to The History of Private Life
the American Family Have a History? Family Images and Realities
A revolution has taken place in
family life since the late 1960s. Today, two-thirds of all married
women with children--and an even higher proportion of single mothers--work
outside the home, compared to just 16 percent in 1950. Half of
all marriages end in divorce--twice the rate in 1966 and three
times the rate in 1950. Three children in ten are born out of
wedlock. Over a quarter of all children now live with only one
parent and fewer than half of live with both their biological
mother and father. Meanwhile, the proportion of women who remain
unmarried and childless has reached a record high; fully twenty
percent of women between the ages of 30 and 34 have not married
and over a quarter have had no children, compared to six and eight
percent, respectively, in 1970.
These changes have produced alarm,
anxiety, and apprehension. They have inspired family values crusaders
to condemn careerist mothers, absent fathers, single parents,
and unwed parents as the root cause of many of society's ills:
persistent poverty, drug abuse, academic failure, and juvenile
crime. This is a situation that begs for historical perspective.
Recent scholarship has demonstrated
that diversity and change have been the only constants in the
history of the American family. Far from signaling the family's
imminent demise or an erosion of commitment to children, recent
changes in family life are only the latest in a series of disjunctive
transformations in family roles, functions, and dynamics that
have occurred over the past three centuries.
Few subjects are more shrouded
in myths, misconceptions, and misleading generalizations than
the history of the family. Students will find the history of the
family an eye-opening window on the past. They will discover that:
- It was only in the 1920s that,
for the first time, a majority of American families consisted
of a breadwinner-husband, a home-maker wife, and children attending
- The most rapid increase in
unwed pregnancies took place between 1940 and 1958, not in the
- The defining characteristics
of the 1950s family--a rising birth rate, a stable divorce rate,
and declining age of marriage--were historical aberrations,
out of line with long term historical trends.
- Throughout American history,
most families have needed more than one breadwinner to support
In recent years, families have
gone through many disconcerting and disruptive changes. But if
family life today seems unsettled, so, too, was family life in
the past. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the United
States had the highest divorce rate in the western world, and
one child in ten lived in a single-parent home. Hundreds of thousands
of children spent part of their childhood in orphanages, not because
their parents were dead, but because their mother and father could
not support them. Infant mortality, orphanhood, and early widowhood
affected a distressingly high proportion of families. Between
35 and 40 percent of all children lost a parent or a sibling before
they reached their twenties.
Americans are prone to romanticizing
the past and confusing historical fantasy and reality. This is
especially true when Americans ponder our society's "bedrock"
institution, the family. Among the most potent myths that pervade
contemporary society are that divorce, domestic violence, and
single parenthood are recent phenomena; that throughout American
history, most families consisted of a breadwinner-husband and
a homemaker-wife; and that in the past strong, stable families
provided effective care for the elderly and other dependents.
Only careful historical analysis can correct such myths.
In few areas has susceptibility
to myth making been more detrimental than with the family. Highly
romanticized images of the past have contributed to unrealistic
expectations about family life. A historical thinking has also
led Americans to downplay the genuine improvements that have taken
place in family well-being: especially the fact that smaller families
mean that parents can devote more time and resources to each child.
Even worse, a lack of historical perspective has encouraged scapegoating
of families that diverge from the dominant norms; and it has blinded
Americans to the social, economic, demographic, and ideological
pressures that have contributed to familial change--and made transformations
in gender roles and family structures irreversible.
Families in Colonial America
Far from being a stable, unchanging
institution, the family is as enmeshed in the historical process
as any other social institution. The family's roles and functions,
size and composition, and emotional and power dynamics have all
changed dramatically over time.
In colonial America, the family
was, first and foremost, a unit of production. It also performed
a variety of educational, religious and welfare functions that
were later assumed by other private and public institutions. The
family educated children in basic literacy and the rudiments of
religion; it transmitted occupational skills; and it cared for
the elderly and infirm.
