Tony Cliff

Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation

14. The family: haven in a heartless world?



Under capitalism women’s oppression is unique in being rooted in the family where child-rearing, food preparation, and reproduction take place in a private world, separated from social production. As the family is part of the superstructure of society, shaping the ideas and emotions of men and women, children and adults, we should look at the impact of the contemporary family on the emotional side of people’s lives.

In the previous chapter we saw how in the second half of the nineteenth century working men and women protected the family as a solace and refuge from the horrors with which industrial society threatened women, children and men, symbolised by the Poor House. The rehabilitation of the working-class family was buttressed by bourgeois ideas percolating down into the working class. The cliche, “The Englishman’s Home is his Castle” was born. “Home Sweet Home”, first heard in the 1870s, became “almost a second national anthem”. Few walls in lower working-class houses lacked “mottoes” – coloured strips of paper, about nine inches wide and eighteen inches in length, attesting to domestic joys: “East, West, Home’s Best”; “Bless Our Home”; “God is Master of this House”; “Home is the Nest where All is Best”. [1] “Home”, wrote John Ruskin, “... is the place of peace; the shelter, not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division ... so far as the anxieties of outer life penetrate into it ... it ceases to be a home.”

Marx, in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844), noted the schism in the male worker’s feelings between home and work outside it:

The worker ... only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home ... Man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal functions – eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing up, etc. [2]

For the housewife, even the latter possibility does not exist, for “home” is itself the focus of her alienated situation. She is expected to provide nurture for others, with no place or scope for herself.

Concentrating on the working-class family, the present chapter will try to show that the family is both protective and oppressive, both a haven from an alienating world, and a prison. We shall show first how the family is oppressive; secondly, that it is oppressive for both men and women; thirdly, that it is more oppressive for working-class people than for other classes; fourthly, that nevertheless it is accepted because it still does provide some sort of haven in a capitalist world; and finally, that the institution of the family imposes the harshest oppression on people such as gays and lesbians who do not fit it.

The prevailing view of the family as an unchanging, eternal institution leads most writers to abstract it from the class structure of society. Of course there are major similarities of form between working- class and middle-class families – the nuclear household composed of father, mother and children facing issues of work, child-rearing, personal relations, leisure. But beneath the form lie sharp differences of content which are rooted-in the class position of each family. The outside world impinges on the working-class family in a radically different way from the middle-class family.

Most studies of the family today are of middle-class, white families. The only two notable exceptions are Blue-Collar Marriage by Mirra Komarovsky, whose detailed examination of the American white working-class family was completed in 1959, and Lillian Rubin’s brilliant book, World of Pain: Life in the Working Class Family. [3] Nothing like these works has been undertaken in Britain. Their insights, however, are of general importance in understanding workers’ families in advanced capitalist societies, including Britain, and such studies as do exist in Britain confirm the main perceptions of the American writers, despite differences of place and time. I have borrowed from them extensively.

In both books the working-class women interviewed talk of themselves as wives and mothers – as housewives and not wage workers. The fact that women’s own conception of themselves is in contradiction to the actual situation, in which they are both earners and housewives, results from two main factors: first, ideas lag behind reality; secondly, so long as the private family remains, men think of themselves not as fathers but as earners, and women by and large think of themselves as mothers, even if they do earn. Even at work the great majority of working-class women, unlike women with interesting jobs and career prospects, think and worry about their homes. And of course there are periods in the lives of the majority of working- class wives – when they have infants to look after – when they are totally dependent on their husbands financially, and therefore look upon themselves as “merely housewives”. Even of the women who do have a paid job, two-fifths in Britain at present work part-time, hence in their concept of themselves housewifery plays a predominant role. And again, the education system also conditions girls to see their future function as housewives – wives and mothers – and not as workers.



Shattered dreams

Working-class girls accept the traditional feminine role. Sue Sharpe, in Just Like a Girl: How Girls Learn to be Women, a study of schoolgirls in Eating, West London, most of them from working-class families, writes:

In a College of Further Education in London, a teacher noted that the girls who were taking hairdressing, commercial and typing courses ... “dress according to Girl, Petticoat, and ‘Brook Street Bureau’ ads. They are totally immersed in self-image; nails, eyelashes, platforms and accoutrements.” The girls taking O-levels however ... which might eventually lead them to Teachers’ Training College or University ... Often their whole attitude is different ... And this is reflected in their dress which is correspondingly more relaxed; jeans, T-shirts and not so much make-up. [4]

Middle-class girls, Sue Sharpe says, “have ... developed individual ambitions in which marriage and children figure as desirable but also intrusive events and ones to which they would reluctantly commit the whole of their lives”. [5] Working-class girls, on the other hand, look to “Marriage as Liberation”, and in a chapter with this title, Mirra Komarovsky writes: “The greater control which the family exercises over the adolescent daughter in comparison with the son no doubt largely explains the greater frequency with which women listed escape from home as one of the benefits of marriage.” [6] Marriage entices the young women also because it is an escape from boring, dreary jobs. Sue Sharpe writes:

They see many of their relatives and friends doing jobs from which they seem to gain minimal enjoyment. It therefore makes sense to make their priorities love, marriage, husbands, children, jobs and careers, more or less in that order ... Work is then not seen as attractive but as an unfortunate necessity of life and therefore the apparent opportunity to avoid it seems one of the advantages of being a woman.

