for
attention seeking, bringing sociology into disrepute with other social scientists, stifling serious debate, being left-wing, providing political therapy rather than education, and being ungrateful successors to the founders and great sociologists of the past. Imber objects to the ASA tendency to ‘fiddle endlessly with race and gender balance’ (ibid.: 258), and complains about the ASA’s commitment to ‘promoting as scientific data its political conviction about the necessity of affirmative action’ (ibid.: 258). This backlash diatribe was typical in several ways. First, it cited no women, and no feminist work except for one polemical group statement (Feminist Scholars in Sociology, 1995). Joyce Ladner, an African-American woman, appears in the text, but not in the references, so does not get a citation ‘count’ from Imber. Second, it fails to recognise and distinguish any schools of feminism: positivist liberal feminists hate what Imber hates as much as he does, yet he fails to cite and use his intellectual allies. Third, absolutely no evidence is provided to substantiate any of his claims.
In Britain, more of the hostility has been directed at feminist sociology’s pernicious effects on the family than on the ‘pollution’ of the discipline. One such author is Dench, and I have presented his ideas as an example of a backlash argument, or a discourse of derision. The issue of marriage is central to Dench’s (1994 and 1996) work on men in contemporary Britain. In a pair of polemical books, Dench argues that feminism has gone too far, and men have become detached from society and their financial responsibilities for children. In the working class men are too often turning at worst to crime and at best to welfare dependency idleness. His argument is essentially the same as that perpetrated by the conservative feminist Catherine Beecher in the mid-nineteenth century, who argued that America’s economic, political and social stability depended on women sacrificing themselves for the greater good. Beecher claimed that women should run happy, healthy, religious homes and sacrifice any other ambitions, feelings or desires so that America could be a stable democracy (Sklar, 1973). In 1951 the American functionalist Talcott Parsons produced essentially the same argument (although he did not acknowledge Beecher). Dench is therefore writing in a long, if sexist, tradition within sociology.
Dench argues that there are two different types of family culture in contemporary Britain, one he calls ‘traditional’ or ‘conventional’, the other ‘alternative’. The latter is similar to what Young and Willmott (1975) called the symmetrical family and to what the Rapaports (1976) termed a dual career family. Dench uses ‘alternative’ as a negative term. The traditional or conventional family is, for Dench, one where the man is the main breadwinner, and the woman the main homemaker, and where all members of the family should provide reciprocal support. This type of family is seen by Dench as central to a stable society. It is
essentially similar to what Bernstein (1975) terms a positional family. The ‘alternative’ family in Dench’s model is similar to Bernstein’s concept of the personal family. Here each person negotiates roles, duties and workload in ways that suit them as individuals and are best for their family. They are not bound by stereotypes of sex roles, age, or position in the family. The best cook cooks, the best driver drives, the person most attached to his or her job works the longest hours and does least at home and so on. Two-thirds of Dench’s interviewees (221 people in London) believed in the superiority of the positional family, one-third believed the personal was morally better. A few people lived in a ‘traditional’ family but believed in a ‘personal’ one. Dench describes them as confused.
Dench states that older people, those who were or had been married, and parents, were more enthusiastic about the positional family, while the young, the child-free and women in full-time work were keener on the ‘personal’. Dench draws from this a doom-laden and conservative message: he claims that the chattering classes are destroying the traditional family even though most ordinary people can see it is essential for social stability. He also argues that the ‘personal’ family allows men to escape from their moral and financial duties, to the long-term detriment both of the man, and society as a whole. This view of men, as selfish, wicked skivers who will abandon their children unless shackled to them, and of women, who must behave like the wives in 1950s’ sitcoms if Britain is to avoid a crime wave, is deeply depressing. It is grounded in a naive ‘biology’, which assumes that men are unable to behave in co-operative or egalitarian ways. Dench’s conviction that only a traditional, positional family is desirable for both sexes, children and society is over-simplistic. His attack on feminism, and feminist sociologists, for advocating the personal family, undermining the positional family, and flying in the face of biology is typical of the backlash against feminist sociology.
There are two issues here. First, there is no evidence at all that any of the social changes or attitudinal changes are the result of feminist sociology. The causes are much more likely to derive from the labour market and the globalised economy. However, if the changes were due, in any way, to the ideas and the dissemination of research done by feminist sociologists, these ideas and findings have been influential because they revealed the harsh realities of patriarchal positional family life. If the price of keeping working-class men shackled to their families (for these male sociologists rarely suggest that male intellectuals should or could be kept tied to their families) is the unequal division of labour, the male control of money and time, and, in the worst cases, the pretence that there is no violence or sexual abuse, rather than attempting to evolve a more egalitarian, personal family
style, then feminist sociology could claim the undermining of the positional family as its proudest achievement. It seems extremely unlikely that feminist sociology has actually had any impact at all on the everyday private lives of the working classes. There are issues of class, of labour market experience, and of sex differences which need to be explored. Additionally, we need to separate the emotional aspects of family life from the practical and material, and face up to the dark side of the family too. A man who routinely rapes his wife and beats his children with a belt may be very happy with his family life: the victims of his aggression may not be as content.
Dench is not alone. Norman Dennis, once a Marxist sociologist, who was one of the authors of the most famous study of coal miners (Dennis et al., 1956) has been equally horrified by what he claims are the destructive effects of feminism. (Dennis, 1997; Dennis and Erdos, 1993, 2000). He has written attacks on the negative impact of feminist ideas in general and feminist sociology in particular parallel to Dench’s. It is interesting that the author of a study criticised by Frankenberg (1976) for exploring the capitalist exploitation of men’s labour in the mines while ignoring the domestic exploitation of women is so horrified by contemporary Britain, by modern women, and that he sees feminism as complicit in what appals him.
There is a far more powerful explanatory frame for explaining changes in the British family; the theories of Basil Bernstein. Bernstein (1975) argued that the upper class and most of the working class lived in ‘positional’ families (where roles are fixed by age and sex) because this reflected and prepared children for the labour markets they experienced. In the middle classes, Bernstein argued, a split had occurred between the old middle class, who worked with property, money and material goods, and the new middle class who handled symbolic property (psychiatrists, advertising and PR, the arts, etc.). The old middle class kept to the positional, traditional family: the new middle class had evolved the personal family (see Delamont, 1989b, 1995 for more details on this). Men with different labour market experiences in different sectors of the middle class, will value different types of family. Bernstein’s argument, that some sectors of the middle class, whose business is the manipulation of symbolic property, live in different types of family from the ‘old’ middle class is more plausible than Dench’s condemnation of the personal family as a feminist mistake, or a mirage espoused by the young, the naive and ‘career’ women. To summarise, it makes sense to see different family types grounded in the class and labour market experiences of the adults, who will try to rear children to ‘fit’ the outside world as they have experienced it. As the world of work diversifies, so too does the family. Dench and Dennis believe that only one type of family
‘works’ for British society: more sensitive commentators know that different types of family can ‘work’ and the Dench or Dennis ‘traditional’ family can be a hell of violence, inequality and misery.
There have been achievements for feminist sociology. However, its influence and importance are nowhere near as great as its detractors claim, and are certainly contained inside the discipline, often at the subject’s margins rather than its citadels of power.