Against ‘The Family’.

Laurie Penny
12 min readOct 29, 2020


Conservatives have declared war on abortion. That’s not about ‘protecting the family’ - it’s about controlling women.

Whose families matter? As the clock ticks down on the first Trump era, conservative concern-trolling has given up on original thought and is just playing the hits. This week in America, haunted Stepfordian battlebot Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed as Supreme Court Justice, with a farcically undemocratic mandate to give the Christian Right everything their shrunken, spiteful hearts desire. Meanwhile, with less fanfare, thirty authoritarian governments signed what amounts to a declaration of war on women’s reproductive rights, in the name of ‘strengthening the family’.

The ‘Geneva Consensus Declaration’ sounds reasonable at first. It claims to be about promoting ‘women’s health’ alongside ‘the essential priority of protecting the right to life’. The name even sounds a bit like the Geneva Convention, which most people associate with such wet liberal notions as compassion and basic human decency.

What it’s actually about, though, is male power over women.

Let me explain. The most important part of the Declaration emphasises that ‘there is no international right to abortion’. It reminds us in the same breath that ‘women play a vital role in the family’.

The small print is that if women aren’t willing to play that role, the state should punish them. Pregnant people should be forced to risk death, injury, trauma, the permanent physical changes of childbearing and the agony of labour. The Declaration couches this sadistic dogma in the language of family values. Specifically, it affirms ‘the role of the family as foundational to society and as a source of health, support and care.’

This is not precisely a lie. If the past nine months have taught us anything it is quite how much society relies on the vast amount of free caring and domestic work done within families, largely by women- work that, according to the logic of neo-conservatism, should be done silently, with a smile, and for free. When right-wing ideologues talk about ‘the family’ as a place of safety, they mean something specific, something that does not describe the experiences of most human beings over the course of recorded history. They mean a type of family that consists of a male breadwinner plus a wife and children who live according to his rules. They mean a type of family which, where it does exist, is rarely self-sufficient: the middle-class white family would collapse without the labour of poor, black, brown and immigrant women, who are invariably excluded from that ‘family’ ideal. Amy Coney Barrett’s large brood makes her a moral icon of white maternity. If Kamala Harris had seven kids, the conversation would be very different.

The sort of family that neo-conservatives actually value is one where, according to the political scholar George Lakoff,

“The strict father is moral authority and master of the household, dominating both the mother and children and imposing needed discipline. Contemporary conservative politics turns these family values into political values: hierarchical authority, individual discipline, military might.”

Lakoff reminds us that conservative family values are “the basis for conservative morality and political thought”.

But here’s the thing: that’s all they are.

Conservative family values are a specific political position. They don’t define what a family ought to be, or what kinship means, or what women deserve. And they certainly have nothing to do with protecting women and children.

The Geneva Consensus Declaration was championed by the USA, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia and other regimes which rank among the official worst places to be a woman in the whole wide world. The European signatories are Hungary, with its nakedly misogynist far-right regime; Belarus, which is currently using brutal state violence to suppress a woman-led protest movement; and Poland, which just instituted an almost total ban on abortion. In almost all of these countries, savage opposition to abortion goes hand in tiny, grasping, piggy hand with a crackdown on immigration, and the whole thing is wrapped in the rhetoric of preserving white culture and protecting white women from the imagined sexual violence of foreign men.

Remember ‘The Rape of Europe?’ Remember Trump’s frothing about ‘Mexican Rapists’? Remember how many of these administrations have not only protected rapists and wife-beaters within their own ranks, but elected them to positions of power?

That’s no coincidence. Sexual violence, to the authoritarian mindset, is not an assault on personhood but an assault on property -on the bodies of women that should be put to work for white men and their white children. If they refuse this work — say, by trying to terminate a pregnancy — they deserve to be punished.

All of this is connected. It’s part of a bigger, deeper demographic panic. It’s about preserving a specific, fragile, fictional idea of white male supremacy from external threat — including the threat of women’s liberation.

And the framing language of ‘protecting the family’ is very effective. It normalises what would otherwise be obvious misogyny, reframes as reasonable and compassionate the swivel-eyed conservative obsession with controlling female sexuality by any means necessary, including force.

The right wing rhetoric of ‘Strengthening the Family’ makes women and queer people feel guilty for not submitting to sexist power structures, repeats the message that if we dare to demand our own agency, our bodies are deviant and our choices are bad, the message that we shouldn’t be so selfish and so slutty.

Most of us know that those messages are wrong, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hit home when newspapers lavish praise on Amy Coney Barrett for the demure way she’s raised her seven children while being a successful judge, canonising her as an icon of compliant white motherhood. The millions of women and girls whose lives could be decimated if Barrett helps ban abortion don’t matter: those are bad women, unruly women, poor women, immigrant women, indigenous women, women of color, women who don’t want to build their lives around marriage and motherhood, women who don’t exist within the magic circle of wealthy white Christian heterosexuality and are, therefore, morally worthless.

