to The History of Private Life
and Fathers in America: Looking Backward, Looking Forward
By Steven Mintz
Men's and women's domestic roles
are not ordained by human nature, biology, or men's and women's
psychology. Rather, they are the product of particular historical
circumstances, social processes, and ideologies, and vary widely
by race, religion, and time period. Far from being fixed and static
categories, motherhood and fatherhood are social, cultural, and
ideological constructs. Their social definition and meaning has
been changing, varied, and contested (Hacking,
Over the past 300 years, the dominant
cultural ideals of fatherhood and motherhood have changed dramatically.
The pages that follow will trace the shift in American history
from the colonial ideal of the domestic patriarch and good wife
to the mid-twentieth century ideal of male breadwinner and genial
daddy and the full-time homemaker and mommy. The essay will then
examine the splintering and politicization of ideals of fatherhood
and motherhood during the past half century.
Today, media images of fatherhood
range from the nurturing "new" father and male "mother,"
who participates equally in housework and child care, to the deadbeat
dad, the wife beater, and the child abuser. Legal definitions
of fatherhood encompass stepfathers and foster fathers with no
biological connection to their children as well as many non-resident
fathers or sperm donors with little or no emotional connection
to their offspring (Griswold, 1993).
Similarly, there is no single
dominant image of motherhood today. Popular culture presents us
with an extraordinarily wide range of images of motherhood: nurturing,
empathetic, and involved, but also overprotective, stifling, neglectful,
intrusive, rejecting, cold, and narcissistic. The sociology of
motherhood also varies widely. Alongside the "traditional"
full-time housewife and mother there are single mothers, divorced
moms, lesbian mothers, and employed mothers. The emergence of
new birth technologies has resulted in mothers with radically
new relations to their children. A mother might be an egg donor
or a surrogate mother who carried the child to term. At the same
time, "open adoption" encourages many birth mothers
to maintain contact with their children alongside adoptive mothers
Fatherhood and motherhood are
as deeply enmeshed in the historical process as any other social
institutions. This introductory essay will examine the engines
and implications of three centuries of change in men's and women's
Key Themes in the History of
Motherhood and Fatherhood
Four key themes will emerge from
our examination of the history of fatherhood and motherhood. The
first is that the men's and women's family roles have not evolved
in a unilinear direction. It has become common, in recent years,
to discuss the history of motherhood and fatherhood in terms of
a long term shift from patriarchy and hierarchy to increasing
egalitarianism and androgyny. I will argue that this model of
historical change is inadequate to capture the complexities of
historical change. A second major theme is that there has never
been a single, unitary family role for women or men. Rather, motherhood
and fatherhood have varied along and across lines of race, ethnicity,
class, and religion. I would suggest that the diversity that characterizes
the roles of fathers and mothers today mirrors the lack of uniformity
one finds in the past.
Third, we shall closely examine
the growing role of the state and of professional expertise in
altering the roles of mother and father. During the twentieth
century, government and a variety of public institutions assumed
responsibilities that had previously been left largely to fathers.
Despite repeated governmental efforts to shore up the paternal
role, the large-term trend has been a weakening of men's family
roles. At the same time, physicians, psychologists, childrearing
experts, and other authorities have altered the norms that have
shaped and guided the maternal role. While their efforts were
intended to strengthen mothers' confidence, an ironic consequence
has been to weaken mothers' sense that they know how to properly
Fourth and finally, we shall see
that men's and women's roles and status within the home have been
inextricably connected to their relationship to work and production.
Historically, men's authority within the family was rooted in
their ownership of property, their control of craft skills, or
their role as the family's chief wage earner. In recent years,
as increasing numbers of mothers have entered the paid work force,
breadwinning--the central component of paternal identity for a
century and a critical factor defining men's time commitment to
their family--has become a responsibility shared by women and
men. This development has thrown into question many older assumptions
about men's proper domestic roles.
My overarching argument is that
the history of motherhood and fatherhood is tied to the transition
from the "corporate family economy"--a productive unit
typified by the colonial family farm or artisanal household--to
the "family wage economy"--in which the husband or father
was the family's sole or primary wage earner--to the contemporary
"individual wage economy," in which each adult is expected
to earn an independent income. As we shall see, each of these
"family economies" has been accompanied by its own distinctive
ideology, demographic characteristics, division of domestic roles,
and emotional and power relations. What is unique today is that
the conceptions of fatherhood and motherhood are more problematic
and contested politically than at any time in the past.
Fatherhood and Motherhood in
Recent scholarship presents us
with two contradictory images of the colonial family. On the one
hand, the colonial era has been depicted as a period of remarkable
gender equality. Because there was no sharp split between home
and work or between productive and reproductive activities, it
has been argued that mothers enjoyed greater status and a far
wider range of roles than they would subsequently have. Meanwhile,
fathers, according to this view, interacted with family members
much more frequently and actively they have done later in American
history (Demos, 1986). Yet this image of flexibility and fluidity
co-exists with an opposing image of colonial patriarchy, of husbands
and fathers who dominated their wives and children (Amussen,
1988; Morgan, 1965; Norton,
1996; Schochet, 1975; L.
