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social sciences

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Novelist and playwright Dodie Smith captured much of the modern ambivalence toward the family when she defined it in the dedication of her 1938 play Dear Octopus as "that dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to."

In ancient Rome, the word familia originally referred to everyone who lived in a household, including relatives, boarders, slaves, and employees. Over the millennia, the term has generally come to mean a domestic social unit, usually bound by blood ties. However, the exact definition of the family has never been fixed, but has varied widely from culture to culture and era to era.

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The social upheaval of the 1960s, particularly the women's liberation movement and the gay liberation movement, caused a radical redefinition of the family in the United States. This redefinition is still in progress, as in the twenty-first century many people reject a fixed definition of the family, which is imposed by society, and instead claim the right to define their own families as they choose.

Historical Configurations

In past centuries, before the era of industrialization, the family represented a self-sustaining economic and social organism. Usually comprised of several generations, each member of the family, including elders and very young children, worked toward the survival of the whole.

It was not until the early 1800s that husbands became defined as wage earners outside the home while women were given the refined role of "homemakers." As the nineteenth century progressed, family traditions began to evolve, such as family vacations and family celebrations at Thanksgiving and Christmas. While these supposedly universal features of family life applied to members of the white middle class, working-class families and families of color evolved differently. One notable difference was that--out of economic necessity--the women and children of these families often still worked outside the home.

Cultural Ideal vs. Reality

One significant characteristic of the family in modern society is that the cultural ideal of the family remains firmly established even when many actual families do not resemble it. In other words, people remain quite loyal to the current idea of what a family is supposed to be, even in the face of a wide range of evidence that many--indeed, most--families are simply not like that.

The social upheaval that began during the 1960s led to fundamental changes within the family unit. The women's liberation movement began to change women's role in the family by encouraging women to seek fulfilling lives outside of the home. The counter-culture movement promoted alternative approaches to relationships and an openness about sexuality that led to more couples living together without marriage. The rising divorce rate (almost 50% by the 1990s) also began to create new kinds of families.

Single-parent families became common, as did a different sort of extended family that included the new spouses and children of divorced parents. As the baby boom generation matured, the reality of the family continued to change, as it became mixed-race and interfaith, and included children adopted from many nations.

Queer Families

One of the biggest shifts in the history of the family has been the proliferation of families that began during the last decades of the twentieth century. This shift has not been caused simply by the existence of queer families, but mostly by the insistence of those families that they be accepted in the community and receive the same societal benefits as traditional families.

The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the civil rights, women's liberation, and gay liberation movements, produced a generation unwilling to live in secrecy. Therefore, while non-traditional families no doubt also existed in the past, they were usually separate and isolated and did not have the support or visibility afforded by a widespread social movement and a mass media addicted to publicizing the unusual.

At the start of the twenty-first century, some social analysts estimate that between 6 and 14 million children have at least one gay parent. Celebrities such as Rosie O'Donnell and Melissa Etheridge have brought gay families into the public eye. In the lesbian resort town of Provincetown, Massachusetts, a gay family week, which drew 45 families in its first year in 1995, hosted more than 400 families in the summer of 2002.

However, queer families have not had an easy road to acceptance. For over three decades gays, lesbians, and other queers have fought to achieve such rights as same-sex marriage, access to fertility services, second-parent adoption, lesbian and gay adoption rights, domestic partner benefits, and survivor benefits. Ranged against them have been conservative governmental forces, such as the 1975 federal appeals court that ruled that homosexuality undermines family life, and groups such as the anti-gay American Family Association, founded in 1977, who are determined to keep the definition of family under their tight control.

Indeed, social conservatives have depicted homosexuality as utterly incompatible with family values.

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