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Riane Eisler on How the Progressives Forfeited on the Family Values Issue: The Case of the Equal Rights Amendment

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Thanksgiving seems a fitting time to publish this third exchange between Dr. Eisler and me on the subject of how the politics of family values is important and has been misplayed for some time by the progressive element of our political system. Thanksgiving is, after all, that day in the year when perhaps more than on any other day we are focused on value --nuclear and conventional :); on which we observe how, for better and for worse, how families work, how parents and children, husbands and wives, siblings, etc. create an environment within which the important emotional transactions of our lives take place; it's a day on which we strive to celebrate what is life-affirming about our family's workings, to endure what is burdensome or injurious, and perhaps to work to make of our family relationships something more like what we believe a family ideally should be. And Dr. Eisler has been talking about the important point that it really matters how our families do work, that it matters for our politics, too, whether AMerica's families are raising the next generation according to the values of democratic equality and partnership and of compassion and caring or whether these families lay the groundwork for authoritarian, militaristic, punitive concepts of how human systems should function. She has been making the serious argument that the abdication of this issue in the political realm by the progressives left the field --the field on which the political struggle over "family values" has been played out-- to the "regressives" in America, and thus helped pave the way for the political success of those values that did have political champions --the traditionalist, paternalist, punitive and dominating values-- at the expense of those democratic family values. We're still exploring here how she sees all these levels interacting, and how that progressive abdication may connect with America's current dangerous confrontation with the rise to power of a fascistic political force. Here's the newest round. [In recent weeks, two earlier rounds of this interview-in-writing with Dr. Riane Eisler have been published. (They can be found at">

and at

.) This is the third round. Dr. Eisler is an eminent social scientist, attorney, and social activist best known as author of the international bestseller, The Chalice and The Blade: Our History, Our Future, which has been translated into 22 languages. She keynotes conferences worldwide and is president of the Center for Partnership Studies,(, dedicated to research and education on applications of the partnership model introduced in her work. Her newest book, The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics (to be published by Berrett-Koehler in April 2007) proposes a new approach to economics that gives visibility and value to the most essential human work: the work of caring for people and for the planet .] Schmookler's Third Question: OK. You've done a fine job in showing us how the structure and ethic of a society's families really matters -including mattering for its politics-and that therefore "people who care about politics should also care about what kinds of families are raising the future generations of citizens." In our first exchange, you also asserted that the progressives' failure to recognize these important connections between family and politics "has affected the direction of our political system" toward regressive and authoritarian politics. Could you please describe what the progressives have failed to do -did they fail to care, fail to understand, fail to act?-- and especially, could you explain how that failure to do what they should have about family values has contributed importantly to the rise of the kind of regressive political power that rules us now? I for one have no difficulty granting that the connections you have pointed out are indeed important. Neither would I dispute that the "regressives" have had the field of "family values" largely to themselves in the political arena in America in recent years. But it is not yet clear to me that the "progressives" could have sucessfully wielded an alternative set of family values in the battle for political power. So I look forward to hearing what leads you to believe that progressives could have used such issues to prevent the rise of these dark and regressive forces. Riane Eisler's Response: I will start with your last question about whether "progressives could have successfully wielded an alternative set of family values in the battle for political power." The answer is yes. Progressives failed to take advantage of the opportunity to do so at a critical moment in U.S. history. And we've all paid dearly for this. The 60s and 70s were a time of questioning, and part of this questioning focused on basic matters such as gender and childhood relations. It was the moment when, had progressives understood the implications for a truly democratic society of a an egalitarian normative ideal for gender and respect for children's human rights in families, and promoted this cultural change, the direction of American culture, and with this, politics, would have been a far more progressive one. But instead, they basically ceded this central cultural and political territory to regressives, and their "culture wars" made an enormous difference in U.S. history. Let's look in more detail at the situation about 30 years ago. This was a time when it seemed that a fundamental shift toward less prejudice, less violence, and more equality, caring, and sharing in all areas of life was taking place in the United States. The civil rights movement had made great strides. So had the anti-poverty, anti-war, and women's movements. People were questioning old family norms, from the sexual double standard for men and women, to punitive, authoritarian childrearing. But suddenly what we today call the rightist-fundamentalist alliance came together. And it came together around what for most progressives was "just a women's issue": the defeat of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Now this amendment simply said that equality of rights may not be abridged by either the federal of state government on the basis of sex. But for regressives it represented a major threat, and in a campaign marked by falsehoods and fear-mongering, one of their main arguments was that the ERA would weaken the family. Now, imagine what would have happened if progressive organizations, which at the time were much more powerful than they are in this time when "liberal" has become a pejorative, had recognized the crucial importance in shaping how people think and vote of the primary human relations: the relations between the female and male halves of humanity and between them and their daughters and sons. Had they invested the same kind of energy and money that ERA opponents did into the ERA campaign, they could have nipped the formation of the rightist fundamentalist alliance in the bud - and radically changed the course of history. But they did not. Consider that up to that point it looked as if the Equal Rights Amendment would easily be ratified. After lying dormant for over 50 years, it had been approved by Congress and was on its way to ratification by the necessary number of state legislatures. Why? Because at that moment the idea of women and men having equal value, protection, and opportunities in families, workplaces, and all spheres of life was gaining ground as a logical and desirable expansion of the American ideals of equality and justice for all. In other words, a new normative ideal for families and society was taking shape. But financed by Coors and other regressive money, for the first time in U.S. history, regressives defeated an amendment that would have broadened the scope of constitutional protection. And although this is still not noted in mainstream legal and political analyses, this defeat marked a complete turn-around from the movement represented by the 14th and 15th amendments (racial rights) and 21st amendment (women's right to vote), which played such a major role in the evolution of American democracy. As an attorney with experience in constitutional law, I predicted in my book The Equal Rights Handbook (Avon, 1978 ) that if ERA failed, such a 180 degree turnaround in the expansion of constitutional protection presaged a major political regression. And this is precisely what happened. And it happened because for most progressives neither women's rights nor a more egalitarian and democratic family were important issues. So they put little energy and money into countering the push against ERA ratification. On the other hand, for regressives this amendment was a threat to the authoritarian, male-dominated family that is so basic to their belief system. In other words, for them it was a critical issue. Even later, when emboldened by their success in blocking ERA, the rightist-fundamentalists began to float their so-called family values agenda, for progressives this was not a major political matters. But imagine what would have happened if both religious and secular progressives had organized national summits to expose this agenda for what it is: a return to the kind of family that is totally inappropriate for a society based on ideals of equality and democracy. Yet none of this happened. Instead, progressives basically ceded values for family and other intimate relations to the regressive fundamentalist bloc. If you pick up The American Prospect, The Nation, and other progressive journals, you will find an occasional article on public policy and work-life balance, the need for universal healthcare, specially for children, women's rights, and the need to raise the minimum wage so poor families can support themselves. But you don't read about developing and mainstreaming progressive family policies and practices. In other words, progressives have failed to take on the basic question of what is a sound, moral, family policy agenda. Tragically, even now, most progressives still see family issues as just "women's and children's issues" - and hence in their minds secondary to the "important" political and social issues. This is a blind spot that ignores the relationship that regressives recognize and have always recognized: that the family is a microcosm of society, and that therefore the structure of our primary human relations - the relations where we first form our attitudes and beliefs about what is possible or impossible, normal or abnormal, moral or immoral - is foundational to whether we can advance democracy and equality or whether we will continue to see social and political regressions worldwide.
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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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