Family composition was far more
elastic and porous than in later American families. Even in the
most healthful regions during the seventeenth century, three children
in ten died before reaching adulthood; children were likely to
lose at least one parent by the time they married. As a result,
a majority of colonial Americans probably spent some time in a
step-family. Family size and composition also varied according
to the household's economic needs. Many children left their parents
homes before puberty to work as servants or apprentices in other
Perhaps the biggest difference
between families then and now is that colonial society placed
relatively little emphasis on familial privacy. Community authorities
and neighbors supervised and intervened in family life. In New
England, selectmen oversaw ten or twelve families, removed children
from "unfit" parents, and ensured that fathers exercised
proper family government.
In theory, the seventeenth-century
family was a hierarchical unit, in which the father was invested
with patriarchal authority. He alone sat in an armed chair, his
symbolic throne, while other household members sat on benches
or stools. He taught children to write, led household prayers,
and carried on the bulk of correspondence with family members.
Domestic conduct manuals were addressed to him, not to his wife.
Legally, the father was the primary parent. Fathers, not mothers,
received custody of children after divorce or separation. In colonial
New England, a father was authorized to correct and punish insubordinate
wives, disruptive children, and unruly servants. He was also responsible
for placing his children in a lawful calling and for consenting
to his children's marriages. His control over inheritance kept
his grown sons dependent upon him for years, while they waited
for the landed property they needed to establish an independent
In actuality, the ideology of
patriarchy co-existed with a high degree of blurring of gender
boundaries. Colonial women shouldered many duties that would later
be monopolized by men. The colonial goodwife engaged in trade
and home manufacturing, supervised planting, and sometimes administered
estates. Women's productive responsibilities limited the amount
of time that they could devote to childcare. Many childrearing
tasks were delegated to servants or older daughters. Ironically,
the decline of patriarchal ideology was accompanied by the emergence
of a much more rigid domestic division of labor.
Themes and Variations
There were profound differences
in the family patterns in New England, the Middle colonies, and
the Chesapeake and southern-most colonies. In New England, a patriarchal
conception of family life began to breakdown as early as the 1670s.
In the Chesapeake and the Carolinas, a more stable patriarchal
structure of relationships did not truly emerge until the mid-eighteenth
Demography partly explains these
regional differences. After an initial period of high mortality,
life expectancy in New England rose to levels comparable to our
own. A healthful environment contributed to a very high birthrate
(over half of New England children had nine or more siblings)
and the first society in history in which grandparents were common.
In the Chesapeake, in contrast, a high death rate and an unbalanced
sex ratio made it impossible to establish the kind of stable,
patriarchal families found in New England. During the seventeenth
century, half of all marriages were broken within eight years,
and most families consisted of a complicated assortment of step-parents,
step-children, wards, and half-brothers and half-sisters. Not
until the late-eighteenth century could a father be confident
about his ability to pass property directly to his sons.
Religious differences also contributed
to divergent family patterns. Not nearly as anxious as the Puritans
about infant depravity, Quaker families in Pennsylvania, Delaware,
and New Jersey placed a far greater stress on maternal nurture
than did Puritan families. Quakers also emphasized early autonomy
for children. They provided daughters with an early dowry and
sons with sufficient land to provide a basis for early independence.
The Emergence of the "Republican"
During the eighteenth century,
New England fathers found themselves less able to influence their
sons' choice of occupation, when or whom their children would
marry, and their offsprings' sexual behavior. By mid-century,
sons were moving further away from the parental home, fewer daughters
were marrying in birth order, and rates or illegitimacy and pregnancy
prior to marriage were rising markedly.
One force for change was ideological.
The mid- and late-eighteenth century saw repeated attacks upon
patriarchal authority by such popular writers as Samuel Richardson,
Oliver Goldsmith, and Henry Fielding, who rejected the idea that
a father should dictate a child's career or choice of a marriage
partner and who argued that love and affection were superior to
physical force in rearing children and that women were more effective
than men in inducing children's obedience. Economic shifts further
contributed to an erosion of paternal authority. Rapid population
growth, which resulted in plots too small to be farmed viably,
weakened paternal control over inheritance. New opportunities
for nonagricultural work allowed many children to marry earlier
than in the past.