Those women, in other words, don’t matter. The women who matter are women like Barrett: white women who can rock a blowout, run a bake-sale and re-inscribe male supremacy in law. Lean in, ladies.

This moral paradigm of motherhood is a clever and effective lie. It relies on guilt, and it relies on fear. Guilt that by not behaving as if the lives of white men were more important than your own you are somehow bad, wrong and wicked; fear that if you are bad and wrong and wicked and don’t do as you’re told, you will never be safe, never be loved, never be part of a ‘family.’

This has always been the emotional strategy of misogyny and homophobia. The threat of violence is real, but it’s not the only threat. Violence eventually produces resistance; it’s much easier to get people to shut up and do what they’re told if you persuade them that unless they do, they will die alone.

Strangers have been warning me that I’m going to die alone and unloved since I was a 21-year old feminist with a blog a few hundred people read. Yes, there were death threats and rape threats, but those didn’t get under my skin the same way when I was a precarious, heartbroken queer weirdo struggling with my biological family, trying to build queer kinship groups and falling in love over and over again with men who told me I’d make a great girlfriend if only I were prettier, quieter, more normal.

I didn’t know then what I know now, which is that you don’t have to choose between freedom and happiness —and giving up one is no guarantee of the other. There’s no perfect system of managing intimacy, no marriage or family structure, no god you can obey or cult you can join or taboo you can defy that will prevent you from hurting and being hurt. If you intend to love and be loved, pain is part of the package. There’s no opt-out clause. Sorry. You can bravely transgress every normative dogma and still end up weeping into your coatsleeve at the bus-stop.

In the exact same way, you can do everything God and your parents and the President tell you to do and still get your heart smashed into a hundred pieces. Following orders, complying with the ideology of ‘the family’ is no guarantee that you or anyone you care about will be loved or safe. That’s just not how it works.

‘The family’ — the normative, white heterosexual family — is not a safe haven for everyone. It never has been. For children who are abused or neglected in infancy, the family is where you get hurt by the people who are meant to love you. For queer and trans youth who are driven out of their homes by homophobic relatives, the family is where you have to annex your own heart or be abandoned. As COVID lockdowns bite down again around the world, ‘the family’ is where mothers are shattered by the weight of a triple shift of work and chores and childcare, where untold millions of people are trapped in homes with their abusers. And every week, two women are murdered by their domestic partners — a statistic that has not budged in decades.

In fact, several members of the Trump administration have been accused of domestic violence over the last four febrile years. That’s entirely on-brand for an administration that last year quietly narrowed its definition of domestic violence to exclude “sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person”. In the past half-decade, stuffed-shirt ‘strong man’ governments around the world have moved to downgrade or decriminalise domestic violence, licensing husbands and fathers to batter, beat, rape and abuse the women and children in their household.

These are the same regimes that are now appointing themselves the moral guardians of women and children — and at first glance, that might look like hypocrisy. But it’s only hypocrisy if you believe that ‘the family’ is about love and solidarity rather than coercion and control. The ideal of ‘the family’ that conservatives want to protect is an ideal of white male supremacy. It has nothing to do with helping actual adults and children to love and protect one another. It is, in fact wholly uninterested in human happiness.

Instead, it is concerned with human obedience, particularly female obedience. That’s what ‘the family’ means to modern conservatives. It means white women producing white babies, and black and brown women picking up the slack, and white men defending ‘their’ white households with violence, including from dissent within the ranks. It means women back in their place. It means, as Proud Boy spokesdouche Gavin McInness told alt-right pundit Lauren Southern, ‘If you’re not making humans, then fucking stand up, bitch.’

But, again — that’s all it means.

And it turns out that there are lots of other ways to live.

The conservative family is not worth strengthening or protecting— not at the expense of millions of actual families, whether or not they resemble the sanctioned model of happy heterosexual conformity. The idea of questioning ‘the family’ on this basis isn’t new, but it’s had a revival in recent years, as public scholars like Sophie Lewis have challenged us all to think differently about how we take care of one another, and how that work can be shared more effectively. According to the logic of conservative patriarchy, care is something that women do for everyone else, particularly women of color, because that’s what God and/or nature intended, depending what subreddits you frequent.

But there’s a problem. In recent decades, women have begun to ask for more in life than the obligation to offer it up for the comfort of others.

