Family, Alternative

Citation metadata

Author: Juan Battle
Editor: Fedwa Malti-Douglas
Date: 2007
Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender
Publisher: Macmillan Reference USA
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 6
Content Level: (Level 5)

Document controls

Main content

Full Text: 
Page 506

Family, Alternative

The concept of the alternative family encompasses those models of family life that differ from the so-called traditional, or nuclear, family—that is, a family comprised of a husband and wife and their children. Two family types—women-headed families and lesbian/gay families—are often presented as clear and present threats to a traditional model of the family and thus to the very fabric of the United States.

Prior to the 1960s researchers noted that most Americans shared a common view of the traditional family:

Family should consist of a husband and wife living together with their children. The father should be the head of the family, earn the family's income, and give his name to his wife and children. The mother's main tasks were to support and facilitate her husband's career, guide her children's development, look after the home, and set a moral tone for the family. Marriage was an enduring obligation for better or worse. The husband and wife jointly coped with stresses. Sexual activity was to be kept within the marriage, especially for women. As parents, they had an overriding responsibility for the well-being of their children during the early years until their children entered school; they were almost solely responsible. Even later, it was the parents who had the primary duty of guiding their children's education and discipline.

                                   (Hamburg 1993, p. 60)

Similarly, according to James S. Coleman (1988), families are the financial, human, and social capital of children, and these facets determine and influence a child's quality of life.


Some have argued that three distinct images of the family have emerged (Baca Zinn and Eitzen 2005). The first is the image of the family as a safe "haven in a heartless world" (Lasch 1977, p. 8), providing protection in "a womblike" environment (Keniston 1977, p. 11). The second image presents the family as a location of personal fulfillment (Demos 1979). The third image—and definitely not as flattering as the previous two—presents the family as a location of encumbrance (Millman 1991). This image suggests that because of responsibilities to a variety of family members, the family inhibits individual development, expression, and joy.

Not only is the family sometimes viewed as an encumbrance, it is also frequently viewed as a source of society's decline.

Each day, the media serve up new stories and statistics documenting that marriage is going the way of the horse and buggy, that we are becoming a nation without fathers and that, as a result, children are suffering and society is falling apart. The breakdown of the family is taken for granted as a simple social fact. The only question is who or what is to blame and how can we restore the family to the way we imagine it used to be.

            (Mason, Skolnick, and Sugarman 2003, p. 1)

This question received peak airtime in the public discourse in the early 1990s when then Vice President Dan Quayle challenged television character Murphy Brown for a having a baby without a husband. He also went on to blame the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion on, among other things, family decline. According to Maxine Baca Zinn and D. Stanley Eitzen, Quayle and his intellectual contemporaries have it backward. It is not changing Page 507  |  Top of Articlefamily forms that cause structural decline and disarray. Instead, the authors state:

Divorce and single parenthood are the consequences of social and economic dislocations rather than the cause…. Disappearing jobs, declining earnings, and low-wage work have far more detrimental effects on families than the demise of family values…. The simple solution that we return to the nuclear family at all costs allows the public and the government to escape social responsibilities, such as intervening in the ghettos, building new houses and schools, and creating million of jobs…. This view shifts the focus from the larger society to individual family members, who must then devise their own solutions for the dilemmas of our times.

                                            (2005, p. 21)


Diana Pearce (1978) coined the term feminization of poverty, which calls attention to the large number of single women and their children who live in poverty. Pearce concluded that labor market discrimination contributes to the feminization of poverty. Single women care for more children than do single men, and single women receive less income when they enter the labor force than do single men. Meanwhile, father-only households, in comparison with mother-only households, are less likely to be poor, more likely to be in the labor force, and are generally smaller with older children (Norton and Miller 1992).

These assertions are borne out in national data. For example, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census (2002, 2003), the number of families with children increased by more than seven million between 1970 and 2002. During this same period, the portion of households that were so-called total family households—that is, married-couple families with children—declined from 87 percent to 72 percent. Single-mother families increased from six million in 1980 to ten million (26%) in 2002. The number of single-father families increased from 690,000 to 2.2 million (6%) during the same period.

Carolyn Smith and Marvin D. Krohn (1995) contend that social class, and by extension the larger economy, influence household organization in cultural groups that are more economically disadvantaged. They found that living in a single-parent home has less influence on family processes than living in a situation of economic hardship. Other studies indicate that focusing on the effects of parental configuration and educational achievement without adequately considering socioeconomic status is misleading (Battle, Alderman-Swain, and Tyner 2005).


