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Back to The History of Private Life

The Modern Family
By Steven Mintz

Does a father have the right to give his children his last name even if his wife objects? Can an expectant mother obtain an abortion without her husband's permission? Should a teenager, unhappy with her parents' restrictions on her smoking, dating, and choice of friends, be allowed to have herself placed in a foster home? Should a childless couple be permitted to hire a "surrogate mother" who will be artificially inseminated and carry a child to delivery?

These are among the questions that the nation's courts have had to wrestle with as the nature of American family life has, in the course of a generation, been revolutionized.

During the 1950s, the Cleavers on the television show "Leave It to Beaver" epitomized the American family. In 1960, over 70 percent of all American households were like the Cleavers: made up of a breadwinner father, a homemaker mother, and their kids. Today, "traditional" families with a working husband, an unemployed wife, and one or more children make up less than 15 percent of the nation's households. And as America's families have changed, the image of the family portrayed on television has changed accordingly. Today's television families run the gamut from two-career families to two single mothers and their children and an unmarried couples who cohabitate in the same house.

Profound changes have reshaped American family life in recent years. In a decade, divorce rates doubled. The number of divorces today is twice as high as in 1966 and three times higher than in 1950. The rapid upsurge in the divorce rates contributed to a dramatic increase in the number of single-parent households or what used to be known as broken homes. The number of households consisting of a single woman and her children has tripled since 1960. A sharp increase in female-headed homes has been accompanied by a startling increase in the number of couples cohabitating outside of marriage. The number of unmarried couples living together has quadrupled since 1970.

What accounts for these upheavals in family life? One of the most far reaching forces for change has been a sexual revolution far more radical than the early twentieth century "revolution in morals and manners." Contemporary Americans are much more likely than their predecessors to postpone marriage, to live alone, and to engage in sexual intercourse outside of marriage. Today, over 80 percent of all women say that they were not virgins when they married, compared to less than a 20 percent a generation ago. Extramarital sex has also increased sharply. Back in the 1940s, just eight percent of married women under the age of 25 had committed adultery. Today the estimated figure is 24 percent. Meanwhile, the proportion of children born to unmarried mothers has climbed from just five percent in 1960 to over twenty percent today.

The roots of these developments were planted during the early 1960s, when a new openness about sexuality swept the nation's literature, movies, theater, advertising, and fashion. In 1960, the birth control pill was introduced, offering a highly effective method of contraception. Two years later, Grossinger's resort in New York State's Catskills Mountains introduced the first singles-only weekend, thereby acknowledging couples outside marriage. In 1964, the first "singles bar" opened in New York City; the musical "Hair" introduced nudity to the Broadway state; California designer Rudi Gernreich created the first topless bathing suit; and bars sprouted featuring topless waitresses and dancers. Sexually-oriented magazines began to display pubic hair and filmmakers began to show simulated sexual acts on the screen. A new era of public sexuality was ushered in and as a result it became far easier and more acceptable to have an active social life and sex life outside of marriage.

At the same time, the nation's courts and state legislatures liberalized laws governing sex and contraception. In 1957, the Supreme Court narrowed the legal definition of obscenity, ruling that the portrayal of sex in art, literature, and film was entitled to constitutional protections of free speech, unless the work was utterly without redeeming social value. In 1962, Illinois became the first state to decriminalize all forms of private sexual conduct between consenting adults. In succeeding years, the Supreme Court struck down a series of state statutes that prohibited the prescription or distribution of contraceptives, and in 1973, in the case of Roe v. Wade, the high court decriminalized abortion. These legal decisions, to a large extent, took government out of the business of regulating private sexual behavior and defining the sexual norms according to which citizens were supposed to live.

Another factor reshaping family life has been a massive influx of mothers into the work force. As late as 1940, less than 12 percent of white married women were in the work force; today the figure is nearly 60 percent and over half of all mothers of pre-schoolers work outside the home. The major forces that have propelled women into the work force include a rising cost of living, which spurred many families to seek a second source of income; increased control over fertility through contraception and abortion, which allows women to work without interruption; and rising educational levels, which lead many women to seek employment for intellectual stimulation and fulfillment.

As wives have assumed a larger role in their family's financial support, they have felt justified in demanding that husbands perform more child care and housework. At the same time, fewer children have a full?time mother and as a result an increasing number of young children are cared for during the day by adults other than their own parent. Today, over two-thirds of all three-to-five year olds take part in a day care, nursery school, or pre-kindergarten program, compared to a fifth in 1970.

Feminism has been another major force that has transformed American family life. The women's liberation movement attacked the societal expectation that women defer to the needs of spouses and children as part of their roles as wives and mothers. Militant feminist activists like Ti-Grace Atkinson denounced marriage as "slavery" and "legalized rape." The larger mainstream of the women's movement articulated a powerful critique of the idea that child care and housework were the apex of a woman's accomplishments or her sole means of fulfillment.

The feminist movement awakened American women to what many viewed as one of the worst form of social and political oppression: sexism. The introduction of this awareness would go far beyond the feminists themselves. Although only a small minority of American women openly declared themselves to be feminists, the arguments of the women's movement drastically altered women's attitudes toward family roles, child care, and housework. As a result of feminism, a substantial majority of women now believe that both husband and wife should have jobs, do housework, and take care of children.

The changes that have taken place in family life have been disruptive and troubling and have transformed the family into a major political battleground. Both liberals and conservatives have offered their own proposals about how the American family can best be strengthened. Conservative activists, fearful that climbing rates of divorce, single parenthood, and working mothers represent a breakdown of family values, launched a politically influential "pro-family movement" during the 1970s. They sought to restrict access to abortion, block ratification of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, restrict eroticism on television, and limit teenagers' access to contraceptive information. Liberals have approached family issues from a different tack. Unlike conservatives, they are more willing to use government social policies to strengthen family life. Some of the proposals they have made to strengthen families include expanded nutritional and health programs for pregnant women, federal subsidies for day are services for low-income families, uniform national standards for child care centers, and a requirement that employers give parents unpaid leave to take care of a newborn or seriously ill child. Without a doubt, the family will remain one of the hottest political issues in the years to come.


This site was updated on 20-Apr-14.

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