In addition to this there are other inducements. For instance children are more worth spending time and energy on than many boring and alienating jobs, since they actually respond and grow. The apparent choice of whether to work or not after marriage and after children, and the ability to organise life in the home without supervision gives an illusion of freedom and greater choice of action. [7]

Alas, the dreams are shattered quickly after the wedding. Thus Lillian Rubin writes:

The economic realities that so quickly confronted the young working-class couples of this study ricocheted through the marriage, dominating every aspect of experience, coloring every facet of their early adjustment. The women, finding their dreams disappointed, felt somehow that their men had betrayed the promise implicit in their union. They were both angry and frightened.

She quotes one young working-class mother:

“The first thing that hit us was all those financial problems. We were dirt poor. Here I’d gotten married with all those dreams and then I got stuck right away trying to manage on $1.50 an hour – and a lot of days he didn’t work very many hours. It felt like there was nothing to life but scrimping and saving; only there wasn’t any saving, just scrimping.”

Another woman, 26 years old, mother of two, married seven years, expressed her fear and anger with her husband when he was laid off: “I could hardly ever forgive him for getting fired from his job. We never stopped arguing about that. I felt so frightened. I almost couldn’t stand it. I was scared we’d just get into deeper trouble.”

The men, disappointed in themselves and equally frightened as they looked toward an uncertain future, responded defensively and uncomprehendingly to their wives’ angry concerns. A 30-year-old postal clerk, father of three, married nine years, told the interviewer:

I couldn’t figure out what the hell she wanted from me. I was trying, and I didn’t like how things were coming out any better than she did.

Did you tell her that?

Tell her? Who could tell her anything? She was too busy running off at the mouth – you know, nagging – to listen to anything. I just got mad and I’d take off – go out with the guys and have a few beers or something. When I’d get back, things would be even worse. Sometimes I’d feel like hitting her just to shut her up. I never could figure out why the hell she did that. Did she think I didn’t care about not making enough money to take care of my family?

Instead of marriage as an escape to freedom, home has become a prison. No longer is the young couple free to run around with the old crowd, to prowl the favoured haunts, to go to a movie or party whenever the mood struck. Both wives and husbands were shaken as it quickly became clear that the freedom they had sought in marriage was a mirage, that they had exchanged one set of constraints for another perhaps more powerful. A 28-year-old clerk in a cleaning store, mother of three, married eleven years, sums up those feelings: “One day I woke up and there I was, married and with a baby. And I thought, ‘I can’t stand it! I can’t stand to have my life over when I’m so young’.” Her 31-year-old husband recalls:

I had just turned twenty and, all of a sudden, I had a wife and kid. You couldn’t just go out anymore when you felt like it ... I’d get so mad at her, at my whole life, that I’d cut out on work a lot, and that would make things worse because then we had more money problems. Even when I worked steady, my paycheck wasn’t big enough, then when I missed days, we were really in trouble.

But you know, a guy’s got to have some freedom. He’s got to feel like he doesn’t have to go to that same lousy place every day of his life, like a slave.

The man’s self-esteem was on the line every time he brought home a pay packet that was inadequate to meet the bills, or, worse still, failed to bring one home at all. For the woman, whose self-esteem and status, if she was kept at home bringing up young children, was intimately tied to her husband’s accomplishments, the issue became one of “husband-esteem”. A woman of 35, mother of four, married eighteen years, said: “A man who can’t take care of his family hasn’t got the right to come in and order people around. A man’s got to deserve it to have people listen to him when he talks. As long as he wasn’t supporting us very good, he didn’t deserve it.” Lillian Rubin comments:

Whether overtly or covertly, these feelings were communicated to the man and, quite naturally, heightened the marital conflict. The men began to act out their anger and frustration – sometimes by drinking and staying out late, sometimes by violence, and almost always by assuming a very authoritarian stance within the family. How else could they assert their manliness? How else could they establish their position as head of the household? The women resisted. [8]

Capitalist society forces men to translate social position into terms of personal worth. Spending money and acquiring property (a house, furniture and so on) are weapons for defending workers’ dignity. A feeling of powerlessness at work leads to a sense of individual guilt and corrodes the male worker’s self-respect in a world based on social inequality. Financial worries affect the most intimate part of the marriage; they invade the marriage bed. Mirra Komarovsky writes:

... some poor providers felt “beat” and ... the husband himself or his wife traced the decline in the husband’s potency to his sense of economic failure. In other cases it is the wife whose sexual response is affected by her disappointment in her husband as a provider. Some wives are quite explicit in making this connection. [9]



Inequality in the family

There is little, even formal, egalitarianism in the working-class family, as exists in professional middle-class families. Lillian Rubin writes:

... the professional middle-class man is more secure, has more status and prestige than the working-class man – factors which enable him to assume a less overtly authoritarian role within the family. There are, after all, other places, other situations where his authority and power are tested and accorded legitimacy. At the same time, the demands of his work role for a satellite wife require that he risk the consequences of the more egalitarian family ideology. In contrast, for the working-class man, there are few such rewards in the world outside the home; the family usually is the only place where he can exercise his power, demand obedience to his authority. Since his work role makes no demands for wifely participation, he is under fewer and less immediate external pressures to accept the egalitarian ideology.

