Feminist Visions for Transforming Families: Desire and Equality Then and Now

Katherine R Allen. Handbook of Contemporary Families. Editor: Marilyn Coleman & Lawrence H Ganong. Sage Publication. 2004.

Feminist visions for transforming families must be placed in social-historical context, consciously referencing the past, grounded in the present, and envisioning the future. In this chapter, I address topics that often run counter to prevailing assumptions about family development and change. The method I use to construct my argument is to rely upon my own structural and processual connections to the ideologies and activism I describe. I weave in stories from my private life to illustrate a key principle of feminism, that the personal is political. What occurs in private life is a reflection of power relations in society. The analytic strategy I employ in this chapter is to reveal the connection between the personal and political by using my own life as a bridge for the transfer of feminist insights into family studies. My aim is to invite others into the conscious, reflexive practice of applying feminist knowledge to one’s own life and scholarship. I trust that others, in reading these ideas saturated with personal and political implications, will take the risk of incorporating their own resonances about private life and power relations. By inviting others into their own feminist journey from “silence to language to action” (Collins, 1990, p. 112), I show one way that we as a community of scholars can produce more realistic perspectives about the families we study (Allen, 2000).

Defining Feminism

Like a sandcastle built on the beach, my working definition of feminism reflects the historical moment in which it is posed. In sharing this definition, I am aware of the elements that attempt to knock down my metaphoric sandcastle to whisk it away with the daily flow of the tides or to flagrantly step on it as a mischievous child might do when no one is looking. Whatever the tide or the children do not level, the cleaning machines that rumble down the beach after dark surely will. Like sand fashioned into temporary shapes, feminism can never be encapsulated in a singular treatise; neither can it remain static after being printed on the page. In proposing a working definition of feminism, I take the risk of representing and misrepresenting in unique ways the ideas that fascinate me.

With these caveats in mind, I work toward an understanding of feminism in which I acknowledge the partiality of any definition. It is dangerous to speak seriously as a feminist scholar in a field in which feminist ideas continue to be marginalized (Thompson & Walker, 1995). Human perceptions and relationships are so fragile and tentative that the opportunities for misunderstanding are vast. The potential for connecting around the politicized inquiry associated with feminist family scholarship requires an inclusive, open mind and a patient, loving heart (Allen, 2000). The rewards for looking at family life from a feminist perspective include a deepening connection between how we live and what we study. Feminism is against the status quo. It is an activist endeavor with the goal of social change.

Feminism is a way of being in the world (ontology), a way of investigating and analyzing the world (methodology), and a theory or model of how we know what we know about the world (epistemology) (for variations on these analytic categories, see Cook & Fonow, 1986; Harding, 1987; Hawkesworth, 1989; Riger, 1998). Feminism is not just an idea or a theory; it is also a praxis, the term that Marx used to “distinguish between what one does and what one thinks and to distinguish revolutionary practice from other types of activity” (Nielsen, 1990, p. 34). Praxis is “that continuous reflexive integration of thought, desire, and action” (Simon, 1992, p. 49). Nielsen (1990) further explained that praxis, originating with critical theory, is the active, reflective process that allows us to demystify and expose the real nature of the power relations that drive human interactions and transactions and motivate the desire for social change. Feminist praxis is a conscious, inclusive, and impassioned way of thinking about and operating in the world (Allen, 2000).

