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New Left Review 35, September-October 2005


Is patriarchy a structure of power in the family or something wider? Is it largely a pre-capitalist phenomenon? What have been the principal forces dissolving it—commodity relations, liberal ideas, or radical political action? Where are negative rates of reproduction in advanced societies likely to lead? A sharp exchange of ideas beween Nicky Hart and Göran Therborn.

NICKY HART

OF PROCREATION AND POWER

The twentieth century was a revolutionary period for the western European family and its overseas offspring. Improvements in longevity increased the potential durability and therefore intensity of conjugal and parental relationships. The continuing decline of the birth rate made the average family smaller, more intimate and mutually supportive. Consumer capitalism raised living standards and delivered labour-saving machinery, improving the comfort of the family home as well as reducing the drudgery of housework. Finally, marriage became undeniably more companionate as the linked processes of privatization, sexual liberation and gender convergence narrowed the gap in material interests and recreational pleasures between husbands and wives. Not all trends were in the direction of apparent harmony and happiness. The best proximate indicator of family conflict is the divorce rate and this shot up—especially after World War Two—as more liberal divorce laws made it easier for unhappily married people to kick over the traces. By the last decade of the century, between a third and half of all marriages were ending in divorce. The increasing frequency of divorce, and the greater visibility of divorcees in the population, in turn reduced the stigma of being unattached or a single parent. This itself may have helped to make birth out of wedlock less of a social disgrace, though it was not the only cause. By the end of the century, unmarried motherhood was emerging as a more or less legitimate choice of lifestyle, although the sum of today’s fatherless families continues to harbour the most socially excluded and economically disadvantaged people in the prosperous West.

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