The worker’s wife usually shows sympathy for her husband, she understands his psychological needs and tries to accommodate to them. Lillian Rubin writes:

on the surface, working-class women generally seem to accept and grant legitimacy to their husbands’ authority, largely because they understand his need for it. If not at home, where is a man who works on an assembly line, in a warehouse, or a refinery to experience himself as a person whose words have weight, who is worth’ listening to? But just below the surface, there lies a well of ambivalence; for the cost of her compliance is high. In muting her own needs to be responsive to his, she is left dissatisfied – a dissatisfaction that makes her so uncomfortable, she often has difficulty articulating it even to herself.

Sadly, probably no one is more aware than they are that the person who must insist upon respect for his status already has lost it.

This understanding and sympathy of the wife for the husband’s predicament is seldom reciprocated by the husband understanding the wife’s predicament!

Often the pressure on the worker in the outside world is so great that he sees his own family as a trap which has forced him to hunt and be hunted out there.

In fact, any five-year-old child knows when “daddy has had a bad day” at work ... When every working day is a “bad day”, the family may even feel like the enemy at times. But for them, he may well think, he could leave the hated job, do something where he could feel human again instead of like a robot. [10]

Professional middle-class families lead far more active social lives than working-class families. Mirra Komarovsky writes:

In Glenton [11] joint social life with friends is far from being the important leisure-time pursuit that it is in higher socio-economic classes. This applies to exchanges of home visits as well as to joint visits to public recreational places. About one-fifth of the couples never visit with another couple apart from relatives. An additional 16 per cent do so only very infrequently, a few times a year. And these social occasions may include so impersonal an event as a Sunday school picnic or a company Christmas party.

Even those who maintain social relations with other couples have a very small circle of friends. For one-half of them this circle consists of only one or two couples. Only 17 per cent see as many as four or more different couples in the course of a year (included in this count are couples seen at least a few times a year). [12]

Why the meagre social life? First, there is a lack of money. Secondly there is a lack of common interests between men and women. Also some husbands feel awkward on social occasions. Hence it is a common occurrence for husband and wife to clash when they have to decide how to spend their leisure hours. The men, after monotonous, boring work at the factory, want to stay at home and relax. Women who have been forced to stay at home have different needs.

They’re more often bored and restless, feeling locked in by the walls of their houses, ready to get out – any place, just so long as it’s out of the house ... he, out at work, is ... happy to get back into the peace and quiet of the house, while she’s desperate to leave it. For him, the house is a haven; for her, a prison. [13]

Lillian Rubin writes:

The professional middle class families ... have more active leisure lives on every count. They do more, go more, read more, have more friends, see more people.

This is partly due to financial differences, which mean that for middle-class families a baby-sitter, a movie, a dinner out, a family vacation, a weekend without children, do not feel like major investments. [14]

For working people work and home are worlds apart. Hence there is little husband and wife can talk about. Mirra Komarovsky writes: “Generally, having neither competence nor interest in the mate’s topic of conversation, each complains that the other ‘goes on and on about boring things’ in unnecessary detail ...” [15] About his own job a 36-year-old steeplejack said: “There is nothing to elaborate about my job. I just mix paint all day and put it on. It’s monotonous.” Mirra Komarovsky comments: “Talk about the job carries the connotation, for the husband, of ‘griping’, which is thought to be unmanly.” [16]

Life contains little beyond the immediate daily tasks. It leaves little space for common cultural activities that might broaden the narrow overlap of interests and crushing spiritual poverty.

Thus are both women and men stuck in a painful bind, each blaming the other for failures to meet cultural fantasies – fantasies that have little relation to their needs, their experiences, or the socio-economic realities of the world they live in ... [the] burdens ... are especially difficult to bear in a highly competitive economic system that doesn’t grant every man and woman the right to work at a self-supporting and self-respecting wage as a matter of course. [17]

In addition there is little social contact between the wife and her husband’s mates: “The great majority of the wives, some 80 per cent, have no social contact with their husbands’ work-mates. The friendships husbands may form on the job do not include their wives.” Things are radically different among middle-class spouses. Lillian Rubin writes:

For the professional ... there is not the separation between working and living that so often characterises the working-class experience. Work and life – which also means play – are part and parcel of each other. Their friends are often colleagues or other professionals in similar or related fields. Evenings spent with them mean that the ideas that engage them at work also involve them at play. Social life is almost always a coupled affair, a shared experience of husband and wife. [18]




Housework makes women’s lives extremely narrow and oppressive. Not because the working-class woman abhors housework, like the woman of the professional middle class. As Mirra Komarovsky writes:

Unlike some college-educated housewives who detest housework, our respondents never say that they are too good for it, that housework is unchallenging manual labor ... They accept housewifery. There is hardly a trace in the interviews of the low prestige that educated housewives sometimes attach to their role, as reflected in the familiar phrase, “I am just a housewife.” [19]

Because working-class men as well as women accept the traditional segregation of masculine and feminine tasks, the “wives do not normally expect assistance from their husbands”.

When the wives were asked to rank qualities which characterise a good husband, “willing to help wife with housework” was low on the list, the 18th among the 21 qualities presented for rating. Only 4 per cent of women considered “helps with the housework” as “very important’. Even “helps with care of babies” was evaluated as “very important” by only 12 per cent of the women.