Feminism is a liberationist project emerging most recently from the civil rights movement for American blacks in the 1950s and 1960s and spawning the gay liberation movement in the 1970s. The women’s liberation movement, or second-wave feminism, was ignited in the mid-1960s as more and more women started to speak about what they were enduring under capitalist patriarchy, topics that until the publication of Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) were still taboo to either name or discuss (Brownmiller, 1999). The grassroots attempt to emancipate women from oppression, starting in consciousness-raising (CR) groups, grew into a multitude of liberationist efforts (Christensen, 1997). In its current manifestations, feminism is joined with other ideologies and practices embraced by those on the margins to seek justice for all people exploited by global patriarchal capitalism (see Agger, 1998; Alexander & Mohanty, 1997; Ebert, 1996; White, 1991). Combining theory and praxis, then, feminism is a conscious action with the goal of unsettling the normativity (e.g., status quo) that gives unearned privileges to an elite few and exploits the labor, life, and desire of multiple others (Collins, 1990; Lorde, 1984; McIntosh, 1995). This exploitation occurs in systematic ways through the structural and ideological mechanisms of racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ethnocentrism, ageism, able-bodyism, and colonialism.

Feminism shares with other critical theories and practices a challenge to the oppressive conditions that contribute to the individual’s alienation from self, other, and society by unfairly harming some and irrationally privileging others (Agger, 1998). There are countless varieties of feminism and, as in any liberationist movement, many internal and external debates. For example, Brownmiller (1999) chronicled the birth, growth, and transformation of the women’s movement, addressing key feminist issues for the 30 years following 1968, including abortion, rape, heterosexuality and lesbianism, racial injustice, sexual harassment, and pornography. Also, in a recent exchange in the premier journal for feminist scholarship, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Walby (2001a, 2001b), Harding (2001), and Sprague (2001) debated current ideas about the role of science in feminist scholarship. Each day, each conversation, each published work brings a new way to pose a feminist perspective of knowing, being, and acting in the world.

There are many feminist theories (for various accounts, see Ebert, 1996; Herrmann & Stewart, 1994; Jaggar & Rothenberg, 1984; Rosser, 1992; Spender, 1983), including some of the following. Feminism has a liberal slant, wanting to secure equal rights and help women get their fair share of the economic and legal pie. Feminism has a radical slant, characterized by the admonition to “get your laws and your hands off my body.” Feminism has a lesbian slant, in which women choose a woman-centered private life in congruence with their politics as well as their desire (Rich, 1980). Feminism has a cultural slant of valorizing and celebrating women’s unique and, to some, superior ways of being in the world, as in “men have had the power for so long, and look at what a mess they’ve made of things.” Feminism has a multicultural slant, decentering what Morrison (1992) calls whitethings as the unquestioned authority on agency and social relations for all people, including people of color. Feminism has a critical slant, aimed at redistributing the means and ends of production so that “the hand that picks the grapes also gets to drink the wine.”

Locating Myself in Feminism

The feminisms from which I draw traverse all of these categories. As an educated, middle-class white woman who came of age and into a radical consciousness in the second wave of feminist activity in the United States, I have certain unearned privileges that to an extent tolerate and even indulge my challenge of male dominance. When I am seeking equity in work, pay, and legal rights, I am aligned with liberal feminism (Rosser, 1992). When I came to realize that the feelings I had for another woman were passionate love what women in the 19th century called “the love that dared not speak its name” (Faderman, 1991) I claimed a lesbian life, aligning myself with lesbian feminism. The merger of lesbianism and feminism is a cohort phenomenon initiated by women who came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Faderman, 1991). I am a lesbian feminist, then, in the sense that I found in feminism congruence between my lived reality of desiring an end to embodied oppression and my liberationist epistemology. I abandoned heterosexual privilege and let my career slow down to pursue this love that would change my standpoint or the way I looked at the world. When I am critical of feminist ideologies and practices in and of themselves or questioning of my own lesbian standpoint, I am a postmodern feminist (Elam & Wiegman, 1995; Gagnier, 1990).

I am also a critical antiracist white feminist (Frankenberg, 1993), which brings me to the work that ignites my passion now, interrogating my own race and class privilege, opening myself to a feminist politics in which I seek to understand how my identity as a middle-class white woman is complicit in the oppression of others (Allen, 2000). Antiracist feminism, with ties to radical-critical theory (Osmond, 1987), gives me the tools to deconstruct the ways that I am marked by the privilege and power of white patriarchal wealth (Alexander & Mohanty, 1997; Collins, 1990; Ellsworth, 1997; McIntosh, 1995). My praxis is to uncover how I manipulate and employ privilege for my own gain so that I can consciously oppose any participation in racist, classist, or sexist action. I wish to use my knowledge of how unearned privilege wounds those without it to challenge and redirect my impulse to reach for the choicest piece of pie.

