Sophie Lewis, Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation, (New York: Verso Books, 2022).
By Veronica L.
When I was twenty-two, my then girlfriend and I put out a zine about polyamory. We were newly anarchists, newly dating, and excited about zines. This Is About More Than Who We Fuck became a manifesto of sorts, at least for me. I was raised by a second-wave feminist and found anarchism, queerness, and polyamory all at the same time after leaving home to go to university. The way I saw it then, having revolutionary politics was equally about collective organizing and personal lifestyle choices. We lived our anarchist, feminist, queer, insurrectionary lives through fighting the cops at the G20 in Toronto just as much as through sleeping with all our friends and ending up in complicated collective living situations with our dates. A lot of us were pretty alienated from our parents by our politics and life choices (including many of us being geographically far from where we’d grown up) and felt like all we had was each other. We were mostly white, mostly middle class, mostly university-educated, and mostly working minimum wage jobs in the service industry.
I’m now thirty-five, but I stand behind what I wrote in those zines. I’m not saying that because I went back and read them all. I’m saying it because I still feel committed to the politics and practices that were their spirit. I still live in the collective house where those zines got drafted, I still have the poster version of “Against the Couple Form” from the LIES Journal up on my wall, and I’ve still never tried monogamy. I may be less sure what a “revolutionary way of doing relationships” is—and more likely to cringe than nod along at polyamory being described that way—but I’m every bit as dedicated to the lifelong project of trying to figure a way out of the heteropatriarchal mess I was born into.
Needless to say, I was excited when Abolish the Family came out.1 I had followed Lewis’s writing for years, and I was looking forward to their take on something I’d been thinking about for a long time. Maybe Lewis had the secret to what a revolutionary feminist strategy should be and how to build up a world that was more nourishing than the subcultures and scenes I’d been living in for the last fifteen years (let alone the culture I was in for the twenty years before that).
That was an admittedly heavy expectation for such a short book. Lewis isn’t trying to give us strategy. They’re more focused on analysis—and it is an analysis that I, for the most part, agree with. The family—as a structure, as a way of relating to each other, as a thing that both makes us care about some people way more than others and allows us to stop caring about what happens to other people—is generally scary and violent more than it is caring and liberatory. Family is a hard concept to define. It looks different in different communities, and yet there are some core characteristics that seem to defy community differences. Lots of those core characteristics are because of the current global reach of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy. If we’re trying to take down those three leviathans, it would behoove us to take down the ways they have tentacled into our most intimate and caring relationships, the ways they have structured who we even care about.
If this sounds vague, perhaps a focus on the why of family abolition will clarify things. Abolition as a framework is very tied to the struggle against slavery and has been used as a lens most effectively to connect the struggle against prisons and policing to the struggle against slavery. It has also been adopted by certain feminists who advocate for the abolition of sex work (“prostitution” as they would have it), an irony that was not lost on me while I was reading this book. For those unaware of this position, it often directly or indirectly involves arguing for more policing of sex workers, insists that sex work is inherently more exploitative than any other type of job under capitalism, and implicitly claims that sex work is also more oppressive than the couple form, marriage, or compulsory heterosexuality. Neither Lewis nor I are talking about sex work abolition.
From what I understand, the struggle to abolish slavery and its connection to the struggle to abolish prisons and policing are much more specific struggles than the struggle to abolish the family. Part of why I think this is true is that chattel slavery was abolished without the abolition of capitalism or the state. I think the same thing could happen with prisons and police. Because the family as a concept is much more sprawling and vague than prisons and police, it is unclear to me if we could abolish the family without abolishing capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. If we were talking about more specific things like the institution of marriage, legal parental rights over children, or inheritance laws, the abolition lens would be clearer—but, in the end, abolish the family is a slogan that can be hung onto various specific struggles while remaining pretty vague on its own.
What are these more specific struggles? For Lewis, family abolition seems to involve the abolition of gender, or gender roles, or the fight for liberated masculinities, feminities, and androgenies, plus children’s liberation, plus redistributing/communalizing reproductive labour (or sometimes “care”), plus revolutionizing currently existing forms of sexual relations in favour of liberated, egalitarian sexualities and sexual relationships, all while radically reshaping our understandings of kinship. If this is what Lewis is trying to argue, I am not totally convinced that lumping all these struggles together makes things clearer. We need to sort out the different strategies involved in the different struggles that make up family abolition, and it seems worth it to me to be more specific while we’re doing it.
More specificity would also have been useful around the term “collective.” Lewis wants us to be “striving toward a regime of cohabitation, collective eating, leisure, eldercare, and childrearing.”2 What is meant by collective here? Presumably we don’t mean more restaurants, or state-run childcare and eldercare (like the government-run CHSLDs where thousands of elders in Quebec have died since the start of the pandemic)? The Israeli kibbutz movement and state communist experiments also have examples of experiments in collective childrearing, but they aren’t examples to uncritically emulate. This collectivity question also opens the door to the much thornier “who are we” question that Butch Lee pushed white women in particular to deal with in The Military Strategy of Women and Children.3 While Lewis is clear on wanting to include all families in their analysis, perhaps those of us thinking about the how of the fight against the family should be taking our own social positions into account from the get-go.