As against this,

The high school men help their wives with shopping and with infant care more than do the less-educated ... Forty per cent of the less-educated “never or hardly ever help with the babies”, against only 10 per cent of the high school graduates.

One reason why middle-class professional husbands are more helpful to their wives, Mirra Komarovsky argues, is:

The marriages of the high school graduates tend to be happier, and the warmer the relationship, the more likely the husband is to help with the infants. A happily married man tends to be less calculating about the balance of services.

The fact that the working-class woman accepts, in principle, her sex-typed function of housekeeping, does not mean that she is satisfied with carrying this burden. Actually working-class housewives are generally frustrated and depressed. Mirra Komarovsky writes:

The homemaker herself attributes her major problem to the lack of sufficient money for necessities of life, for pleasanter living arrangements, for babysitters and fun. But the sharp segregation of the roles of the sex, despite her acceptance of it, adds to her sense of restriction and isolation ... Unrelieved responsibility for young children and a feeling of being tied down creates discontent. [20]



Parents and children

Poverty and insecurity quite often push the parents, especially the fathers, to complete withdrawal. Thus one 31-year-old steelworker told Lillian Rubin:

My father was a very quiet man. he almost never talked, even when you asked him a question. He’d sit there like he didn’t hear you. Sometimes, an hour later (it was like he’d come out of a spell), he’d look at you and say, “Did you want something?” Most of the time, he just didn’t know you were there.

A 25-year-old woman, the elder in a family of two, recalls:

My father never seemed to talk or be a part of the family. The only thing I can remember that he enjoyed was working in his garden. He’d come home, eat, and go out in the yard almost every night of the year, even when it was raining. Otherwise, he’d just sit quiet for hours, like he wasn’t there or something.

Lillian Rubin’s comment on these statements is:

It’s true that fathers in the professional middle-class homes may also be recalled as silent, as not “part of the family”. But none of the adults who grew up in those homes recall the kind of brooding, withdrawn quality that so often describes the experience in a working-class home. The child of a professional father may recall that he was “always working even when he was at home”; that he was “preoccupied a lot”; or that he “always seemed to have something on his mind”. But that same person also is much more likely than his working-class counterpart to remember some ways in which fathers participated in family life, even if only to recall the dinner hour as a time for family conversation. Preoccupation, then, would seem to be the most remembered quality about fathers in professional families; withdrawal, the most vivid memory in working- class families.

Many working-class fathers feel inadequate; they know they haven’t “made it”. In a society where money is a source of self-esteem and power, workers lack both. They are not accorded respect. They feel unsure of themselves, of their work. Their children perceive it clearly.

They know when their teachers are contemptuous of their family background, of the values they have been taught at home. They know that there are no factory workers, no truck drivers, no construction workers who are the heroes of the television shows they watch. They know that their parents are not among those who “count” ... And perhaps most devastating of all, they know that their parents know these things as well. Why else would they urge their children on to do “better”, to be “more” than they are? Why else would they carry within them so much generalised and free-floating anger – anger that lashes out irrationally at home, anger that is displaced from the world outside where its expression is potentially dangerous? [21]

Failing, inadequate working-class parents tend to impose authoritarian rule over their children. Komarovsky writes:

... working-class parents emphasised what was termed the traditional’ values of obedience, neatness and respect for adults. The middle-class parents ... on the other hand, wanted their children to be happy, to confide in them and to be eager to learn ... Working-class parents do not speak of emotional security or capacity to relate to others. Such concepts are not in their frame of reference. [22]

Economic and cultural deprivation, together with the heavy hand of the father, crush the development and realisation of personality in the children.

For the child – especially the boy – born into a professional middle-class home, the sky’s the limit; his dreams are relatively unfettered by constraints. In his earliest conscious moments, he becomes aware of his future and of plans being made for it – plans that are not just wishful fantasies, but plans that are backed by the resources to make them come true. All around him as he grows, he sees men who do important work at prestigious jobs. At home, at school, in the neighborhood, he is encouraged to test the limits of his ability, to reach for the stars.

For most working-class boys, the experience is just the reverse. Born into a family where daily survival is problematic, he sees only the frantic scramble to meet today’s needs, to pay tomorrow’s rent. Beyond that it’s hard for parents to see. In such circumstances, of what can children dream?

What about the girls?

Among the women, a few recall girlhood dreams of being a model or an actress, but most remember wanting only to marry and live happily ever after ... It’s not that the girls from middle-class homes dreamed such different dreams. But along with the marriage fantasy, there was for them some sense of striving for their own development ... for those middle-class women, marriage came much later since it was deferred until after college. Moreover, once these girls left home for college, they had at least some of the freedom and autonomy young people so deeply desire while, at the same time, they were engaged in an activity that brings status and respect from both family and peers.

For working-class people childhood is not a rosy memory. Lillian Rubin writes:

few adults from working-class families look back over those early years with the “Oh-to-be-a-child-again” fantasy so often heard among middle-class adults. Small wonder, too, that the working-class young grow up so fast while an extended adolescence – often until the mid-twenties and later – is the developing norm in much of the professional middle class. Such a moratorium on assuming adult responsibilities is a luxury that only the affluent sector of society can afford.