Looking through the lens of diverse feminist perspectives on methodology (Harding, 1998), when conducting research in family gerontology, I am a feminist empiricist (Allen, Blieszner, Roberto, Farnsworth, & Wilcox, 1999). When combining my identity politics as an antiracist lesbian feminist, I am drawing from feminist standpoint theory (e.g., Allen, 2000). When applying postmodern theory to feminist family science, as a reconstructionist of women’s experiences in families (Baber & Allen, 1992), I am a feminist postmodernist. Feminists both critique and may incorporate any or all of these perspectives on science: empiricist, standpoint, and postmodern (Harding, 1987; Hawkesworth, 1989; Riger, 1998; Rosser, 1992).

Feminism is a worldview, but it is also a home base. It is a way of living in which I can struggle free from the alienating bonds of patriarchal expectations for a truncated life and envision and then become an authentic self even as I know that authenticity can never be fully realized (Sawhney, 1995). Feminism gives me a position from which to tell the truth, particularly to myself, even if it means speaking bitterness from my raised consciousness. Feminism gives me the courage to love those I desire with passion and without shame. Feminism is the place where my deepest connections are found. With an active feminist awareness, I can name my fears about the future, face my demons from the past, handle the assaults of an unforgiving world, and find joy in living through the process of becoming as fully conscious as my mind, heart, spirit, and body allow (see Krieger, 1996, for an elegant evocation of such a synthesis). This process, of course, has been called many things, from conscientization (Freire, 1970/1997), to enlightenment (Wilber, 1998), and even salvation or serenity. Feminists did not make it up, but at the same time, feminist scholars and activists have generated innovative ways to pursue the conscious desire for truth, justice, equality, integrity, and freedom in terms of exploring sexism (Morgan, 1970), materialism (Ebert, 1996), and racism (Christensen, 1997; Collins, 1990), among other manifestations of oppression. With this as background, I now illustrate feminist desire and equality in the past and present, constructing a sense of feminist history and its influence on family change.

Love between Equals in the 19th Century

Consider the following passage describing the “the beautiful friendship of two ladies,” and the time frame in which it was written:

In their youthful days, they took each other as companions for life, and this union, no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage, has subsisted, in uninterrupted harmony, for 40 years, during which they have shared each other’s occupations and pleasures and works of charity while in health, and watched over each other tenderly in sickness…. They slept on the same pillow and had a common purse, and adopted each other’s relations, and … I would tell you of their dwelling, encircled with roses, … and I would speak of the friendly attentions which their neighbors, people of kind hearts and simple manners, seem to take pleasure in bestowing upon them. (Faderman, 1991, p. 1)

This passage was published in an American newspaper in 1843 by William Cullen Bryant, describing a trip to Vermont, where he met these unmarried women (e.g., “maiden ladies”) who lived together. In the 19th century, female same-sex love, or romantic friendship, was a respected social institution in America. At the height of the Industrial Revolution, the worlds of white middle-class men and women were highly segregated. It was during this time that contemporary gender roles took root. Men worked outside the home in the business world, and women of means withdrew from the world of commerce to the female world of love and ritual (Smith-Rosenberg, 1975).

Gender-segregated marriage was a radical departure from the corporate family unit common in Colonial America over the previous two centuries, where the homestead had been the center of life and survival (Hareven, 1991). In the 19th century, women were not yet full citizens. The U.S. Constitution enfranchised only one third of the population: white, landowning men. Women, native people, and people of color were excluded. Black males, in principle, gained the right to vote with the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, but in practice, the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, particularly in the South, severely restricted full citizenship for those of African descent whose ancestors had been brought to this country by force (Bell, 1992; D’Emilio & Freedman, 1997). Women derived their rights through men; a woman had no sovereignty over her own body, children, or livelihood.