By the early nineteenth century,
a new kind of urban middle class family had begun to emerge as
the workplace moved some distance from the household and as many
of married women's productive tasks were assumed by unmarried
women working in factories. A new pattern of marriage arose, based
primarily on companionship and affection; a new division of domestic
roles appeared, which assigned the wife to care full-time for
her children and to maintain the home; a new conception of childhood
arose that looked at children not as little adults, but as special
creatures who needed attention, love, and time to mature. Spouses
began to display affection more openly, calling each other "honey"
or "dear." Parents began to keep their children home
longer than in the past. By the mid-nineteenth century, a new
emphasis on family privacy could be seen in the expulsion of apprentices
from the middle-class home, the increasing separation of servants
from the family, and the rise of the family vacation had appeared
as well as such family-oriented celebrations as the birthday party
and decorating the Christmas tree.
The new urban middle-class was
based on a strict segregation of sexual spheres, on intense mother-child
bonds, and on the idea that children needed to be protected from
the corruptions of the outside world. Even at its inception, however,
this new family form was beset by certain latent tensions. One
source of tension involved the paternal role, which was becoming
more psychologically separate from his family. Although fathers
thought of themselves as breadwinners and household heads, and
their wives and children as their dependents, in fact men's connection
to their family was becoming essentially economic. They might
serve as disciplinarian of last resort, but mothers replaced fathers
as primary parent.
Another contradiction involved
women's domestic roles. In their youth, women received an unprecedented
degree of freedom; increasing numbers attended school and worked,
at least temporarily, outside a family unit. After marriage, however,
women were expected to sacrifice their individuality for their
family' sake. In a society that attached increasing value to individualism
and equality, the expectation that women should subordinate themselves
to their husbands and children was a source of latent tension.
Women's subordinate status might be cloaked with an ideology of
separate spheres and true womanhood, but the contradiction with
the ideal of equality remained. A third contradiction involved
the status of children, who remained home far longer than in the
past, often into their late teens and twenties. The emerging ideal
was a protected childhood, shielding children from knowledge of
death, sex, and violence. While in theory families were training
children for independence, in reality, children received fewer
opportunities than in the past to express their growing maturity.
The result was that the transition from childhood and youth to
adulthood became more disjunctive and conflict-riven.
These latent contradictions were
apparent in three striking developments: a sharp fall in the birth
rate, a marked and steady rise in the divorce rate, and a heightened
cultural awareness of domestic violence. The early nineteenth
century saw the beginnings of a sharp fall in the birth rate.
Instead of giving birth to seven to ten children, middle class
mothers, by the end of the century, gave birth to only three.
The reduction in birthrates did not depend on new technologies;
rather, it reflected the view that women were not childbearing
chattel and that children were no longer economic assets. An emerging
ideology deemed children to be priceless, but the fact remained
that the young now required greater parental investments in the
form of education and other inputs.
During the early and mid-nineteenth
century, the divorce rate also began to rise, as judicial divorce
replaced legislative divorce and many states adopted permissive
divorce statutes. If marriages were to rest on mutual affection,
then it divorce had to serve as a safety valve from loveless and
abusive marriages. In 1867, the country had 10,000 divorces, and
the rate rose steadily: from per thousand marriages in 1870, to
per thousand in 1880, to per thousand in 1890.
A growing awareness of wife beating
and child abuse also occurred in the early nineteenth century,
which may have reflected an actual increase in assaults and murders
committed against blood relatives. As families became less subject
to communal oversight, as traditional assumptions about patriarchal
authority were challenged, and as an expanding market economy
produced new kinds of stresses, the family could become an arena
of explosive tension, conflict, and violence.