There is some truth in both of
these viewpoints. The American colonies inherited a conception
of the family as a patriarchal unit in which all household members
were expected to labor under the direction of the husband and
father. Paternal and husbandly authority was part of the "Great
Chain of Being" that bound every being in a line of authority
and subordination extending from God. The Protestant Reformation
augmented paternal authority within the household. The tenets
of early Protestantism held that hierarchy and paternal authority
were essential for successful family functioning (Norton,
1996; Ozment, 1983).
Far from being simply an abstract
set of ideas, patriarchy was symbolized in a variety of ways within
colonial households. A prime symbol of paternal dominance lay
in the fact that he sat in an armchair whereas other family members
sat on benches or stools. Symbolically, the armchair was his throne.
In letters, husbands seldom asked their wives for advice. They
generally addressed their wives in their correspondence with condescending
terms such as "Dear Child," while their wives addressed
them as "Mister" and signed their letters "your
faithful and obedient wife." Nevertheless, it is important
to emphasize that the ideology of patriarchy co-existed with a
surprising degree of flexibility in actual behavior (Greven,
1977, 1991; Koehler, 1980; Morgan,
1965; Norton, 1996).
Although religion and law prescribed
a hierarchical ordering of family relations, seventeenth-century
Protestants considered the companionship and intimacy of marriage
as one of the elements that gave life meaning. Colonial law required
husbands to live with their wives, support them financially, assume
any debts that their wives contracted before marriage, and pay
fines for their wives' criminal behavior. In addition, community
pressures and law circumscribed men's familial authority. Puritan
Connecticut and Massachusetts instituted some of the first laws
in history against wife beating, adultery, and fornication. These
colonies also recognized a right to divorce with remarriage in
cases of abandonment, adultery, and extreme physical cruelty,
and prohibited "any unnatural severitie" toward children
(Mintz, 1992; Norton, 1996;
Compared to present-day families,
the seventeenth century household served a wider range of functions
and had more porous and flexible boundaries. It served a variety
of productive, educational, religious, and welfare roles that
have subsequently been shed to other institutions. It was, first
and foremost, a unit of economic production, whose size and composition
varied according to the household's labor needs (Mintz
& Kellogg, 1988). Inside the household, the division of
domestic roles was far less specialized or rigid than it would
later become. This was especially true for women. The historian
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has aptly described seventeenth-century
mothering as extensive rather than intensive. Households were
busy and often crowded places where childrearing responsibilities
had to be balanced with other demands on a woman's time. Mothers
were not only responsible for feeding, clothing, supervising,
and instructing their own children, but also supervising, disciplining,
and training apprentices and servants and assisting in their husband's
economic affairs. An industrious housewife was supposed to be
a skilled spinner, sewer, knitter, food processor, brewer, and
cook; a productive gardener; a household manufacturer; and a resourceful
trader (Ulrich, 1982).
Rather than focusing care and
concern on a small number of children, mothers devoted generalized
attention to a large number of kin and non-kin, including lodgers,
servants, apprentices. In seventeenth and eighteenth century New
England, a typical woman bore seven to ten children (Ulrich,
During the seventeenth century,
many children experienced more than one mothering figure. In England
and France, many middle-class and upper-class children were placed
out to a wet nurse, who breastfed them for several months. Wetnursing
was less common, but not unknown, in colonial America. Older daughters
and servants often helped their mother supervise younger children.
As early as the age of six or seven, many children were fostered
outside their parental home, to work as servants or apprentices
or to attend school. Short life expectancies meant that stepmothers
and stepfathers and orphans were common. Language underscores
the prevalence of multiple mothering figures. A midwife was sometimes
referred to as a "good mother," while older sisters
were sometimes called "little mothers," and the slave
women who nursed white children were called mammies. Many men
and women who bore no children participated in rearing young people.
Social customs encouraged various forms of child-sharing, from
indenture and apprenticeship to fosterage and informal adoption
In certain respects, fathers played
a more active role in domestic life than would be true two centuries
later. They were chiefly responsible for teaching their children
to write, leading household prayers, and instructing the young
in farming and craft skills. Fathers also carried on the bulk
of correspondence with family members. Domestic conduct manuals
and childrearing advice books were addressed to men, not their
wives. Legally, fathers were regarded as the primary parent. Fathers,
not mothers, received custody after a divorce or separation. In
colonial New England, a father was required to lead his family
in prayer and teach children and servants the catechism. He was
authorized to correct and punish abusive or insubordinate wives,
disruptive children, and unruly servants. He exercised legal control
over his children's services and labor and his wife's property
and earnings. In addition, he was responsible for placing his
children in a lawful calling or occupation; consenting to his
children's marriages; and distributing the family property (Mintz & Kellogg, 1988).
