Identity

We Can't Have a Feminist Future Without Abolishing the Family

The feminist thinker Sophie Lewis has a radical proposal for what comes next.

by Marie Solis
21 February 2020, 8:24pm

Christopher Leaman

A little more than two weeks before I planned to meet the feminist theorist Sophie Lewis, her mother died. She had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in March, requiring Lewis to travel back and forth between her home in Philadelphia and a hospital in the UK—a journey she technically wasn’t allowed to make due to the pending status of her green card. When her mother passed away in late November, she did so thousands of miles away, while Lewis and her brother sang the Taylor Swift song “Safe and Sound” to her over Skype.

Earlier that month, at a lecture in Lower Manhattan hosted by the arts journal e-flux, Lewis, who is 31, reflected on what some might see as an obvious irony to her crisscrossing the ocean to care for her ailing mother: Verso Books had just published her first book, Full Surrogacy Now, a polemic that calls for abolishing the family.

“2019, in addition to its more general geopolitical ghoulishness, has been a difficult one for this particular family abolitionist,” Lewis told the audience of about two dozen. “It's been surreal because the temporal coincidence of the Full Surrogacy launch with this unprecedented requirement for me—that I be at my closest bio-relative’s bedside—brought the stakes of my subject matter to life with almost unbearable intensity.”

The book, and its core premise, has gained widespread attention, from leftist publications like Jacobin and The Nation all the way to Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who dedicated a June segment on his prime-time show to tearing it down. Recently, the columnist David Brooks declared in The Atlantic that the “nuclear family was a mistake.” The piece inspired a niche version of a popular Drake meme, with the singer shaking his head in disapproval at Brooks’ column in one frame, and smiling at Full Surrogacy Now in the next. (“I gave up after two minutes admittedly, but let it be known that I (incredulous) started reading it,” Lewis tweeted of the Atlantic piece. “Like....have we reached David Brooks?”)

When Lewis demands “full surrogacy now,” she isn’t talking about commercial surrogacy, or ”Surrogacy™,” as she puts it. Instead, she uses the surrogacy industry to build the argument that all gestation is work because of the immense physical and emotional labor it requires of those who do it. She often refers to pregnancy as an “extreme sport.”

If all forms of pregnancy count as work, we can take a clear-eyed look at our current working conditions: “It is a wonder we let fetuses inside us,” she says at the start of her book, citing the roughly 1,000 people in the United States who still die as a result of pregnancy and childbirth each year—mostly poor women and women of color. “This situation is social, not simply ‘natural.’ Things are like this for political and economic reasons: we made them this way.”

And so we can also make them different, Lewis argues. She imagines a future where the labor of making new human beings is shared among all of us, “mother” no longer being a natural category, but instead something we can choose.

At this point, “surrogacy” becomes somewhat metaphorical: Lewis isn’t asking that we all agree to physically gestate fetuses that aren’t biologically ours. Her radical proposition is that we practice “full surrogacy” by abolishing the family. That means caring for each other not in discrete private units (also known as nuclear households), but rather within larger systems of care that can provide us with the love and support we can’t always get from blood relations—something Lewis knows all too well.

Even those of us who might call our family situations relatively “happy” should sign onto this project of demolishing their essential structure, Lewis says. Nuclear households create the infrastructure for capitalism, passing wealth and property down family trees, concentrating it in the hands of the few at the top of our class hierarchy. Maintaining the traditional family structure over time has also meant exploiting people of color and disowning queer children.

Lewis imagines a future where the labor of making new human beings is shared among all of us, “mother” no longer being a natural category, but instead something we can choose.

Lewis isn’t concerned with incremental changes within our existing systems—Full Surrogacy Now, for example, doesn’t make any concrete policy proposals or spend time worrying over issues like the gender pay gap and paid family leave. She’s concerned with much bolder possibilities: In Lewis's utopian future, the family as we know it no longer exists. Everyone, regardless of gender, is a surrogate; we mother each other.

And so, no, Lewis didn’t find that looking after her sick mother contradicted her stance on the nuclear family. If we had achieved the ends of family abolition already, there would have been a vast network of people to care for her mother in those final months of her life, not just Lewis and her brother.

“Nothing could have better illustrated the impossibility, the unjustness, and the structural scarcity—for all concerned—baked into the heart of the private nuclear household,” she said.

