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Diverse forms of family life merit recognition


American families are increasingly diverse in their forms. It is no longer possible to speak of one normative form of the family in relation to which all others are regarded as deviant. According to the 1996 census, there were 100 million households in the United States, a full 30 million of which consist of single people, men or women. These single-person householders are people across all stages of the life cycle, from unmarried young professionals, never married or divorced middle-aged men or women, and older men or women. Thus the single-person household has become one of the major forms of the U.S. household.

The largest type of household is the two-earner married couple, with or without dependents. This type of household accounts for about 34 percent of households.

The married couple with only the male as breadwinner, or what some see as the “traditional family,” is now only about 22 million households, or less than a fourth of all households. Female-headed households with dependents are about 13 percent of households, and male-headed households with dependents and no spouse are about 3 percent. These bare statistics conceal much more diversity. Gay and lesbian couples with or without children or other dependents may be around 5 percent of households, although they are listed as single persons or male- or female-headed households.

About half of American marriages end in divorce and about 80 percent of those remarry, so many households consist of blended families. Americans are marrying later, in their late 20s or early 30s, especially for those men and women establishing a professional career, and these professional women are having babies later than any time in history, in their 30s and even early 40s.

This diversity is causing consternation to those social conservatives who assume that there is only one form of family divinely mandated by God, and that is the patriarchal heterosexual family with working male breadwinner and dependent wife. But contrary to the rhetoric of Christian social conservatives, this form of the family is not to be found in the Bible and was only a minority expression of the family for the white middle class in the late 19th to mid-20th centuries.

Many forms of family are found in Hebrew scripture, one of the most typical being the polygamous family, usually with two wives, the children of both wives and also servants or slaves and their children. The New Testament is distinguished by a sharp attack on the patriarchal slaveholding family in favor of a vision of a new age in which “there will be no more marrying and giving in marriage.” In the later strata of the New Testament in the post-Pauline epistles, there was an effort to restore the patriarchal slaveholding family as normative for Christians, but this was contested by those who clung to the anti-family tradition.

Through most of human history, husband, wife and their children have worked together in household economies. The split between home and work, as separate female and male spheres, arose only with the white management class after industrialization. It is this group that created the ideology of the dependent unemployed wife or “full-time housewife,” but this ideal was inaccessible for most working class, black and immigrant families who depended on the wages of both husband and wife and also those of older children.

The possibility of a wife who is not employed depends on a male wage sufficient by itself to support the whole family comfortably. Most white middle-class people no longer see themselves as having an adequate income from one breadwinner and depend on at least two workers in a family for an adequate wage. Thus the predominance of the two-earner household is the result less of feminism than of economics, although feminism has played a major role in giving women access to civil rights, education and better-paid jobs.

Although they are only a few percent of American households, gay and lesbian couples have become a major flash point of controversy in American society precisely because they are seeking normalization of their status as families with the same legal rights as heterosexual families. Legal marriage in the United States carries with it a package of benefits: the right to share medical benefits, inherit a pension, parental rights toward children and the like, all of which are denied to gay and lesbian couples.

An increasing number of gay men and lesbians are raising children, either children from a former heterosexual marriage, adopted children or children created through artificial insemination. Some lesbian couples are choosing to have one spouse bear one child and the other spouse bear the next, sometimes with semen donated by the same male so the children will be related. Lesbians are asking for the legal right for the partner who did not give birth to adopt the child borne by the other partner, something at present allowed by only a few states.

Vermont is the first state to pass a law that allows full and equal civil legal status to gay and lesbian couples. Despite the uproar over this, I suspect it will become more common in the United States, as is already the case in Europe, because it is a reform that favors responsible relationships of couples toward each other and toward dependents. That is in the interests of society.

What has been called “family values” by the Christian right is basically an ideological insistence on one form of family that no longer works for most Americans, and that actually results in the impoverishment of the poorest families by denying such basic needs as better wages, adequate health care and child care. A better family policy for both the churches and society involves acceptance of and support for a diversity of family forms. This diversity is already the reality of American life. We need to help people in these diverse forms of households be as well housed -- with adequate pay, medical care and education -- as possible, supporting the many ways people are pledging fidelity and commitment to the well-being of one another.

The values of mutuality and commitment to each other are not lessened but expanded when they are affirmed in the many forms that households and committed relationships actually exist in people’s lives. We need to unmask the rhetoric that insists that affirmation of civil marriage and church blessings of “holy unions” somehow demeans marriage for heterosexuals. All our unions are made holier by expanding the opportunities for faithful relationship, joyful blessing and legal responsibility between all people.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Christianity and the Making of the Modern Family (Beacon Press, August 2000).

National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2000