Yet it would be a mistake to exaggerate
or romanticize colonial men's involvement in family life. Although
men could be attached to and indulgent of very young children,
there is no evidence to suggest that they engaged in the daily
care of infants or toddlers. Diapering, feeding, bathing, cooking,
and other everyday tasks of childcare were left to wives, older
daughters, or servants (Mintz & Kellogg,
Themes and Variations
There was a significant regional
variation in men's and women's familial roles in colonial America.
In Puritan New England, a patriarchal conception of family life
began to break down as early as the 1670s, whereas in the Chesapeake
colonies of Maryland and Virginia, a more patriarchal structure
of relationships did not truly emerge until the late seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries (Moran, 1991).
Many Puritan men in the first
and second generations aspired to become family patriarchs. Likening
their "errand in the wilderness" to the ancient Hebrews'
40 years of wandering in the desert, the first generation sought
to recreate a hierarchical form of family life that was disintegrating
in England itself. These men tended to conceive of the family
in dynastic and corporate terms. They wanted to keep their children
near by and pass on their patrimony from one generation to the
next (Ditz, 1986; Greven,
1970; Shammas, Salmon, & Dahlin, 1987).
This stress on family continuity
was apparent in their naming patterns, their economic strategies,
and their inheritance practices. Compared to other English-speaking
people, they were more likely to name their first-born sons after
themselves. Viewing the family as a cooperate economic enterprise,
they exercised strict control over their children, particularly
their sons. They closely supervised apprenticeships, offered explicit
instructions to their children (even when they reached adulthood),
monitored sexual contacts, and took an active role in courtship
and marriage (Ditz, 1986; Fischer,
1989; Greven, 1970; Norton,
1996; Shammas, Salmon, & Dahlin, 1987).
Demographic circumstances that
were truly unique made this patriarchal role attainable. Because
of its cold winters and low population density, seventeenth-century
New England was perhaps the most healthful region in the world
at the time. After an initial period of high mortality, life expectancy
quickly rose to levels comparable to our own. Prolonged life expectancy
allowed a clearly delineated age structure to emerge (Mintz
& Kellogg, 1988).
Other demographic circumstances
also contributed to a patriarchal conception of men's roles. Husbands
tended to be significantly older than their wives--four or five
years older on average--and sought to look older still by wearing
white wigs and elaborate waistcoats. Since virtually all women
married (between 95 and 98 percent), it was a nearly universal
experience for a woman to transfer subordination to a father to
subordination to a husband (without the interruption of a period
of relative freedom, which antebellum Americans called girlhood,
when young women worked temporarily outside a home) (Ulrich,
Few institutions competed with
a father's authority. Despite laws requiring the establishment
of schools, most children were educated informally, and while
older children were temporarily put out as servants or apprentices
between seven and twelve, most adolescents lived at home under
their father's watchful eye. Available evidence suggests that
fathers did indeed play an active role in decisions involving
choice of an occupation and courtship and marriage. To maintain
control, fathers usually refused to pass legal title to land to
their sons until death, keeping their offspring dependent for
years, delaying full adulthood autonomy until sons reached middle
age (Ditz, 1986; Greven,
1970; Shammas, Salmon, & Dahlin, 1987).
Yet it is striking how quickly
this patriarchal blueprint frayed. As early as the second or third
generation, high rates of fertility and increased geographical
mobility began to undermine the patriarchal order. Fathers no
longer had sufficient land to keep sons at home and sons lacked
sufficient incentives to stay. Increased occupational choice and
new economic opportunities in seaports and commercial towns drew
many young men away from the parental home, undermining patriarchal
authority. A separate adolescent subculture, free from adult control,
began to emerge, as young men joined militia companies, voluntary
associations, and religious groups. The external controls imposed
by churches, courts, and parents on children's sexual behavior
all lost effectiveness, a development apparent in a sharp increase
in illegitimate births and pre-nuptial pregnancies. Fathers also
increasingly lost the ability to control the timing of their children's
marriages (Mintz & Kellogg, 1988).
Class, regional, ethnic, and religious
differences characterized women's and men's familial roles and
relationships during the colonial era. The families created by
Quakers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, were far less
authoritarian and patriarchal than those in New England. Not nearly
as anxious as the Puritans about "infant depravity"
or "original sin," Quakers sought to sustain childhood
"innocence" by raising their children in a warm and
nurturing environment. Unlike the New England Puritans, 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. Quaker families placed a far greater
stress on maternal nurture than did Puritan families (Fischer,
1989; Levy, 1988).
In the Chesapeake colonies of
Maryland and Virginia, in stark contrast to New England, the trend
was toward increased paternal authority, not its diminishment.
A key reason for this shift was demographic. The further south
one looks, the more unbalanced the sex ratio and the higher the
death rate. In New England, the sex ratio was relatively even,
with men outnumbering women three to two in the first generation.
But in New Netherlands, there were two men for every one female
and the ratio was six to one in the Chesapeake. Whereas the New
England population became self-sustaining as early as the 1630s,
New Jersey and Pennsylvania did not achieve this until the 1660s
to the 1680s and Virginia until after 1700 (Kulikoff,
1986; Rutman & Rutman, 1984).
