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

Jack_Hanick Julia

‘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.

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The Guinea Pigs of Oakholme Road: Pacifism and Medical Research in Wartime Sheffield


At 4.30am on Saturday 8 March 2008, South Yorkshire Police arrived at Oakholme Hall, a 30-bed student residence in Broomhill, Sheffield, and began dispersing the 300-strong crowd gathered outside. As the Sheffield Telegraph reported later that week, what had started as a low-key house party had, due to some unwisely chosen privacy settings on Facebook, been gate-crashed by “hundreds of drunken revellers”.

The ensuing fracas, which resulted in ten arrests, nine on-the-spot fines, and numerous complaints from local residents, led Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University of Sheffield Professor Paul White to denounce those students who would “bring the good name of the university… into disrepute” and threaten expulsion for those who continued to flout rules of conduct. In response to White’s comments, Students’ Union President Mark Willoughby stressed that the party was an outlying incident and instead pointed to those students who conscientiously contributed to the local community, including “over 1,000 [who] are involved in voluntary work across the city.”

Willoughby’s appeal to voluntary work in an attempt to rehabilitate the tarnished reputation of Sheffield’s student population in 2008 provided a fortuitous call-back to the little-known place of Oakholme Road in the history of medicine and warfare. It was next door to Oakholme Lodge, at 18 Oakholme Road, that the Sorby Research Institute (SRI) was founded in December 1940. Although today merely another student hall, during the Second World War the building functioned as a site of unprecedented medical experimentation on human volunteers drawn from Sheffield’s community of pacifists and conscientious objectors (COs). Over the following six years, these ‘human guinea pigs’ would subject their bodies to infectious diseases, deficient diets, shipwreck simulations, stab wounds, and even bouts of malaria and scurvy. 1

To understand why pacifists would volunteer for these unpleasant tasks, it is necessary to consider the ambiguous position of COs in 1940s Britain. Whereas the well-publicised brutality inflicted on COs during the First World War generated a great deal of sympathy and solidarity, the comparative tolerance shown to their successors in 1939 caused something of an existential crisis for many in the pacifist community about how best to serve humanity and resist war. 2

This anxiety was particularly pronounced among young, university-age pacifists who increasingly rejected overly ‘intellectual’ and ‘academic’ forms of protest and instead promoted more practical, grounded, and physical kinds of war work such as agricultural labour, humanitarian relief, and medical aid. As well as being spurred on by their political beliefs, this drive towards more taxing kinds of labour was shaped by the mockery and scorn often directed towards university-educated pacifists by military tribunals and the local press. Comments regarding the application of Richard Charles Clarke, a 20-year-old student at the University of Sheffield, for exemption from military service, were typical. “You are receiving your education from the State, and you are not prepared to do anything in return,” the tribunal chairman concluded, before registering Clarke for military service against his wishes. 3

From this perspective, serving as a ‘human guinea pig’ made perfect sense: it offered the young, eager pacifist a form of labour that was constructive and humanitarian, but at the same time offered painful and unpleasant trials through which they could prove their bravery and commitment. The SRI’s experiments, therefore, offered a rare opportunity to improve their standing within the local community from mere tolerance to (at least grudging) respect.

It was with this hope in mind that volunteers signed-up for the first major experimental programme at the SRI: a series of trials designed to investigate the transmission of scabies, an infectious skin disease caused by parasitic mites which had been rising in incidence since the late 1930s. 4 These experiments required the volunteers to adopt a range of transgressive behaviours: wearing dirty military uniforms, sleeping naked between soiled bedsheets, and even sharing beds with infected soldiers. By presenting these unusual labours as vital to the protection of national health, the volunteers were able to overcome suspicion and distrust about their CO status to secure praise from local newspapers, gain sympathy from tribunal panels, and even reconcile with previously estranged family members.

Many of these benefits were short-lived, however. In the later years of the war, a shift towards less ‘exciting’ nutritional experiments, which largely required volunteers to adopt monotonous diets for months and even years a time, restricted the SRI’s capacity to transform maligned pacifists into unlikely wartime heroes. 5 As such, when the SRI closed in February 1946 to make way for “a student hostel”, many of the volunteers returned to their pre-war lives with little more to show for their efforts than disrupted careers, diminished finances, and compromised bodies. Nevertheless, for a short time, the house on Oakholme Road provided a space where a young, marginalised group could remake its public image against a backdrop of hostility and suspicion. Future party-throwers, take note.

David Saunders is a PhD student at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. His research focuses on medical experimentation and the politics of citizenship in wartime Britain.


  1. For an overview of the SRI, see Kenneth Mellanby, Human Guinea Pigs (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1945).
  2. See Martin Ceadel, Pacifism in Britain 1914-1945: The Defining of a Faith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 301-305.
  3. “Pacifist Tells Tribunal He Loves Hitler,” Sheffield Telegraph, 24 November 1939, p.6.
  4. See Kenneth Mellanby, Scabies (London: Oxford University Press, 1943).
  5. See E.M. Hume and H.A. Krebs, Vitamin A Requirement of Human Adults: An Experimental Study of Vitamin A Deprivation in Man (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1949); W. Bartley, H.A. Krebs and J.R.P. O’Brien, Vitamin C Requirement of Human Adults: A Report by the Vitamin C Subcommittee of the Accessory Food Factors Committee (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1953).
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#WorldMentalHealthDay, Left-Wing Politics and Radical Histories of Mental Health


Today is World Mental Health Day, and the theme for 2018 is ‘Young People and Mental Health in a Changing World’. In reading the coverage of the event, including the official Twitter feed, it is noticeable that the framework of debate has been kept studiously apolitical. Discussion has centred on ‘breaking down stigma’, with a poll on the best way to do this showing enthusiasm for ‘awareness/education’ massively outweighing support for research, extra funding, or policy change.