Perhaps because women were second-class citizens, their love for each other did not threaten the establishment. Women who loved other women were invisible (Faderman, 1981). There was no such thing as a lesbian until the late 19th century because women were not believed to be sexual. By the time the emerging discipline of modern sexology came into being, women who loved each other passionately were considered deviant and labeled as female sexual inverts (D’Emilio & Freedman, 1997; Gagnon & Parker, 1995).

By the 20th century, women who realized they were lesbian had little chance to lead an authentic life (Faderman, 1991). They were forced to deny, repress, or hide their feelings because being out had serious consequences. Some women did sacrifice what little freedom they had throughout the past century. Despite being labeled as other, they carved out a life economically, socially, and sexually independent of men, creating a lesbian subculture, most notably among working-class butch or femme women, that had never existed before love between women was defined as abnormal and unusual (Davis & Kennedy, 1986; Faderman, 1991). Their legacy for 21st-century women is that now some women find a lesbian identity viable, appropriate, and healthy (Baber & Allen, 1992). For some, it is a consciously chosen way of life.

In the 19th century, women of color experienced double and triple jeopardy in their struggle for full citizenship (Dill, 1988). The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited entry of Chinese women except as prostitutes or wives of merchants, teachers, and students. The bulk of Chinese immigrants were laborers, and their wives and daughters were not allowed to immigrate (Chow, 1998). By 1890, females constituted about 3% of the Chinese population in the United States. Most of these women had been sold to men in Hong Kong, who later forced them into prostitution. Chinese women were not permitted to enter this country until 1943, when the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was repealed (Chow, 1998). Consider, as well, the following quote from an older black woman that reveals a profound understanding of female oppression in the context of race difference: “The black woman is the white man’s mule and the white woman is his dog” (Collins, 1990, p. 106). One was forced to work much harder than the other, but both women were still the personal property of the master. Feminist historians have uncovered the reality of the constraints placed on women, retelling history from perspectives other than military and political events. They have uncovered ways that women of all backgrounds resisted and created their own lives in spite of the severe restrictions carved into law and everyday practice (Kerber & DeHart-Mathews, 1987).

Feminist Experiments for Radical Change in the 20th Century

After a 70-year struggle of organized activism on many fronts, women earned the right to vote in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment. The next major historic milestone did not occur until half a century later, when another significant female cultural revolution was ignited. Feminist essayist Robin Morgan, editor of the classic 1970 text Sisterhood Is Powerful, called the New Left and its student members “the little boys movement” because its leaders were white middle-class young men who were challenging the hegemonic, militaristic, and capitalist values of their fathers. Yet few acknowledged their debts to the black civil rights movement. Fewer recognized how they were repeating the very patriarchal privilege of the establishment males that they were rebelling against by using women only as sex partners and servants.

Second-wave feminism arose out of women’s dissatisfaction that they were often the invisible laborers in all the liberation movements in which they were involved. Male leaders and partners were not taking their quest for or right to emancipation seriously.

Women started rap groups, or CR groups, anywhere and everywhere suburban kitchens, urban mental health centers, and church basements. I attended my first “speak out” in 1972 when I was a freshman at San Diego State University. I was alarmed by observing women who were speaking and acting with anger. I felt like I was witnessing something taboo, obscene, foreign, and wrong when I heard women speak their bitterness by naming and challenging the patriarchy that severely restricted their opportunities in life.

A year later, I transferred to the University of Connecticut and joined my first CR group. We were a collection of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty wives, women exploring their feelings for other women, and young mothers in turmoil over their seemingly isolated inability to be satisfied with the domestic monotony of their lives. I still have the mimeographed sheets of questions that were distributed in the CR group, which I reread periodically to remind myself that dialogue has always been a revolutionary self-help activity (Freire, 1970/1997). This early process of interrogating the social construction of gender steered me toward the qualitative methodologies I employ as a social scientist today.

