I’m always looking for historical background that puts our present situation in new light. We often don’t realize, for example, how different was the world before and after the Second World War. The 1940s and 1950s was a strange time.
There was a brief moment around the mid-century when the number of marriages shot up and people married younger. So, when we compare marriage rates now to those in the post-war period, we get a skewed perspective because that post-war period was extremely abnormal by historical standards (Ana Swanson, 144 years of marriage and divorce in the United States, in one chart). It’s true that marriage rates never returned to the level of that brief marriage (and birth) boom following the war, but then again marriage rates weren’t ever that high earlier either.
In the 1990s, during the height of the culture wars when family values were supposedly under attack, the marriage rate was about the same as it was from before the Civil War and into the early 1900s, the period I’ve referred to as the crisis of identity. In the decades immediately before that starting around 1970, the marriage rate had been even higher than what was seen in the late 19th century (there isn’t dependable earlier data). Nor is it that premarital sex has become normalized over time, as young people have always had sex: “leaving out the even lower teen sex rate of GenZ, there isn’t a massive difference between the teen sex rates of Millennials and that of Boomers and Silents” (Rates of Young Sluts).
As another example from this past century, “In 1920, 43 percent of Americans were members of a church; by 1960, that figure had jumped to 63 percent” (Alex Morris, False Idol — Why the Christian Right Worships Donald Trump). Think about that. Most Americans, in the early 1900s, were some combination of unchurched and non-religious or otherwise religiously uninvolved and disinterested. A similar pattern was seen in the colonial era when many people lived in communities that lacked a church. Church membership didn’t begin to rise until the 1800s and apparently declined again with mass urbanization and early industrialization.
By the way, that is closely associated with the issue of marriage. Consider early America when premarital sex was so common that a large percentage of women got married after pregnancy and many of those marriages were common law, meaning that couples were simply living together and likely often involving serial monogamy. Moral norms were an informal affair that, if and when enforced, came from neighbors and not religious authority figures. Those moral norms were generous enough to allow the commonality of bastards and single parents, although some of that was explained by other issues such as rape and spousal death.
Many early Americans rarely saw a minister, outside of itinerant preachers who occasionally passed by. This is partly why formal marriages were less common. “Historians of American religion have long noted that the colonies did not exude universal piety. There was a general agreement that in the colonial period no more than 10-20 percent of the population actually belonged to a church” (Roger Finke & Rodney Stark, The Churching of America). This was at a time when many governments had state religions and so churches were associated with oppressiveness, as seen with the rise of non-Christian and non-conventional views (agnosticism, atheism, deism, universalism, unitarianism, secularism, etc) during the revolutionary period.
And don’t get me started on abortion, in how maybe as high as one in five or six pregnancies were aborted right before the American Civil War. That might be related to why fertility rates have been steadily dropping for centuries: “Extending the analysis back further, the White fertility rate declined from 7.04 in 1800 to 5.42 in 1850, to 3.56 in 1900, and 2.98 in 1950. Thus, the White fertility declined for nearly all of American history but may have bottomed out in the 1980s. Black fertility has also been declining for well over 150 years, but it may very well continue to do so in the coming decades” (Ideas and Data, Sex, Marriage, and Children: Trends Among Millennial Women). That downward trend probably began during the height of the enclosure movement and British colonization during the 17th century.
Are we to blame commie liberal hippies traveling back in time to cause the decline of America practically before the country was even founded? Nostalgia is a fantasy and, interestingly, it is also a disease. The world is getting worse in some ways, but the main problems we face are real world crises such as climate change, not namby pamby cultural paranoia and fear-mongering of sensitive snowflakes. The fate of humanity does not rest on promoting the birth rate of native-born American WASPs nor on the hope that theocracy will save us. If we want to worry about doom, we should be looking at whether the rate of moral panic is experiencing an uptick, something that often precedes the rise of totalitarian ideologies and authoritarian mass violence.
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Central to the moral panic of the culture wars has been “family values.” This has been held up by an idealized standard of middle-to-upper class respectability and responsibility embodied in WASP nuclear families. What relationship does the normative ideal have to do with the lived realty across American history? See below for a historical analysis.
