Thursday, March 27, 2008

Rigidity, Not Patriarchy, Makes Family Roles Rigid

An article with the eye-catching title "Feminism Keeps My Marriage Together," by Christie Church, makes the claim that patriarchy was damaging her marriage because of the rigid roles it imposed on them. Feminism, she argues, let Church and her husband get free of the rigid expectations of their wife and husband roles imposed on them by society.

A patriarchal family does normally have rigid roles for wife, husband, and other family members. But so does a matriarchal family. Even an egalitarian family can have rigid roles -- in fact, a commitment to a 50/50 split of all family work forces even more rigidity than does patriarchy.

It is not the patriarchy that makes the rigidity, though; rigidity makes rigidity.

The Beavers scale of family functioning is a five-point scale running from chaos, through tyranny, rule-bound families, and the somewhat colorlessly named adequate and optimal families at the top of the scale. The problem in the bottom half of the scale is achieving enough order to have a secure life. In the bottom half of the scale, rigidity is a step up. This is why the middle -- not the bottom -- of the scale is the "rule-bound" family. Rule-bound is, as the name suggests, characterized by rigid roles. Most rule-bound families will lean toward patriarchy, but there are other rule-systems that they can enforce rigidly on one another.

The achievement of the rule-bound family is order. The price they pay is that it is hard for family members to be intimate with one another, without upsetting the rules. This, I think, is the problem that Christie Church is really wrestling with, more than patriarchy.

What makes the higher functioning families adequate and optimal is that they can maintain sufficient order while dealing appropriately with the individual qualities of each person in the family, not just their roles.

Church and her husband seem to be moving beyond rule-boundedness to a more flexible, adequate functional system. For them, that meant dividing labor in ways that were a little less traditional. For other couples, that might mean quite different arrangements -- strict equality, or complete reverse of tradition. I expect that for most couples, flexibly dividing family labor based on the interests, skills, and resources of each half of the couple would, in fact, result in a mostly traditional sexual division of labor most of the time. But however labor might be divided in an appropriately personal family, the point is that it is being rigid about roles that creates rigid roles in a family, not patriarchy or any other social system.

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