The family is the most personal place in most of our lives. It is so politically important because of this, not despite this. At various times different attempts have been made to bring this political nature into analysis. Emma Goldman and others’ contributions to anarchist theory, western feminists insisting “the personal is political”, movements such as “Wages for housework” in the US, have all added to the history of this analysis. The Kurdish women’s freedom movement has centred women’s experience and the family structure. The movement has shown we cannot have a revolution without remaking the family. Abdullah Ocalan has analysed the family as a “small version of the state”, where the power of the patriarchal state is represented by the father/husband. It is the basic unit of how society is reproduced and the building block of all social relations.
The family is an obvious subject for jineoloji. The family is a place where women’s history has been lived. This is not because of some natural connection between women and the private sphere: part of the history is women violently forced out of communal life and into this private sphere that the modern family developed from. But this is one reason its an essential point of analysis for women’s knowledge, science, and understanding. We must look at the family analytically, of course. We must understand the history and its relationship to other power structures. But we must also listen to the voices of generations of women. Acknowledge that emotions, of women, men, and children, are part of understanding the world. The feelings in our guts, the way we display intimacy, small moments of love or shame that we carry on our shoulders, the way we feel our family members and their actions in ourselves and in the world… all these must also be part of how we look at the family.
The history of the family is long and varied. Families have had many different forms over time. There is a myth developed in modern day Europe that the nuclear family is somehow a natural product of human biology. History does not support this claim. It shows a whole variety of different possibilities for organising families. It also shows violence and struggle in the development and maintenance of the nuclear family, nothing resembling a smooth, natural process. Alexandra Kollontai analysed the family and monogamy as products of capitalist society. The man is in a position of ownership and oppression. She wrote that “To become really free woman has to throw off the heavy chains of the current forms of the family, which are outmoded and oppressive.”
In previous times family meant a much larger unit. Societies we now call clans still associated around some blood ties, but with a much broader understanding of who that meant you would live with, care for, or provide for. In matriarchal societies, historical and present day, families centred around the mother are never just the mirror image of a nuclear family centred around the father. In the Mosuo people of northern China, families are matrilineal, and there is no form of permanent marriage at all. Fathers have no role in the upbringing of children, though men within their mother’s household do. But this role is not from a position of oppression or enslavement. In the Minangkabau society of Indonesia, property travels from mother to daughter and women rule the economic and domestic realm, but men still take leadership roles in spiritual and political areas.
One central reason for this difference in power relations is that when the line runs through a parent who gives birth themselves, there is no question of a need for control of reproduction. There can be no doubt about lineage. It simply is. There is no question that even hypothetically women would need to treat men how women have been and are treated in the construction of a family. The modern family has its roots in the development of patriarchy which meant men talking control of property and needed to be assured of their lineage to pass that property on. This could not be done without taking control of women’s bodies.
A lot of history passed between these early stages of patriarchy and the modern European family. In the middle ages in Europe, as the primacy of trade and the beginnings of capitalism and the modern state emerged, oppressive powers took an active interest in the family. Before the 12th century the Catholic church did not promote marriages and was not interested in encouraging people to make families. The church began this work in connection with a deal with ruling powers who needed the church’s influence to help them control how people lived and reproduced.
The years following this time saw the slow development of capitalism: and with it the mass murder of women named witches, murder and persecution of heretics (who were often condemned for crimes such as homosexuality or abortions, which undermined the family unit being built), and the destruction and enclosure of common lands, all of which is deeply analysed in Silvia Federichi’s Caliban and the Witch. Common lands were usually women-centred spaces and their enclosure went hand in hand with forcing women into the private sphere.
This private sphere, as we still understand it, is just that. Private. Sacred. No one has a right to comment or intrude. This has silenced unimaginable amounts of pain, and invisibilised unimaginable amounts of labour. It means that the very process of our development, of what makes us us, is undiscussed and shut away from public or communal meaning.
The nuclear family model really completed its hold during the industrial revolution. Capitalism requires the reproduction of a workforce at a more reliable speed than women might choose for ourselves. It also relies upon the labour done in the home: cooking, washing, cleaning, caring, mending, organising the economy of the home, and emotionally supporting and enabling workers (including suffering violence, and including servicing sexual needs). This work is still done by women the vast majority of the time. And it is still work.
In the past, there were few illusions that this was an economic relationship. A woman often could not survive without a husband. She had few rights, but the position was clear. Her own family, her husband, and the law, could and would violently control her to submit to the family structure. In many places this is still the case and we can see one face of the patriarchy.
