General Interest Books -- Women and Families: Feminist Reconstructions by K. M. Baber and K. R. Allen / Rethinking the Family: Some Feminist Questions (Rev. Ed.) by B. Thorne and M. Yalom

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Baber, K. M., & Allen, K. R. (1992). Women and families: Feminist reconstructions. New York: Guilford, 267 pp., $40.00 ($18.95 pbk).

Thorne, B., with Yalom, M. (1992). Rethinking the family: Some feminist questions (rev. ed.). Boston: Northeastern University Press, 310 pp., $37.50 ($14.95 pbk).

I heard recently about a handmade sign at a gay rights rally: "Why should I try to get into the military? If I want a hostile environment, I can always go be with my family." The sign gains its value, of course, by trading on the continuing cultural romance of family life as haven and support group. Anyone whose own experience in family fails to match that dream tends to blame individual kin with no nod at all toward the structure, the promise, or the social order. Sometimes a family therapist does the same. A tendency to get out of balance like that can be permanently cured by the two books reviewed here.

Baber and Allen intend a "comprehensive exploration of women's experiences as members of families written from a postmodern feminist perspective." They do a good service since a great deal of women's real experience gets left out in traditional depictions. Family is said to be where women reign supreme, but the authors describe the family as a prime arena for fostering and reinforcing sexism (as well as heterosexism, classism, ageism, and racism). They make clear that the supposed dominance of women in family life rests not on actual, validated authority but on the thin condition of merely being ceded areas of control which hold no interest for their male partners. Many feminists before them have made this point, but here is the difference. In dynamic tension with that perspective on family, the authors place the fact that "for many women the very aspects of family life that oppress them also offer confirmation and fulfillment." They keep this double vision as they elaborate their presentation.

Indeed, presenting many aspects of women's experience as well as emphasizing the diversity in women's experience are major features of Baber and Allen's approach. Thus when they explore women's intimate relationships, they give substantial attention to marriage, yes, but also to friendships, lesbian partnerships, cohabitation, and non-monogamy instead of treating them as leftovers. Similarly, their discussions of the dialectic aspects of care-giving and the tensions in women's paid and unpaid work address dimensions that are usually neglected.

Studded with research and filled with arguments on all sides of an issue, coverage of each topic ends with the authors putting forth their own position. …