Were there no tales of happy childhoods? The answer: very few. There are always a few good memories, some families less troubled, more loving than others; but happy childhoods: no ... I recalled my own impoverished background. Yes, there were happy moments – an ice cream cone, a small toy, an infrequent and unexpected family outing, a rare approving remark from a harassed, frightened, and overburdened mother, a few cents occasionally to spend as I would and the exquisite agony of making a choice. But those were isolated moments, not descriptive of the warp and woof of my life. The dominant memories of childhood for me, as for the people I met, are of pain and deprivation – both material and emotional, for one follows the other almost as certainly as night follows day. [23]



Violence in the family

That the ideal picture of the family as a source of love, understanding and unlimited support is far from the reality, becomes clear when one looks behind the veneer of the family to the physical assaults quite common in it.

In the nature of things there are no reliable statistics on violence in the family. But it is now accepted that violence inside the family is far more common than was previously thought. Suzan Steinmetz and Murray Straus in their book Violence in the Family write: “... it would be hard to find a group or institution in American society in which violence is more of an everyday occurrence than it is within the family.” [24] In extreme cases the physical violence becomes murder. An official report in 1977 came “to the conclusion that over 300 children are killed every year in England and Wales alone, and 3,000 seriously injured. Four hundred receive injuries which result in chronic brain damage, while a further 40,000 children suffer mild or moderate damage.” [25]

The more exploited and deprived people are, the greater the violence. Richard Gelles writes in his book, The Violent Home:

while violence occurs in families at all socio-economic levels, it is most common in families occupying positions at the bottom of the social structure ... the bulk of conjugal violence and violence towards children occurs in families with low income, low educational achievement, and where the husband has low occupational status. [26]

Similarly Mirra Komarovsky finds a clear association between low education and high family violence. While 33 per cent of wives who had less than 12 years’ education mentioned a physically violent quarrel with spouses, among those with 12 years or more the figure was only 4 per cent. [27] Another researcher found that nearly half of the fathers of battered children were unemployed during the year preceding the decisive act, while 12 per cent were unemployed at the time the battering took place. [28]

A study of severely ill-treated young children in North and East Wiltshire in the seven years 1965-71 showed that 48 per cent of the fathers (or men who were in the role of father) were unemployed, 71 per cent of them were unskilled labourers, and 98 per cent did not own their own home. [29] Another research project conducted in the Strathclyde Region into non-accidental injury to children in 1980 shows that only 10 per cent of their mothers were in full or part employment, and two-thirds of the fathers were unemployed.

While women are largely the victims of men’s violence in the family, the woman is often the main perpetrator of violence on the children. As Richard Gelles writes: “The most physically aggressive parent is the mother ... it is the mother who usually explodes into violence when she runs out of patience.” [30] Two American researchers reported that out of the 57 cases of child-battering they dealt with, the mother was the abuser 50 times. [31]

One form of child abuse in which power and sexual oppression are enmeshed is incest. Incest is rare, but not all that rare. One comprehensive three-year study estimated the number of cases annually in New York at 3,000. Other researchers thought this conservative. “The most frequently-named abuser was the father, male relative or mother’s boyfriend, all of whom had easy access to the home. The victims’ ages ranged from one or two months old to seventeen or eighteen years.” Incest, like physical violence, “is more likely to occur where poverty brings loss of privacy together with other handicaps.” [32]

It is precisely because the family is a “heart in a heartless world”, because people in an alienated environment demand of the family more than it can deliver, because in it husband and wife become more and more dependent upon each other for the satisfaction of emotional needs, that it becomes the cauldron of pressures, frustrations and hate. As Richard Gelles writes:

... prolonged interaction, intimacy, and emotional closeness of family life expose the vulnerability of both partners and strip away the facades that might have been created to shield personal weaknesses of both husband and wife. As a result, couples become experts at attacking each other’s weaknesses and are able to hurt each other effectively with attacks and counter-attacks ... [Both spouses] become experts as to their partner’s vulnerability. Each soon learns what upsets the other. In the course of family squabbles, arguments or confrontations, one or both of the spouses will go for the jugular’ by attacking weak spots. [33]

The stereotype of husband as provider, and dependent, nurturing wife, survives despite the fact that in Britain in 1979 the “typical worker” – a married man with a non-working wife and children – represented a mere 8 per cent of the male labour force and 5 per cent of the total labour force. [34]



The family as incubus of mental illness

Mental illness is no less injurious than physical illness. An important piece of research by George Brown and Tirril Harris into depression among women shows the interrelation between the class to which women belong and the frequency of psychological disorders.

The women interviewed live in Camberwell, South London. It was found that severe events in life such as a dangerous illness of someone close, the loss of a job, an unwanted pregnancy, failure to obtain a house, or an eviction, caused working-class women greater psychiatric distress than they did middle-class women. This was particularly marked among women with children: 39 per cent of working-class mothers developed a psychiatric disorder after a severe event as against 6 per cent of middle-class mothers.

Working-class women whose youngest child is less than six years old have a particularly high rate of disturbance – some 42 per cent (as against 5 per cent among middle-class women whose youngest child is less than six). Also,

we found that if a woman does not have an intimate tie, someone she can trust and confide in, particularly a husband or boy-friend, she is much more likely to break down in the presence of a severe event or major difficulty.

