In the Name of ‘the Family’, Past and Present

Julia Moses | 3 April 2019

Modern History | Gender History | Global History | LGBTQ+ History | Social History

‘Yes to life, no to abortion’, shouted some of the tens of thousands of marchers in support of the thirteenth international conference of the World Congress of Families (WCF) in Verona on Sunday. To drive home the point, miniature rubber fetuses were carried in the procession. The march came on the heels of a protest the day before, led by 20,000 people from more than seventy rights groups across Italy who came out to condemn the WCF’s conservative views on the family. The uproar in Verona last weekend was unusual. Internationally, the city is known for its opera and association with the ill-fated lovers Romeo and Juliet, rather than family politics.

What protestors found so upsetting was the WCF’s insistence on protecting a single image of what it called the ‘natural’ family: a man and a woman and their children. By implication, men should be seen as husbands, fathers and household heads, while women should be wives, mothers and carers. Children should be cherished, their numbers increased, and abortion banned. According to conference delegates, this version of the family had to be protected especially from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, as well as from family breakdown and single parenthood.

The meeting was co-sponsored by US organizations backed by the Christian right, alongside Italian groups and various Italian government bodies, including the Italian Ministry for the Family and Disability. Its current head, the social conservative Lorenzo Fontana, is a member of the far right Lega Nord political party. Across Europe, the far right has taken on the protection of the family as one of its core policy issues, with the WCF as a key forum to voice its views on the topic. In 2017, the event was co-hosted by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

The worldwide coverage and scale of protest surrounding last weekend’s event was noteworthy. But it is part of a longer history of fierce debates about what holds society together, and the role of the family as the foundation stone on which society is supposed to rest. What is interesting is that the New Right activists who convened in Verona radicalized views that were discussed among European lawyers since the late nineteenth century and that shaped civic laws in many European countries until quite recently. These views seem to sit oddly with widespread assumptions about the family today. However, they point to the often ethnocentric, patriarchal and racial beliefs that used to frame our laws on the family in the past, and that linger in many policies to the present.

In 1873, for example, lawyers from across Europe created the Institute for International Law in order to sort out problems that arose due to different countries having different laws on a variety of issues, from trade and war to the family. Twenty years later, the group began debating whether and how family law could be unified for all countries. Would it be possible to have the same laws on marriage, divorce, adoption and inheritance for the whole world? What kind of family should those laws protect?

Between 1902 and 1905, five conventions on these issues were signed at the Hague in the Netherlands. As some of the framers of these conventions argued, the family should follow a generally Christian – or at least a Judeo-Christian – outline, based on one woman and one man, who also held authority over the family, together with their children. Any countries with Islamic law on the family – including associated practices of polygamy and talaq (unilateral divorce by repudiation) – were seen as too different (and, in the language of the time, ‘uncivilized’) to include in this international legal system.[1]

This development came on the heels of centuries of missionary activity around the world, and especially within Europe’s overseas empires. In the process of converting local populations, missionaries encouraged them to follow a presumed Christian family model based on monogamy and procreation by a married man and woman.

Following the First World War, the new League of Nations alongside international feminist groups rang in renewed efforts to protect the family across the globe. In the wake of the Second World War, the family came to the forefront of the international policy agenda again, this time sparked by the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It decreed the right ‘to marry and to found a family’ alongside other rights like the equality of ‘all human beings’ and the ‘right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community’.

Despite the claim to universality in the document’s title, and the involvement of delegates from around the world in debating the UDHR, it continued to echo conservative nineteenth-century European views about gender roles and the purpose of the family.  Meanwhile, new postwar and postcolonial constitutions like the 1949 German Basic Law gave the family special protections that stemmed from similar thinking.

In subsequent years, related international conventions took off and gradually broadened views on the family. For example, the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) called for the equal rights of women to contract and dissolve marriages as well as the equal rights of married women to citizenship and work. These post-1945 initiatives were genuinely global in scope, with CEDAW having been signed from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

Beyond the sphere of law, social movements have rallied across the globe for different views of the family. For example, for generations, LGBT groups advocated same-sex partnerships to be recognized – and, initially, not to be criminalized. Their efforts resulted in the legalization of same-sex civil partnerships and, eventually, same-sex marriage, starting in the Netherlands in 2001 and gradually extending as far as South Africa (2006), Brazil (2013), Australia (2017) and elsewhere. Meanwhile, socially conservative groups like Family Watch International have argued in favor of a different version of the family, for example, by lobbying the UN at its 2016 event ‘Uniting Nations for a Family Friendly World’.

The UN event coincided with its annual ‘International Day of the Families’. It is based on the view that ‘although families all over the world have transformed greatly over the past decades…, the United Nations still recognizes the family as the basic unit of society’.

The question remains, today, as in the past, which version of the family is recognized as that ‘basic unit’. As the events last weekend show, the family remains the site of worldwide contestation, with ongoing disagreement about what the family is, what it does, how it works, and who is part of it.

International connections – whether through international organizations and social movements or through social media and the press – not only highlight the family as something to be ‘saved’. They also drive home how varied families around the world are.

Julia Moses is Reader in Modern History at the University of Sheffield and currently based at the University of Göttingen’s Institute of Sociology as a Marie Curie Fellow, where she leads the EU/Horizon 2020 research project ‘Marriage and Cultural Diversity in the German Empire’ (MARDIV / Grant #707072). She recently published Marriage, Law and Modernity: Global Histories (Bloomsbury, 2017) and is currently completing a book titled Civilizing Marriage: Family, Nation and State in the German Empire.


[1] Talaq is only one aspect of divorce under Islamic Law. Khul’ is another aspect in Islamic law where separation is by way of consent between the parties, and when the power of Talaq is transferred to the Wife it is called Tafweedh-e-Talaq.