The Family

The Family is a moral and ideological unit that appears, not universally, but in particular social orders.
— Jane Collier, Michelle Z. Rosaldo, Sylvia Yanagisako

The State and the Church approve of no other ideal, simply because it is the one that necessitates the State and Church control of men and women.
— Emma Goldman

When a person speaks of “family,” there are two different (yet connected) sets of relations that this person could be talking about. The first set is the personal relations of an individual understood as “my family.” This is my relationship to my parents, siblings, children, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and partner. The second is a cultural unit, or institution, that mediates the proper or normative structure of social relations in the personal relations of “my family.” Part of the power of the The State is the ability to produce the cultural unit called “the modern family” which is understood to be the universal form of the family. In this entry, I am interested in the second, institutional, set of relations because of the effect and power this institution has over how individuals and communities organize “their families.” In other words, I’m interested in the institution of The Family because of its power to produce normative/moral forms of social relations that are thought to be more natural, thus, the healthier way to organize this specific set of social relations.  

The family has been, and continues to be, an important location of control over the organization of culture, intimacy, child rearing, property relations, and sexual relations to just mention a few. “The modern family” as a normative/moral unit in US and Canada, as well as much of Europe (and many of Europe’s formal colonies), is comprised of the relations of a male and female (parents) and their children. With industrialization of the 19th century, “the modern family” was organized with the male as the breadwinner and the female as the homemaker who were in a monogamous relationship. This unit is in relation to the parents and siblings of the male and female parents. This is the normative/moral unit of organization, in the lived lives of many families the female parent needed or chose to work. In the resent past, there has been a semi-successful struggle to open this normative/moral unit allowing breadwinners to be both male and female. Today the struggle for same-sex marriage is generally a struggle to be accepted into the normative/moral constitution of “the modern family” with all the legal “rights” and “responsibilities."  

The State has used The Family as a weapon to control different populations [Note: a future entry will focus on the concept of “population”]. During the establishment of the present settler-states of the US and Canada, The State disrupted many matrilineal and extended kinship systems through treaty rights and land titles that were only available through or to male heads of nuclear family units. The nuclear family as a normative/moral unit was seen as a “civilizing” tool. This was followed by Residential and Boarding School that sought to break indigenous traditions and struggles by destroying the kinship systems and family structures while “killing the Indian within the child.” In Canada when this did not work, Indigenous children were taken from their families by The State and placed in foster and adopted homes in what is now known as the Sixties Scoop. Today the practices continue under different policies such that there are more Aboriginal, First Nations and Métis children in the custody of The State than during the height of the Residential Schools.

During Reconstruction after the US Civil War, the Freedman’s Bureau promoted the morality of monogamous marriage and the nuclear family among former slaves. Because of the political and economic structures of slavery (i.e. slaves were property and could not create a legal family), many slaves engaged in serial cohabitation, multiple sexual partners, and different forms of plural marriages. The nuclear family as a normative/moral unit was seen, again, as a central tool for “civilizing.” All forms of polyamory—be it polygamy, polyandry and group or conjoint marriage—were, and still are, seen as deviant and less “civilized.” The Republican Party platform of 1856 tied together polygamy with slavery as the “twin relics of barbarism.” Laws were not only established against how many people could constitute a family, but who could constitute a family. Same-sex individuals could not be a family, nor could individuals of different “races.” Anti-miscegenation laws were an important part of the US race relations both legally and socially. Anti-miscegenation laws banned the marriage of white individuals to non-white individuals—primarily African-Americans, Native Americans and Asian-Americans. Although anti-miscegenation laws ended in 1967 with Loving v. Virginia, the social and cultural stigma of multi-racial relations continues to the present.

The struggle over the normative/moral value of “The Family” has been central to the anarchist movement from its inception. Large portions of the anarchist movement have struggled for gender and queer liberation as well as the abolition the nuclear family, marriage, monogamy, and the age of consent. For many anarchists, the struggle for a better world is aimed at the personal as much the social. Because we are struggling to live in a world where people have active power not alienated power [See Firebrand Dictionary entry on Power] all social relations that produce alienated power are in question for anarchists. Questions around the institution of The Family and marriage has run through most anarchist currents from anarchist communism to egoism. Individualist anarchists such as Benjamin Tucker and Voltairine de Cleyre, anarchist communists like Emma Goldman and Errico Malatesta and and anarcho-syndicalists like Lucy Parsons all engaged in debates over the marriage, the family, free love and child rearing. Journals and newspapers such as (but not limited to): The Alarm, Clothed with the Sun, Egoism, The Firebrand, The Kansas Liberal, Liberty, Lucifer: the Light Bearer, Mother Earth, Regeneración, Social Revolutionist and Twentieth Century carried long standing discussions over the question of an anarchist position on the family. These discussions covered an enormous range of questions regarding marriage; abolition of marriage; children and divorce; the importance and structure of the home; sexual abuse in the family; The State’s interference with the family; as well as motherhood and specifically radical motherhood. These discussions not only addressed the family in the context of the present society, but also the future societies anarchists were struggling for. So what does it mean to have an autonomist or free family; what is the ideal or mixed family unit of the future; and how will children live under anarchy? In the struggle for a new world, the creation of non-alienated personal and social relations is as important as creating new economic relations.  

I am arguing for families as liberatory and experimental spaces. Here, I mean “families” with a small “f,” not “The Family” as the normative/moral unit.  In other words, I am arguing that the understanding of families needs to be open to a diversity of possibilities. I am not saying that there should not be families that are structured in a nuclear family (male/female and their children), but I am arguing that it should not be the measure by which the family is understood—normative/moral unit. In Families We Choose, Kath Weston argues for the importance of a “more comprehensive attack on the privilege accorded to a biogenetically grounded mode of determining what relationships will count as kinship.” [3] The structure and organization of families must be opened up to satisfy the needs of those living in these families. There is no reason that two mothers (in a sexual or non-sexual relationship) co-parenting children are not a family, but that is a simple move from the normative unit we have today. A family could also be made up of multiple partners made up of interrelated sexual relations co-parenting as well as any configuration of sexual partnering that does not involve raising children. Also, a family need no be centered on sexual relationships, but could be based on the mutual living and caring of individuals who do not have a sexual relationship. The configurations are limitless, but they must be based on the needs of the individuals involved and their relations with each other and their larger communities. The family should not be a normative-moral unit reinforcing and supported by alienating institutions like The State or The Economy, but it should be one of the many units of active social relations of support we are apart of. We need to support individuals who desire building new family units. We must actively engage in building new relationships that meet the physical and emotional needs of everyone. Most importantly we must be prepared to defend those who come under attack by The State for living in new egalitarian family units because The State might open up its definition of The Family to let a few more people in, but The State will not give up the normative/moral unit of measure that defines how families need to be structured.

The next entry of the Firebrand Dictionary will be the concept of “The State.”   

Other entries of the Firebrand Dictionary: Power, The Sate, The Individual and Society


[1] Jane Collier, Michelle Z. Rosaldo and Sylvia Yanagisako (1982) "Is there a family? New anthropological views.” In Rethinking the family: Some feminist questions. London: Longmans
[2] Emma Goldman (1914) “Marriage and Love” In Anarchism and Other Essays
[3]  Kath Weston (1991) Families We Choose. New York: Columbia University Press

Posted on October 29, 2015 .