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Key Themes in the History of Motherhood and Fatherhood

Digital History TOPIC ID 82

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.

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