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.

To most sociologists, changes in the Western family are the product of the continuing penetration of urban industrial capitalism, with its technological innovations and the social and political processes associated with them. Call it capitalism or modernization, the end result is the same. Some changes can be measured quite precisely with census data—marriage and divorce rates, fertility and mortality ratios, and aggregate details of how people live and generate their livelihood. Change is also expressed in the sequence of legislative reforms encompassing marriage, parenthood and citizenship. Most of these reforms have been in the direction of increasing personal autonomy and individual rights. Gender relationships have been especially affected. On the whole, women have gained greater freedom of action and men have lost some, if not most, of their former patriarchal privileges. The transformation of the Western family is part and parcel of the social liberation of women. It is not possible to write or understand the history of one without simultaneously attending to the other.

From the title of his book Between Sex and Power, one might assume that Göran Therborn is well aware of the conjoint developmental character of the gender and family revolutions in the West. Indeed the title seems to be saying that the family is the fundamental factor in the balance of gender power. Yet, though persistence or decline of patriarchy is a central feature of his work, Therborn insists on an idiosyncratic definition of it that confines patriarchy to the private sphere of existence. In so doing, he politely rejects orthodox feminist usage, in which patriarchy serves as a synonym for gender inequality, in favour of a usage that emphasizes the significance of generational more than gender power. In his own words: ‘Paternal power is the core meaning of patriarchy, historically and etymologically’ and this boils down to the father’s capacity to determine the life course of his children via the norms and practices of sexual preference and differential neglect, and through the control of their opportunities to marry and form households.footnote1

Male conjugal power is added awkwardly to this list. Therborn writes: ‘Powerful fathers are also husbands, so it seems both logical and practical to extend the notion of patriarchy to the power of husbands’. The use of patriarchy for any broader analytical purpose is excluded, or as he puts it:

patriarchy in this book will not be cut loose from the family and made synonymous with the subordination, discrimination and social disadvantages of women in general. Gender discrimination and gender inequality should be seen as a broader concept than patriarchy, with the latter’s family tradition and historical connotations. A significant erosion, and even disappearance of the latter does not necessarily entail the end of the former, and has not actually done so, as we shall see.footnote2

In these terms, Therborn rules out the inclusion of the study of gender equality in the comparative history of the family. In consequence, he leans heavily on the evidence of legal reform (family and matrimonial law) to identify the pivotal moments when significant challenges to patriarchal power were achieved between 1900 and 2000.

This is an ambitious book. It encompasses the whole of humanity, and patriarchy is just one of three headings which Therborn employs as a framework to assemble a mass of empirical material gathered from every continent. The other two are marriage (and sexuality) and fertility (including birth control). Together these three topics may be thought of as representing the social relations of procreation, suggesting that in Therborn’s understanding reproduction—i.e. the making of new human beings—is the fundamental purpose of the family as a social institution and this is where we should be looking for signs of fundamental change. This is what I like most about this book.