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Eighteenth Century Transformations in Motherhood and Fatherhood

Digital History TOPIC ID 85

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).

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