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Back to The History of Private Life

Does 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 school.
  • The most rapid increase in unwed pregnancies took place between 1940 and 1958, not in the libertine sixties.
  • 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 themselves.

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 households.

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 household.

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 century.

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" Family

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.

Twentieth-Century Families

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 emotional life.

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.

Contemporary Families

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.


This site was updated on 24-Apr-14.

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