whose values?

This afternoon, I picked up a book on Barbara Kruger, an artist that I wrote about in a blog post earlier this week, from the local library. It’s awesome! (Thanks AMP for suggesting that I look at her stuff). As I was watching women’s volleyball on the Olympics, I found this image, a magazine cover she did in 1992:

It’s from 1992 and all about family values rhetoric. Cool. I don’t have time to read the Newsweek article right now, so I’m just posting it here, along with a few other links I found related to this image:

Newsweek article
MoMA on image
Art; Barbara Kruger: Cover Girl

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.”



What are family values?

My 6 year old daughter Rosie created and posted the above sign on our door a few weeks ago. It’s in opposition to the proposed Minnesota Marriage amendment. Rosie passionately believes that you should be able to mary [sic] who you want. Yep, she’s awesome.

Yesterday, as I was looking through various sources on virtue ethics, I came across a book that I checked out of the U of Minnesota library years ago: Bill Bennet’s The Book of Virtues. In fact, I checked this book out around the same time that I started this blog. I know this because I remember checking it out as I was reading and writing about Peter Sagal’s The Book of Vice.

Since first mentioning this book on my blog, I’ve thought about creating some sort of response and/or alternative to Bennet’s call for and list of virtues. My own children’s book of virtues? A critical essay dissecting the problems with Bennet’s approach? An edited collection with essays on various feminist (and queer) virtues? Yep. I’ve tentatively (and rather vaguely) imagined all of these approaches. But, since I’ve been too busy teaching and researching and writing other things (and trying to raise two young kids while struggling to cope with my mom’s diagnosis and then death from pancreatic cancer), I haven’t had enough time to follow through on any of these (rather ambitious) plans. Instead, over the past three years, I’ve sprinkled in random musing about these virtues into my blog posts. Note: I hope to cull this blog sometime soon and collect many of those musings. I’ve also made family values, which Bennet uses The Book of Virtues to promote, a frequent teaching topic for one of the classes that I’ve taught many times for the U of M Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies Department.

Inspired by my revisiting of Bennet’s introduction to the book, this week I’m working on collecting and archiving some of my past class summaries from my lecture notes, handouts and course blogs on family values in my feminist debates course. As I’ve mentioned in other blog posts, I’m in the process of migrating my material from my U of M blogs and archiving my teaching resources. I hope to post them in a ridiculously long blog entry by the end of the week.

For now, I want to offer up a question that makes me curious. In the introduction, Bennett argues that his book is a  “‘how to’ book for moral literacy” that can provide kids with valuable resources for how to develop a moral/good/admirable character. His vision of moral literacy includes the following character traits:


Question: What traits do you think are necessary for moral literacy?

I’m still live-tweeting the Brady Bunch

Last night @room34 and I live-tweeted two more Brady Bunch episodes:

Vote for Brady (11)
The Voice of Christmas (12)

Here are some things that were particularly striking (in 2 episodes that weren’t that memorable):

Feminism in “Vote for Brady”

Just a few episodes ago, in “A Clubhouse is Not a Home,” the battle of sexes between Mike/Greg/Peter/Bobby and Carol/Marcia/Jan/Cindy (where does Alice fit into this?) explicitly drew upon feminist language and idea(l)s. In “A Vote for Brady,” the conflict between Greg and Marcia has nothing to do with their gender representations. Greg doesn’t make any claims about being more qualified because he is a boy and Marcia doesn’t argue for equality because she’s a girl. It’s as if all of the conflict and feminist rabble-rousing from “A clubhouse is not a home,” which aired on Oct 31, 1969 (less than two months before “Vote for Brady” aired on Dec 12, 1969), never happened. I’m not really surprised, but I still think it’s worth noting how and when the Brady girls ignore/invoke feminist ideals. Ignoring the feminist ideals of equality, women’s rights and deserving to have and do everything that boys can that she spouted two months earlier, Carol (somewhat passively) encourages Marcia to give up and let Greg win the election:

Religion in the Brady Bunch

In “The Voice of Christmas,” Carol is planning to sing at church on Christmas Day. Everyone is devastated (yes, it’s Brady drama of the highest order!) when she loses her voice. As I was watching the episode I was struck by how rarely church is mentioned on the Brady Bunch. I tweeted:

I’m pretty sure this is the only episode in which they go to church. This makes me curious about how religion gets represented in sitcoms (in the 70s and now). The Bradys are considered by many to be a “family values” family. How does religion fit/fail to fit into their world view and daily practices? In what other ways do they represent their faith or spirituality (my BA is in religion and I’m really interested in how religion gets represented in pop culture and gets constrained by limited/narrow/rigid understandings of faith and spirituality in the family values rhetoric of the Christian right)? I think I might have to make a special note of the Brady’s expressions of faith. For example, do they ever pray before bed? Interesting to note: Cindy is particularly upset by Carol’s inability to sing. Who does she turn to? Santa Claus (not God…no tear-filled prayers for her). I’m pretty sure none of the kids say any prayers for Mom to get her voice back. 

The Battle of the Sexes, Brady Bunch Style

Last night, STA and I live-tweeted 2 more episodes of The Brady Bunch, Season 1. Here are the tweets archived on Storify:

A Clubhouse is not a Home (6)
Kitty Karry-all is Missing (7)

Both were memorable episodes, introducing some themes that will be repeated again and again…and again throughout all five seasons. For example, the Kitty Carry-all episode is a great illustration of how easily and cruelly the kids turn on each other and how effectively they regulate and discipline each other. As I live-tweet the series, this is one theme that I’m particularly interested in tracking, especially how it relates to the particular brand of family values that the Brady’s practice and promote.

Another important theme is the repeated reference to feminism and feminist principles. “A Clubhouse is not a Home” is the first explicit reference to feminism. They mention the need for equality,


the right to fair treatment for girls/women

and the girls even protest their unequal treatment with picket signs.


Wow. I’m not sure what they’re doing with feminism in this episode (well, I think I know, but…)


I want to revisit Mimi Marinucci’s great article on the Brady Bunch, “Television, Generation X, and Third Wave Feminism: A Contextual Analysis of the Brady Bunch” in order to put their mention of feminism in this episode into the larger context of the entire series and its relationship to 1970s culture. Briefly, here’s Marinucci’s summary of the episode:

In a very early episode, the Brady girls demand equal access to the Brady boys’ clubhouse (‘‘A Clubhouse Is Not a Home’’). When Mike and the boys exclude them, Carol decides that the girls should begin building a clubhouse of their own. The point, however, is not actually to build a clubhouse, but to do such a poor job that Mike and the boys will take pity and build it for them. The scheme works, and Mike sends the girls to fetch lemonade while he and the boys get to work.

What she seems to be getting at with her description is that, even as The Brady Bunch draws upon feminist principles/slogans, it does so in a way that undercuts them. The girls will try anything to get access to their own space; they’ll spout “feminist principles” that they don’t really believe in or understand or pretend to be incompetent in order to trick the boys into doing the work for them. Do I agree with this assessment? Hmm…not sure, yet.