The costs of childcare are rising, it’s still practically impossible to combine motherhood with employment, and men, all too often, are undependable co-parents. The conservative nuclear family, even if it were desirable, is an economic absurdity. The very structure of the American wage system makes it almost impossible for this sort of family to exist, and renders it redundant where it does — especially for straight women, for whom the rewards of ‘traditional’ marriage and motherhood are decreasing year on year. Birth rates and marriage rates have fallen at alarming rates across the Global North, as women delay partnership and parenthood or reject it altogether.

That’s a really, really big problem, and there are all sorts of things world governments could actually do to make it easier for my generation and the next to form families, raise children and generally get on with the work of reproducing our sorry excuse for a species. But most of the things that could be done to support real families involve some combination of increasing wages, building social infrastructure, investing in public health, opening the borders to migrants, and giving women more control over their own lives — all of which are politically untenable in a climate driven by paranoid, parochial wattle-trembling white male resentment.

Besides, investing in women and children is expensive. Bigotry is cheap, especially if you tart it up with trite platitudes about tradition. Research has shown that the waves of far-right resentment rolling around the world are fuelled, in large part, by white male resentment and rage at women no longer accepting their ‘natural’ role in the home, in the family, in the social order.

In fact, the rise of the anti-abortion movement is directly linked to that backlash. Before the 1980s, abortion was not a primary political issue for conservative Christians. You can track the rise of white Christian outrage about abortion perfectly against the rise of the civil rights movement and women’s economic independence. The anti-choice movement wants to legally compel women and girls to sacrifice their own health, their own wellbeing, even their own lives, to care for others. By definition, that’s what it is about. It’s about keeping women in their place. Actually, by this point, whenever I hear wall-eyed far-right wingnuts waffle on about ‘family values’ I mentally replace that term with ‘keeping women in their place’. Try it sometime.

So yes, women’s liberation, anti-racism and LGBTQ rights are a threat to ‘family values,’ if by ‘family values’ you mean a culture committed to controlling the bodies of women and minorities. But if what you value in a family is love and belonging, care and compassion, the unrelenting ability human beings have to show up for each other day after day, to see one another completely and help one another survive a hostile world, if what you value in a family is the love that makes people hold each other up without threat or judgement, through terror and failure and illness and birth and death, through decades of everyone adjusting the air conditioning and losing the TV remote and chewing with their mouths open and cracking your heart open with countless ridiculous intimacies, if that is what you value in a family, any family — well. In that case, two things are true.

The first thing that’s true is that you’re a personal threat to a conservative consensus that is actively attempting to crush everything joyful with its paranoid logic of control.

And the second thing that’s true is that you’ll win eventually. That we will win eventually. Just because our choices don’t fit into a narrow, authoritarian ideal of what kinship, partnership or parenthood mean doesn’t mean that our choices aren’t good ones. Just because neo-conservatism does not value our families doesn’t mean that they have no value, or that we won’t love and be loved truer and deeper than if we’d just kept our heads down and our legs shut and our hearts leashed to the logic of misogyny.

That’s a hard truth to hang on to in a world that would much prefer us to believe ourselves unworthy of love unless we agree to be ruled. When you have lived your whole life in the margins of the myths white men wrote for and about themselves, when you have spent your whole life listening to bullies define what it means to be brave and good and righteous and loveable, when tyrants and cowards build a mound of corpses and call it the moral high ground it can be very hard to hang on to your faith in your own choices. It can be hard to understand that frothing acolytes of white supremacy and credulous manbabies mouthing pseudo-scientific appeals to nature aren’t automatically the goodies just because they never heard a story they weren’t the hero of.

They have guns and God and their greasy fingers in the machinery of democracy. But the future does not belong to them. It belongs to those who are prepared to work for a world that does not run on shame and fear, where love does not mean ownership and where authority does not require abuse. It belongs to those who believe that white supremacy is unconscionable and that women and LGBTQ people deserve human dignity.

The future is made, in the end, by those who actually intend to live there, rather than simply strip it for resources and set the rest on fire.

The people who, in the name of ‘protecting the family’, are trying to burn the world rather than share it with women and queers and people of color have, I am convinced, never understood what family actually means. They have never experienced love that isn’t on some level about ownership and control. This means that they have never really experienced love, which explains many of their personal choices and is also objectively sad for them.

No, really, it is sad — and I would have more energy to feel sad for them if I weren’t rationing my empathy reserves to spend on those who don’t think empathy itself is a form of weakness. They will never know what you and I know, which is that family is far more than guns and god and blood and soil. They can’t understand that love isn’t the opposite of hate, but the opposite of entropy.

That’s it. That’s all. Bigots and bullies don’t get to define what partnership and parenthood and family mean. They don’t get to decide what kinship is worthy of protection, or what love means, or who deserves it. We get to decide that for ourselves, and it’s important that we do so, proudly and in public.



Laurie Penny

Based on a true story. Author, journalist, screenwriter, social justice bard.