When I visited Lewis in Philadelphia in December, we met at a cafe across the street from her apartment around 1 pm. We’d planned to meet earlier, but that morning Lewis had texted me asking if we could push back our breakfast date a couple of hours—she’d stayed out until 5 am dancing at her partner Vicky Osterweil’s birthday party. She walked into the cafe looking fresh and buoyant, her hair a brilliant shade of orange, which she had recently dyed to match the walls of her mother’s apartment.

Over the loud hum of families eating Sunday brunch, Lewis, told me about her somewhat unlikely path to writing a book on surrogacy and family abolitionist theory. We started at the beginning: Lewis was born in Vienna, Austria, where her parents had been working as journalists, but she spent most of her childhood in Geneva, Switzerland, and parts of France, moving around often for her father’s job, which she said often took precedence over her mother’s job, or her family’s other needs.

This arrangement was an indicator of other, darker family dynamics, according to Lewis. One of her earliest family memories was of an argument she had gotten into with her father when she was just three years old: Lewis and her brother were both singing the Queen of the Night’s part in The Magic Flute, an opera they loved watching as children. Her father scolded them both, telling them that they shouldn’t sing the Queen’s part because the King had banished her, and she’d deserved it. Lewis sobbed. “If you skip forward seven years or so, he’s asking me: Why hasn’t there ever been a female Mozart? Why hasn’t there been a female Shakespeare?” Lewis said.

Years later, her father doubted Lewis when she told him she was raped at 13, writing to her partner in an email that rape is “good for the feminist CV.”

She left the house the first chance she got.

Sophie Lewis, author of Verso's
Lewis came to her ideas about family abolition intellectually, but her own family history provides a case study for many of her arguments against the traditional nuclear family. (Christopher Leaman)

Lewis studied English literature at Oxford as an undergraduate, and then received a master’s in the university’s environmental policy program. To her chagrin, what had historically been a rather radical program, led by a Marxist professor, had become one run by an employee of the World Bank; a representative from the oil and gas conglomerate BP delivered a lecture on the first day of classes. When Lewis told the professor she’d been under the impression that the program would be about challenging the corporate interests BP represented, Lewis said the professor told her: “You can’t just change the world.”

Lewis completed the master’s, but took her utopian visions elsewhere. She organized a university reading group dedicated to Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, a complicated essay that imagines a feminist future inhabited by hybrid creatures engaged in political struggle against the racism, misogyny, and colonialism that formed them. Lewis had first discovered the text when she was just 16, using dial-up internet.

“I didn’t understand shit obviously,” she said over breakfast. “But there’s a soul in her writing that I found very exciting, and I felt a queer kinship with it. It was very comforting.”

Lewis went on to study human geography—a field that examines how humans interact with their environment—and write a thesis on gestational labor, all the while turning over ideas in her head about labor, gender, and nature and how they intersect.

In Lewis's utopian future, the family as we know it no longer exists. Everyone, regardless of gender, is a surrogate; we mother each other.

Much of the writing Lewis did during and immediately after her schooling foretells Full Surrogacy Now. But she also applied her critical feminist eye to film and television, writing about Nymphomaniac, Phantom Thread, The Handmaid’s Tale Hulu adaption, and a British reality dating show called First Dates. It was this last piece of criticism that caught the attention of Verso editor Rosie Warren.

“Review” isn’t quite the right word for what Lewis does in these essays. She’s not evaluating the artistic success of these works so much as she is reading them closely to understand how we are living in the world as it is, and how we might go about making it otherwise. Phantom Thread, for example, isn’t a wry love story, but proof that romance is ”a series of atrocities people perpetrate on one another in the name of love and art, for the sake of class power.” And The Handmaid’s Tale—a favorite subject of criticism for Lewis—is hardly a feminist dystopia for its cosplaying fans. Rather it is a feminist utopia, portraying a fantasy of solidarity where all women experience exactly the same form of oppression, regardless of other identity categories like race or class.

Watching First Dates, it occurred to Lewis that heterosexual dating in real life very much resembled the staged, stylized version of it that contestants participate in on the show: “‘Dating,’ as it is currently known and practised, casts ordinary people as perfectible investment opportunities in competition with each other across myriad platforms,” like OkCupid and Tinder, she wrote.

“Verso read the essay and the editor was like, ‘The incredible thing about your writing is that it’s like you’re an alien who has come down to tell us the bad news about heterosexual culture,’” Lewis recalled. “And that’s why they gave me the book.”