Brown and Harris, like Rubin and Komarovsky, found that class sharply affected this sort of intimate support. In working-class families, husbands are psychologically less supportive of their wives than in professional middle-class families. Only 37 per cent of working-class women with a child under six at home had a high level of intimacy with their husbands or boyfriends – half the proportion of the corresponding middle-class group.

The middle-class woman has greater material and psychological reserves to meet severe events in life than the working-class woman. She can move into new areas of activity or make new contacts on which she can build. Brown and Harris write:

The middle-class woman can more often travel, visit friends at some distance, or buy a new dress; she has perhaps greater confidence and skills in seeking out pleasurable experience; and also a stronger belief that she will eventually achieve certain goals of importance. Adjustment in adversity may prove to be largely a matter of how to sustain hope for better things.

The most important factor detrimentally affecting the working- class woman’s psychiatric state is her feeling of being “cooped in” – the restriction imposed by not going to work. The importance of a job for women’s mental health becomes clear from the following figures: of non-employed women with a child at home, but without intimate ties with their husbands, 79 per cent were disturbed when a serious life event occurred to them; the corresponding figure for women who were in similar circumstances but who held a job was only 14 per cent.

In the conclusion to their book Brown and Harris write:

In summary: some of the social class difference in risk of depression is due to the fact that working-class women experience more severe life-events and major difficulties, especially when they have children; problems concerning housing, finance, husband, and child (excluding those involving health) are particularly important. Incidents of this kind are the only kind of severe event to occur more commonly among working-class women and are the most obvious candidates for the inner city’ stresses which are the focus of much current social commentary.

One of the most important contributions made by the research of Brown and Harris is the light it throws on the intersection of class and family as it affects women’s mental health. Belonging to the working class does not make a woman liable to a high rate of psychiatric disorder – if she is single. On the other hand a married woman would not be liable to a high rate of psychiatric disorder – if she belonged to the middle class. The dangerous combination is being working class and married.

... single women have a particularly low rate of psychiatric disorder (one in twenty is a case) and those widowed, divorced, and separated a particularly high rate (one in three is a case), but in neither group is there an association with class. Class differences are restricted to married women. [35]

In conclusion, the high level of mental illness among married working-class women looking after young children and not holding a job is a reflection of both capitalist exploitation and of sexual oppression intertwined with it.

How do women compare with men as regards the incidence of mental illness? Many researchers have dealt with this question. An important summary of the research is an article called The Relationship between Sex Roles, Marital Status, and Mental Illness by W.R. Gove. Gove says that research in all countries has

shown that married women have noticeably higher rates of mental illness than married men. In contrast, it is shown that when single women are compared with single men, divorced women with divorced men, and widowed women with widowed men, these women do not have rates of mental illness that are higher than their male counterparts. In fact, if there is a difference within these marital categories, it is that women have lower rates of mental illness.

Gove estimates from the statistics that women are damaged twice as much by marriage as men. He argues that the reason for this is that “men have two major roles, jobholder and household head, while the women tend to have only one, housewife.” (The large-scale employment of women contradicts this, but – and this is the important point – women, and men, do still conceive their roles in this way.) In support of Gove’s contention that the differences between the job roles of men and women largely explain the differences between the rates of mental illness, he looks into what happens when men reach pensionable age and retire, and finds that “there is at least tentative evidence that the rates of mental illness of married men and women are more similar after the age of retirement.” [36]



The family is not an impregnable sanctuary

The family does not serve as a safe haven insulated from the world of work. Work intrudes into every aspect of the worker’s life. Lasch writes:

The same historical developments that have made it necessary to set up private life – the family in particular – as a refuge from the cruel world of politics and work, an emotional sanctuary, have invaded this sanctuary and subjected it to outside control. A retreat into “privatism” no longer serves to shore up values elsewhere threatened with extinction. [37]

A Ford worker describes his situation:

I never thought I’d survive. I used to come home from work and fall straight asleep. My legs and arms used to be burning. And I know hard work. I’d been on the buildings but this place was a bastard then. I didn’t have any relations with my wife for months. Now that’s not right is it? No work should be that hard. [38]

A study of the effect of the “Continental” shift system shows that the men cannot sleep properly, their appetite is affected, they feel permanently tired, get constipation, ulcers, rheumatoid arthritis, headaches and rectal complaints. In addition:

The most frequently mentioned difficulties in husband-wife relationships concern the absence of the worker from the home in the evening, sexual relations, and difficulties encountered by the wife in carrying out her household duties ... Another area of family life that seems to be adversely affected by certain kinds of shift work is the father-child relationship ... [39]

Capitalism has also transformed sex itself into a major commodity, serving a huge market in fashion goods which claim to increase the sexual attraction of women and potency of men, and in pornography. Sexuality becomes a set of physical sensations alienated from the person. As George Frankl, in The Failure of the Sexual Revolution, puts it: “... the mass manufacturers of dreams ... concentrate entirely on sexual performances and sexual situations, and do not allow the personality of their subjects to obtrude.” [40] Long ago, in 1921, Alexandra Kollontai denounced this concept of sex:

The bourgeois attitude to sexual relations as simply a matter of sex must be criticised and replaced by an understanding of the whole gamut of joyful love-experience that enriches life and makes for greater happiness. The greater the intellectual and emotional development of the individual the less place will there be in his or her relationship for the bare physiological side of love, and the brighter will be the love experience. [41]

A mechanical approach to sex increases anxieties among both women and men. The woman asks herself, “Am I as attractive, as successful in bed as the women portrayed in magazines, on films and TV?” The man asks himself, “Am I a potent stud?”

