Something Old, Something New? Re-Theorizing Patriarchal Relations and Privatization from the Outskirts of Family Law

Shelley A.M. Gavigan


Canada has an enviable record of relatively progressive and egalitarian legislation and policy in relation to Canadian family forms. The country’s constitutional guarantees of equality and multiculturalism provide the legal foundation for this record. In particular, Canada’s leadership in the recognition of and support for same-sex relationships in family law and social policy is widely acknowledged.
This is, however, also deeply contested terrain: Feminist legal scholars informed by critical political economy argue that recent family law advances in Canada sit compatibly with neo-liberal social policy and restructuring of the welfare state; the neo-conservative and religious right assert that the fundamental nature of family has been undermined by the recognition of same-sex marriage, facilitating the legal recognition of polygamous relationships, among others. Still others take the view that despite a liberal, progressive and formally egalitarian approach to family, the legal recognition of same-sex marriage in Canada reflects and reinforces a historically patriarchal, heterosexual institution that should be jettisoned rather than embraced. These arguments raise issues and illustrate more generally the tensions in state and legal construction and regulation of familial relations — historically and in the current context. In this Article, I re-theorize the significance of patriarchy and the relationship between patriarchal relations and the discourse of privatization in critical family law. Using the experience of women from the “outskirts” — lesbian spouses, welfare mothers, and women in polygamous relationships — I demonstrate the limits of any theory of “privatization” that does not theorize patriarchal relations. In particular, I identify and analyze the impediments to equality posed by increasingly invisible, but no less enduring, patriarchal familial ideologies in order to envision forms of family law reform and state social policy that might actually improve gendered and generational familial relations and transform the social landscape more generally.

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