Warren laughed when I recited this over the phone. Lewis’s approach to culture “allows you to see things as they are,” she said. “It’s such a wonderful feeling to have someone point out things you don’t even realize you’ve accepted as ‘normal.’”

Lewis appears to be at her most excited when she’s turning some cultural artifact inside out. Between bites of mushroom pizza one evening, she told me animatedly that she and Osterweil had figured out the secret to understanding Gilmore Girls, which they had both recently watched together for the first time. The show, a family drama from the aughts, casts men as marginal characters while the women drive the action, she explained.

“All of the women are men and all of the men are women,” Osterweil added.

When Full Surrogacy Now came out in May, conservatives were aghast. Shortly after its release, Fox News host Tucker Carlson invited Lewis onto his show; when she declined, Carlson moved forward with the segment anyway, airing a YouTube clip of Lewis calling abortion “a form of killing” (a pro-abortion rights statement she stands by). What followed was a torrent of internet abuse, largely from right-wing viewers who saw Lewis as confirmation of all the insidious things they suspected feminism of to begin with: She was “Satan” or “worse than Satan” or “feminism’s true agenda, unmasked!” as Lewis later recalled.

But Lewis’s proposal for dismantling the nuclear family was met with befuddlement from left-leaning outlets too. In a review for The New Yorker, contributor Jessica Weisberg—though otherwise sympathetic to Lewis’s position—argues that Full Surrogacy Now failed to account for that “mysterious variety of love” only biological motherhood can offer. Even at Jacobin, a socialist magazine, writer Nivedita Majumdar declared that the “real path to liberation isn’t the call to ‘abolish the family,’” condemning Lewis’s “dogmatic hostility to the parent-child relation.”

Lewis has found that when she talks about family abolition people respond as though she’s “not even speaking English anymore … like [I’m] not even making syntactical sense,” she said at the e-flux lecture. “Real brain explosion emoji to the max.”

Abolishing the family may not have ever been a mainstream proposition, but for a stretch of time in the 1960s and 70s it was a fairly well-known one. Arguments for family abolition date back to Marx and Engels (and indeed, even further, to Plato), but the radical feminist Shulamith Firestone is credited with popularizing the concept on the modern-day left. In her foundational 1970 manifesto The Dialectic of Sex, she identifies the biological family as the basis for women’s oppression because it establishes women as an underclass by forcing them to bear the brunt of gestational labor.

To be a radical feminist during these years would have meant being familiar with this text and its central demand, which appeared in leftist pamphlets and literature. Yet just a decade later, any advocacy for family abolition had all but disappeared from feminist discourse. Instead, the movement chose to embrace family values, preferring to fight for the reform—rather than the annihilation—of the nuclear family structure.

In the late 70s and 80s, liberal groups and individual feminist leaders argued that family was the new frontier in women’s struggle for equality, given the gains women had recently made in the workforce. “Now that women are beginning to have an active voice in the economy and politics, the nation’s agenda may begin truly to include the family,” said Betty Friedan, the author of The Feminine Mystique, during a keynote address for the 1979 National Assembly on the Future of the Family, which was hosted by the National Organization for Women.

The family, Friedan said, was no longer “enemy territory” for feminists.

When Lewis was writing Full Surrogacy Now, she didn’t give much thought to how her renewed calls for family abolition might be received in 2019. “I think some people take my book as a really intentional, purposeful attempt at pissing everybody off,” she told me with a laugh. “But I don’t feel like I’m strategic; I don’t think my skill is seeing what everyone else is saying and making a calculated intervention.”

Nonetheless, Lewis has chosen a good time to intervene. Over the last decade, feminism has been seemingly emptied of any remaining, actual politics in order for it to be subsumed by brands marketing empowerment. In a post- Lean In climate, still very much dominated by “girlbosses” and “She-E-Os,” mainstream feminism can appear as though it has been completely divorced from its radical roots. Contemporary debates around gender roles, women’s labor, and sexual politics often seem to circle the same arguments feminist theorists had decades ago, but rarely acknowledge that this is the case. (Her next project is tackling some of these contemporary feminist archetypes in a book she's working on now, tentatively titled Feminism of Fools.)

Lewis’s call to abolish the family is also a call to re-energize and repoliticize feminism.

Sophie Lewis, author of Verso's
Lewis isn't the first feminist thinker to propose abolishing the family: Her theory draws on the work of second-wave scholars like Donna Haraway and Shulamith Firestone. (Christopher Leaman)

It would be wrong to credit Lewis with rediscovering figures like Firestone. But while these second-wave thinkers have not by any means been forgotten, their early work is more often cited than it is actively engaged with.