Sexual permissiveness has not challenged the idea that a woman’s place is in the home; it has simply added “and in the bed”.

Capitalism distorts all human beings in society, depriving men, women and children of the capacity to develop their potentialities in every area of life. The family, that part of this society to which people look for love and comfort, reproduces the external relationships, and this turns it into a cauldron of personal conflicts – of anger, jealousy, fear and guilt. Both men and women fail to live up to the impossible ideal stereotype which society gives them of one another.

Why, if the family is less and less effective in securing the emotional, personal needs of people, do people still cling to it? Why, of all institutions, does this one show the greatest ability to survive?

While it is true that the harsher the world, the less effective is the family in protecting the emotional and material needs of its members, at the same time the greater is the need for just such a sanctuary. The satisfaction of almost all personal needs is to be found nowhere else. To be outside the nuclear family, an orphan, widow or widower with no close relatives, or a middle-aged or old single man or woman, is lonelier and worse. Mutual aid is a basic necessity for men and women. Out of loneliness the nuclear family gains strength. The institution of the family oppresses the woman. She, on her part, participates in creating the chains that bind her, decking them with flowers of love.

The family is an opaque wall preventing people from seeing and questioning the harsh, competitive society outside. It makes a person’s inhumanity to another more bearable. The horrors of the outside world explain the extreme tensions in the family, but also explain its perseverance. The contemporary family is the product of capitalism and one of its main supports.



The “deviant” homosexuals

Sex roles are enforced by our society on everyone. Because of the crucial role of the family, any adult who does not marry and raise a family is marked out as deviant. Homosexuals challenge both the material base of the present-day family – privatised reproduction – and its ideological superstructure – the stereotypes and ideas which define the sex roles of women and men. And this is notwithstanding the fact that homosexuality is far more common than is usually assumed. Kinsey’s research found that 37 per cent of his male, and 13 per cent of his female, respondents had experienced homosexual relations to orgasm by the age of 45. [42]

Homosexuals are stereotyped as deviants despite the fact that the monogamous family has not been the historical norm. Of 554 societies listed by George Murdock, in only 135 was monogamy the norm. [43] Nor has homosexuality always been viewed as deviant. C.S. Ford and F. Beach found in their study of 190 societies, that for 76 for which data was available concerning homosexuality, 49 perceived it as normal. [44]

In our society homosexuals are forced into the closet. When gay people manage to get out of their isolation by meeting other gays, they are forced into a social ghetto away from work, the family and the mainstream of social life. The gay ghetto breaks the isolation for individual gays, but maintains the isolation of gays from mainstream society.

Even relations between gays themselves are not free from the diktat of the traditional roles of men and women. However hard they try, gays cannot escape the pressures and conditioning of capitalist society. Hence the heterosexual world in which man oppresses woman imposes its own divisions on gays too. One writer explains the male role played by gays:

Playing roles in a society which demands gender definitions, sexual role-playing, masculine versus feminine – what can we do, those whom society dismisses and condemns as half-men? Too often we react by over-playing. The absurd parodies of straight sexuality we see in the bars, ultra-butch, camp bitch, are cold and brittle. Their eyes betray fear and loathing as they compete viciously, to allay the panic of loneliness at the end of the night. [45]

The division between “butch” and “femme” is usually used in relation to women homosexuals. Thus Sidney Abbot and Barbara Love, in their thoughtful book, Sappho was a Right-on Woman, write:

Some lesbians use terminology like “marriage”, “husband”, or “wife”, but there is a profound reason for this. These are the only words in our culture that convey love, trust, permanence, and responsibility in a relationship ... Presumably role-playing among Lesbians exists because Lesbians are raised in a role-playing society ... Lesbians have spent all their time in a culture that forcefully sells a way of life based on male and female dominance and submissiveness, independence and dependence, aggressiveness and passivity. [46]

In fact the notion of “male” and “female” partners in homosexual relationships is inaccurate. As Arno Karlen, in his massive Sexuality and Homosexuality, quotes one psychologist as saying: “A small percentage always take the female role; another small percentage are muscle men, homosexual pin-ups, who always take the active role. But for the most part, they often switch roles.” [47] But however forcefully the contemporary gay movement and the lesbian groupings in the women’s movement reject the gender-related roles, they cannot win. Although the Gay Liberation Front Manifesto denounces marriage and speaks of the death of the family, gays, in seeking emotional security in a harsh world, imitate the institution their own sexuality denies. However, as Kinsey showed, lasting couples are rare among homosexuals, although many lesbian pairs live together for five, ten or fifteen years. Arno Karlen writes: “Many homosexuals say they are looking for a lasting affair and are quick to shack up, but in fact have a series of brittle, stormy, short-lived relationships.” [48]

Homosexuals do not demand less emotional commitment from their partners than heterosexuals, despite the superficially more liberal attitude to “extra-marital” sex. Living under terrible pressure in a hostile world, they feel their sexuality far more intensively than most heterosexuals, hence the pervading possessiveness – because possession of things, as of people, gives a modicum of security. As Abbott and Love write: “In Lesbian society, where there is no marriage, no social or legal sanctions to help sustain relationships beyond the initial period of romantic love, insecurity and jealousy have a field day.” [49]

The homosexual world, which appears to undermine capitalist notions, is also completely invaded by capitalism.