When it comes to raising awareness though, it is fair to ask exactly what it is we are being made aware of, and why. And these are inherently political questions. Definitions of ‘mental health’, and the relationship between various kinds of emotional or psychological distress and ‘illness’ have been constantly contested throughout history. Particularly since the mid-twentieth century, so called ‘medical’ models of mental health and illness have increasingly been called into question.

Rather than an accident of biology, heredity or neurochemistry, voices from across the political spectrum have argued, mental ‘illness’ is best understood either as a consequence of, or a reaction to, an individual’s social circumstances.

How we define mental health matters, because the solutions we propose to the problems associated with mental illness will differ according to what we think it is. Even within ‘social models’ of mental health and illness, prescriptions for solutions will vary widely according to political persuasion.

On the right, the removal of psychological problems from the scope of medical intervention might be used to justify cutting services available to sufferers, stressing individual responsibility for one’s situation over the state’s duty of care. Liberal critics of over-medicalisation, meanwhile, are largely constrained to offering remedial measures – focused again, in their own way, on individual development – that leave the broader structures of social injustice largely intact.

In my new research project, funded by the Wellcome Trust, I look at groups for whom the solutions to the problems of mental health lay in a radical, revolutionary re-ordering of society as a whole. For these people and organisations, the psychological conditions designated as ‘illness’ by psychiatry, and regulated as such by the state, were in fact the necessary and inexorable result of capitalist social relations in an advanced industrial society. The only way to deal with the emotional distress experienced by large swathes of the population, they argued, was to empower them to resist – and eventually, to overthrow – the entire edifice of capitalism and its political institutions.

The origins of this radical strain of mental health activism, I hypothesise, can be found in two – on the face of it unrelated – developments in the mid-1950s. The first was the appointment of the Percy Commission in 1954 and the 1959 Mental Health Act which resulted from its recommendations, initiating the end of the Victorian asylum system, the expansion of community care, and the integration of psychiatric services within the NHS.

In the same period, disillusionment with Soviet-style communism following successive shocks to the international left over the course of 1956 saw the flourishing of a vibrant ‘New Left’ in Britain, opening up of new avenues of radical politics beyond the traditional domain of class struggle, embracing feminism, anti-racism, gay liberation, the peace movement and other causes.

It is in this dual context, I argue, that a radical, anti-capitalist mental health activism was able to emerge. Outside of the asylum, like-minded mental health survivors were able to meet and organise more easily, while the flourishing of left-wing politics beyond purely economist horizons opened up mental illness as a potential field of struggle that could be usefully linked to other battles.

The Mental Patients’ Union (MPU), established in 1973, is a good example. Founded at the experimental, co-operatively run Paddington Day Hospital in London, the MPU articulated a wide-ranging social model of mental health that was unambiguously anti-capitalist, putting forward a programme that linked the struggles of mental health survivors to wider issues of poverty, unemployment and housing.

An early MPU publication argued that psychiatry ‘is one of the tools that capitalism uses to ensure that frustration and anger against the oppressive system is internalised. It is time the mental patient fought back and joined other oppressed groups in the class struggle.’

The 1960s and 70s saw similar movements emerging in United States and Europe – notably in West Germany and in Italy. While never dominant within mental health organisations in Britain – and often met with scepticism, or outright hostility, from a broader organised left – these groups nonetheless had an influence that has largely been overlooked by historians of both mental health and the left.

Over the last decade, in the wake of the global financial crisis, the UK has once again seen a resurgence of activity on the radical left, while at the same time, the stresses of the recession and the cuts to services by Conservative-led governments have seen mental health issues newly politicised. Not only has the MPU’s spirit of radical self-organisation been newly reignited in groups like Speak Out Against Psychiatry, Recovery in the Bin and the Mental Health Resistance Network, but – with the leftward turn in the Labour Party leadership, and the introduction of a new Shadow Ministry for Mental Health – the radicalisation of mental health discussions within the mainstream of British politics has become a genuine (if as yet underdeveloped) possibility.

Not only – as the literature accompanying today’s event notes – are adolescence and young adulthood often associated with life changes which bring particular vulnerability to psychological or emotional distress, but in the UK, young people have also been disproportionately affected by austerity, and – from the student movement to Corbynism – a significant motor of progressive and radical politics.

If the potential of this moment is to be grasped, it will require going beyond the paradigm of awareness-raising. It will mean re-learning the lessons of activists in the past, and listening to campaigners in the present. On the left, we will need to take mental health seriously as a field of contention, while as mental health campaigners we will need to go beyond a surface critique of stigmatisation to interrogate the structures of unhappiness, distress and injustice that undergird our society.

Steffan Blayney is a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in History at the University of Sheffield. He is a member of the editorial team at History Workshop Online and a co-organiser of History Acts. Twitter: @SteffanBlayney


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