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Family and Marriage in American History

Families represent a core institution in every society, though the composition of families varies by culture and change with the time.

According to Fisher, in the vast majority of societies, families are organized by marriage. And while marriage to more than one partner is legal in many cultures, most people around the world practice monogamy or partnership to one person at a time.

Gottlieb states that until about 200 years ago, the idea of family was synonymous with household, not with blood ties. All those who lived under the same roof including servants and farm laborers constituted the family. The household was the basic unit of production in society. Individuals were not considered fully adult until they were able to afford to marry and have a household of their own. They often had to wait many years until they had the necessary capital. Marriages were often arranged, in so far as parents sought to maximize the status and stability of their offspring’s future, as well as their own. Mintz & Kellogg states that if the possible gain from such a match was greater, the arrangements were made without regard for personal sentiment. In such cases, people hoped that couples would learn to love each other over time after marriage rather fall in love and then marry. During the colonial period in America, marriages were not tightly arranged by parents, but families did exert a strong influence to marry along class, religious, and racial lines.

Life during the colonial period was very difficult, high infant mortality and low life expectancy among adults. The difficulties in getting settled, forced young men usually not to marry before the age of twenty-five and young women rarely before twenty. According to Coontz, as a result the average length of marriage was less than twelve years. Formally wed or not, families depended upon each other for their collective survival. Each family was an economic unit that traded in services based upon practical need.

The notion of a family consisting only of a mother, father, and their children, set apart from the community, did not exist during the colonial period. Children were sent to other families for extended periods of time by the age of seven to learn a trade, work as a servant, or attend a school. There were no factories or corporations. Men did not leave the home to go to work, as these were largely agricultural communities.

Women did not spend all of their time attending housewife duties like cooking, cleaning, raising children. They also made products and participated in trade. Moreover, families checked up on each other to make sure they were living by community standards. The modern concept of privacy within the home did not exist.

Husband and wife worked equally hard in order to maintain their domestic economy, but the laws legitimated male dominance as this was particularly evident in some communities in terms of a type of heritance called primogeniture, where property went to the eldest son and not to the mother upon the death of the father. However, as the colonies grew in size and the notion of independence spread, ideas about marriage changed. Population growth and density made land ownership more competitive, and this had the consequence of undermining the father’s dominance, where he had less land to pass on to his children leading the children to venture further from home in order to establish themselves. The more distance young people gained from their elders, the more they were exposed to different beliefs and practices. For instance, people began to talk more about love as a reason to marry. Moreover, as factories in cities replaced agrarian domestic economies in local communities, the roles of husbands and wives diverged.

The husband was now leaving home to work and the formerly integrated worlds of private and public life split apart. The role of husband was to be increasingly defined as breadwinner and the role of wife was to be increasingly defined as homemaker. While families gained in terms of privacy, they would increasingly lose the familial support system garnered from strong community bonds. What Durkheim termed as the division of labor in society gave rise to more specialized roles, and an increasing awareness of self.

Couples increasingly recognized that mutual rights and the acknowledgment of differing emotional needs were a part of marriage. In time the “companionate marriage” would come to describe the ideal relationship.

According to Mintz & Kellogg, this ideal was defined by “mutual affection, sexual attraction, and equal rights.” However, a number of factors worked against the realization of this ideal. First of all, men and women were now working in different domains and facing unique challenges added to the complexity of effective dialogue.

Second, equal rights did not really exist for women in both the private world at home and especially in the public world of employment. Finally, as love and sex became more of a reason to marry and men and women considered their own emotional needs more, differences between the sexual needs and wants of men and women came to the fore. Even though industrial growth was tremendous at the beginning of the twentieth century, most of the wealth went to a minority of America’s people. A dramatic rift between rich and poor emerged, and with this grew a large number of mothers into the workforce. Many poor mothers worked at night so they could care for their children during the day. While the positive sides of these times were more rights, greater choice, and innovations in science and technology, it led to the high rate of divorce and the growing frequency of premarital sex, illegitimacy, and adultery.

The Great Depression and World War II altered marriage and families inmany ways. Shortly after the draft was instituted in 1940, many young couples got married before the husband went off to war. During the war, many women enjoyed the opportunity to work in areas formerly reserved for men. With millions of men serving in the military, an unprecedented number of unmarried and married women made up the labor force. When the war ended, the growing trend toward divorce seemed to resume where it had left off before the war. Throughout much of the decade of the 1940s the divorce rate climbed to a record level of one in four. The 1950s saw the beginning of a new sense of optimism buoyed by unprecedented economic growth. Coontz observes that” The 1950s suburban family . . . was subsidized . . . by government spending”

The government subsidized new highway systems, sewer systems, and utility services to tend to the needs of the growing number of suburban families. Getting married was in style. The age at which men and women married dropped to twenty-two and twenty, respectively. Between older couples, who had delayed having children because of the war, and younger couples eager to start a family, there was an unprecedented baby boom. Wedding rings, which had become popular in the nineteenth century, were now being supplemented by the diamond engagement ring indicating the growing affluence and influence of marketing and advertising into the private lives of people.

As the economy grew, more jobs were available than there were people to fill them. However, as more and more people began to enter the labor market, the ratio of jobs to people reversed. At the same time, people were becoming accustomed to the trappings of suburban life.

Throughout the1960s and 70s, increasing numbers of women entered into the labor market, not only because they wanted to earn their own money but also many found the role of housewife unfulfilling, besides two incomes were increasingly needed in order to maintain their desired standard of living. By the late 1980s the divorce rate was the highest on record. It would eventually stabilize, but, at around 50 percent, it would be the highest in the world. It turns out that the 1950s were a historical anomaly. The decade did not represent a new trend in marriage and community, but rather a temporary break from the historical movement of self-interest that would resume into the 1960s and thereafter. According to Cherlin, today the United States has both the highest divorce rate and the highest marriage rate in the world.



Cherlin, A. J. (2009). The marriage-go-round: The state of marriage and the family in America today. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Coontz, S. (1992). The way we never were: American families and the nostalgia trap. New York: Basic Books.

Fisher, H. E. (1992). Anatomy of love: The natural history of monogamy, adultery, and divorce (1st ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Mintz, S., & Kellogg, S. (1988). Domestic revolutions: A social history of American family life. New York: The Free Press.