The Myth of Better Times: America's Real Family Values


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Americans are inundated with warnings about the decline of American family values--we read books and articles about it, watch television journalists investigate it, discuss it at work and dinner parties. We've even invented a language to discuss it--deadbeat dad, latchkey kid, welfare moms, blended families, divorce culture. I'm nonplussed by all this because as a family historian, I realize that all the debates over family values are, to varying degrees, predicated on misperceptions, even distortions, of the American past. 

Most of the discussions about family values seem to center on how, since the late 1960s, Americans have dropped the ball, somehow failed where prior generations have succeeded. We're always harkening back to some vague, undefined halcyon days when families were always stable, always all the same; when couples stayed married, parents doted on children, and children respected and obeyed parents; when extended family members interceded at just the right moments (and never more) and everyone was happy and well-adjusted and loved.

We are not the first generation of Americans to convince ourselves that our families are in a state decline and disarray. In the early eighteenth century the Puritan minister Cotton Mather complained that "tho' the first English planters of this country had usually a government and a discipline in their families that had a sufficient severity in it, . . . the relaxation of it is now such that it seems wholly laid aside, and a foolish indulgence to children is become an epidemical miscarriage of the country, and likely to be attended with many evil consequences". In 1851 Horace Bushnell longed for a return to the family that lived and loved "all together . . . young and old, male and female, from the boy who rode the plough-horse to the grandmother knitting under her spectacles." In the early twentieth century, Teddy Roosevelt warned of an impending white race suicide and blamed it on "men [who] cease to be willing and able to work hard, and . . . women [who] cease to breed freely." In the twenties experts were convinced that the automobile was destroying American morality since it was little more than "a house of prostitution on wheels." And in the 1940s Americans were sure that "The old time prostitute in a house or formal prostitute on the street is sinking to second place. The new type is the young girl in her late teens and early twenties, the young woman in every field of life who is determined to have one fling or better."1

You see, Americans have always seemed to believe that their families were decaying, that the moral center had withered away, and that the current generation was working fast and furious to propel the next generation toward heartache and failure. But if so many generations of Americans were convinced they lived in an era of familial and moral decay, what then about the "good old days"? When people talk about going back to a more stable, successful time in family history, what exactly do they mean?

Surely they don't mean the colonial era. In Puritan New England fully a third of women went to the alter pregnant. Puritans believed that children were born evil, that they had to be compelled, often by force, to obey parental and societal rules. They ascribed to a child-rearing philosophy called "will-breaking". Physical violence toward children was not just acceptable. It was essential to combat their sinfulness and willfulness. Families were headed by strong patriarchs who ran the family like "little commonwealths," controlling every aspect of the lives of family members.

The colonial South hardly seems more inviting. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries as many marriages were destroyed by death as by divorce today. High death rates meant that most marriages lasted less than twelve years, and at least 50% of children under age thirteen lost one parent. The death rates dramatically expanded the meaning of family. People welcomed into their families half-siblings, step-brothers and sisters, orphaned cousins, and a host of kin. Most whites married for wealth and status. As one South Carolina man explained "I am sure I want someone to look after my house and Negroes as well as any man. [Also] I have allied myself with a numerous and wealthy family--which enlarges my interest more ways than one." Southerners willingly admitted that in marriage, they "plumed themselves on rank and fortune."2

Throughout the colonies there was no public education, children were apprenticed and indentured and enslaved. Women faced a lifetime of dangerous, sometime deadly child-bearing. Even free white women could not own property, enter into any legal transaction, and were considered permanent minors, the property of their fathers and then their husbands. Women were not allowed to speak before men in church or criticize men publicly--those who did risked their reputations and even their lives. Apprenticed white women had even less voice. Their indentures forbade marriage and bearing children--an out-of-wedlock pregnancy extended their period of bondage and could be criminally prosecuted. Most African women and men were enslaved, sometimes forcibly bred, and had their children seized and sold away. All of this took place after a concerted effort of slave catchers and traders to separate families and communities during the middle passage in order to avoid rebellions. Who would want to return to this?

Perhaps family values proponents mean the early nineteenth century, the days of the "Old South,"of Victorianism--but that doesn't make sense either. In the early nineteenth century women who were openly interested in sex were considered immoral or fallen and shunned. Society was so sexually repressed that many people even covered the legs of their pianos. At the same time prostitution was almost epidemic. In 1866 a New York policeman claimed that the city had 99 lavish hotels where couples could rent rooms by the hour, and another 600 brothels.3 Abortion was widely advertised in the mid-nineteenth century, and one in four pregnancies ended on abortion (about the same as today.) Alcohol consumption was three times what it was today. In 1861, 4 million African-Americans were still held in bondage. White slaveholders were still selling away family members for profit and punishment.4 Slaveholders also sexually exploited and raped slave women and then sold the offspring into bondage.