We explored messages and expectations from childhood, puberty, and young adulthood. We addressed sex roles and perceptions of masculinity/femininity. We discussed what virginity meant to us and whether any of us still had it. We spent a lot of time discussing our bodies and self-image. We talked about sex, men, and men’s bodiesour desire for them but our disappointment that men did not respond to us in the physical and emotional ways we wanted. We called ourselves emotional lesbians and wore buttons announcing “Together Women Together.” Acknowledging that we felt more comfortable in female space but being too afraid to cross some imaginary line into an authentically embodied space, most of us were unable to transcend the rigid boundaries that heterosexism enforced on all of us from birth. We fought and challenged each other. It was in that context that I began to consciously practice the self-interrogation and rhetorical skills that I incorporate into my scholarship and teaching today.

As embarrassing as it is to tell, I take the risk to share the following story because only in our most vulnerable disclosures can we reveal the truth of how inauthenticity is internalized. Krieger (1991, 1996) explained that such theorized self-disclosure, in which one tells on oneself, is a particular window into the general phenomenon of structural oppression. One Tuesday night in 1975, I was in the midst of describing to my CR sisters how I no longer wanted to go out with a guy I was seeing because he was too nice. My friends pressed me for further information. Baffled by my own untheorized analysis of what was wrong with my partner, I mumbled something about his penis being too small. One of the older participants in the group a woman in her late 40s who had raised five children, and whose husband, a psychology professor, had a reputation for sleeping with students challenged the absurdity of what I was saying: “What do you mean, ‘too nice’?” “What do you mean, ‘too small’?” She attacked these parroted gendered messages that I had internalized messages that I needed a real man, who was rough around the edges and well endowed underneath his clothes to make me a woman. I broke into tears, I felt hatred for her, I shot back with something like “You are a pathetic wife who puts up with your husband’s infidelity in the name of love,” but the truth is, she got to me. She broke through my denial, the distorted sexual script that had been spoonfed to me by my sexist culture. She held up a mirror so that I could confront the convoluted fundamentals of heterosexuality that were motivating my behavior and poisoning any potential partnership with a man.

That CR group endured for the 3 years I spent as an undergraduate at Connecticut. In all its messy confusion and gut-wrenching challenges, it got me through young adulthood and paved the way for deepening my feminist consciousness through reading political texts a process that taught me how to theorize my experience. Faderman (1991) explained that out of this CR context, a new vision of equality emerged. In its purest form, it became the lesbian feminism of the 1970s and 1980s, before AIDS devastated the gay male community in the 1980s (Gagnon & Parker, 1995) and before the lesbian baby boom in the 1980s and 1990s (Patterson, 1994). Like the anomalous social arrangements of the 1950s, with the majority of women staying at home, men in the workforce, and the baby boom in full force (Coontz, 1992), lesbian feminism, as a political ideal, is historically situated a product of the late-20th-century liberation movements.

Lesbian feminism began with a radical separatist impulse. Women who loved women defined themselves in opposition to patriarchy and in opposition to the reformers in the National Organization for Women who wanted lesbians purged from the white middle-class women’s movement (Brownmiller, 1999). But separatism is a project that is doomed to failure, at least on a large scale, as many of the alternative communities (e.g., Shakers, Oneidans, Free Lovers) of the 1800s showed (D’Emilio & Freedman, 1997). Formed in reaction to male-dominated culture, separatism is fueled by negative energy to not do things, such as vote, interact with males, or support the patriarchy (Johnson, 1989). An “us versus them” mentality is responsible for the demise of many liberation movements and ideological feuds, such as the capitalists versus the communists, the men versus the women, the straight women versus the lesbians, the blacks versus the whites, the structural functionalists versus the symbolic interactionists, the Hatfields versus the McCoys. These binary oppositions make neat boxes to dump our confusing thoughts into, but all they produce are scapegoats, heartache, and further oppression (Lorde, 1984). The challenge is to be for something without necessarily being against some arbitrary other.