Slave and Working-Class Families
Various groups have developed
different family strategies in response to their social and economic
circumstances. No group faced graver threats to family life than
enslaved African Americans. Debt, an owner's death, or the prospects
of profit could break up slave families. Between 1790 and 1860,
a million slaves were sold from the upper to the lower South and
another two million slaves were sold within states. As a result,
about a third of all slave marriages were broken by sale and half
of all slave children were sold from their parents. Even in the
absence of sale, slave spouses often resided on separate plantations
or on separate units of a single plantation. On larger plantations,
one father in three had a different owner than his wife; on smaller
plantations and farms, the figure was two in three.
In spite of the refusal of southern
law to provide legal protection to slave marriages, most slaves
married and lived with the same spouse until death. Ties to the
immediate family stretched outward to an involved network of extended
kin. Whenever children were sold to neighboring plantations, grandparents,
aunts, uncles, and cousins took on the function of parents. When
blood relatives were not present, "fictive" kin cared
for and protected children. Godparenting, ritual co-parenting,
and informal adoption of orphans were common on slave plantations.
To sustain a sense of family identity over time, slaves named
children after grandparents and other kin; slaves also passed
down family names, usually the name of an ancestor's owner rather
than the current owner's.
While the urban middle-class family
emphasized a sole male breadwinner, a rigid division of sexual
roles, and a protected childhood, urban working-class families
emphasized a cooperative family economy. Older children were expected
to defer marriage, remain at home, and contribute to the family's
income. It was not until the 1920s that the cooperative family
economy gave way to the family wage economy, which allowed a male
breadwinner to sport his family on his wages alone. Contributing
to this new family formation were the establishment of the first
seniority systems; compulsory school attendance laws; and increased
real wages as a result of World War I. The New Deal further solidified
the male breadwinner family by prohibiting child labor, expanding
workmen's compensation, and targeting jobs programs at male workers.
Over the past three centuries,
Americans have gone through recurrent waves of moral panic over
the family. During the late nineteenth century, panic gripped
the country over family violence and child neglect, declining
middle-class birthrates, divorce, and infant mortality. Eleven
states made desertion and non-support of families a felony and
three states instituted the whipping post where wife-beaters were
punished with floggings. To combat the decline in middle-class
birth rates, the Comstock Act restricted the interstate distribution
of birth control information and contraceptive devices, while
state laws criminalized abortion. In a failed attempt to reduce
the divorce rate, many states reduced the grounds for divorce
and extended waiting periods.
Mounting public anxiety led to
increased government involvement in the family and the emergence
of distinct groups offering expert advice about childrearing,
parenting, and social policy. To combat the exploitation and improve
the well-being of children, reformers pressed for compulsory school
attendance laws, child labor restrictions, playgrounds, pure milk
laws, and "widow's" pensions to permit poor children
to remain with their mothers. There were also concerted efforts
to eliminate male-only forms of recreation, campaigns that achieved
success with the destruction of red-light districts during the
1910s and of saloons following adoption of Prohibition in 1918.
To strengthen and stabilize families,
marriage counselors promoted a new ideal: the companionate family.
It held that husbands and wives were to be "friends and lovers"
and that parents and children should be "pals." This
new ideal stressed the couple relationship and family togetherness
as the primary source of emotional satisfaction and personal happiness.
Privacy was a hallmark of the new family ideal. Unlike the nineteenth
century family, which took in boarders, lodgers, or aging and
unmarried relatives, the companionate family was envisioned as
a more isolated, and more important, unit, the primary focus of
During the Depression, unemployment,
lower wages, and the demands of needy relatives tore at the fabric
of family life. Many Americans were forced to share living quarter
with relatives, delay marriage, and postpone having children.
The divorce rate fell, since fewer people could afford one, but
desertions soared. By 1940, 1.5 million married couples were living
apart. Many families coped by returning to a cooperative family
economy. Many children took part time jobs and many wives supplemented
the family income by taking in sewing or laundry, setting up parlor
groceries, or housing lodgers.
