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Response to Review of Family Men

Many thanks to Dr Helen McCarthy for her positive and very perceptive review, which highlights the key issues I hoped to address in Family Men. One of its key aims is to represent the complexities of fatherhood as experienced by individuals, from the physical intimacy of rough and tumble to the way corporal punishment was understood, from the belief that men were giving their children a better start in life than they had had themselves to the clashes over education and career choices that could occur between children and parents. I wanted to combine this with analysis of the cultural contexts in which these families lived, and so drew on writing, images and oral recordings from a wide range of archives. I am pleased to see Dr McCarthy thought this array of sources and approaches came together effectively – despite their sometimes no doubt dazzling variety.

As Dr McCarthy highlights, the distinction between ‘domestic’ and ‘family-orientated’ masculinity was, for me, an important way of understanding change and continuity to fatherhood in this period. Clearly, more work is needed on the latter half of the 20th century to be able to understand whether the changes in the post-Second World War era, where Family Men ends, represented the start of a subtle shift towards a new gender politics or the consolidation of older patriarchal ideals. In some contexts, such as women’s romance fiction (as I have explored elsewhere) it is clear that patriarchal ideals remained strong. Fatherhood and a family-orientated masculinity could in fact provide a framework to reinforce men’s importance (within private family life as well as in more public worlds) and their fundamental authority.

But ultimately, the numerous testimonies I researched for this book, as well as research I am currently undertaking in the wake of Family Men, suggests that to understand women’s (and men’s) lives in the 1970s and 1980s only as part of a newly branded but inherently traditional nuclear family which reinstated women’s dependency – and perhaps inferiority – is to do a disservice to these women’s agency and their own narratives. In oral history interviews about life in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, men and women call for recognition of a profound partnership approach to responsibility and care within family life, even if to an outside observer their organisation of their family might be perceived as traditional. This points to the need for historians to continue find innovative methodologies to get to the heart of power and emotional relationships within private family life, to examine the subtle and small changes in many families that Dr McCarthy points to.  More studies which find new ways into the homes of British families throughout the 20th century, and which consider the changing men within them, would indeed by very welcome.