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Back to The History of Private Life

Mothers 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, 1999).

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 (Thurer, 1994).

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 familial roles.

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 rear children.

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 Colonial America

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. Wilson, 1999).

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; Ozment, 1983).

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, 1982).

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 (May, 1995).

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, 1988).

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, 1982).

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, 1992).

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 (Fliegelman, 1982).

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 & Kellogg, 1988).

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, 1979).

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, 1995).

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, 1993).

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, 1983).

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, 1993).

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, 1993).

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 contexts.

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 like mothers.

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 human nature.


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