Family Matters

Changing roles

As the 20th century unfolded, shifts in the realms of politics and economics brought about transformations in society as well. Altering gender roles meant that family life too underwent significant change, as did the way in which families were depicted and perceived. In this chapter, we explore how emancipatory movements in support of women’s and LGBTQ rights recalibrated the relationships between the sexes and opened new venues for the discourse on what a family should (or could) be.

The dawn of the 20th century saw the dreams of the previous century’s feminists come to fruition when suffrage was achieved. Finland was among the pioneers, as it installed racially-equal suffrage in 1906. Several Western European countries extended voting rights to women during the inter-war period, including Britain and Germany (1918), Austria and the Netherlands (1919).

During the war years women gained additional independence as they were not only the safeguards of what remained of family life but also professionals active in the war industry, education and care sectors.

The global wars had temporarily caused a shift in gender balance. But, after 1945, governments in Western Europe made a strong effort to turn back the clock, as legislation and education were re-directed towards reinforcing traditional family structures. In Eastern Europe, the situation was quite different: men and women were given the same legal rights, including permission to participate in economic activities. Socialist governments not only propagated work outside the home as an emancipatory act but also guaranteed employment. Yet legislation adjacent to employment - for instance banning women from specific branches of work and excluding men from benefits connected with family care - kept a certain degree of gender inequality in place.

Married, working women in Western Europe increased further throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Yet women were still considered ‘secondary workers’, only suited for ‘women’s work’ including nursing, administration and repetitive tasks in light industries.

Part of a comical newsreel matching footage of (French) female workers doing gymnastics with a commentary in Italian. The voice-over is intentionally facetious, including vernacular expressions and allusions to societal stereotypes, 1971
Istituto Luce - Cinecittà. In copyright

Now battling for gender democracy on the work floor as well as for the recognition of housework, the feminist movement experienced a second wave in the 1960s and 1970s.

Focusing on equal pay, better educational and professional opportunities, women aimed at shedding the roles, representations and rhetorics that made them out to be subservient to men. Furthermore, demanding increased options for contraception and a legal framework for abortion, women strived for more and better family planning.

Newsreel of women protesting in Rome, demanding the right to decide about their own body. At the core of the discussion: the issue of abortion at a time when the Christian Democratic government still hadn’t installed regulation despite 72% of women being in favor. The commentary alluding to a connection between a woman’s appearance and her position in the debate is a sad remnant of the public discourse at the time, 1975
Sette G. Istituto Luce - Cinecittà. In copyright

Their efforts only partly paid off, because as the rise of consumerism and emerging technologies did indeed boost women’s employment, the redistribution of housework remained a distant dream.

Henceforth, many women carried a double workload and concerns about work-life balance opened up a new chapter in the public debate about roles, responsibilities and family dynamics.