The Family, the State, and American Political Development As a Big Tent: Asking Basic Questions About Basic Institutions

Posted: 13 Jun 2016

See all articles by Linda C. McClain

Linda C. McClain

Boston University - School of Law

Date Written: April 1, 2016


This article, contributed to a symposium on “The Family, the State, and American Political Development”, evaluates the proposition that the relationship between the basic institutions of the family and the state should be more central to the study of American political development (“APD”). It argues that, happily, such relationship is no longer as neglected by scholars as it once was, but that much work remains to be done. The article begins by comparing parallel efforts by pioneering feminist political and legal theorists to put on the table such issues as the public/private distinction between the polity and the family, assumptions about the role of the family (and of women’s wifely and maternal labor) in the political order, and injustice within the family. With the emergence of the subfield of APD and of “historical institutionalism”, some political scientists and historians (particularly feminist historians) also produced valuable studies of the historical development of public policy concerning families and the welfare state, treating gender as a salient category of analysis. The article argues that legal scholars also regularly examine the evolution over time not only of family definitions, forms, and gender roles, but also of how various forms of the state have regulated and supported the family. It proposes that we view the study of APD as a “big tent” within which scholars from diverse disciplines may benefit from fruitful conversations about parallel inquiries. To indicate the importance of the contextual and temporal examination of the family and the state, the article analyzes the contrasting approaches to the institution of marriage and governmental interest in it in the majority and dissenting opinions in the Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), the landmark case holding that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry in every state.

Keywords: family law; marriage; feminist theory; right to marry; American political development; social institutions; Obergefell v. Hodges; family

Suggested Citation

McClain, Linda C., The Family, the State, and American Political Development As a Big Tent: Asking Basic Questions About Basic Institutions (April 1, 2016). 48(2) Polity 224-242 (April 2016), Boston Univ. School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 16-21, Available at SSRN:

Linda C. McClain (Contact Author)

Boston University - School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States

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