“At this point, the radical interventions of these feminist scholars and thinkers happened 30 to 40 years ago,” said Natasha Lennard, who is the author of Being Numerous: Essays on Non-Fascist Life, as well as a close friend of Lewis’s. “There’s been this static and hagiographic upholding of these ideas, but not a lot of pushing them forward, at least not in the public intellectual sphere.”

This kind of reverence is anathema to Lewis. When I asked her what contemporary feminists she admired, she named the queer feminist theorist Sara Ahmed, anti-work feminist Kathi Weeks, and the founding members of the Wages for Housework movement as a few examples, but said it’s “a mistake” to have feminist heroes. “You make them and in doing so you’re platforming someone who then is kind of cursed by that,” Lewis said. “They no longer keep learning and growing to the same degree,” potentially hampering new feminist thinking.

Haraway is an exception. Forgetting herself, Lewis will sometimes refer to Haraway as her “idol.”

Lewis’s call to abolish the family is also a call to re-energize and repoliticize feminism.

Even so, Haraway doesn’t get a free pass. Though Lewis builds on the theory found in Cyborg Manifesto and other early Haraway texts, she has critiqued some of the scholar’s more recent argumentation. In 2017, Lewis penned an essay for Viewpoint Magazine arguing that Haraway appeared to betray her own principles in her latest book, Staying With the Trouble. In Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway envisions a utopian post-gender future created by every member of the human species; but in Staying With the Trouble, Haraway calls for a dramatic reduction of the population in order to reduce humanity’s effects on the climate—a cynical turn toward misanthropy, Lewis wrote.

To Lewis’s surprise, she received an email from Haraway herself not long after the piece went up, inviting her into conversation with several other big-name feminists who were cc’ed. Haraway told Lewis that she had no choice but to “contend” with what Lewis had written: a well-argued piece of criticism. (Haraway told me she wasn’t available for interview due to travel.)

Lewis is bashful about this, but Haraway has made it clear that she sees Lewis as continuing the legacy of her work, even as she challenges it. Much of Lewis’s writing is fundamentally Harawayan in the sense that while at times very dense, it is filled with imagination and metaphor.

“Surrogates to the front!” Lewis exclaims toward the end of her book. “By surrogates I mean those comradely gestators, midwives, and other sundry interveners in the more slippery moments of social reproduction: repairing boats; swimming across borders; blockading lake-threatening pipelines; carrying; miscarrying.”

A few hours after our breakfast, Lewis invited me to see Queen & Slim with her, Osterweil, and their friend Zach at a theater near the University of Pennsylvania's campus. The film—a drama about a young Black couple on the run after fatally shooting a police officer in self-defense—is not, on its face, about the nuclear family. But after spending just one afternoon with Lewis, I couldn’t help but think of it that way.

Slim is preoccupied by his “legacy,” which he initially sees as something that can exist only through a biological lineage. But at the end of the film, having made the choice to abandon his family to start a new life with Queen, he tells her that she’s his legacy.

Lewis said this happens all the time, this experience of watching something and noticing family abolitionist subtext. It’s probably even happened watching “some superhero movie,” she joked.

“Vicky always digs me in the ribs when we’re watching something that has to do with non-nuclear kinship,” Lewis told me the next day at a ramen restaurant near the office of her therapist, whom she had met with before lunch. “I already know when she’s going to do it. She’s like, ‘Uh?! Uh?!’”

Another place Lewis has found family abolitionist themes is in Ari Aster’s horror films, Hereditary and Midsommar, which she wrote about in August for Commune. The essay is Lewis at her best, weaving together the sharp analysis that caught Verso's eye with her idiosyncratic humor and wit. But it is also a somber look at the nuclear household of her childhood, of which we only get a glimpse in Full Surrogacy Now: Though Lewis may have come to her theories about family abolition and surrogacy intellectually, her own family upbringing has played a role that is difficult to ignore.

In the piece, Lewis tells us that her father taught her and her brother to treat their mother with contempt. When her parents separated, they literally divided the house in half, sealing off doorways and even creating a second kitchen, sectioned off from the original by an improvised partition.

“In other words, I know the family not to be a benign ‘default' situation,’” Lewis writes. “I’ve always known.”