During the seventeenth century,
a high death rate and an unbalanced sex ratio made it impossible
to establish the kind of the stable, patriarchal family that took
root in New England. In the Chesapeake region, half of all marriages
were broken by death within seven or eight years and half of all
children lost their fathers before marrying. Death rates were
so high that a parent's remarriage was often dissolved by death
before a child reached adulthood. Under these circumstances, most
families in the Chesapeake were highly complex units consisting
of a complicated assortments of step-parents, step-children, wards,
and half-brothers and sisters. The high death rate contributed
to a society which attached relatively more importance to the
extended kinship network and less to the nuclear family. As late
as the American Revolution, few men in the southern colonies could
be confident of directly passing property to their sons. And even
in the twentieth century, southern families have been much more
likely than their northern counterparts to use surnames as first
names, underscoring the continuing importance of extended family
identity (Kulikoff, 1986; Rutman
& Rutman, 1984; Wyatt-Brown, 1982).
Between 1690 and 1760, as the
death rate declined, the sex ratio grew more balanced, and marriages
survived longer, a more stable set of patriarchal family relationships
began to emerge in the Chesapeake colonies. Yet the nature of
patriarchy was quite different in the Chesapeake than in New England.
Outwardly, relations between fathers and children were even more
hierarchical than in New England, with many southern sons addressing
their father in letters as "Sir" or "Dear Sir."
And certainly many planters tried to mold their sons into gentlemen
and influence their offspring's education and marriage decisions.
But it is also clear that parental indulgence, lax discipline,
and early independence characterized many planters' relationships
with their offspring. It seems likely that the more indulgent
patriarchy of the Chesapeake region was an ironic by-product of
slavery, because social control energies were diverted away from
their own children to racial control (Greven,
1977; Moran, 1991).
Marital relations, too, appear
to have blended together an odd mixture of patriarchy and wifely
independence. The age difference between husbands and wives was
far greater in the southern colonies than elsewhere. Prior to
1700, a man would usually marry in his mid-20s while most women
married by 17. The female age of first marriage rose during the
eighteenth century, but remained far lower than in the northern
colonies. Yet if the age gap discouraged close companionship between
spouses, the law extended greater legal and property rights to
women than was true in New England. Puritan lawmakers considered
marital unity under the husband a prerequisite of social stability,
and eliminated English common law protections that assumed that
husbands and wives had separate interests such as separate estates
for women, dower interest, prenuptial contracts, and suits in
equity. In contrast, in Maryland, South Carolina, and Virginia,
where the death rate was higher and widows were more likely to
be left with young children, women received greater protections
for personal and real property. It is not a surprise, given these
circumstances, that southern marital relations seem to have been
more strife-ridden. In a famous incident in Virginia in 1687,
Sarah Harrison disrupted her wedding to Dr. James Blair, the future
founder of William and Mary College by refusing to promise to
obey her husband (Fischer, 1989).
Yet for all the regional differences
in familial roles, it seems clear that ideologically and economically,
colonial Americans generally attached greater significance to
the father-son relationship than to spousal or mother-child relations.
In all regions, colonial fathers were preoccupied with preserving,
transmitting, and increasing the familial patrimony. They not
only spent a great deal of time and energy to arranging apprenticeships
and monitoring sexual behavior, but also attached far more attention
than subsequent parents onto courtship and inheritance (Wood,
Eighteenth Century Transformations
During the late eighteenth century,
a series of forces--demographic, economic, and cultural--transformed
the meaning and social experience of fatherhood and motherhood.
Both the ideology and the reality of patriarchal authority visibly
declined. Fathers found themselves less able to influence their
sons' choice of an occupation, to determine when and whom their
children would marry, or to control their offspring's sexual behavior.
Sons moved further away from their parental home, fewer daughters
married in birth order, and rates of illegitimacy and pregnancy
prior to marriage rose markedly (Mintz
& Kellogg, 1988).
One force for change was ideological.
The mid- and late eighteenth century witnessed repeated attacks
upon patriarchy by such popular writers as Samuel Richardson,
Oliver Goldsmith, Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne, who rejected
the idea that a father should dictate a child's career or choice
of a marriage partner. The American and French Revolutions also
undercut the earlier emphasis on patriarchal authority. Instead
of regarding the political order in the hierarchical terms of
a king ruling over a series of patriarchal households, the polity
was increasingly conceived in terms of citizens with equal rights
Economic shifts further contributed
to a marked decline in paternal authority. By the mid-eighteenth
century, a primary source of men's domestic authority--control
over land--had eroded. Rapid population growth, which resulted
in plots too small to be farmed viably, weakened paternal control
over heirs. Land was increasingly replaced by more portable forms
of capital as a source of wealth. New opportunities for non-agricultural
work allowed many children to live further away from parents (Mintz & Kellogg, 1988; Ryan, 1981).
