Sunday, December 12, 2004

On Family and Marriage as Wingnut Memes

"Family" and "marriage" are political codewords these days. They are both something that the conservatives are supposed to support and that us liberals are supposed to hate. As one of my friends said to me during the 1990's early family campaigns, "Who on earth hates the family?" We do, it seems. But his point is an important one: the word "family" means something very different to the conservative movement than what it might mean to most of us. We are likely to think of our own families or families in general when we hear this word.

But the conservatives have in mind a very specific type of family, and that is the only type of family for which they are fighting. This family has a father who goes out to work long hours every day, it has a mother who stays at home and it has lots of children that the mother probably home-schools. The father is the head of the household and the mother is his helpmate. The children obey the parents in everything.

Understanding this is crucial. This is the family that is being advocated through the wingnut websites. These sites have a lot of information about the dangers of daycare and the perils of wives who work. They also have many quotes from the Bible to support the idea of the servant-leader husband.

When feminists, for example, attack the wingnut campaigns they are immediately labeled as evil for hating the family. What they are criticizing, of course, are all these hidden underpinnings which aim to make sure that women are brought back into the patriarchal framework, but this is hard to make clear when the word "family" doesn't have the wingnut definition for most people.

The same analysis applies to the more recent campaigns about marriage. The conservatives are not trying to defend just any old marriage, and to argue that marriage in general is under threat is insane. What is under threat, however, is the patriarchal marriage, and when you analyze the conservative language closely you notice that this is the concept of marriage that conservatives apply.

The conservatives view marriage as the place where patriarchy is recreated: where a new generation is born and educated in the conservative ideology. A marriage without children is not therefore really a marriage in their eyes. In a way, marriages are the factories which have been built to produce children, and any other view of marriage is ridiculous in their eyes.

But there is something deeper to this view of marriage and that is the subjugation of women. When conservatives say "traditional marriage" they mean a marriage in which the man rules the roost. This is intricately tied to the previous bit of definition, for what are women for if not for making babies and bringing them up as good conservatives. A real conservative marriage will not have wives who go out to work or wives who are equal to their husbands.

Once marriage is interpreted in this manner, the whole resistance towards same-sex marriage is understandable. If the two spouses are of the same gender there is no "natural" way to assign leadership, there is no "natural" way to decide who is to be subjugated, and the whole concept of the patriarchal marriage collapses. No wonder that same-sex marriage is such a button-pushing issue for the conservatives.

New campaigns have been created to fight "voluntary childlessness" and according to some rumors, the Catholic Church will be joining the wingnuts in these. It is easy to see why conservatives oppose childless marriages for other than natalistic reasons: they allow far too much freedom for the women. Hence also the drives to ban contraceptives, of course.

The subjugation of women is such an integral part of all types of fundamentalisms that it might as well be called their major defining characteristic. Take out the unequal status of women and most fundamentalist ideologies are left with nothing to tie their rules together. It might be a good idea for us feminists and profeminists to look at every fundamentalist argument using this lens. We might be astonished and aghast at how much it explains.