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An Unconventional Family

Copyright Date: 1998
Published by: Yale University Press
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    An Unconventional Family
    Book Description:

    In 1965, when psychologists Sandra and Daryl Bem met and married, they were determined to function as truly egalitarian partners and also to raise their children in accordance with gender-liberated, anti-homophobic, and sex-positive feminist ideals. During the next ten years, they exuberantly shared the details of their daily lives in both public lectures and the mass media in order to provide at least one concrete example of an alternative to the traditional heterosexual family. In the 1990s, Sandra Bem also published an award-winning book, The Lenses of Gender, which spelled out the feminist theory behind their feminist practices. This second book by Sandra Bem, an autobiographical account of the Bems` nearly thirty-year marriage, is both a personal history of the Bems` past and a social history of a key period in feminism`s past. It is also a look into feminism`s future, because the Bems` children, Emily and Jeremy, now in their early twenties, speak at length in the book as well. Bem analyzes what aspects of family background and psychological makeup led her and Daryl to bond so immediately and to become gender pioneers. She describes the egalitarianism and feminist child-rearing that they invented for their private needs and tells how these family agendas were transformed into public feminist discourse. Finally she reassesses this early feminist union now that the marriage has come to an end and the children are young adults, evaluating (with the help of lengthy interviews with Emily and Jeremy and a brief epilogue by Daryl) what the Bems` experiences-both positive and negative-have to say about the viability and necessity of nontraditional gender arrangements in society today.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14805-3
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Prologue
    (pp. ix-xiv)

    Like many feminist scholars, I live my life with little separation between the personal, the professional, and the political. My theory and my practice are thus inextricably intertwined.

    In the final five pages of The Lenses of Gender, which is my major theoretical work to date, I argued that in order to interrupt the social reproduction of male power, we need to dismantle not only androcentrism and biological essentialism but also gender polarization and compulsory heterosexuality. In other words, we need to sever all the culturally constructed connections that currently exist in our society between what sex a person is...

  5. PART 1 Coming Together

    • CHAPTER ONE Courtship
      (pp. 3-18)

      In February 1965, I was a twenty-year-old senior psychology major at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. For months, my roommate, Hedda, had been urging me to take a course from the young new psychology professor, Daryl Bem. She had been doing a research project under his supervision and thought him both brilliant and good-looking. I couldn’t yet judge his brilliance, but I had seen him once, and he had reminded me of a pigeon because of the way his head jutted forward.

      Unfortunately, this brilliant professor wasn’t offering any undergraduate courses during my last semester in college, so I...

    • CHAPTER TWO Why Daryl?
      (pp. 19-48)

      Why did I marry Daryl in particular? There are many reasons, I’m sure, but the deepest is that I had lived my entire life on the edge of a certain kind of chaos, both internally and externally. Daryl enabled me to separate from that chaos—and ultimately even to rescue both my sister and my parents from it—which is exactly what I had been struggling to do on my own for as long as I can remember.

      The kind of chaos I’m talking about is hard to describe because nothing was blatantly wrong with either my family or my...

  6. PART 2 Writing Our Own Script

    • CHAPTER THREE Community of Family
      (pp. 51-68)

      When I met and married Daryl at age twenty, I entered what I now think of as the second act in the drama of my life. It was a long second act, lasting almost thirty years, and one I will never regret because, in the context of that relationship, I was able to do the most unexpected and even magical things, beginning with rescuing my sister, Bev, and then slowly building a whole new community of family.

      Like my own life, Bev’s life began to change immediately after Daryl and I got married. Within days, she left Pittsburgh to spend...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Egalitarian Partnering
      (pp. 69-101)

      As much as I may have loved being scrunched under a blanket with my family and making hot chocolate and wrapping Chanukah presents, the life that Daryl and I created together, for nine years without children and for twenty years with children, was never a traditional one. From the start, we were gender pioneers, inventing first an egalitarian form of marriage for ourselves, and, later, a gender-liberated, antihomophobic, and sex-positive way of rearing our children. We invented these new family forms because the existing forms provided by our social world would not allow us to live the lives we wanted...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Feminist Child-Rearing
      (pp. 102-136)

      Shortly before Emily was born, in 1974, I put an end to our public lecturing on egalitarianism and to interviews about our lives because I didn’t want our children to become local celebrities, as we had become. Daryl and I did continue lecturing on egalitarianism in my undergraduate course on gender, however, and within a few years, I developed a second lecture for that course based on our lives, this one on the feminist child-rearing practices we had developed.

      Until the 1990s, I rarely gave this lecture outside my class. As early as the mid-1980s, however, I did incorporate parts...

    • CHAPTER SIX My Unorthodox Career
      (pp. 137-164)

      In Writing a Woman’s Life, Carolyn Heilbrun argues that, although scholars of Virginia Woolf have been angrily critical of Woolf’s husband, Leonard, and appropriately so, for making the particular medical decisions about her that he did and in the way that he did, “marrying Leonard was the wisest thing Virginia did…. He made her writing life possible.” Nigel Nicolson, whom Heilbrun quotes, takes a similar view: “[Virginia] deeply respected [Leonard’s] … judgment on what meant most to her, her writing; and he, lacking the flight of soaring imagination and recognizing that she possessed it, shielded her, watched her fluctuating health,...

  7. PART 3 Evaluating Our Experiment

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Egalitarian Partnering Revisited
      (pp. 167-177)

      When Daryl and I got married in 1965, we embarked on our own personal experiment in gender liberation, an experiment that ultimately came to have two sets of radical goals. In the language I would use today, our first goal was to build a relationship with each other that would be free of both gender polarization and male dominance; our second goal was to raise our children in a gender-liberated, antihomophobic, sex-positive way.

      Like any retrospective review of an innovative experiment, in this chapter and the next I ask somewhat more analytically in what ways were we able to meet...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT Feminist Child-Rearing Revisited
      (pp. 178-205)

      I come finally to the question of what the consequences were for our children of our so consciously trying to raise them in a gender-liberated, antihomophobic, and sex-positive way. Were our voices ultimately so drowned out by the forces of the culture that our efforts made little difference in the kinds of people they became? Did our kids’ unusual upbringing produce unanticipated—and perhaps insurmountable—difficulties and conflicts for them? Do they feel positive enough about their upbringing that they would choose to raise their own children (assuming they have children) in much the same way that we raised them?...

  8. Epilogue
    (pp. 206-209)

    Daryl and I talked many times during the writing of this memoir about whether and how his voice should be included, but we didn’t resolve the matter until I had almost finished and the absence of his voice finally began to feel like a huge lurking presence. An interview of the sort I did with the kids didn’t feel quite right, so we tried tape-recording and editing a conversation between us. In the end, however, we decided on an essay-style commentary by Daryl alone. What follows is Daryl’s essay:

    In Woody Allen’s film Manhattan, a man’s wife divorces him, enters...