In Western Europe, England, and
the United States there was a growing belief that the children's
nurture and moral development should be entrusted to mothers.
In the new United States, there was a deepening conviction that
women, who were free from the corrupting influence of business
and politics, had special ability to mold the character traits
in children on which a free society depended. This idea, known
as republican motherhood, led to expanded educational opportunities
for women and an insistence that women's rights be recognized.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the socialization of children became
increasingly self-conscious, rational, and mother-dominated. Among
the middle class, child nurture was increasing preoccupied with
the inculcation of guilt (Degler, 1980;
Kerber, 1980; Norton,
1980; Ryan, 1981).
Motherhood and Fatherhood in
Nineteenth Century Families
It is a commonplace of historical
commentary that the industrial revolution made mothers the hub
of domestic life and thrust men to the family's emotional and
psychological periphery, as their contribution to the family became
essentially economic. Is this view accurate? Or is this simply
an example of nostalgia for a mythical golden age?
Certainly a number of contemporary
observers were convinced that social change sharply altered the
nature of men's and women's family involvement. In 1851, Horace
Bushnell, a Presbyterian minister, declared that over his lifetime
he had witnessed a "complete revolution in domestic life"
(cited in Thernstrom, 1984). He lamented
the breakup of the "organic" household economy and especially
men's declining influence on their children's lives. The most
famous statement about the weakness of paternal authority was
made by the French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville. He observed
that in the United States, bonds of affection between fathers
and sons were stronger than in Europe, but that these emotional
ties were premised on their offspring's early independence and
mobility (Mintz & Kellogg, 1988).
Yet if in many cases the shift
toward a more commercial and industrial economy weakened paternal
authority and reduced paternal involvement in the family, this
was not an automatic or inevitable consequence of social change.
One cannot understand men's roles within the early nineteenth
century apart from two fundamental developments: the evangelical
religious revivals that shaped the moral atmosphere of pre-Civil
War America, and the emerging separation of home and work (Frank, 1992; Mintz & Kellogg, 1988).
During the decades before the
Civil War, a series of religious revivals known as the Second
Great Awakening swept across American society. The revivalists
placed a new emphasis on domesticity and especially on men's role
as the family's moral overseer. The revivalists depicted the family
as a repository of moral values and a school of character and
promoted a new definition of masculinity: He was a truly Christian
family man who would serve as his family's religious leader, educate
his children, restrain their impulsive behavior, and take a loving
interest in his wife and children's lives. He was supposed to
lead daily family prayers, to start his sons in a career, make
decisions about schooling, and enforce discipline. With many activities
that might have competed with an intense family life denied on
religious grounds--such as dancing, drinking, or the theater--and
with relatively few dining groups or sporting activities targeted
at adult men, many evangelical fathers found their closest companionship
with their families (Davidoff & Hall,
1987; Mintz, 1983).
During the nineteenth century,
men tended to define themselves either in terms of this religiously-rooted
conception of domesticity or in opposition to it. Even in the
early nineteenth century, family involvement for men was a matter
of choice. And while many men embraced the evangelical conception
of the father's role, many others rejected it. A variety of pieces
of evidence suggest that desertion and abandonment as well as
divorce increased sharply in the early nineteenth century (Stearns, 1991).
The physical separation of the
household and the workplace also contributed to a new conception
of the family and of men's familial roles. According to an emerging
middle-class ideology, the family was an oasis or haven set apart
from the pressures of business world, and the husband and father
was his family's protector and provider. During the early nineteenth
century, family roles were reorganized around the idea of sexual
difference, with men and women increasingly occupying "separate
spheres." Prior to the nineteenth century, women had been
active participants in commerce, farming, and many business pursuits,
assisting their husbands, keeping books, overseeing apprentices
and journeymen, and manufacturing many goods for sale. Not only
artisans but even lawyers and doctors practiced in a room in their
house, so women tended to have a direct relationship with their
husband's business affairs (Mintz &
Kellogg, 1988; Ryan, 1981).
During the first decades of the
nineteenth century, however, the workplace moved some distance
from the home. Increasingly men left home each day to go to work,
while their wives stayed home. The mid-day meal, when an entire
family gathered together, was now replaced by the evening meal.
Apprentices, who previously had lived with their masters, were
expelled from middle-class homes and began to live in distinct
working-class neighborhoods. Even farm families adopted a sharper
sexual division of labor, erecting separate structures for "productive"
activities apart the farm house and replacing the wife's "productive"
labor with paid farm laborer (Mintz &
A new heavily gendered language
emerged to describe familial relationships, which identified the
husband as provider and his wife, children, and servants as his
dependents. Indeed, a key component of middle-class status was
a man who could dispense with his woman's productive labor. A
shift in vocabulary underscores this change: Instead of calling
a wife "Mistress," a word descriptive of a woman's responsibilities
over servants, apprentices, and journeymen, she was called "Mrs.,"
usually with her husband's name appended. In a wholly new way,
a woman's identity was absorbed by her husband's (Davidoff
& Hall, 1987).
