Profamily Hoopla

Profamily Hoopla
Nan Fink
n May 14, 1988, a bright and
warm Saturday, forty thousand people gathered near
the Washington Monument in Washington D.C. for the American Family
Celebration. From its name this event
easily could have been another rightwing rally for the preservation of the
nuclear familv
O n e look at the crowd. however.
made it clear that this was no right-wing
event. At least half of the people present
were union-affiliated-identifiable bv
their colorful union hats and T-shirts,
and their loud cheers when their union
officials were introduced. The broad
ethnic mix and the many visible "Jackson for President" buttons were also
indications of the progressive leanings
of the crowd.
The event itself was in the best of
the American festive tradition-relaxed
and upbeat. People lounged in the
sun, their kids were entertained by a
children's program, they ate from picnic
baskets or bought food from vendors,
they strolled around the literature tables
set up by union, political, and religious
organizations, and they listened to
music and speeches. 'Are you having
fun?" one of the speakers asked. Those
who were listening yelled, "Yes! "
Yet, despite the celebratory air of
the event, concern about American
family life was the theme of the many
speeches given by high union officials,
liberal congresspeople, and heads of
organizations such as the National
Organization of Women and the National Council of Churches. The fact
that the U.S. is the only industrialized
nation in the world, except for South
Africa, that doesn't have a national
family policy was repeated throughout
the afternoon. Speakers, citing the many
serious ~ ~ ~ b lfaced
e m bv
~ families
today, called for a host of improvements in government support servicesincluding family and medical leave,
Nan Fink is the publisher ofTikkun
quality health care, increased child
and elder care, equal pay for men and
women, better education for children,
economic security for all families, and
more housing for poor families.
American Family Celebration, with
its Americana air and its progressive
criticism of US. family policy, was
organized by the Coalition of Labor
Union Women (CLUW), an organization of activist women from many different unions. According to Joyce Miller,
president of CLUW and vice president
of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers, members of CLUW have
been concerned about family issues
since 1971. It is only in the last few
years, however, that CLUW has translated this concern into action. CLUW's
programming is directed toward unions,
and unions (with the exception of
some local chapters) have not wanted
to deal with family issues. In fact, the
all-out union support given to American
Family Celebration-an indication of
a major change in union attitude toward
family issues-came
somewhat as a
surprise even to the event's organizers.
Such support would have been unthinkable only one or two years ago.
The shift in union consciousness
about family issues that made this
event possible in 1988 reflects the growing openness to profamily concerns
among many groups on the left. This
shift on the left is remarkable, because,
since the 1960s and until recently, the
left either ignored the family or saw it
as an instrument of oppression of everyone but white heterosexual males.
The left's long-standing resistance
to identifying family issues as important
and its hostility toward people who care
about the quality of family life can be
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seen no more clearly than in two articles
printed in The Nation in 1982. In
"Recapturing the Family Issue" Michael
Lerner, now editor of Tikkun, wrote
that there needs to be a left profamily
voice that addresses the specific problems of American family life today.
People, he wrote, are attracted to the
right because it is the only place where
their concern about family life is being
taken seriously. H e proposed an ambitious three-part program-including a
family Bill of Rights, a family support
network, and an American Families'
Day celebration.
From the reaction to this article, one
would have thought that Lerner had
advocated that everyone be locked into
oppressive nuclear families. Barbara
Ehrenreich, co-chair of Democratic
Socialists of America, responded in
The Nation by saying that profamily
concern comes from "nasty impulses,"
such as racism, sexual repressiveness,
and misogyny. It leads people to back
off from the "important" issues of
gender and sexual liberation. Describing left-wing profamilyism as "puritanical" and Lerner's proposals as "an
affront to common sense," she suggested
that we need a supportive infrastructure
of community institutions-not family
In 1982, Lerner was apparently ahead
of his time. However, it is now 1988,
and most progressives consider the
family to be a legitimate object of
concern. Almost all of us, after all, are
in families, whether we like it or not.
