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Family Values as Political Concept

By Louise M. Bishop

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What makes the phrase “family values” such a powerful political tool? Louise Bishop, a professor of literature at Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon, situates the “family values” debate historically by offering examples from the ancient world. After looking at how mothers and families are faring in contemporary America and Europe, she suggests the rhetoric of “family values” is consistently used as a wedge in a larger effort to reduce women’s freedom and discourage gender equity.

I’ve been interested in the political rhetoric of “family values” since the beginning of the phrase’s current incarnation and popularity. In the 80’s, the Reagan years, a return to “family values” was the rallying cry of political conservatives. You might remember Dan Quayle making his famous swipe at the fictional character Murphy Brown for her out-of-wedlock birth. Bob Dole used the phrase “family value” in a televised presidential debate to argue for returning America to its Judeo-Christian roots (I have to wonder what his current touting of Viagra has to do with that position). Family values was the message in speeches delivered at the 1984 Republican National Convention, which the rest of my family and I followed on television. That July, just weeks before the convention, I had delivered my first child, my beautiful daughter Catherine. Surrounded at home by my own family, including my in-laws, in a powerfully-alive and completely-enveloping scene of new baby and family sentimentality, I really felt the phrase’s resonances in every fiber of my being. How could someone not believe in “family values” at such a moment? Believe you me, I believed.

Yet how much were my own special circumstances, as a post-partum mum, hormones in flux and prone to tears at the drop of a hat, affecting my rational judgment? Besides, it’s not like the phrase “family values” didn’t exist before 1980, or before I had a baby, nor that it remained the exclusive province of political conservatives. The Democrats just as vigorously latched onto the expression, and it was not unknown to Bill Clinton, despite it all. While the phrase first reached the public consciousness in the Eighties, it still retains its pull on the popular imagination. I trace the beginning of the current “family values” phenomenon to a bit of popular culture, a popular artifact, with which you may be familiar. In the early 80’s I was living in New York. In that city and its suburbs—and I would guess in Eugene, Oregon, where I now live—the “Baby on Board” sign started appearing. Plastered to car windows, these square shuddering yellow signs vibrated in the back of Volvo station wagons to herald the arrival of a baby boomlet. These signs assured my generation— in our thirties, our biological clocks ticking away— that it was alright to have children. Nor was the “Baby on Board” sign a signal either political party missed. The capacity of “family values” rhetoric to fit diverse political leanings could imply that the phrase’s malleability renders it completely meaningless, so bereft of import as to make an essay that considers its political viability a waste of time. And yet the phrase still seems to resonate powerfully throughout American culture. It was used in the late Nineties by the Southern Baptists to explain their boycott of Disney, and currently it’s a code phrase used by some 74,000 Web sites, as my Alta Vista search for “family values” staggeringly proved.

Although I come to the issue with a number of preconceived notions, I've been trying to sort through my own emotional responses to the phrase and topic in order to dissect what makes the coinage “family values” such a powerful political tool. To engender some kind of understanding, I’ve divided this essay into three parts. In the first, in order to situate “family values” historically, I'll give an example from the ancient world. Then, after looking at some family values rhetoric and facts about families in contemporary America and Europe, I will go on in part two to explain the two things that I think give “family values” its unceasing appeal and political usefulness. After looking again at the contemporary scene, I will suggest that the political weight of family values is inextricably tied to women’s issues: the rhetoric of “family values” is consistently used as a wedge in a larger effort to reduce women’s freedom and discourage gender equity. These last two things, women’s freedom and gender equity, are, for me at least, foundationally important to a just society.

Part One:
The ancient politics of “family values”

Will Durant calls it the “most important social legislation in antiquity.” He's referring to the laws promulgated by the emperor Augustus between 18 B.C.E. and 9 CE, the “Julian laws of chastity and repressing adultery” and the Lex Papia Poppaea. These laws “encouraged marriage and the procreation of children,” “penalized the unmarried or childless of both sexes” and “benefitted men and women with children by various privileges” (Jones, 132). For instance, as the number of her children increased, a woman paid less taxes on the property she brought into the marriage until, after three children, her tax liability went down to zero. Furthermore, the mother of three children or more received the ius trium liberorum, meaning that she got to wear a special garment that made visible the privileges attendant upon her married motherhood. Those privileges included, in the original legislation, “freedom from the power of her husband” (Durant, 224). This last provision didn’t carry the day. Its critics argued that emancipating a woman from her husband’s decrees fomented danger, and soon enough the law was changed. Furthermore, we should note that these tax breaks and privileges were extended only to Roman patricians, not to the plebeian classes. In fact, Augustus’s impetus for crafting the legislation to encourage marriage and family came from his worry that, because the patrician classes were not reproducing at a rate comparable to the plebeians, Rome ran the risk of seriously diminishing the numbers and power of its ruling elite.