A much more rigid demarcation
of male and female spheres gradually emerged. Freed from many
of the onerous responsibilities of home production, many middle-class
women began to define themselves self-consciously as nurturers
and full-time mothers, while the father was viewed as protector,
provider, and the representative of public authority. Unlike the
mother, whose position in the family was rooted in childcare and
household work, the middle-class father's authority within the
home ultimately rested on material conditions outside the home:
property, proprietorship, and connections to networks outside
the family (Davidoff & Hall, 1987;
Mintz & Kellogg, 1983).
Many men were unable to meet the
pressures of an emerging market economy. In a changing economy--lacking
modern bankruptcy and limited liability laws, life insurance,
and secure forms of investment--a man's economic position was
much less stable than in the past. Technological displacement,
mounting economic competition, economic vacillations, and opportunities
for success or failure--all increased in frequency. If economic
change increased opportunities for success and advancement, it
also heightened the chances of failure. Not surprisingly, per
capita consumption of alcohol doubled or tripled in the first
decades of the nineteenth century, offering men a way to cope
with increasing economic and social stresses (Rorabaugh,
Even a superficial survey of the
biographies of significant early nineteenth century politicians,
intellectuals, reformers, and religious leaders reveals a woe-filled
litany of failed, abusive, or absent fathers and husbands. The
fathers of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Andrew
Jackson died prematurely, when their sons were young boys. Herman
Melville's father suffered insanity before dying when his son
was 6. William Lloyd Garrison's father was an alcoholic; Thomas
Wentworth Higginson's went bankrupt. Sam Houston left his wife
and moved to Texas. The fathers of Abraham Lincoln and Joseph
Smith were among the many economic failures who moved repeatedly
in search of financial success (Reynolds,
During the second half of the
nineteenth century, evidence of active male involvement in families
weakens. Before the Civil War, most middle class men still worked
or aspired to work as individual proprietors or independent professionals.
While they might work temporarily as salaried employees, they
generally conceived of themselves as independent businessmen who
adopted a paternalistic ethic in their private as well as their
public lives (Mintz, 1983).
By the end of the nineteenth century,
however, male familial involvement had declined. Many factors
contributed to this shift. Masculine identity became increasingly
identified with a man's occupation or career. Informal and formal
systems of apprenticeship declined, replaced by modern forms of
educational credentialing. The separation of home and workplace
widened, a gulf that was apparent in the spatial restructuring
of cities, with the middle class living further from business
districts, and in the rise of single-sex clubs and fraternal orders.
Male-only forms of recreation offered a growing alternative to
domesticity (Carnes, 1989; Griswold,
Working-Class Family Patterns
The urban working class developed
a very different family configuration than the middle class. At
a time when the middle class believed that the husband should
be the sole breadwinner, very few working-class families were
able to meet that cultural ideal. An older notion of a cooperative
family economy persisted. Older children were expected to defer
marriage, remain at home, and contribute to the family's income.
Young men and women were frequently unable to establish households
of their own until their early thirties. Despite the fact that
few men could support a working class family on their own wages,
paternal authority was reinforced by the nature of employment.
In factories and other workplaces, foremen, until the 1920s, did
their own hiring, allowing fathers and kinsmen to find work for
young relatives, or simply use their relatives as assistants (Hareven, 1982; Mintz & Kellogg,
1993; Tentler, 1979).
It is important not to romanticize
working-class family life. Although ties to the immediate family
and wider kin network tended to be strong, family cohesion stemmed
in large measure from the marginal economic existence of many
working-class families. The frequency of premature death, irregular
employment, disabling accidents, and wages at or below the subsistence
line, coupled with the inadequacy of public welfare mechanisms
required individuals to rely on the family and kinship network
for assistance and support. The stresses produced by work and
financial marginality clearly took a toll on nineteenth-century
working-class family life. Many wives fed their husbands apart
from the rest of the family and pressured children to play in
the streets so as not to disturb their fathers' rest. The kinds
of work availability to the working class produced high rates
of geographic mobility and meant that many fathers were away from
their homes for prolonged periods of time. Indeed, it was a common
pattern for immigrant fathers, who were sometimes called "birds
of passage," to work in the United States for an extended
period before returning home to their families (Mintz
& Kellogg, 1988; Piore, 1979).
It would not be until the mid-1910s
that the cooperative working-class family economy began to give
way to the "family wage" economy, which allowed a working-class
male breadwinner to support his family on his wages alone. Increased
real wages, particularly after the beginning of World War I in
1914, reduced the number of working-class children in the work
force. Contributing to this new family formation were the establishment
of the first seniority systems governing promotion, layoffs, and
rehiring. The New Deal further solidified this father-centered
family economy by prohibiting child labor, expanding workmen's
compensation, and targeting jobs programs at male workers (Mintz & Kellogg, 1988).
Government, Professional Expertise,
and the Reconstruction of Fatherhood and Motherhood
Since the 1870s, mounting public
anxiety over the family has resulted in two important responses:
increasing government involvement and intervention in the family
and the emergence of distinct groups of professionals offering
expert advice about childcare and proper mothering and fathering.
