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  • Response to Essays in PEGS Symposium on The Place of Families:Family Life, the Politics of the Family, and Social Transformation
  • Linda C. McClain (bio)

Why do families matter? Why is the premise that strong families are a foundation of a strong polity a staple in political rhetoric, even as the politics of the family remain divisive? I address these questions from the vantage point of political theory and law in The Place of Families: Fostering Capacity, Equality, and Responsibility. My book offers a framework for thinking about the relationship between family life and political life and often contested issues of family law and policy. I appreciate the forum this journal is providing for an exchange about my book with political theorists and political scientists and thank the contributors for their commentaries.

Canvassing the various commentaries reveals both common themes and diverse reactions. My response will first highlight interconnections and then respond to some specific points of each contributor. First, the normative vision that I advance about the place of families is rooted in core liberal and feminist principles. Professors Nancy Hirschmann, Jyl Josephson, and Mary Lyndon Shanley are in basic agreement with this normative vision. By contrast, Manuel Lopez questions whether my normative vision is either possible or good. Second, I identify providing care and fostering civic virtue as two of the basic functions that families serve in what I call a formative project of fostering democratic and personal self-government. Shanley and Josephson concur with this formative role, while Hirschmann offers skepticism about whether families produce social—rather than personal—values and whether, as they actually function, families are seedbeds of civic virtue rather than of civic vices.

Third, the need for and obstacles to social transformation is a theme common to the diverse responses. All four contributors identify certain obstacles to achieving the sort of family law and policy I champion, although they locate these constraints rather differently. Hirschmann suggests that, like other feminists, I direct my attention toward—and am overly sanguine about—the power of the state to bring about fundamental reform, while a better strategy would be for women to pressure men to change their behavior. Josephson cautions that while my arguments carefully and rationally critique conservative arguments and policies, reasonable feminist critiques simply cannot hope to prevail against arguments rooted in ideology. Shanley suggests that what is needed is nothing short of a radical (and unlikely) transformation from the ideology of consumerism and capitalism to a more socialist perspective that better recognizes human interdependency. Finally, Lopez contends that my formative, or transformative project, of promoting sex equality flies in the face of constraints dictated by our human nature, and particularly, our sexual natures as women and men.

The Place of Rights

My book, as Shanley observes, answers the question, "why do families matter?" by emphasizing the formative role of families in producing citizens capable of democratic and personal self-government and how that formative role justifies society's support of families. She comments, however, that a rights orientation would be another way to frame the issue that is consonant with my approach, but different in emphasis. Why not speak about the rights of children to the pre-conditions for stable family relationships and the rights of adults to form and maintain family relationships and the preconditions for sustaining these various rights? Children, as Shanley points out, have needs, vulnerabilities, and interests. For many adults, procreating and parenting are vital parts of a conception of a good life.

I agree that rights have a place. A focus on what children need and deserve—and how this translates into claims to rights—is a useful way to consider the practical as well as political significance of families. My notion of a formative project builds this into "fostering capacity." Just as I focus on capacity, Shanley (drawing on Peggy Cooper Davis's work on the legacy of slavery for current family policy1 ) stresses the capacity to form a family and governmental responsibility to help people form and maintain parent-child relationships. Of course, it bears noting that a rights orientation does not, in and of itself, quell controversies over family law and policy. Disagreements over...


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