Family relationships are far and away the most important things in our lives. Investing so much of ourselves in the intimate, it is here that we find the most satisfaction, and, inevitably, the most pain when things go wrong. Politics matters, so does work, and so too do friends, but these count for nothing compared with one's parents, one's partners and still less one's children. Everyone knows this to be the case; and should there be any doubts, then the entire literary canon proclaims it to be true.
Nevertheless, it seems that family relationships are under threat. They are being undermined by an insistent individualism that prioritises personal choice above the relationship itself, reducing the family to a matter of self-interest. If one's spouse is a hindrance to career, or if the children get in the way of one's pleasures, then there is a current of thought today that insists the family, rather than oneself, must change to allow freedom of choice.
This is manifested in a soaring rate of divorce and instability of relationships, along with increasing numbers of people, children especially, wounded by this fracturing of the family. Teachers see it daily in under-achieving kids, the courts in escalating youth crime and therapists in grief expressed by children abandoned by a parent.
Geoff Dench has produced two books on the family that make for compulsive and compulsory reading. I fear that, because they are explicitly hostile to feminism and written by a man, they will be labelled a part of a right-wing backlash, and remain unread. This would be a pity because they are serious, sober and well-informed analyses of matters of central concern to us all.
The Place of Men is a research report on ethnographic field-work undertaken on 200 or so, chiefly ethnic minority, families in the early 1990s. Dench contends that the alternative family (as opposed to the traditional one of male breadwinner with the female responsible for home-making), where emphasis is placed on equality between the sexes, is popular with the young and childless, but that most people subscribe to the patriarchal ideal, especially those over 30 who have children.
Ethnic minorities especially cherish the conventional family, except for younger Afro-Caribbeans, where female single parenting is commonplace. Apologists have tended to explain this by references to a legacy of slavery and idealising the "strong woman" who can manage alone. Dench contradicts this by reporting that most Afro-Caribbean women yearn for their men to be involved, and he has no time for the "burden of history" account. Bluntly, he argues that second-generation Afro-Caribbean men have taken aboard with particular alacrity the ideology of self that is rampant in Britain. In addition, since they have such poor job prospects, and the state guarantees support for single mothers, the men understandably can opt out, and indeed be squeezed out, of a family to which they can contribute little materially and which the state ensures will survive.
Transforming Men develops the argument at a more general level. Dench's complaint is that feminism has pursued the same self-obsessed agenda as free-market ideologues. Feminists have identified the patriarchal family and male advantage in the realm of work as major barriers to women. In the name of equal opportunities for each individual, patriarchy has to be dismantled and barriers to women in the workplace removed. All change is subordinated here to increasing the choices for women to compete equally with men.
But Dench objects that this ignores the centrality to society of reproduction, something which, far from tying women, actually gives them a privileged role. Because women give birth, they have dependants and thereby a crucial means of finding fulfilment. Traditionally men supported women and their children by working, thus finding fulfilment in providing for their dependants. Nowadays, however, the stress on equal opportunities threatens the male justification of labouring "for the family". If the breadwinner role is challenged, then men no longer have easily identified roles in life, especially if the state intervenes in the family to guarantee a material minimum.
So what, then, is the use of men? Dench suggests that the reason why many men are opting out of the family, becoming irresponsible and apathetic, is precisely because they are given no clear part to play in the family today. He defends the patriarchal family by the allegory of the Frog Prince. Young men are ugly animals who must be trans-formed by women in order to become mature princes. In other words, women are essential to civilise men, but to do this men must be given a purpose in life.
Patriarchy, which Dench insists was more a constraint on males than a means of oppressing women, provides this, but it means that women must be prepared to let men take the chief respons-ibility for maintaining the family at work while women take most responsibility for the home.
This is a view which insists that men and women are different, but mutually necessary. It does not mean he advocates a return to the kitchen for women (he does not), but it does insist that families are much more than arenas of competing individual interests. They are about an interdependence between sexes that cannot be equal. Insofar as the state has weakened this mutuality, Dench urges that it withdraw from family affairs, which he believes will encourage responsibility among men and women.
The argument will annoy many feminists, though not, I suspect, those like Arlie Hochschild and Ros Coward who have written eloquently on the complexities and necessary compromises of living together. Anyway, since the vast majority of people believe and practise this interdependence, Dench's particular target is that group of highly educated and professional feminists who have benefited so much from equal opportunities measures. They have positions that often give them time to have it all and money to pay other women to look after the kids. Working-class women, with husbands squeezed at their work and deprived of much of their self-esteem, are compelled to take ill-paying part-time jobs just to get by. They have less reason to celebrate the decline of patriarchy.
Frank Webster is professor of sociology, Oxford Brookes University.
The Place of Men in Changing Family Cultures
Author - Geoff Dench
ISBN - 0 9523355 4 9
Publisher - Institute of Community Studies
Price - £9.95
Pages - 119