Family Values: Some Teaching Resources, part one

The following is part one of my series on family values from my feminist debates class.


First, a little background. Since I came to the U of M in the fall of 2006, I’ve taught a course on contemporary feminist debates five times. Each time I taught it, I aimed to trouble students’ assumptions about what was at stake with some popular feminist issues, such as: reproductive rights, equality in the workplace, and family-as-patriarchal-institution. I chose readings that complicated their ideas about debate as being for or against an issue (as in the case of pro-choice/pro-life) and worked to get them to recognize what J Butler describes as the “irrepressible complexity” of who and what feminism is.

For our unit on feminist family values, I selected readings that went beyond the typical “mommy wars” debate (between career and stay-at-home moms) and the rejection of the Family as an oppressive, patriarchal institution to explore how our understanding of the family in the early 21st century is dominated by the family values rhetoric of the Christian right. We traced the history of “family values” rhetoric and then explored ways to rethink and reclaim feminist (and queer) families and values. As I taught the course, my readings and topics for this section evolved with my increased interest in queer feminism.

Starting with my spring 2010 version of this course, I posted lecture notes on the blog. The following summary of the issue involves a mash-up of my lectures from Spring 2010 and Spring 2011 (also check out my syllabus for spring 2010 and my syllabus and reading schedule for spring 2011):

Historical Background

The essays that we read for this unit are all responding to a particular moment within American popular/political culture when rhetoric about family values was frequently used to critique feminism and to position feminists as against the family and family values. See my timeline for some general dates related to our discussion.

One oft-cited example of connecting the promotion of family values with the critiquing of feminism is Pat Robertson’s remarks in a 1992 letter opposing Iowa’s equal rights initiative*:

The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.

*Note: When I originally posted this entry earlier today, I indicated that the Robertson quotation came from the 1992 Republic Convention. After further research, I determined that this was not the case (see here for more information).

Another notable (and perhaps the most popular) example of connecting feminism/feminist goals with the erosion of the family and its values is Dan Quayle’s (in)famous comments about the fictional character, Murphy Brown in May of 1992:

It doesn’t help matters when prime time TV has Murphy Brown — a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another `lifestyle choice’. I know it is not fashionable to talk about moral values, but we need to do it. Even though our cultural leaders in Hollywood, network TV, the national newspapers routinely jeer at them, I think that most of us in this room know that some things are good, and other things are wrong. Now it’s time to make the discussion public.

— Vice President Dan Quayle addressing the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco and criticizing Murphy Brown’s decision to be a single (highly successful) mother, 5/19/92.

[Note: I created an in-class exercise with these above quotations in which students spent about 5-10 minutes free-writing some responses to my questions about them: Is feminism necessarily counter to family values? To morality? Is it possible to redefine the family and family values? If so, how?

Important to note is that Quayle’s comments on Murphy Brown are part of a larger speech in which he claims that one of the primary causes of the LA riots (which happened in the summer of 1992 right after the police who beat Rodney King were found not guilty) is the erosion of traditional family values. (As I will discuss later, discussions of the erosion of family and family values by the right is frequently linked to racist rhetoric and the demonizing/pathologizing of black mothers and families). Here is a transcript of the entire speech and a news clip with an excerpt from the speech:

As an aside: Did you watch the entire clip? What do you make of the juxtaposition, by the newscasters, of the clip about Dan Quayle and his description of Murphy Brown as mocking the importance of fathers with the clip about Robert Reed (Mr. Brady) and the revelation that he had died of AIDS and not cancer? Is this merely coincidence that one clip leads to the next? Or, is some connection being encouraged in the viewer?

It would seem that for both Robertson and Quayle, feminism poses a serious threat to the family and its values about “right and wrong”? But, why is feminism such a threat? Why does feminists’ desire to work for an equal rights amendment (Robertson) or a feminist’s choice to be an unwed mother (Quayle) elicit such extreme responses? What anxieties/fears about white masculinity do these feminists claims tap into (see Chloe’s post for more on this)?

In her essay, “It’s All in the Family,” Patricia Hill Collins focuses her attention on “the family” part of family values by exploring “how six dimensions of the traditional family ideal construct intersections of gender, race, and nation (63) and produce/reinforce gender/race/nation hierarchies. She argues that it is crucial for organizations –feminist or Black Nationalist, for example–to be critically aware how they use/invoke  ‘family.’ For more on this article, check out my chart and notes for it.

In their various contributions to the Feminist Family Values Forum, Lloyd, Jimenez, Steinem and Davis focus much of their attention on the “values” part of family values. Indeed, the purpose of the forum was to bring a wide range of women together to talk about what values actually mean and what values feminists want to embrace and promote. See some of my notes for these readings (along with readings by M Pardo and V Lehr).

In bringing all of these readings together, I want us to be curious about:

  • What are families? What are their values?
  • Is feminism bad for families and their values?
  • What sort of values do feminists promote?
  • What does it mean to value something?
  • Why is language about values (and morality) so exclusively linked with one particular vision/version of the family?
  • What differences do you see between the phrases “family values” and “families values”?

a. Selections from Feminist Family Values
b. Lehr, Valerie. “Social Problems and Family Ideology
c. Pardo, Mary. “Mexican American Women Grassroots Community Activists: ‘Mothers of East Los Angeles’”
d. Collins, Patricia Hill. “It’s All in the Family: Intersections of Gender, Race and Nation
e. Henry, Astrid. Not my Mother’s Sister (see ch 1 for background on late 80s/early 90s backlash against feminism)

EXERCISE: Reflecting on family

Drawing upon the readings from the past two weeks, our discussions (in class and on the blogs), and your own observations, write down some thoughts on these different aspects of the “family.”



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