“Family Values”: The Uses and Abuses of American Family History
by Elaine Tyler May
“Family Values” and Historical Scholarship
How did this national preoccupation emerge, and what does it mean for American political life? First, let us examine the phrase that is most frequently invoked in political debates: “family values.” In the political landscape that has emerged in recent decades, “family values” is a phrase that connotes specific positions on particular issues, and it has highly charged policy implications. It involves a constellation of issues. Under the banner of “family values” we find opposition to legal abortion; support for prayer in schools; opposition to civil rights for gays and lesbians; support for censorship of the arts, movies and popular culture; welfare reform; opposition to gun control; the “war on drugs.” These measures are usually found on the conservative agenda, although liberals have increasingly championed some of them in their efforts to jump on the “family values” bandwagon. Many of these issues have nothing to do with families—but they all have to do with values. And they all inspire fierce passions and heated debates.
It is also clear that “family values” is a term often used as a code and marker of race and class. For example, poor black single mothers, and educated white professional women, are both likely to be blamed for society’s ills as a result of their alleged defiance of “family values.” Presumably, a mother on welfare who goes out and gets a job demonstrates good family values; one who stays home with her kids does not. Yet an educated middle-class woman who goes out and gets a job demonstrates bad family values; one who stays home with her kids does not. The rules change according to racial and class position, as well as marital status. The gender, class, and sexual expectations also change over time. In the 1930s, for example, welfare payments were made to poor mothers to enable them to stay home with their children. Now mothers on welfare are required to hold jobs (Gordon 1994).
Scholars have only recently begun to examine these issues through the lens of history. What used to be called the “new” social history gave rise to flourishing scholarship on the working class, women, gender and sexuality, racial minorities and race relations, immigrants and ethnic groups, family history, and gay and lesbian history. That rich body of scholarship has altered the way history is studied and taught today. The new history expands our understanding of the American past, making it far richer and more complete than it ever was before. But it has also led to criticism that American history has now become so fragmented and particularized that there is no longer any unified understanding of the past that offers to Americans a cohesive view of their national history. This criticism often stems from a desire to replace the new complex multicultural and diverse history with a dominant narrative grounded in the stories and deeds of powerful leaders, returning to a traditional unified narrative that was partial, biased, and left out most Americans (Bender 2002). Nevertheless, these criticisms challenge scholars to bring together aspects of history that are usually studied in isolation from each other. Much of social history has left politics in the background, or left it out altogether. In recent years, several historians have done important work that takes a new look at American politics with the contributions of social history providing the foundation for their scholarship (Coontz 1992; Kerber 1998). Feminists were the first to proclaim that the “personal is political,” and scholars studying women, sexuality, gender, and the family have kept that insight at the center of their scholarship. For a pioneering example of feminist scholarship that used this…
We know from the work of these scholars that there was never a “traditional” American family. There has been as much diversity and changes in American families as in any other aspect of national life. But the power of the myth continues. In fact, misperceptions of the American family may be more relevant to current political debates than the reality of American families (Coontz; May 1999). For example, many Americans are surprised to learn that contrary to common assumptions, the Puritans did not condemn premarital sex or out-of wedlock pregnancy (provided the young couple intended to marry); or that abortion was legal during much of the XIXth century; or that the alleged “golden age” of the 1950s’ white middle-class family was marred by rampant alcohol and drug abuse among suburban housewives, and high rates of sexual activity among teenagers (many of whom were married); or that rates of voluntary childlessness were higher a century ago than they are today. Many people believe that American nuclear families were strong, stable and self-reliant until the 1960s, when they began to unravel (Coontz; Stacey).