They couldn't possibly want to return to the early twentieth century with the epidemics of opium and cocaine addiction, the expansion of child labor, and the rise of a free love movement. In the early twentieth century 120,000 children worked in Pennsylvania mines and factories, and 23.7% of workers in Southern textile mills were children--all of this before minimum wages, collective bargaining, or workers compensation.5 Nor can it be the Depression era where poverty and failure drove many men to suicide when they could not fulfill their role as provider, where the search for work and food divided families, and the survivors still bear the psychological scars generations later.

Ultimately, I suspect, most people concerned with decaying family values long for the 1950s. Oh! The glory days of prosperity, of stability, of Ward and June, the ranch house in the suburbs, the baby boom, and the big-fined roadster--when all was right in the family. Part of this is true. In the 1950s the divorce rate was half what it is today and so was illegitimacy. By 1955, 31 of 44 million Americans owned their own homes (87% had television.) Few objected when the advice columnists insisted: "The family is the center of your living. If it isn't, you've gone astray."6

But much of this 50s-worship is based on lies about prosperity and about happiness. Over 30% of kids lived in poverty in the 1950s, and fully 50% of black families lived below the poverty line. Even among native-born whites, only 33% of families could make it on the breadwinner's salary.7 Donna Reed was not a documentary after all. And it's not the whole story, anyway. Even in the suburbs, all was not as it seemed. The 1950s drove thousands of housewives to therapists and tranquilizers to ease the "problem that had no name."8 Company men felt trapped, and everyone lived with the constant threat of nuclear destruction. Wife-beating was still private, and the fault of "castrating" women. Incest survivors were told they were "fanaticizing." And this is just within white, middle-class suburban families. Black families struggled against segregation, racial violence, restrictive covenants, job discrimination, and inferior education for their children. Gay men and lesbians were seen as security risks and psychological defects in need of treatment.

America's past (including the 1950s) is riddled with impoverished, undereducated children, unfulfilling marriages, sexual promiscuity and sexual violence, extended, blended, patchwork families. And always, we've told ourselves lies about what our families are by carefully constructing unattainable ideals--and then lambasted ourselves for being what we are instead of what we've imagined we ought to be. In this way, continuities do exist between our current family values and those of our ancestors.

We still receive mixed messages. Upper and middle class women are urged to surrender to motherhood, and young educated women are warned that their biological clocks are ticking. Simultaneously, working class, Latina, and African-American women are admonished to practice more safe sex. Some have suggested compelling poor women to submit to Depo-Provera, while others tour college campuses and tell heart-rending stories about the barren, aching womb that accompanies careerism. Family values proponents criticize gays and lesbians for being sexually promiscuous and leading "alternative"lifestyles but refuse to recognize same-sex marriages. Mothers are simultaneously blamed for every flaw in their children and admonished to pay ever more attention to them, at the same time they are warned against smothering their kids. And my personal favorite: shaming and now compelling poor mothers into getting "off the public dole" and entering the workforce, and telling middle and upper class working moms that they are warping their children by selfishly pursuing their careers.

None of this is to suggest that there aren't real problems in American families today. About 20% of American children live in poverty, and over 100,000 are homeless. We are number 1 among industrialized nations in teen suicides and child homicides. One in ten children born today will have been exposed to an illicit drug. Every year 30,000 girls under age fifteen get pregnant (and the younger they are, the older the father is.) Every day, four women are killed by their male partners. In 1989 more women were abused by their partners than got married. 50% of first marriages end in divorce, 60% of second marriages fail.9

But we're hardly the first, and certainly not the last, generation of Americans to face obstacles and transformations in our families. That does not absolve us of responsibility for the epidemic of teen suicides and domestic violence, or for the divorce culture we've created. On much we can and should do better. But harkening back to a mythologized past is not the answer. Longing for a world that never was only diverts our attention from real solutions. And when you look at the current disjuncture between reality and ideal, at all the mixed messages, at the homophobia, racism, class bias, and misogyny undergirding many of these contradictory images--well, perhaps we haven't strayed very far from our real past after all.


1Colin Caloway, New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997), 192; John Gillis, A World of their Own Making: Myth, Ritual and the Quest for Family Values (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 5; John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), 257-261.

2Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families nd the Nostalgia Trap (New York: Basic Books, 1992); Lorri GLover, "The Hidden Family: Sibling Relations and Kinship in the Eighteenth-Century South Carolina Lowcountry" (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Kentucky, 1996).

3John D'Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), 131.

4After the war, the roads of the South were filled with people looking for lost relatives and for years former slaves took out newspaper ads trying to reunite with their relatives. The diverse works of slave families in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries include Allen Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake, 1680-1800 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), and Herbert Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925 (New York: Random House, 1976).

5Coontz, 13.

6Coontz, 24-25.

7Coontz, 29-30. See also Elanine Typler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. (New York: Basic Books, 1988).

8Betty Fredian, The Feminine Mystique.

9Coontz, 1-6


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Last updated: July 10, 1998