Today, feminist desires for equality no longer freeze on gender as the only category. Black women, Latina women, Asian American women, working-class women, lesbians, old women, and men who love women, among others, have demonstrated that an analysis of gender alone is not sufficient to resist and transform oppressive social structures and processes. We must interrogate the intersections among gender, race, class, and sexual orientation by examining issues in all of their complexity. Bernice Johnson Reagon, a scholar, performer, and activist who organized the African American women’s vocal ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, is unapologetic about the need for all of us, regardless of race, class, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, to acknowledge our debt to the blacks who started and sustained the civil rights movement and to correct our reluctance to recognize more than one form of oppression as primary (Christensen, 1997). Reagon (1983) uses her standpoint as a black woman as a starting point for any project and as grounds for reforming and redefining political expression:

Black folks started it, Black folks did it, so everything you’ve done politically rests on the efforts of my people that’s my arrogance! Yes, and it’s the truth; it’s my truth. You can take it or leave it, but that’s the way I see it. So once we did what we did, then you’ve got women, you’ve got Chicanos, you’ve got the native Americans, and you’ve got homosexuals, and you got all of these people who also got sick of somebody being on their neck. And maybe if they come together, they can do something about it. And I claim all of you as coming from something that made me who I am. You can’t tell me that you ain’t in the Civil Rights movement. You are in the Civil Rights movement that we created that just rolled up to your door. But it could not stay the same, because if it was gonna stay the same it wouldn’t have done you no good. (p. 362)

Feminist Visions for Now and into the Future

World Traveling

Feminist scholars have demonstrated how inaccurate it is to treat gender as a separate and singular analytic category (Christensen, 1997; Hawkesworth, 1997). Yet in the discipline of family studies, even talking about gender is a taboo subject in many quarters (see the critique by Thompson & Walker, 1995). The dominant discourse about gender roles is still protected and rarely questioned (for an elaboration of how privilege and oppression operate in the theory and science of family studies, see recent analyses by Allen, 2000; Marks, 2000; and Walker, 2000). But there is a progressive energy in family studies to acknowledge how the world is changing. Underscoring this energy is the spiritual ability to hold oneself responsible as a positive force for change (Allen, 2000). I desire social justice not just for myself and those I love but for anyone who is at risk. As we enter the 21st century, feminist theory is incorporating a renewed critique of the “exploitive relations of production and the unequal divisions of labor, property, power, and privilege these produce” (Ebert, 1996, p. xi) into the current postmodern trend in which a “localist genre of descriptive and immanent writing” (p. xii) prevails. Both social critique and cultural analysis are needed to enable a transformative feminism “of transnational equality for all people of the world” (p. xiii).

Feminist practice in family studies is active and ongoing, but much more work still needs to be done. We cannot just talk about how oppression has affected and made us into the women and men we are today. Feminist praxis is revolutionary. Thompson and Walker (1995) concluded that feminism has had a far greater impact on family pedagogy than on family research. Indeed, activist feminist teaching continues to inspire the discipline (for recent examples, see Allen, Floyd-Thomas, & Gillman, 2001; Baber & Murray, 2001; Fletcher & Russell, 2001). We can make greater progress in terms of how we envision and study families by incorporating feminist lessons into our work. Lugones (1990) proposed the metaphor of world traveling to apply the principle of the personal as political to our practice in coming to value and respect the humanity of others. She described how we can bridge the span between our own experiences and those of others, thereby challenging traditional assumptions about individuals, families, and societies:

There are worlds we enter at our own risk, worlds that have agony, conquest, and arrogance as the main ingredients in their ethos. These are worlds that we enter out of necessity and which would be foolish to enter playfully. But there are worlds that we can travel to lovingly and traveling to them is part of loving at least some of their inhabitants. The reason why I think that travelling to someone’s world is a way of identifying with them is because by traveling to their world we can understand what it is to be them and what it is to be ourselves in their eyes. Only when we have traveled to each other’s worlds are we fully subjects to each other. (p. 401)

Building on Lugones’s (1990) suggestion, we can adopt an attitude of careful curiosity toward the experiences of others (Thompson, 1995). What does it mean to travel to someone else’s world? What can we gain by becoming “fully subjects to each other?” I offer a glimpse of this process in a story from my own life. I hope, like Hansel and Gretel in one of Grimm’s fairy tales (Lang, 1969), that by leaving these stones, others can retrace their steps out of the forest of denial and into a place of renewed commitment to uncovering the realities of family life from the perspectives of those who live it.

My son, at 14, has just experienced his mother’s second divorce. The first one occurred when his father and I parted company after a long and difficult decision-making process, concluding that our marriage was never going to work out as planned. Matt was 2 at the time, and although I retained physical custody, his father has remained an active part of his life. After this divorce, I entered a lesbian partnership with another woman, who assumed most of the primary caregiving for our chosen family. Eventually, we had a second child (born to her), whose father was my brother’s life partner. Our family seemed complete, and we proudly professed to the world how well our chosen family was working. Open in our community, we enjoyed the lesbian poster family status we achieved, feeling protected and secure in how we presented ourselves to the world.

Then, the unfathomable happened, at least from my perspective. My former partner and I had just gotten a civil union in the state of Vermont, the first state in the United States to offer marriagelike benefits to gay and lesbian partners. We had also completed the legal work to add her last name onto Matt’s name and to give me joint custody of our second child. It seemed that after 12 years in a committed partnership, we now had as many legal safeguards in place as possible. Yet soon after the civil union in Vermont, my partner found herself falling in love with another woman in our community, a divorced, heterosexual mother of two whose children also attended our children’s school. In a matter of weeks, my partner confessed her newfound love and left our home and family to be with this woman and her children. She took our second child with her, leaving Matt and me behind.

Like most people who are left in marriage or other domestic partnerships, I experienced the abrupt ending of this relationship as a painful surprise (Chodron, 1997; Fisher & Alberti, 2000; Kingma, 2000; Murray, 1994). After all, we had just repeated our vows to love and care for each other for the rest of our lives. I was not prepared for her seemingly sudden change of heart, but after several months of denial, I had to admit to myself that she was gone. Almost overnight, the old definition of our family as headed by two lesbian mothers raising two young sons with several fathers in the picture was also over. I had to play catch-up to my former partner in terms of coming to terms with the fact that the family I had staked my identity on no longer existed. What’s worse, we were unable to negotiate a new family relationship. The odd branches we had sprouted on the family tree (Stacey, 2000), of which I had once been so proud, had been chopped off, and my ex-partner no longer resembled the person I once cherished.

As self-absorption with my own pain subsided, I started to notice my son’s reactions to this ordeal. He seemed happier now that there were only the two of us. I was unprepared for his point of view on the family breakup: Now he finally had me, his mom, all to himself. He said that although he felt abandoned by my ex-partner, our home was much more relaxed without her rules and without having to share me with his sibling.

It has taken me a while to face up to the fact that my son’s definition of our family was not the same as mine. My writings about chosen family ties and the careful construction of a lesbian family disintegrated under his scrutiny. As I experienced this unitarily constructed definition of my family crumble, like those grains of sand in my metaphoric sandcastle, I learned some painful lessons that are already in the family studies literature but were not yet real to me. I had not yet lived through the crucible in which I felt the heat of their truth. My son was a major teacher of these lessons.