Another way for Lewis to be more specific would have been to lay out what has changed in the family since the 1980s. One of the things I appreciate about the communist tradition Lewis draws from is historical and materialist analysis, but this is pretty absent from Abolish the Family. In the book, the family reads as a somewhat timeless concept, the core of it unaltered by historical change. What would it look like to argue for family abolition while talking about dropping marriage rates, rising divorce rates, changing cultures around domestic violence and abuse, rising numbers of women in prison alongside increasing numbers of women working outside the home, and the tidal wave of state attacks on trans children that have used the language of “parents rights”? How do we understand the growing fragmentation that has led to, as Dilar Dirik says, a situation where “feminicide is taking place on an unprecedented scale at the same time as gender equality has become a daily agenda item for institutions that reproduce power and violence on a global scale”?4 Lewis references M.E. O’Brien’s Endnotes piece “To Abolish the Family,” which tries to make this connection, but it would have been good to bring a few of O’Brien’s arguments into this new manifesto, too.5
So we need more analysis of the role the family plays in the present and how that is different from the role it played in the 1980s because we can’t just repeat the movements of the ’70s and ’80s. Liberal feminism and queer assimilation have changed the political landscape. In 2023, those taking up the mantle of radical lesbian feminism are often TERFs who are organizing with the far right. Hotshot intersectional feminists on the internet want you to “pay women”—i.e. send some funds to their personal Venmo. Pride is a corporate event, more welcoming to cops and banks than the runaways and hustlers who built it. There are fancy non-profits pushing policy to protect chosen family and the polyamorists have their own series on Showtime. The terrain we fight on can be very confusing. So many of the struggles we have inherited have been stripped of their revolutionary potential, often by directing us to make individual choices instead of building collective power. More engagement with what the family even means in our present moment might help us find a way forward.
Towards the end of the book, Lewis does give us some criteria for what counts as family abolition. First, family abolitionist struggles are at core collective strategies, not individual choices. Second, family abolition is deeply connected to “a practice of planetary revolution” and, thus, any truly revolutionary strategy must contend with family abolition (and, arguably, vice versa).6 And finally, though at its core collective, family abolitionist struggles understand that we are all part of different collectivities all at once and so, in the most direct gesture towards a specific struggle, Lewis writes, “fighting the family regime might thus look like several different things: prising the state’s boot off the neck of a ‘legal’ family of ‘aliens,’ for instance, and at the same time offering solidarity to a queer kid in that same family, should she need it, against her parents.”7 Not as clear as it could be, but something to work with. Asking further questions like “what distinguishes a family abolitionist defense of migrant families from a non-family-abolitionist one?” could help us find more direction here.
So I have a bit of beef with Lewis’s theoretical framework, though overall I agree with the basic principles. However, I also found one of the historical examples particularly wanting. Lewis’s engagement with Indigenous theory on the family was generally light and they made a glib comment about the Seneca leader and prophet Handsome Lake, in a way that betrays a lack of engagement. Lewis writes that Handsome Lake “precipitated what has been called the ‘Iroquois’s own version of Salem’ in 1803,” citing Lillian Faderman, a Jewish lesbian whose book on womanhood throughout American history is too wide-ranging to give Handsome Lake much more than a passing glance.8 For those who don’t know, Handsome Lake remains an incredibly important (though definitely also controversial) political and spiritual leader for a large section of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (what the Iroquois call themselves). He is identified with Seneca national resurgence in the wake of the disastrous (for the Confederacy) 1776 revolution.
Claiming that Handsome Lake precipitated Salem-esque levels of witch hunting in Haudenosaunee territory is not an accurate historical comparison. The author of one of the books that Lillian Faderman is citing, Matthew Dennis, a white historian at the University of Oregon, writes in a footnote that “There is much that we will never know about the Handsome Lake-era witch hunts, and conclusions about their scope and nature must remain tentative. Precisely how many were accused, how many were executed, which lineages, clans, and villages were most heavily represented, how many were women and how many were men—answers to these questions may ultimately be unanswerable.”9 Given that the Salem witch hunts are invoked as a symbol of the persecution of women, this seems like a central point in making the comparison fall apart.
In fact, settlers focused on the Handsome Lake-era witch hunts should understand the issues of Indigenous sovereignty at stake. Haudenosaunee historian Alyssa Mt. Pleasant cites one of the most reported upon (in settler newspapers) instances of potential witch hunting at the Buffalo Creek reservation in 1821, when a man named Tommy-Jemmy killed a woman named Kautauqua, both of whom were Haudenosaunee.10 Tommy-Jemmy was subsequently arrested by New York State, imprisoned, and put on trial. As present-day scholars Mt. Pleasant and Dennis, as well as Haudenosaunee witnesses at the trial—including famous orator Red Jacket—all agree, this ought to be understood as a site of contestation of Haudenosaunee sovereignty by the colonial state. In fact, the original comparison to Salem comes from Red Jacket’s statements during the trial where he is making, not a historical point, but is fending off the enormous settler reaction to the situation that sought to use settler outrage about witch hunting as cover for land grabs and political control over Seneca territory.11 To be fair to Lewis, the comment seems to be meant to temper what I imagine to be a majority white audience’s slide towards pure romanticization of matriarchal Indigenous cultures, but I wish they could have found a better way to do that.
