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Does the American Family Have a History? Family Images and Realities

Digital History TOPIC ID 74

A revolution has taken place in family life since the late 1960s. Today, two-thirds of all married women with children - and an even higher proportion of single mothers - work outside the home, compared to just 16 percent in 1950. Half of all marriages end in divorce - twice the rate in 1966 and three times the rate in 1950. Three children in ten are born out of wedlock. Over a quarter of all children now live with only one parent and fewer than half of live with both their biological mother and father. Meanwhile, the proportion of women who remain unmarried and childless has reached a record high; fully twenty percent of women between the ages of 30 and 34 have not married and over a quarter have had no children, compared to six and eight percent, respectively, in 1970.

These changes have produced alarm, anxiety, and apprehension. They have inspired family values crusaders to condemn careerist mothers, absent fathers, single parents, and unwed parents as the root cause of many of society's ills: persistent poverty, drug abuse, academic failure, and juvenile crime. This is a situation that begs for historical perspective.

Recent scholarship has demonstrated that diversity and change have been the only constants in the history of the American family. Far from signaling the family's imminent demise or an erosion of commitment to children, recent changes in family life are only the latest in a series of disjunctive transformations in family roles, functions, and dynamics that have occurred over the past three centuries.

Few subjects are more shrouded in myths, misconceptions, and misleading generalizations than the history of the family. Students will find the history of the family an eye-opening window on the past. They will discover that:

  • It was only in the 1920s that, for the first time, a majority of American families consisted of a breadwinner-husband, a home-maker wife, and children attending school.
  • The most rapid increase in unwed pregnancies took place between 1940 and 1958, not in the libertine sixties.
  • The defining characteristics of the 1950s family - a rising birth rate, a stable divorce rate, and declining age of marriage - were historical aberrations, out of line with long term historical trends.
  • Throughout American history, most families have needed more than one breadwinner to support themselves.
In recent years, families have gone through many disconcerting and disruptive changes. But if family life today seems unsettled, so, too, was family life in the past. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States had the highest divorce rate in the western world, and one child in ten lived in a single-parent home. Hundreds of thousands of children spent part of their childhood in orphanages, not because their parents were dead, but because their mother and father could not support them. Infant mortality, orphanhood, and early widowhood affected a distressingly high proportion of families. Between 35 and 40 percent of all children lost a parent or a sibling before they reached their twenties.

Americans are prone to romanticizing the past and confusing historical fantasy and reality. This is especially true when Americans ponder our society’s ‘bedrock’ institution, the family. Among the most potent myths that pervade contemporary society are that divorce, domestic violence, and single parenthood are recent phenomena; that throughout American history, most families consisted of a breadwinner-husband and a homemaker-wife; and that in the past strong, stable families provided effective care for the elderly and other dependents. Only careful historical analysis can correct such myths.

In few areas has susceptibility to myth making been more detrimental than with the family. Highly romanticized images of the past have contributed to unrealistic expectations about family life. A historical thinking has also led Americans to downplay the genuine improvements that have taken place in family well-being: especially the fact that smaller families mean that parents can devote more time and resources to each child. Even worse, a lack of historical perspective has encouraged scapegoating of families that diverge from the dominant norms; and it has blinded Americans to the social, economic, demographic, and ideological pressures that have contributed to familial change - and made transformations in gender roles and family structures irreversible.

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