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A Tale of Three Families: Historical Households, Earned Belonging, and Natural Connections

48 Pages Posted: 16 May 2012 Last revised: 17 May 2012

Allison Anna Tait

University of Richmond - School of Law

Date Written: May 4, 2012


Cases targeting family regulation in the 1970s turned, for the first time, on three contrasting and sometimes competing theories of the family – historical households, earned belonging, and natural connections. This Article introduces and defines these three theories and offers a descriptive account of how the theories were used by litigants and the Supreme Court alike to measure discrimination, evaluate the rights of individual family members and, often, increase household equality. The theory of historical households, developed with great success by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, invoked a Blackstonian family defined by gender hierarchy and the law of coverture, and posited that this model was in need of legal reordering. Earned belonging, offered by Ginsburg as a replacement for historical households, presented a new and more democratic family theory centered on ideas of conduct-based outcomes. The earned belonging theory proposed that an individual could earn her full place in the family through positive conduct and performance. The theory of natural connections, on the contrary, promoted received wisdom about family ordering based on biologic “truths” about sex-based differences. Courts operating according to natural connections theory privileged maternal rights, rejected many paternal claims, and affirmed laws promoting the nuclear, or natural, family. The work of this Article is to present a new and synthetic reading of cases about wives, illegitimate children, and unwed fathers that follows these three logics, revealing how they weave together and why earned belonging provides the strongest support for Ginsburg’s original vision of an equalized household.

Keywords: family law, marital benefits, illegitimacy, unwed fathers, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, legal history, gender stereotyping

Suggested Citation

Tait, Allison Anna, A Tale of Three Families: Historical Households, Earned Belonging, and Natural Connections (May 4, 2012). Hastings Law Journal, Vol. 63, 2012. Available at SSRN:

Allison Tait (Contact Author)

University of Richmond - School of Law ( email )

28 Westhampton Way
Richmond, VA 23173
United States

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