Upheavals at home

Families, Households and Society - Feminism and the Family
April 27, 2001

These two books about familial life in the second half of the 20th century complement each other. Graham Allan and Graham Crow chart substantive changes while Jennifer Somerville analyses the shifts in feminist discourse that have accompanied familial change.

Allan and Crow seek to provide an account not only of historical change in family patterns but also of changes in family relationships over the life course. Thus they chart shifts in the patterns of departure of young people from the parental home, the growth of cohabitation and the formation of married and unmarried partnerships, the reworking or otherwise of gender divisions in domestic relationships, trends in unmarried pro-creation and divorce and the growth of lone-parent families and step-families, and the structuring of family relationships in later life. It is a lucid and extensive account of contemporary family forms and relationships.

Somerville traces and analyses the oscillations of ideological discourse in Britain and the United States and the interrelationship between these oscillations and political activism, family-relevant social policies and the everyday experiences of women as workers and mothers. After a short discussion of historical antecedents, she analyses the emergence in the 1960s and 1970s of radical and feminist onslaughts on "the family", the pro-family reaction, the revisionist feminist theses that followed, and the counter-attacks that these evoked from feminist writers who sought either to defend the verities of 1970s radical feminism or to develop a new "power feminism".

Somerville's critical analysis of early feminist discourse has a sparky freshness and great clarity, but she does not succeed in carving a sharply focused pathway through the jungle of more recent argument. Black feminist discourses on the family are virtually ignored. Nevertheless, we are provided with a wide-ranging, thought-provoking and sometimes contentious history of feminist discourse on familial life.

Both these books are up-to-date, well sourced, substantial and accessible. Each will in different ways be very useful to the informed general reader and professional person as well as to students and academics.

Faith Robertson Elliot is honorary research fellow, University of Edinburgh.

Families, Households and Society

Author - Graham Allan and Graham Crow
ISBN - 0 333 69306 X and 69307 8
Publisher - Palgrave
Price - £47.50 and £15.99
Pages - 246

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