Misleading research can also be found in the debate around lesbian/gay families, and exact statistics about such families are hard to generate. The research of Alfred C. Kinsey and colleagues (1948, 1953) suggested that 10 percent of adults in the United States are lesbian or gay. A more recent nationally representative sex survey, however, places that number around 4 percent, depending on how sexual orientation is defined and/or measured (Michael et al. 1994.) Regardless of the number, most scholars agree that generating exact numbers for lesbian/gay individuals or families is problematic because, among other reasons, sexual orientation is fluid throughout the life course, cultural definitions of lesbian and gay change over time, and there is still so much stigma around being lesbian or gay that many homosexual people choose not to disclose their orientation.

Some researchers have begun to examine differences between lesbian and gay male parents. For example, lesbian mothers tend to live in committed relationships far more often than gay men do and are more monogamous sexually (Fowlkes 1994). Similar to their straight peers, lesbian women are socialized to care for kin, which largely explains the formation of larger numbers of lesbian than of gay male families.

These differences notwithstanding, much research exists highlighting similarities between lesbian/gay parents and their heterosexual counterparts (Hotvedt 1982). More recently, however, researchers have begun to highlight some differences between these two family forms. For example, compared with straight couples, same-sex couples handle conflicts better (Gottman and Levenson 1999), have higher levels of cohesion (Zacks, Green, and Marrow 1988), tend to be more egalitarian in the division of housework labor (Kurdek 1993), and engage more equally in other key decision-making processes within their relationship (Allen and Demo 1995).


Women-headed families and lesbian/gay families challenge notions of patriarchy and gender hierarchy in very powerful ways. Their successes force societies in Europe and North America to seriously examine their assumptions about male dominance and their romance with traditional family forms.

Sociologists who study families are in broad agreement that gender is a social construction that influences the differing roles males and females play in families (Richardson 1977, Lorber 1994). More specifically, gender roles are the set of attitudes, behaviors, and activities that are socially and culturally defined as appropriate for each sex (masculinity and femininity) and learned through the socialization process (Lips 2005). In European and North American societies, for example, males are largely expected to demonstrate aggressiveness Page 508  |  Top of Article
Lesbian Family. A lesbian couple with their daughter. Lesbian Family. A lesbian couple with their daughter. © Markus Moellenberg/Zefa/Corbis. and stoicism whereas females are expected to be submissive and emotional.

The process of socialization into gender roles occurs from birth—though some researchers argue that this can commence as soon as the sex of the fetus is known. Gender is embedded in the images, ideas, language, and practices of a society. Parents are encouraged to provide gender-specific toys that not only reinforce gender-based identities but also can influence career choices (Thorne 1993). Toys given to boys such as computer games and tools allow for invention and manipulation—integral to scientific careers—whereas dolls and homemaking toys given to girls encourage imitation and nurturing. When children are able to help with household chores, they are often assigned differing tasks. Maintenance chores (such as shoveling snow) are given to boys, whereas domestic chores (washing clothes) are given to girls.

Research in school settings suggests that teachers can perpetuate gender bias. Teachers provide important messages about gender through both the formal content of classroom assignments and through interactions with students. For instance, Qing Li (1999) found that teachers often have different gender expectations around math competencies. They stereotype males as competent in math, which is reflected in the tendency to overrate their abilities at the expense of female classmates. Other researchers have found that boys receive more attention than do girls because they call out in class, demand help, and sometimes engage in disruptive behavior (Sadker and Sadker 1994). Globally, all societies use gender to assign tasks along gender lines—whether those tasks be housework or construction—while providing differential rewards to those who perform these tasks. To be sure, gender differences are strongly embedded in the structure of societies and shape gender-based hierarchies of power, wealth, and status where men are dominant over women (Risman 1998). In other words, because society depends on a predictable division of labor, gender becomes a major social institution that facilitates the organization of social life along unequally ranked gender roles. Sociologist Judith Lorber (1994) thus encapsulates the significance of gender: "Gender is a human invention, like language, kinship, religion, and technology; like them, gender organizes human social life in culturally patterned ways. Gender organizes social relations in everyday life as well as in the major social structures, such as social class and the hierarchies of bureaucratic organization" (p. 6).

Page 509  |  Top of Article

Gendering is an integral part of the daily experiences of both men and women. The gendering process includes societal ideas regarding masculine and feminine attributes that are formally legitimated by religion, law, and society. Informally, gender is legitimated through the sanctioning of behaviors that are viewed as not appropriate by peers (Lorber 1994). The differences between male and female gender roles are established because of the power, status, and division of labor in society. For example, within the context of male dominance, men continue to be ranked above women, and the activities performed by women are strongly correlated with less power, prestige, and economic rewards, and are viewed as less significant than those of their male counterparts (Sadker and Sadker 1994, Desmarais and Curtis 1999). Assumptions about appropriate gender roles serve to perpetuate unequal opportunities in employment, education, and contracting. As a result, when women attempt to participate in gender-inappropriate endeavors—whether in the workplace, at home, or in leisure activities—they are often targets of various forms of prejudice and discrimination.