World War II also subjected families
to severe strain. During the war, families faced a severe shortage
of housing, a lack of schools and child-care facilities, and prolonged
separation from loved ones. Five million "war widows"
ran their homes and cared for children alone, while millions of
older, married women went to work in war industries. The stresses
of wartime contribute to an upsurge in the divorce rate. Tens
of thousands of young people became latchkey children, and rates
of juvenile delinquency, unwed pregnancy, and truancy all rose.
The late 1940s and 1950s witnessed
a sharp reaction to the stresses of the Depression and war. If
any decade has come to symbolize the traditional family, it is
the 1950s. The average age of marriage for women dropped to twenty;
divorce rates stabilized; and the birthrate doubled. Yet the images
of family life that appeared on television were misleading; only
sixty percent of children spent their childhood in a male-breadwinner,
female homemaker household. The democratization of the family
ideals reflected social and economic circumstances that are unlikely
to be duplicated: a reaction against Depression hardships and
the upheavals of World War II; the affordability of single-family
track homes in the booming suburbs; and rapidly rising real incomes.
The post-war family was envisioned
not simply a haven in a heartless world, like the Victorian family,
but as an alternative world of satisfaction and intimacy. But
this family, like its Victorian counterpart, had its own contradictions
and latent tensions. Youthful marriages, especially among women
who cut short their education, contributed to a rising divorce
rate in the 1960s. The compression of childbearing into the first
years of marriage meant that many wives were free of the most
intense childrearing responsibilities by their early or mid-thirties.
Combined with the ever rising costs of maintaining a middle-class
standard of living, this encouraged a growing number of married
women to enter the workplace; as early as 1960, a third of married
middle-class women were working part- or full-time. The expansion
of schooling, combined with growing affluence, contributed to
the emergence of a separate youth culture, separate and apart
from the family. The seeds of radical familial changes were planted
in the 1950s.
Since the 1960s, families have
grown smaller, less stable, and more diverse. At the same time,
more adults live outside a family, as single young adults, divorced
singles, or as older people who have lost a spouse. As recently
as 1960, seventy percent of the households in the United States
consisted of a breadwinner father, a homemaker mother, and two
or more kids. Today, the male breadwinner, female homemaker family
makes up only a small proportion of American households. More
common are two-earner families, where both the husband and wife
work; single-parent families, usually headed by a mother; reconstituted
families, formed after a divorce; and empty-nest families, created
after a children have left home. Declining birth and marriage
rates, the rapid entry of married women into the work force, a
rising divorce rate, and an aging population all contributed to
this domestic revolution.
Despite the changes that have
taken place, the family is not a dying institution. About ninety
percent of Americans marry and bear children, and most Americans
who divorce eventually remarry. In many respects, family life
is actually stronger today than it was in the past. While divorce
rates are higher than in the past, fewer families suffer from
the death of a parent or a child. Infants were four times more
likely to die in the 1950s than today and older children were
three times more likely. Because of declining death rates, couples
are more likely to grow into old age together than in the past
and children are more likely to have living grandparents. Meanwhile,
parents are making greater emotional and economic investment their
children. Lower birth rates mean that parents can devote more
attention and greater financial resources to each child. Fathers
have become more actively involved in their childrearing.
Nevertheless, the profound changes--such
as the integration of married women into the paid labor force--have
taken place in the late twentieth century resulted in a "crisis
of caregiving." As the proportion of single parent and two-worker
families has increased, many parents have found it increasingly
difficult to balance the demands of work and family life. Working
parents not only had to care for their young children, but, because
of increasing life spans, aging parents as well. In an attempt
to deal with these needs, the United States adopted the 1993 Family
and Medical Leave Act, entitling eligible employees to take up
to twelve weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in a twelve-month
period for specified family and medical reasons. Yet despite widespread
rhetoric about promoting family values, many "reforms,"
such as welfare reform, weakened social supports for families.
Whether the early twenty-first century will witness a wave of
family-related reforms comparable to the Progressive Era remains
to be seen.