Sophie Lewis, author of Verso's
Lewis looks at photographs in her Philadelphia apartment. (Christopher Leaman)

In the wake of her mother’s death, she’d been contending with these family tensions once again. Lewis’s dad was blaming her for one of her mother’s long-ago suicide attempts, and sending nasty messages to her and her brother on Facebook and through email.

But even absent her father’s interventions, growing up, Lewis’s relationship with her mother wasn’t of the “mysterious variety of love” sort. This made grieving her death difficult, especially when so many people seemed to consider the loss of one’s mother—one’s “closest bio-relative,” as Lewis had put it in her November lecture—to be the greatest loss one can suffer.

“People have been saying to me, ‘Love yourself in the days ahead like she loved you,’” Lewis said. “And I’m like, ‘Oh my god, that’s a terrible idea!’ I need to do a lot better than that and so do all my friends.”

On the last day we spent together, I visited Lewis at her home. Originally, she was going to take me on a short walking tour of her neighborhood, but it was raining and gloomy outside, so we settled into two armchairs in her living room. She made us green tea, pouring mine into a mug that read “I’ve got 99 problems and white heteronormative patriarchy is basically all of them.” To my delight, her cat, a small tabby named Robespierre—after the French revolutionary—jumped onto my lap.

Lewis described her slice of West Philadelphia as a “village”: It includes Gold Standard, the quaint cafe where we first met, a tattoo parlor, a “social-justicey” yoga studio, a community garden, a “punk” hair salon, and an antique shop where Lewis and Osterweil had a $50 voucher, a wedding gift they still hadn’t used more than a year after they married. Days earlier, hunting for a seat at Gold Standard, we spotted someone leaving who turned out to be a friend of Lewis: They told her that they planned to sign up for the Brooklyn Institute class she is teaching this month at the anarchist bookstore Wooden Shoe Books.

Shortly after we found seats facing the window, we waved to Osterweil, who was smoking a cigarette as she crossed the street.

"I know the family not to be a benign ‘default' situation. I’ve always known.”

Sitting beside me in her apartment, Lewis showed me a scrapbook her mother had made, filled with photos of her playing with buckets of water and grinning at the beach—a reminder of her own arguments in Full Surrogacy Now that we should, figuratively, return to the “wateriness” in which we were gestated. It is at this time, Lewis says, when we are suspended in amniotic fluid, that the boundaries of our physical selves are in flux. To acknowledge that this is also true in life—that we are all inextricably connected to each other, biological family or not—would create the conditions for “radical kinship.”

She also showed me one of the zines she and Osterweil gave to guests at their wedding, which include speeches from friends and promises to each other. The latter could not properly be called “vows,” because they are in fact disavowals: of the institution of marriage, the biological family, and the dysfunction that both can breed. (They had a more traditional ceremony in Boston, at the request of Osterweil’s mother.)

To spend any amount of time with Lewis is to feel that the world she imagines is nearby. Whether we realize it or not, many of us are already familiar with her arguments for abolishing the family. When we talk about the prevalence of domestic violence and child abuse—when some of us find ourselves inside family units that perpetrate these crimes—we acknowledge that, in horror movie parlance, the violence is coming from inside the family.

We may not call it “family abolition” or “full surrogacy,” but many people have begun to erect the caregiving communes Lewis wants to see realized. Queer people build “chosen families,” as do other marginalized groups who depend on each other for their survival. And even within traditional nuclear households, parents might find themselves saying that it “takes a village” to raise children—an acknowledgement that it’s not a job one can do on their own.

In many ways, Lewis shows us, the family has already been abolished. At the same time, the “open-source, fully collaborative gestation” she imagines remains on a distant horizon. Riffing on a famous quote from the philosopher Fredric Jameson, Lewis considers that “if it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, it is perhaps easier still to imagine the end of capitalism than the end of the family.”

Nonetheless, Lewis sees glimmers of this future everywhere. When she is surrounded by her partner and her friends, she sees that she is “mothered by many.” They are not her biological relatives, but they are each other’s kin in an even truer sense: They have chosen to care for each other without the dictates of the nuclear family structure. In Lewis’ feminist utopia, family has not vanished; it has become more wild, more abundant, and less constrained.

Just a few days after her mother died, Lewis confused a woman crossing the street for her. “It provoked, in the moment, a torrent of intense tears,” Lewis wrote on Twitter. “But now I’m thinking about it and realizing she hasn’t just evaporated. She’ll always be around even after she stops haunting (e.g.) pedestrian crossings in Philadelphia.”

Mothers, of course, are everywhere.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.