Also, we have broadened the definition
of family to include alternatives to the
man/woman/one or more kids (in that
hierarchical order) constellation. Those
of us living with a child and/or with a
gay lover, for example, now think of
ourselves as living in families.
ot only have we redefined
the family to include all sorts
- of variations, but, as the years
have gone by and we have had to deal
with family responsibilities and pressures, we have been made all too painfully aware by the grind of our daily
lives that family life is very difficult.
Problems we have with child care, health
care, elder care, work, and making
enough money to pay for everythingall these things create enormous pressure, and this pressure affects the
quality of our family lives. As we look
at other industrialized countries and
VOL. 3, No. 4
see that they provide more support for
their families, it makes sense to us to
fight for that support in this country.
Given that there is a recent, growing openness to profamilyism amongst
progressives, several questions about
strategy emerge. First, how can we
push for greater family support without
giving up the broad definition of the
family we have worked so hard to
attain? There is a danger here: In order
to get support for a national profamily
~ o l i c y we
, might end up not insisting
that all configurations of families be
A case in point is American Family
Celebration. Although there were a
few references in the speeches to "there
are all kinds of families," the literature
for the event side-stepped the question
of what is a family. Before the event,
gays and lesbians asked CLUW leadership more specifically to include homosexual couples as families. C L U W
responded by encouraging gays to participate in the celebration hut not to
expect that all their issues would be
dealt with at that time.
At the event itself, family life seemed
to be equated with heterosexuality.
There were many references in the
speeches to single mothers, old couples,
and poor families-but no talk about
gay couples or gay parents. CLUW
organizers appeared to be afraid of
turning off union leadership by including gays. However, if the left is going
to make headway in sparking a profamily movement, it is important not
to marginalize gay families. A left profamily platform won't be supported by
most leftists unless it includes all kinds
of families.
Another question about profamily
strategy that emerges is how to channel
concern about the family into effective
political action. The purpose of American Family Celebration was to build
support for progressive legislation in
areas connected with family welfare.
Given the large number of people that
turned out and the spirit with which
those people responded to speeches
about the need for a national family
policy, it appeared that the event was
an effective support-building mechanism. The problem was, however, that
there was no follow-up.
People at the celebration were encouraged to sign petitions that included
two sections, the first of which was a
,general statement that the federal gov-
ernment has "an essential role to olav
in strengthening the basic rights for
American families." The second section,
A Call to Action, urged US. Congress
members to support specific pieces of
profamily legislation that have been
introduced in the House or Senate. The
petition, although good tor consciousness raising, was only a first step-and
a wimpy one, at that, People at the
event could have been organized to
lobby individual congressional members
about particular pieces of legislation
(most crucial is the Family and Medical
Leave Act, which has a good chance of
American Family Celebration, as a
first step in reclaiming the family issue,
was successful in that it got across the
need for a national family policy. Predictably, the event focused on specific
problems of families-e.g. poor education, lack of health care, and poverty.
Typical was the statement, "We need
good child care for our children!"
As important as it is to press for the
eradication of these, and other, family
problems, it is equally important that
the problems be put into a larger
context. This was done only to the
extent that speakers at the event blamed
the Reagan administration for making
things worse for families. Connecting
links between the structure of capitalism
and oroblems in familv life were not
mentioned at all. For example. there
was no discussion about how the competitive American economy creates
pressures for people at work-and
how these pressures cause people to
be less available for loving family
In order for the left to mobilize
around family issues, the connecting links need to be made clear so
that people understand that improving
family life is not just a matter of
developing a better system of child
care or giving money to poor families
(as good as these things would be). A
progressive profamily platform needs
to help people recognize how these
problems are connected and how they
are the result of the social system that
exists in the U.S. Otherwise, it will be
mobilizing around a family "wish-list"
and miss the larger picture. Those
people who care about family life in
America-and who are not caught up
in right-wing profamilyism-are more
likely to respond to a deeper analysis
of the family issue. 0