During the late nineteenth century, public concern over divorce,
abortion and contraception, and an influx of immigrants ignited
influential reform movements aimed at "family preservation"
and "child protection." These movements condemned women
who failed to mother properly and lazy, dissolute working-class
fathers who deserted or beat their wives and economically exploited
or abused their children. In response, eleven states made desertion
and non-support of destitute families a felony and three states
instituted the whipping post where wife-beaters were punished
with floggings (Apple & Gordon, 1997;
Gordon, 1988, Griswold,
1993; E.H. Pleck, 1987).
To combat the economic exploitation
of children, reformers pressed for compulsory school attendance
laws; child labor restrictions; and orphanages and "orphan
trains" to place abused and neglected children (many of whom
who had one or two living parents) with farm families in the Midwest.
Meanwhile, there were concerted campaigns to reduce the divorce
rate (which an 1880 report had revealed to be the world's highest)
by reducing the grounds for divorce, extending waiting periods,
and establishing family courts. There were also concerted efforts
to eliminate segregated male-only forms of recreation, campaigns
which achieved ultimate success with the destruction of red-light
districts throughout the country during the 1910s and of saloons
following adoption of Prohibition in 1918 (Cohen,
1990; Peiss, 1986; Rosenzweig,
Around the turn of the century,
the way that family problems were socially and culturally constructed
underwent radical redefinition. Alongside heightened efforts to
promote the male family wage, to allow a man to support his family
without the contribution of his wife and children, there was a
growing concern about the immigrant father, who seemed to symbolize
Old World values and obstruct efforts to Americanize his children.
To promote assimilation, self-conscious efforts were made to use
schools, settlement houses, and peer relationships to help first-generation
wives and children break free from traditional cultural values,
often symbolized by the bearded, unassimilated, foreign language-speaking
adult man (Griswold, 1993).
During the 1920s, public concern
shifted away from working-class and immigrant men to the "new"
middle class of salaried employees. Between 1880 and 1920, a fundamental
shift occurred in the way that urban middle-class men earned a
living, as individual proprietors, professionals, or artisans
rapidly gave way to wage earners with far fewer opportunities
for economic autonomy and independence. As older sources of male
identity in independent work, sex-segregated politics, and community
leadership seemed to be disappearing, a host of educators, psychologists,
sociologists, and advertisers argued that in a changing society
men would find their greatest satisfaction in private life, especially
in their relations with their wives and children (Griswold,
Like fatherhood, motherhood was
subjected to heightened public scrutiny. During the late nineteenth
century, physicians, academic experts, educators, philanthropists,
reformers, and women's groups (such as the National Congress of
Mothers) called for the "reconstruction of motherhood"
along "scientific" lines. Influenced by the evolutionary
theories of Charles Darwin, a "child study movement"
in England and the United States conducted detailed observation
of children's weight, height, and activities, delineated stages
of child development, and called on mothers to respond appropriately
to each developmental stage. During the Progressive era, municipal
health departments created special divisions of child hygiene
to help reduce infant and maternal mortality, provide nutritional
and health care advice, and disseminate information on child development.
In 1912, the federal government established the Children's Bureau
to report on children's health and welfare and to educate mothers
in the principles of "scientific motherhood" (Apple
& Gordon, 1997; Rothman, 1978).
Early twentieth century childrearing
advice recommended a degree of maternal detachment that we would
find surprising today. Childrearing experts advised mothers to
establish strict schedules for their children and avoid picking
them up or caressing them. Writing in the 1920s, behaviorist psychologist
John Watson warned about "the dangers of too much mother
love"; and a Children's Bureau manual expressed concern that
maternal love presented mothers from adopting "the most intelligent
approach to many problems of childhood." One reason for the
emphasis on detachment was that authorities on the family placed
a greater stress on the spousal tie than on the mother-child bond,
in an effort to combat marital instability (Mintz
& Kellogg, 1988).
During the 1930s, the mother-child
axis began to stand at the very heart of the family relationships,
as children overwhelming identified the mother as the family's
source of emotional sustenance. Many observers were convinced
that the Depression drastically reduced men's involvement with
their families. With no wages to punctuate their authority, large
numbers of men lost self-respect, became immobilized, and stopped
looking for work, while others turned to alcohol and became self-destructive
or abusive to their families. Still others walked out the door,
never to return. A survey in 1940 revealed that more than 1.5
million married women had been deserted by their husbands. Convinced
that preserving men's breadwinning role was a special national
priority, government job programs focused largely on putting the
male jobless to work. The goal of public policy was to restore
the male breadwinner ideal (Griswold, 1993).
Motherhood and Fatherhood Since
the Great Depression
During World War II and the early
post-war period, motherhood and fatherhood were increasingly "problematized."
