chapter  5
37 Pages

Women as a social class

Introduction Undoubtedly, one of the main challenges to the mainstream sociology of the family has come from the body of writing associated with the Women's Liberation or radical feminist movements. This challenge is both direct and indirect; it is direct in that most of the authors under this, admittedly general, umbrella spend some time in attacking the functionalist bias in family studies and the way in which this forms part of a patriarchal ideology, and indirect in that all programmes for the liberation of women explicitly involve a radical attack on, or at least a sharp questioning of, the institutions of marriage and the family. These movements, therefore, raise sharply the possibility that the family is not to be seen merely as a universal 'given' or as a cultural necessity but as something that can be actively and critically evaluated, acted upon and changed or abolished. It is this explicit linking of theoretical analysis and active practice that distinguishes most of the current feminist writings from most earlier texts, including the influential The Second Sex.l

The incorporation of these new feminist writings into a book on the sociology of the family might be offensive to some feminists. In the first place it might be argued that, just as it is impossible for a white person to write about the 'black experience' so too it is impossible for a man to write about the experience of being a woman. In the second place, it might be taken as an example of 'repressive tolerance' to treat these writings, which are often basically manifestos for revolutionary change rather than scholarly texts, as merely a source of 'ideas'. It is for the reader to judge whether these criticisms are valid or not. For my part I feel that the dangers in ignoring these writings are greater than the dangers involved in treating them seriously. Furthermore, it is to be hoped that this chapter in some modest way will serve as a corrective to the 'sexist' bias in much 134

writing, not merely in the sociology of the family, but in sociology generally. 2

The common approach to the study of men and women in society is through the use of the concept of 'role'. There have been two opposite consequences of this common usage. In the first place the concept 'role' implies some differentiation between culture and biology and hence serves to show the possibility of cultural variation and change. The role of a mother is to be distinguished from the biological fact of motherhood, the role of a father from that of fatherhood. There is no simple one-to-one relationship between male/female (biologically based distinction), man/woman (social roles) and masculine/feminine (cultural typifications of personality differences between men and women). To some extent, therefore, the role analysis serves potentially as a basis for freeing men and women from a purely biological determination of their positions in society.