In other places, sometimes demands for rights have intensified and the system has found it impossible to maintain the old style of oppression. Or liberalism has found it useful to give the appearance of universal individual freedom. This does not mean that the patriarchy has been defeated, and more subtle methods of control have emerged. A particular understanding of romantic love has increased in power in the same time. This understanding links love to possession, possession to marriage and family, family to a lifelong entanglement between mother and father and a responsibility to succeed at the family model. Today one of the reasons women and children continue to suffer abuse or unequal relationships is based on a “free” choice in the name of this “love”. The heavy hand of oppression is not always needed. Our desires and our understanding of love have been constructed in such a way we will often police ourselves. Arriving in these relationships and discovering they are not the fairy tale we have been sold, we have even made the suffering they can bring a virtue. Bell Hooks writes: “All too often women believe it is a sign of commitment, an expression of love, to endure unkindness or cruelty, to forgive and forget.”
If we look at the patriarchy as an act of colonialism, we can see the family as a unit of control. Colonisers usually appoint “local leaders” and suppress rebellion by offering them a small part of the power of the central authority in return for keeping an area under control. In this way, as Ocalan and others have analysed, men are offered some privileges by the patriarchy, power in the private sphere (often to compensate for powerlessness out of it), in return for maintaining violent patriarchal structures and suppressing the potential of women and children.
This does not always take the form of physical violence of course. But the presence of patriarchal ways of (failing at) showing love, behaviour models for young boys, and the continuing heavy reliance on women for emotional labour combined with emotional manipulation or bullying also perpetuate these structures.
The family is also the point where wider social values are transmitted. Its almost too obvious to say, but where your family is from, what religious background they have, and what relationship to politics, has a huge effect on how you develop. Positive community values and ethics that hold society together are transmitted in the home, almost always by women; sharing skills, telling stories, showing care. At the same time capitalist mentalities, for example a work ethic derived from protestantism, are instilled in the same kitchens and living rooms. How we sit, eat, sleep and share space varies greatly depending on if our culture comes from a protestant, catholic, or other religious background. How we understand parts of our basic nature and the effect on them of duty, guilt, shame, and moral codes. And this doesn’t mean our families have to be actively religious or identify as such. In many cases the connection is explicit as the church now has a history of actively taking an interest in family structures and their political implications. In others it is just implicit as things transmitted through this family sphere carry a huge amount of power in shaping our lives.
We can choose how we want to live, and to work on changing our personalities, but we must understand how our personal roots link to wider structures. We think, move, love, touch, speak, work, fear and hope in ways that reflect a paradigm, a religion, or a moment of history. And usually we learnt this through our family.
Of course, not every family is immediately a site of pain, though many are. Many are also loving, supportive spaces. But even when relations within a family are fair, equal, and loving, it must be understood as having emerged from this history. It must also be understood as one possibility for arranging human relationships, not a fact of nature.
And even a loving family has other purposes. Human beings need intimacy or we cease to be able to function. We developed in communities. Capitalism and the nation state cannot allow strong communities to develop or they would pose a challenge to their power. But they need people able to function enough to work, to produce a profit. The modern family gives our psychies just enough intimacy to survive and be able to get to work the next day, but doesn’t build strong or broad enough connections for us to rebel.
The nuclear model cuts us from our extended families and from our memories. Its rare we have a connection that goes back more than a generation or two. It has become normal for us to live far from our parents – in fact, it has become weird to stay close to them. This keeps family memory from building solidarity and self defence. The state and capital have even invaded the relationship of care for an aging parent- this must now often be done either through the state or a private company, as people either do not want or cannot afford to do the care themselves.
We need to deconstruct the family when we think about our situation. This goes for how we organise our lives as revolutionaries: live together, love each other, examine our histories, and what we consider important. We must bring the family as a topic into other conversations. It also goes for when we imagine a new or different society. We need to come up with alternatives, without just avoiding the issues by utilising our privileges to “escape” as individuals, and without completely cutting from our past. We need a perspective, like jineoloji, that looks deep into the roots but uses that foundation to make new, revolutionary and truly free alternatives. Abdullah Ocalan proposes the “democratisation of the family” as essential to liberation. This doesn’t mean the bureaucratic, token democracy of a voting system, but the radical redistribution of power. Just as we must challenge the state and patriarchy, we must challenge the smallest cell of their power: the family. How can we defend ourselves against the family as it has been forced on us? Just as importantly, how do we imagine family, in our movements, and in the future?