Some scholars who study gender have maintained that gender should be analyzed as a primary basis of social stratification (Lorber 1994). Critics of this position, however, maintain that gender must be also examined in relation to both race and class because women of color experience the intersection of gender and race—often in concert with class (Collins 1990). For example, within postindustrial societies, jobs are disproportionately segregated by gender, race/ethnicity, and class, whereby women of color are consigned to the lower classes, often providing care work to middle- and upper-class families (Hondagneu-Sotelo 2001). These gendered positions are invariably lower paying, are less prestigious, and possess little opportunity for advancement. Thus, notions of gender and race serve to unevenly relegate women of color to jobs that reflect their overall subordination in society (Higginbotham 1994).

Similar to single parents, gay and lesbian parents are becoming increasingly common. The birthrate of unmarried women increased 60 percent in the 1990s, with about one-third of unmarried women between the age of 15 and 44 becoming mothers (U.S. Bureau of the Census 2002). The increase is due to lesbian and straight women's increased ability to support themselves in the labor market, their desire to parent, and greater social acceptance of their roles as parents.


Gay male and lesbian families as well as heterosexual female-headed families render unstable European and North American cultural convictions about the patriarchal, heterosexual, nuclear family. By depicting the family as a unitary object, this notion implies that everyone has identical kinship relations while sharing a universally agreed-upon definition of family (Weston 1991). These deviant family types challenge presuppositions regarding the ideal family type and are often stereotyped by some media, politicians, and religious figures as deleterious for children (Stacey and Biblarz 2001). Almost invariably, children living with heterosexual single mothers are viewed as potential social problems—more likely to academically underperform, drop out of school, and become teen parents (McLanahan and Booth 1991). Similarly, because of homophobia, children of lesbian and gay male parents are feared to be at risk of psychological maladjustment, of molestation by parents or partners, or of becoming homosexual (Ross 1994). Therefore, gay male and lesbian parents are more likely to lose custody to heterosexual partners (Robson 1992). Moreover, in most states, only the biological parent has any legal right to the child after the breakup, and as such, the other lesbian or gay male parent may not even have visitation rights (Patterson and Chan 1997).

Both family types—women-headed and lesbian/gay families—challenge the traditional normative assumption that the patriarchal, heterosexual nuclear family is best equipped to successfully raise children. Because neither type conforms to the societal norm, they are both viewed as deviant or pathological. In industrialized societies, the traditional nuclear model of family implies a patriarchal heteronormativity that valorizes the role of the dominant male while simultaneously questioning the capacity of women to head the family. Women-headed families and lesbian/gay families not only challenge dominant notions of family by demonstrating the viability of differing household and sexual arrangements; they also have shown that traditional definitions are too restrictive and that no one universal family form exists (Gittins 2007). In short, fluid and dynamic family structures reflect changing historical periods, that suggest an evolving family structure is inevitable and adaptive.


Allen, Katherine R., and David H. Demo. 1995. "The Families of Lesbian and Gay Men: A New Frontier in Family Research." Journal of Marriage and the Family 57: 111-127.

Baca Zinn, Maxine, and D. Stanley Eitzen. 2005. Diversity in Families. 7th edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Battle, Juan; Wanda Alderman-Swain; and Alia Tyner. 2005. "Using an Intersectionality Model to Explain the Educational Outcomes for Black Students in a Variety of Family Configurations." Race, Class, and Gender 12(1): 126-151.

Page 510  |  Top of Article

Coleman, James S. 1988. "Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital." American Journal of Sociology 94 (Supp.): S95-S120.

Collins, Patricia Hill. 1990. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Demos, John. 1979. "Images of the American Family, Then and Now." In Changing Images of the Family, ed. Virginia Tufte and Barbara Myerhoff. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Desmarais, Serge, and James Curtis. 1999. "Gender Differences in Employment and Income Experiences among Young People." In Young Workers: Varieties of Experiences, ed. Julian Barling and E. Kevin Kelloway. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Fields, Jason, and Lynne M. Casper. 2001. "America's Families and Living Arrangements: March 2000." Current Population Reports, series P20, no. 537. Washington, DC: U.S. Bureau of the Census.

Fowlkes, Martha R. 1994. "Single Worlds and Homosexual Lifestyles: Patterns of Sexuality and Intimacy." In Sexuality Across the Life Course, ed. Alice S. Rossi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gittins, Diana. 2007. "The Family in Question: What Is the Family? Is It Universal?" In Shifting the Center: Understanding Contemporary Families, ed. Susan J. Ferguson. 3rd edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Gottman, John M., and Robert W. Levenson. 1999. "Dysfunctional Marital Conflict: Women Are Being Unfairly Blamed." Journal of Divorce and Remarriage 31(3/4): 1-17.