He was taking the breakup of my partnership and our chosen family in stride. He was sorry that I was so sad to be left by someone I trusted and loved, but from his point of view, life was far easier with only one doting parent in his home. Having had two mothers was fine, he said, when he was little, but now that he was about to enter high school, he asked me, with a slight smile, if I would start dating guys until he graduated. The things that mattered to him were not really what I thought would matter. He wanted to be reassured that his standard of living would not decrease, that I would get the emotional support I needed from friends and therapy to still be a strong person, that I would have more time to spend with him in the ways he wanted me available (e.g., at home, but not scrutinizing his activities too closely), and that I would continue to have my own life and not meddle in his. I thought he would be devastated by the loss of his other mother and his sibling, but to the contrary, he expressed relief.

In these conversations with and observations of my son, I saw that the person I was raising was thinking very differently than I. I saw that one loving and relatively well-functioning parent was enough for him to feel safe and secure. I witnessed something I had given lip service for years that children need somebody to be intensely connected to them (Bronfenbrenner & Weiss, 1983). I saw that I needed to be as strong and healthy as I could and not give into my grief over being left because my primary responsibility was to raise this boy to adulthood. I saw that grief takes the course that all the self-help books say it does: at least 1 year to recover from the catastrophic exit of a life partner. I saw that despite the two divorces to which I had subjected my son, he was wise beyond his years and more loving toward me than I thought I deserved. Contrary to being the failure I felt I was in my own eyes, I was a capable and successful adult in his. He wanted me to know that nothing could take away his love for me and that I did not need a second adult in the home to cushion his transition to adulthood.

This experience has taught me the importance of social support, adequate economic resources, sobriety in thought and deed, and a deepening appreciation for a spiritual power beyond my own control. At midlife, I learned that although life can deal some devastating blows, it is possible to renew and rebuild. I could not have gained this perspective without traveling to my son’s world or without the incredible support I received from friends in my private life and teachers in the books I read. A feminist vision for transforming families is one in which clear-sighted honesty for what is really going on takes precedence over the myths we tell ourselves of how things should function (Ruddick, 1989).

Traveling to Others’ Worlds

In this chapter, I have activated my own experience to illustrate how feminist ideas can inform family scholarship because I am committed to the revolutionary project of social change. I want to see families taken seriously at all levels. To do that, we need clear-sighted vision, not cockeyed optimism or gloomy denial found in traditional family social science. Real life is the greatest teacher, and it is not surprising that some of the most profound and lasting insights have come from lived experience, as evident in the process by which Piaget’s observations of his three children metamorphosed into an intellectual industry in the behavioral and social sciences.

To initiate one’s own journey for a deeper consciousness about the families we study, I offer the following reflective inventory of questions. These questions are guides for making the personal-to-political connection, thereby facilitating the journey of discovering how what goes on in private life reflects what goes on in the world.

  1. What is it about my personal experience that is unresolved? What do I not yet understand about myself? In what areas of my experience do I feel negative emotions (e.g., shame, doubt, guilt, and remorse)? In what areas of my experience do I feel positive emotions (peace, acceptance, joy, and happiness)? How are these emotions connected to my thoughts about families?
  2. What are my motivations for doing this work? Who am I trying to impress? What would I rather be doing than working on this project? What do I hope to contribute to my own life and to family scholarship by pursuing this work?
  3. What is my responsibility to the people whose lives I am studying? What do I owe them for giving me the opportunity to get inside their lives? What do I want to give back? What do I now understand about human existence (my own included) as a result of conducting this work? How can this work benefit the well-being of others?

Answering these questions makes it clear that the process of reflecting on one’s life and writing down the responses without self-censorship can be the kind of liberatory experience feminism promises. By freeing the writer within (Goldberg, 1986), we can replace our distanced stance from the subjects of our study with a critical eye toward the private-public connection. Taking these steps brings us closer to the revolutionary feminist praxis I have described in this chapter. In these ways, we can travel from silence to language to action (Collins, 1990), learning to theorize private experience in the service of creating a more just world.