There was a growing belief that improper mothering or fathering
could have truly disastrous consequences for children's emotional
and psychological well-being. A particular source of concern during
the Second World War was father absence, which, purportedly produced
abnormal sex role and psychological development, including a lack
of independence, passivity, eating and sleeping problems, and
decreased sociability. Children growing up without a father present
were deemed to be particularly liable to sexual promiscuity among
girls and homosexuality and delinquency among boys. A particular
source of concern was that father absence had result in maternal
over solicitousness toward children, producing boys who were spoiled
sissies (Mintz & Kellogg, 1988; Griswold, 1993).
Following World War II, heightened
emphasis was placed on the maternal-child bond. The attachment
theories of John Bowlby led psychologists to emphasize the psychological
importance of maternal bonding, empathy, and attunement. The advice
of such childrearing gurus as Benjamin Spock, Selma Fraiberg,
T. Berry Brazelton, and Penelope Leach reinforced a belief that
mothers were almost wholly responsible for their children's emotional,
psychological, and social development (Mintz
& Kellogg, 1988).
The stress on the mother-child
bond, however, prompted concern that boys, raised almost exclusively
by women, were becoming overly feminized. Many post-war social
analysts argued that fathers had a critically important role to
play in children's personality development, not as nurturers or
caretakers but as sex role models and disciplinarians. Family
professionals expressed concern that rigid, distant, overbearing
fathers, produced authoritarian personalities in their children,
while weak, ineffectual fathers produced schizophrenia or homosexuality,
and absent or uninvolved fathers resulted in delinquency in boys
or in an overcompensated hypermasculinity (Griswold,
Childrearing experts called on
fathers to become buddies with their sons, share sports and hobbies
with them, provide them with sex education, and serve as models
of masculine maturity. Yet while family professionals called on
fathers to guide and befriend their children and play sports with
them, they did not expect fathers to change diapers or take an
active role in childcare or housework, arguing that this would
make it difficult for boys and girls to develop a clearly-defined
sex role identity. Experts addressed their advice almost exclusively
to mothers, and organizations, like the Parent-Teachers Association,
which might have involved men in child development, drew their
membership almost exclusively from women. Sports and outdoor activities
became defined as the primary link between men and their children
(Griswold, 1993; Mintz
& Kellogg, 1988).
Since 1960, there has been a heightened
cultural and political focus on women's and men's familial roles.
The so-called Moynihan Report, "The Negro Family: The Case
for National Action," raised the issue of absentee African
American fathers--a specter that has haunted discussions of poverty
until today. The rapid rise in the divorce rate during the late
1960s and 1970s touched off a mounting anxiety about the impact
of the loss of men's economic, psychological, and emotional contributions
to the family, and also ignited a father's rights movement calling
for increased legal rights to custody and visitation. Meanwhile,
rising delinquency rates, declining academic achievement, and
persistent poverty were blamed on single and especially teenage
mothers. To an unprecedented degree, women's roles as mothers
and men's roles as fathers and husbands became politicized (Department of Labor, 1964; W.J. Wilson, 1987).
Even today, there is a tendency
to regard motherhood and fatherhood as if they were Platonic ideals,
and not as changing, culturally-bound, historically-shaped constructs.
Thus, it is common to regard any deviation from idealized conceptions
of motherhood and fatherhood as examples of moral declension.
Yet if the history that we have examined is to make a useful contribution
to public debate, then it is essential that we recognize that
ideals of motherhood and fatherhood are contingent, varied, and
changing, and rooted in specific demographic, economic, and ideological
A historical perspective is especially
helpful in reminding us that contemporary expert discourses on
motherhood and fatherhood do not necessarily reveal timeless truths,
but rather reflect current social and cultural circumstances.
Several distinct viewpoints tend to underlie current academic
discussions on fatherhood and motherhood. One perspective, which
emphasizes the relative insignificance of fathers' contributions
to child development, argues that paternal influence on children
is largely mediated through the mother. Although a father may
reinforce a mother's behavior or undercut it, paternal influences
on children tends to be overshadowed by the mother's agency. A
second perspective stresses the complementarity of paternal and
maternal influences. According to this viewpoint, men and women
both exert an influence on children, but the nature of this influence
is different, since men tend to interact more physically with
children and their love tends to be more conditional than mothers'.
The third viewpoint emphasizes the interchangeability of the maternal
and paternal roles, arguing that fathers can be nurturers much
Rather than seeing these perspectives
as necessarily contradictory and rooted in biology or human psychology,
a historical perspective reminds us that parental roles have been
malleable and varied, and that our current definitions of motherhood
and fatherhood are contested and historically and culturally situated--and
therefore subject to change. Many of the assumptions that we make
about motherhood and fatherhood today are in fact historical artifacts,
rooted in earlier sets of cultural beliefs. The idea that mothering
is natural for women; that women are the primary agents in children's
psychological development, or that parenting is profoundly gendered
and that mothers and father offer different qualities to their
children--each of these ideas arose at a particular historical
moment. A long term perspective should make us wary of assuming
that maternal or paternal behavior is rooted in an unchanging
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