The gay subculture is riven with clashes and illusions. The women tend to be split off from the men, butch men from fem, leather queens from drag queens, and so on. Many of these attitudes are themselves reflections of heterosexual values; others of the pervasive cash nexus. In this gay world it is all too easy for people to lose their individualities, sex becomes the aim of life; individuals become things. [50]

In conclusion, capitalism has turned homosexuality into a “problem”. So long as the traditional family is an economic unit, for rearing children and satisfying the consumption needs of the adults, homosexuals are bound to be considered deviant: the homosexual male is not seen to fit the man’s role as provider for wife and children, and the homosexual female is not seen to act the role of mother and wife. The contemporary family is not only a prison for those in it, but also enslaves those who do not fit into the sex-role stereotypes connected with it.


1. E. Shorter, The Making of the Modern Family (London 1975) pp.230-1.

2. Marx and Engels, Works vol.3, pp.274-5.

3. M. Komarovsky, Blue-Collar Marriage (New York 1967) and L. Rubin, World of Pain: Life in the Working-Class Family (New York 1976).

4. S. Sharpe, Just like a Girl: How Girls learn to be Women (London 1976) p.71.

5. Sharpe, p.305.

6. Komarovsky, p.25.

7. Sharpe, pp.210-1.

8. Rubin, pp.80-1 and 90-1.

9. Komarovsky, p.93.

10. Rubin, pp.99, 113, 160-land 179.

11. Glenton is a name given by Komarovsky to two contiguous, closely interwoven industrial townships forming a county.

12. Komarovsky, pp.311-2.

13. Rubin, p.188.

14. Rubin, p.189.

15. Komarovsky, p.51.

16. Komarovsky, pp.15 1-2.

17. Rubin, p.178.

18. Rubin, p.190.

19. Komarovsky, pp.49, 55 and 57.

20. Komarovsky, pp.56 and 60.

21. Rubin, pp.36-7 and 55.

22. Komarovsky, pp.76 and 78.

23. Rubin, pp.30, 38,40-1 and 46.

24. S. Steinmetz and M. Straus (editors), Violence in the Family (New York 1975) p.4.

25. I. Renvoize, Web of Violence: A Study of Family Violence (London 1978) pp.1334.

26. R.J. Gelles, The Violent Home (London 1972) pp.125, 130 and 192.

27. Komarovsky, p.366.

28. D.C. Gil, Violence against Children, in Journal of Marriage and Family (November 1971).

29. J.E. Oliver and others, Severely Ill-treated Young Children in NorthEast Wiltshire (Oxford 1974).

30. Gelles, pp.55 and 77.

31. Steinmetz and Straus, p.196.

32. Renvoize, p.182. The power of males over females, especially young females, combined with sexual exploitation, leads many of the victims of incest to use their oppression as a weapon of power. As Jean Renvoize reports: “Many girls unquestionably enjoy such a relationship with their father once they have accepted it, even if at the same time they feel guilty about it. It gives them a sense of power, and some even indulge in petty blackmail, demanding gifts as the price of their silence. If their parents’ relationship is poor they may get great satisfaction out of playing the role of ‘little mother’, so that as father and daughter act out their private fantasies the real mother is pushed into the background. Inevitably the girl will have mixed feelings about her mother. She will feel both anger that her mother is not protecting her from her father, for she will know the relationship is wrong even if she is actually enjoying it, and guilt that she is depriving her mother of her rightful place.” (Renvoize, pp.184-5.)

33. Gelles, pp.164-5.

34. Study Commission on the Family, Families of the Future (London 1983) p.19.

35. J.W. Brown and T. Harris, Social Origin of Depression: A Study of Psychotic Disorder in Women (London 1978) pp.154, 178-9 and 291.

36. W.R. Gove, The Relationship between Sex Roles, Marital Status, and Mental Illness, in Social Forces (University of North Carolina, September 1972).

37. C. Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World (New York 1978) pp.xvii-xvni.

38. H. Benyon, Working for Ford (London 1977) p.75.

39. P.E. Mott and others, Shift Work: The Social, Psychological and Physical Consequences (Ann Arbor 1966) p.18, quoted in T. Cliff, The Employers’ Offensive (London 1970) p.71.

40. G. Frankl, The Failure of the Sexual Revolution (London 1974) pp.116-7.

41. Kollontai, Selected Writings, p.231.

42. A.C. Kinsey and others, Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (Philadelphia 1948) and Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female (Philadelphia 1953).

43. G.P. Murdock, World Ethnographic Sample, in American Anthropologist no.59 (1957).

44. C.S. Ford and F. Beach, Patterns of Sexual Behaviour (New York 1951) p.130.

45. Walter, p.86.

46. S. Abbott and B. Love, Sappho was a Right-on Woman: A Liberated View of Lesbianism (New York 1972) pp.92 and 97.

47. A Karlen, Sexuality and Homosexuality (London 1971) p.198.

48. Karlen, p.527.

49. Abbott and Love, pp.80-1.

50. Gay Left (Spring 1976) quoted in Weeks, p.223.


Last updated on 24.8.2002