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How to Create a Feminist Utopia: Redefine the Family!

Paramount Television

A feminist utopian economy would possess two major characteristics. First, it would possess a fundamentally different definition of “family.” Second, it would possess a robust public sector to regulate capital markets. Fundamental to both of these characteristics is truth: a feminist utopian economy would possess an honest understanding of the realities of both the private and public spheres and the flawed human beings that occupy these spheres.

Today we hold a romanticized view of what a family actually is: a team of people all moving toward the same goal. That view has long been mirrored back at us in popular culture—perhaps most obviously in shows like The Cosby Show and The Brady Bunchwhich portray a sense of unity. The Bradys, after all, are a single bunch, as opposed to related individuals.

But a family is hardly a “unit.” It is a gathering of distinct individuals who possess distinct desires and needs. For example, a working parent’s desire to perform well at work is connected with her personal ambition, not necessarily its effect on her children.

A feminist utopian economy would appreciate this. It would understand a  fundamentally different definition of what “family” really means. It would acknowledge the reality of diverging interests among family members depending on their role in the reproductive and productive realms. If The Brady Bunch epitomizes the current understanding of the cohesive unit, Louis C.K.’s show Louie gives us a taste of how citizens of utopia would conceive of family: following the eponymous character, his two difficult daughters, and his ex-wife, it correctly portrays a family as a collection of annoying people who all want their own way.

Following this baseline understanding, economic organization and policies would respond to individual family members’ needs. Family members would retain some separate resources, rather than pooling all income, to ensure they can pursue their own dreams and interests regardless of their unit’s approval—a change particularly important for women, whose freedom has historically depended on a father or partner’s “allowance.” The government will provide school tuition to ensure that a child’s access to educational opportunities isn’t dependent on parents’ investment and priorities.

In addition, in a feminist utopian economy, the entire concept of family would be pulled out of the “private sphere,” a shroud (dependent on the idea of the unitary, conflict-free household) that disempowers women and children and dates back as far as modern history allows us to look. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville approvingly observed that in the United States, “the inexorable opinion of the public carefully circumscribes woman within the narrow circle of domestic interests and duties and forbids her to step beyond it.” As Catharine MacKinnon argues in Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, this lays the foundation for domestic violence being treated as a private “family” matter, one that should not be addressed by public resources such as police or public housing.

We should instead recognize that the front door of a home is not a magic wall behind which the rules and realities of public life have no relevance. Individuals build families within the context of broader communities, and what happens at home follows when they leave.

The utopian understanding of the public family would, by extension, mean the economy wouldn’t distinguish between work in and out of the home—and so would be structured such that the labor of the domestic sphere is worthy of economic value. The understanding that care work is actually work rather than a quality inherent to mothers would be the norm, and the government would compensate both men and women for caring for their dependents. In building this utopian system, we’d be able to turn to American history for blueprints. Prior to welfare reform legislation of 1996, welfare was structured in a way that provided long periods of cash assistance to families. Family, in these cases, was defined as a pregnant or parenting woman and her dependents. However, welfare reform debates revealed that disdain for that system in part because the care work of single mothers was deemed unproductive. Welfare reform was designed to replace domestic labor with low wage jobs, necessitating that the children who would otherwise be cared for by their parent be placed in care of a patchwork of daycare, friends, and relatives.

But in a feminist utopian economy, welfare would be lauded for ensuring that all families in need have cash assistance because the labor of parenting is so important for healthy child development, and often so hard to manage while working outside of the home. The understanding that domestic labor is indeed real work is gaining more traction in our world today because of the domestic workers’ movement—a movement to ensure basic labor protections for nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers—but this effort has not been without opposition.

How would this real work be compensated? A feminist utopian economy would not, necessarily, be an anticapitalist one. Instead, it might be regulated by a government that would acknowledge that greed and the quest or power are inevitable qualities in humans—and therefore must be controlled by a robust and fearless public sector and an equally robust and fearless feminist legal code that makes human rights its purpose above all else.

Critical to this robust public sector would be an acknowledgment of the value of all workers in the economy and stronger wages for all workers, along with protected and paid time off for illness or for the needs of family to ensure greed never overruns decent conditions for workers.

But why not imagine away all these human faults entirely rather than imagine how to regulate them? Acknowledging humans’ tendency toward greed is critical to a vision for what is possible. A sanitized picture of utopia that erases the darker sides of human drive would be one in which we are never striving to be better. One of the key truths that feminist scholarship has conveyed is that feminism at its core challenges existing economic, political, sexual, religious, and other systems and how we’ve constructed them—about breaking them down and building up a new reality. It involves acknowledgment that humans are flawed, ever-changing, needing love, needing validation, and always moving in directions that earn them love and validation. A feminist utopian economy would not deny these realities, but embrace them.

This essay appears in The Feminist Utopia Project: Fifty-Seven Visions of a Wildly Better Future edited by Alexandra Brodsky and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff, forthcoming on October 13, 2015 from The Feminist Press, Copyright © 2015 by Alexandra Brodsky and Rachel Kauder Nalebuff.