There was also something lacking in Lewis’ contemporary examples. Their timeline stops in 1985 and starts up again in 2015. Lewis writes, “There was a thirty-year lull in family-abolitionism between 1985 and 2015.”12 The resurgence, it seems, began with the 2015 publication of “Kinderkommunismus: A Feminist Analysis of the 21st-Century Family and a Communist Proposal for Its Abolition” in a now-defunct online magazine.13 While I appreciate Lewis laying out contemporary examples of family abolition, I think there was less of a lull than they claim.
I would trace some of the lineage of family abolition through the politics of sex negativity and critique of the couple form, which saw a resurgence with the publication of the first LIES Journal and the article “The Ethical Prude,” both of which were published in 2012. Other traces of family abolition can be found in the radical queer tendencies advocated by Dean Spade14 and Bash Back, a group that existed from about 2007–2011. These overlapping but varied tendencies kept a version of family abolition alive pre-2015. I’d add that the subculture I was welcomed into in my early twenties also kept the flame going: the remnants of the anti-globalization era anarchist movement that recognized the importance of extending our revolutionary politics to our whole lives certainly felt like a form of family abolition to me, despite its shortcomings.
These oversights in lineage do not erase the fact that the publication of Abolish the Family is very needed. In a context where some of the left is reacting to right-wing pro–family discourse by pumping out their own version, Lewis’s book is refreshing. While anarchism’s time as a default tendency for radical youth seems to have ended (for now), I hope that the history of those thirty years of struggle on the terrain of gender and for children’s liberation and new forms of care and kinship will not be lost. At the end of the day, I’m an organizer and not a theorist, so what I want are more proposals for what the positive vision of family abolition looks like and how we get there. Here’s hoping Lewis writes a sequel.
Veronica L. was raised in a white Catholic community in a super-segregated Rust Belt city in the usa. Her mom was active in the women’s liberation movement in the ’80s and raised her to be a feminist. It took moving away from home for her to find revolutionary anarchism, queer politics, and the surrounding subcultures that remain central to her life today. She was one of the contributors to Antifascism Against Machismo, published by Kersplebedeb in 2023. She lives in Montreal.
Dennis, Matthew. Seneca Possessed: Indians, Witchcraft, and Power in the Early American Republic. Baltimore, MD: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.
Dirik, Dilar. The Kurdish Women’s Movement the Kurdish Women’s Movement: History, Theory, Practice. London, England: Pluto Press, 2022.
Faderman, Lillian. Woman: The American History of an Idea. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2022.
Griffiths, K.D. and JJ Gleeson. “Kinderkommunismus: A Feminist Analysis of the 21st-Century Family and a Communist Proposal for Its Abolition.” Ritual Mag, 2015.
Lee, Butch. The Military Strategy of Women and Children. Montreal: Kersplebedeb, 2003.
Lewis, Sophie. Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation. New York: Verso Books, 2022.
Millbank, Lisa. “The Ethical Prude: Imagining An Authentic Sex-Negative Feminism.” Rad Trans Fem (blog), 2012.
Mt. Pleasant, Alyssa. “After the Whirlwind: Maintaining a Haudenosaunee Place at Buffalo Creek, 1780-1825.” PhD diss. Cornell University, 2007.
O’Brien, M.E. “To Abolish the Family: The Working-Class Family and Gender Liberation in Capitalist Development.” Endnotes 5 (2019).
Spade, Dean. “For Lovers and Fighters.” In We Don’t Need Another Wave: Dispatches from the Next Generation of Feminists, edited by Melody Berger, 28–39. Seattle: Seal Press, 2006.
1Sophie Lewis, Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation, (New York: Verso Books, 2022)
3Butch Lee, The Military Strategy of Women and Children (Montreal: Kersplebedeb, 2003).
4Dilar Dirik, The Kurdish Women’s Movement: History, Theory, Practice, (London: Pluto Press, 2022), 316.
5M.E. O’Brien, “To Abolish the Family: The Working-Class Family and Gender Liberation in Capitalist Development,” Endnotes 5 (2019).
8Lewis, 42. Lillian Faderman, Woman: The American History of an Idea (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022).
9Dennis, 257, footnote 31, emphasis added.
10Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, “After the Whirlwind: Maintaining a Haudenosaunee Place at Buffalo Creek, 1780-1825,” (PhD diss., Cornell University, 2007), 120.
13KD Griffiths and JJ Gleeson, “Kinderkommunismus: A Feminist Analysis of the 21st-Century Family and a Communist Proposal for Its Abolition,” Ritual Mag, 2015, available at https://archive.org/details/gleeson-kinderkommunismus.
14 Dean Spade, “For Lovers and Fighters,” in We Don’t Need Another Wave: Dispatches from the Next Generation of Feminists, ed. Melody Berger (Seattle: Seal Press, 2006), https://www.deanspade.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/ForLoversFightersDSpade.pdf.