Scholars eager to set the record straight argue that the family has always been a changing institution, and that claims of its demise are highly exaggerated. They have put great effort into demonstrating that there never was a “traditional” self-sufficient nuclear family to match the mythical ideal. For a forceful and thorough debunking of myths of the American… This scholarship is powerful and important. But it does not ask or answer a fundamental question: if change is a constant in the history of the American family, why during certain times—but not all times—do politicians and leaders warn that family decline portends the nation’s doom? I would like to suggest that anxieties about the family emerge at times when national identity, as defined and understood by the American middle class, appears to be threatened—by immigrants, radicals, “communists,” racial or sexual minorities, or feminists. […]
From the founding of the nation, then, the American family had a well-defined political role. Attached to that role were certain assumptions about the structure of the family, its functions, and the specific responsibilities of its members. In the first century of the Republic, gender roles within middle-class families carried civic meanings. As towns and cities grew, most urban households lost their function as centers of production. Instead of working at home, men left to work in the public arena while women remained in the domestic sphere. Men became breadwinners, while women took on the elevated stature of moral guardians and nurturers. Women’s responsibilities included instilling virtue in their families and raising children to be responsible and productive future citizens. The democratic family would be nuclear in structure, freed from undue influence from the older generation, and grounded in these distinct gender roles that were believed to be “natural” —at least for white European-Americans (Ryan 1981).
In the political culture that developed from these expectations, the family had a major responsibility for the well-being of society. The responsibility of the society for the well-being of the family was less well articulated, and defined mostly in the negative. The government was to leave the family alone, not intrude into it, and not provide for it. The family was, presumably, self-sufficient. Politics was the arena where white men, acting as democratic citizens, shaped public policies. The family was the place where white women, spared the corrupting influences of public life, would instill self-sufficiency and virtue into the citizenry.
From the beginning, however, the reality of family life defied those definitions and strained against the normative ideal. The vast majority of Americans lived on farms, or in households that required the productive labor of all adult members of the family. The prevailing middle-class norm in the XIXth century that defined “separate spheres” for men and women never pertained to these families, nor did it reflect the experiences of African-Americans, either during or after slavery. Only the most privileged white Protestant women in the towns and cities had the resources that allowed them to devote themselves full-time to nurturing their families and rearing future citizens. Their leisure time for moral uplift depended upon the labors of other women—African-American slaves, immigrant household servants, and working-class women who toiled in factories—to provide the goods and services that would enable privileged white women to pursue their role as society’s moral guardians. And it was those very women, affluent and educated, who first rebelled against their constrained domestic roles, arguing that the system of coverture denied them their rights as citizens. For examples and analysis, see two classic works in the field:…
At the same time, when social problems developed that appeared to threaten social order, often the family was blamed—particularly those families, or individuals, whose behavior did not conform to the normative family ideal. The family came to be seen as the source or cause of social problems as well as the potential solution or cure. In other words, bad families eroded American society, and good families would restore it. Good families were the key to social order and national progress. Good families were those that conformed to the ideal of the so-called “traditional” American family, a family form that seemed to flourish among the white Protestant middle class in the XIXth century, and allegedly reached its twentieth-century apex, or “golden age,” in the 1950s. Here we find the source of the mythic nuclear family ideal.
A Historical Perspective
The founders of the nation assumed that the white middle-class family, nurtured by women in the private arena protected from the corruptions of commerce and public life, would produce virtuous citizens and provide the foundation for public order. The responsibility of the government was essentially to leave the family alone—not to intervene with either material support or regulation. Marriage laws established heterosexual monogamy as the foundation for families, prohibited unions across racial lines, and determined marital possibilities for immigrants (Cott 2000). Once established, the family was expected to serve its members and the society without government interference. However, by the late XIXth century, observers began to realize that not all families could be counted upon to promote the interests of the white Protestant status quo. Several dramatic developments—the end of slavery and the migration North of thousands of African-Americans, the influx of immigrants, the political activism of middle-class women, the declining birthrate of native-born Protestant Americans, the political power of Irish Catholics in northern cities—made it clear that the government could no longer remain aloof and expect families to take care of the nation. At the turn of the XXth century, the Anglo-Saxon middle class faced major challenges to its hegemonic definition of national identity.
In response, political leaders during the Progressive Era boldly altered the relationship between the family and the state. Progressive reformers no longer assumed that the family would, without support or intervention from the government, maintain civic virtue and social order. President Theodore Roosevelt was the first national leader to articulate a new dimension to the public/private bargain. In his first campaign for the presidency, he brought the family into the center of national political debates. It has remained there ever since.