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Twentieth-Century Families

Digital History TOPIC ID 79

Over the past three centuries, Americans have gone through recurrent waves of moral panic over the family. During the late nineteenth century, panic gripped the country over family violence and child neglect, declining middle-class birthrates, divorce, and infant mortality. Eleven states made desertion and non-support of families a felony and three states instituted the whipping post where wife-beaters were punished with floggings. To combat the decline in middle-class birth rates, the Comstock Act restricted the interstate distribution of birth control information and contraceptive devices, while state laws criminalized abortion. In a failed attempt to reduce the divorce rate, many states reduced the grounds for divorce and extended waiting periods.

Mounting public anxiety led to increased government involvement in the family and the emergence of distinct groups offering expert advice about childrearing, parenting, and social policy. To combat the exploitation and improve the well-being of children, reformers pressed for compulsory school attendance laws, child labor restrictions, playgrounds, pure milk laws, and ‘widow's’ pensions to permit poor children to remain with their mothers. There were also concerted efforts to eliminate male-only forms of recreation, campaigns that achieved success with the destruction of red-light districts during the 1910s and of saloons following adoption of Prohibition in 1918.

To strengthen and stabilize families, marriage counselors promoted a new ideal: the companionate family. It held that husbands and wives were to be ‘friends and lovers’ and that parents and children should be ‘pals.’ This new ideal stressed the couple relationship and family togetherness as the primary source of emotional satisfaction and personal happiness. Privacy was a hallmark of the new family ideal. Unlike the nineteenth century family, which took in boarders, lodgers, or aging and unmarried relatives, the companionate family was envisioned as a more isolated, and more important, unit, the primary focus of emotional life.

During the Depression, unemployment, lower wages, and the demands of needy relatives tore at the fabric of family life. Many Americans were forced to share living quarter with relatives, delay marriage, and postpone having children. The divorce rate fell, since fewer people could afford one, but desertions soared. By 1940, 1.5 million married couples were living apart. Many families coped by returning to a cooperative family economy. Many children took part time jobs and many wives supplemented the family income by taking in sewing or laundry, setting up parlor groceries, or housing lodgers.

World War II also subjected families to severe strain. During the war, families faced a severe shortage of housing, a lack of schools and child-care facilities, and prolonged separation from loved ones. Five million ‘war widows’ ran their homes and cared for children alone, while millions of older, married women went to work in war industries. The stresses of wartime contribute to an upsurge in the divorce rate. Tens of thousands of young people became latchkey children, and rates of juvenile delinquency, unwed pregnancy, and truancy all rose.

The late 1940s and 1950s witnessed a sharp reaction to the stresses of the Depression and war. If any decade has come to symbolize the traditional family, it is the 1950s. The average age of marriage for women dropped to twenty; divorce rates stabilized; and the birthrate doubled. Yet the images of family life that appeared on television were misleading; only sixty percent of children spent their childhood in a male-breadwinner, female homemaker household. The democratization of the family ideals reflected social and economic circumstances that are unlikely to be duplicated: a reaction against Depression hardships and the upheavals of World War II; the affordability of single-family track homes in the booming suburbs; and rapidly rising real incomes.

The post-war family was envisioned not simply a haven in a heartless world, like the Victorian family, but as an alternative world of satisfaction and intimacy. But this family, like its Victorian counterpart, had its own contradictions and latent tensions. Youthful marriages, especially among women who cut short their education, contributed to a rising divorce rate in the 1960s. The compression of childbearing into the first years of marriage meant that many wives were free of the most intense childrearing responsibilities by their early or mid-thirties. Combined with the ever rising costs of maintaining a middle-class standard of living, this encouraged a growing number of married women to enter the workplace; as early as 1960, a third of married middle-class women were working part- or full-time. The expansion of schooling, combined with growing affluence, contributed to the emergence of a separate youth culture, separate and apart from the family. The seeds of radical familial changes were planted in the 1950s.

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