Families and children

Family, children and the Women's Liberation Movement

From the beginning, the Women’s Liberation Movement argued that ‘women’s oppression’ began in the family. Why did feminists focus so much attention on the family, marriage and children? This introductory article explains the background.
It is often taken for granted that women have a special relationship with the home and with children. Women bear children and so the gendered division of labour, both in and out of the home, has been shaped by this. Historically and across cultures women have tended to combine bearing and rearing children with household work as well as paid employment. In general, men have had less responsibility for rearing children or for domestic work. There is nothing ‘natural’ about this division of labour.

Zoë Fairbairns talks about her mother's life and work at home

Though the notion of family is culturally specific and has meant different things at different points in history, it generally refers to the people we live with, grow up with and care for. The family usually includes parents and children, grandparents, aunts and uncle, nephews and nieces and wider kin, but not all members of the family live together all the time. The stereotype of the ‘average’ family in Britain imagines a mum and dad with two children but in reality families are likely to fluctuate in size and include members of the extended family, step-relatives and three or even four generations living together at different times. Several of the women interviewed for the Sisterhood and After oral history project are the children of single mothers.

Mukami McCrum talks about working collectively

From the beginning, the Women’s Liberation Movement argued, sometimes over-simply, that ‘women’s oppression’ began in the family. This was because the family was where little girls learned to be women and also because the household relied on the unpaid work of women. Furthermore, the WLM provided an opportunity for women to spaces where women could explore the paradox of being a wife, mother and independent adult: the conflict between loving and caring for others while also maintaining a sense of self and purpose. Feminists questioned the institution of marriage and family, and were excited about exploring new ways of living and loving. Questioning the connections between women, family and domesticity, and attempting to find new ways of imagining family, kinship and community were central to the debates and discussions of the WLM.

Increasingly, young women wanted more than marriage and motherhood as they were defined in the 1950s and ‘60s. As a result feminists challenged:

  • Women's confinement to the home and marriage, or women's destiny as wives and mothers and the legal terms of marriage contracts
  • The division of labour within a household and as it affected paid work outside
  • The stereotypical shape and nature of a family, re-imagining what this could look like

Mary McIntosh on women's financial and legal independence

  • Sisterhood and After Research Team
  • This article was researched and written by the Sisterhood and After Research Team, who are experts in the history of contemporary feminism and narrative life methods. The team included Abi Barber, Dr Polly Russell, Dr Margaretta Jolly, Dr Rachel Cohen, Dr Freya Johnson-Ross and Dr Lucy Delap. Further information about the team and project is available in the About the project section.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.