Hamburg, David A. 1993. "The American Family Transformed." Society 30(2): 60-69.

Higginbotham, Elizabeth. 1994. "Black Professional Women: Job Ceilings and Employment Sectors." In Women of Color in U.S. Society, ed. Maxine Baca Zinn and Bonnie Thornton Dill. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierrette. 2001. Doméstica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hotvedt, Mary. 1982. "Life Adaptations." In Homosexuality: Social, Psychological, and Biological Issues, ed. William Paul, James D. Weinrich, John C. Gonsiorek, and Mary Hotvedt. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Keniston, Kenneth, and the Carnegie Council on Children. 1977. All Our Children: The American Family Under Pressure. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Kinsey, Alfred C.; Wardell B. Pomeroy; Clyde E. Martin; and the Staff of the Institute for Sex Research. 1948. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Kinsey, Alfred C.; Wardell B. Pomeroy; Clyde E. Martin; and the Staff of the Institute for Sex Research. 1953. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Philadelphia: Saunders.

Kurdek, Lawrence A. 1993. "The Allocation of Household Labor in Gay, Lesbian, and Heterosexual Married Couples." Journal of Social Issues 49(3): 127-139.

Lasch, Christopher. 1977. Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged. New York: Basic.

Li, Qing. 1999. "Teachers' Beliefs and Gender Differences in Mathematics: A Review." Educational Research 41(1): 63-76.

Lips, Hilary M. 2005. Sex and Gender: An Introduction. 5th edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Lorber, Judith. 1994. Paradoxes of Gender. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Mason, Mary Ann; Arlene Skolnick; and Stephen D. Sugarman. 2003. Introd. to All Our Families: New Policies for a New Century. 2nd edition, ed. Mary Ann Mason, Arlene Skolnick, and Stephen D. Sugarman. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McLanahan, Sara S., and Karen Booth. 1991. "Mother-Only Families." In Contemporary Families: Looking Forward, Looking Backward, ed. Alan Booth. Minneapolis, MN: National Council on Family Relations.

Michael, Robert T.; John H. Gagnon; Edward O. Laumann; and Gina Kolata. 1994. Sex in America: A Definitive Survey. Boston: Little, Brown.

Millman, Marcia. 1991. Warm Hearts and Cold Cash: The Intimate Dynamics of Families and Money. New York: Free Press.

Norton, Arthur J., and Louisa F. Miller. 1992. "Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the 1990s." Current Population Reports, series P-23, no. 180. Washington, DC: U.S. Bureau of the Census.

Norton, Arthur J., and Paul C. Glick. 1986. "One-Parent Families: A Social and Economic Profile." Family Relations 35(1): 9-17.

Patterson, Charlotte J., and Raymond W. Chan. 1997. "Gay Fathers." In The Role of the Father in Child Development. 3rd edition, ed. Michael E. Lamb. New York: Wiley.

Pearce, Diana. 1978. "The Feminization of Poverty: Women, Work, and Welfare." Urban and Social Change Review 11(1/2): 28-36.

Richardson, Laurtel. 1977. The Dynamics of Sex and Gender: A Sociological Perspective. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Risman, Barbara J. 1998. Gender Vertigo: American Families in Transition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Robson, Ruthann. 1992. Lesbian (Out)law: Survival Under the Rule of Law. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand.

Ross, Joellyn L. 1994. "Challenging Boundaries: An Adolescent in a Homosexual Family." In The Psychosocial Interior of the Family. 4th edition, ed. Gerald Handel and Gail G. Whitechurch. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Sadker, Myra, and David Sadker. 1994. Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girl. New York: Scribner.

Smith, Carolyn, and Marvin D. Krohn. 1995. "Delinquency and Family Life among Male Adolescents: The Role of Ethnicity." Journal of Youth and Adolescence 24(1): 69-93.

Stacey, Judith, and Timothy J. Biblarz. 2001. "How Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?" American Sociological Review 66(2): 159-183.

Thorne, Barrie. 1993. Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. 2002. Statistical Abstract of the United States, 122nd edition. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. 2003. Statistical Abstract of the United States, 123rd edition. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Weston, Kath. 1991. Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship. New York: Columbia University Press.

Page 511  |  Top of Article

Zacks, Ellie; Robert-Jay Green; and Joanne Marrow. 1988. "Comparing Lesbian and Heterosexual Couples of the Circumplex Model." Family Process 27(4): 471-484.

                                                Juan Battle

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2896200217