We can see in the Roman emperor Augustus’s legislation some of the hallmarks of the “family values” political rhetoric still in use today. Augustus’s legislation was openly class-oriented and geared towards Rome’s already-privileged patrician classes. I would suggest that much of today’s political rhetoric of family values— the kind of thing visible in many of those 74,000 websites— conjures an ideal two-parent suburban family, with a median income of just over $60,000. That's the figure the year 2000 US census gives for the median income of married couples with children. About 60% of American children live with their married biological parents— that describes my kids and their comfortable suburban Eugene life pretty accurately. This kind of family remains in the majority of American households, although the numbers have certainly shifted rather dramatically since 1970, when 82% of children lived with both biological parents. Interestingly, the year 2000 census lists the median income for once-married women raising children on their own as $19,934, less than a third of the married household's $60 K income, while the married parents’ income itself rises to almost $73,000 when both parents work full-time. When only the father works in a married couple, the median income is $45,315.

If you're keeping track of the math, you've probably noticed that, even for full-time work, women are paid much less than are men. As Nancy Fraser of Northwestern asserts, women's earnings are less than 70% of men’s, and much of women’s labor is not compensated at all, plus “many women suffer from ‘hidden poverty’ due to unequal distribution within families” (598). For mothers who have never married, the median income is a paltry $13,048, a figure that is below the current poverty line. On the other hand, in the United States in the year 2000, the median income for solo fathers is $32,427; these solo fathers account for only 2.5% of living arrangements for children, while single mothers account for nearly a quarter of households with children. The disparity between men's and women's wage-earning— between the high figure of just under $20 K for women and the low figure of over $32 K for men— is striking. As Iris Young succinctly states, “Most economically well-off women and children are economically dependent on a man” (544). Or, as Andrew Hacker puts it, “The ‘family values’ credo according to which youngsters are served best by having a full-time mother is reserved for those who have found and kept a husband who can foot the bills” (63).

Augustus’s legislation, even though it concerned both men and women, and even though it worked against the interests of the childless members of both sexes, linked upper-class women's childbearing capacity to economic, political, and social rewards that included a measure of freedom. Even then, however, the question was the extent to which women could be free and independent. In imperial Rome at the time of Augustus, the three-child woman gains economic and social rewards— for a moment. Then the reward of freedom is rescinded on the basis of principle, if not fear: women with economic freedom and reproductive success can spell trouble. That fear persists today, and many of the Web sites that use “family values” in their rhetoric are quite up-front in certifying the value of women's dependence on men— what in ancient Rome was embodied in the paterfamilias— on religious grounds. But religious groups are not alone in their approach. “Family values” and the group of philosophers called “the new familialists”— William Galston, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Jean Bethke Elshtain, David Blankenhorn, Christina Hoff Sommers— essentially argue the need for public policy to support the male-centered family. Clearly, as evident in the census statistics I’ve cited, economics in America already favor that arrangement, with or without government intervention. So why is it that nearly one out of four American children lives with only her mother? Or, to provide a contrast, why is it that, according to Sarah Lyall of the New York Times, 49% of births in Norway were to unwed parents? (As Lyall reports, in Britain the number is 38%, and in France 41%, and these births apparently come with no stigma attached.)

How American society manages the tie between women’s economic freedom and childbearing appears in the glaring American census statistics I've just quoted, which demonstrate the single mother’s disadvantages, while at the same time the figures from Europe suggest a sea-change in attitudes and a real difference from the American picture. As Lyall says, “Buoyed in part by policies that allow them substantial financial grants even when they return to work and start earning money, single mothers in many European countries are considerably better off than in the United States, where some 45% to 50% of single mothers live beneath the poverty line.” The new familialists, along with the conservative Christian websites I visited, touted the value of the stay-at-home mom. Yet think of the cognitive dissonance between this position—the value of a full-time mother— and attitudes that shape public policy towards poor single mothers: the popularity of “welfare-to-work” apparently sees no public benefit in supporting the stay-at-home welfare mom. Instead, the great success of the Clinton administration’s welfare reforms was to put that poor single welfare mother to work. Thus, the “family-values” rhetoric divides along class lines, re-establishing privilege and ignoring the real needs and real lives of mothers and children in the one-in-four households where children live with a mother only. Cognitive dissonance continues in the way American cultural stories— our movies, our television shows— idealize both the stay-at-home mom and the self-realized woman executive. Well, maybe a little less the executive, in the wake of Martha Stewart.

the family – affect and economics

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