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Family Life, 20th-Century Families

traditional marriage vows, selfless mother, open marriages, Feminine Mystique, neighborhood volunteer

The Progressive movement supported changes in social policy that would create more nuclear families. Progressives and trade unionists sought to limit women’s work and to outlaw child labor. They did this by attempting to close unhealthy sweatshops. They also promoted better housing so that families could have comfortable surroundings. The unions and Progressives were generally successful in gaining bans on child labor in Northern states, although many poor parents and businesses opposed these laws. Some of the poor and traditionalists resisted restrictions on child labor because they believed children needed work experience, not an education.

Rising wages for male workers, the absence of union protection for women workers, and mandatory education laws allowed, or forced, more Americans to realize the domestic ideal. These changes came later to the South, which was poorer and less industrialized. Retirement funds, savings banks, and pension plans meant that older Americans were less dependent on their children’s wages. The gradual development of workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance allowed families to survive even with the loss of the breadwinner’s income. Working-class and middle-class families began to look more alike in the early 20th century. Men went to work, while women stayed at home, and children attended school.

The Progressive movement also brought about the modern social work movement. Trained social workers intervened in families experiencing problems that threatened the well-being of family members and affected the community: physical abuse, drug or alcohol addiction, neglect, or abandonment. Social workers were often successful in protecting the family, although social workers were sometimes influenced by the common prejudices of the time. Married women in the early 20th century were discouraged from leaving abusive husbands because the prevailing belief was that a wife’s place was in the home.

Racism and prejudice also played a part in social policy. Single white girls who became pregnant were secretly sent to special homes and required to give up their babies for adoption so that they could return to their “real” lives. Black girls in the same circumstances were considered immoral and examples of the supposed inferiority of African Americans. They were sent home to rear their children by themselves; a few were forcibly sterilized.

The Great Depression and World War II brought a temporary shift in family structure. During the hard times of the 1930s, children once again had to work. Some were abandoned and wandered looking for work. Families doubled up to save on rent, and women took in boarders, worked as servants, ran hairdressing salons, baked goods, or sewed for extra money. Men, too, took to the roads to look for work, hoping their families would join them once they had obtained a steady paycheck. The domestic life was impossible for many, first because of economic hardship and later because of the war. Marriage and children were delayed, and buying a home was out of the question.

During World War II, for the first time, large numbers of married women took jobs. Because of the war effort and the number of men sent overseas, women were hired to perform jobs traditionally done by men. The popular image of Rosie the Riveter captures the novelty of women dressed in work clothes, engaging in skilled, industrial labor. Factories set up day-care centers to attract married women workers. Women drove cabs, moved into positions with more responsibility, and provided support services for all the major branches of the armed forces. Although women earned lower wages, received fewer promotions, and were among the first laid off, the domestic image of women created in the late 18th and early 19th centuries had changed. Married women were out of the house and earning their own money.

The year after World War II ended, both the marriage rate and the divorce rate soared. The marriage rate went from 12.2 per 1,000 people in 1945 to 16.4 in 1946. The divorce rate, which had been slowly increasing during the century, leaped from 3.5 to 4.3 per 1,000 people. One reason for the extraordinarily large number of divorces in 1946 was that couples who had married in haste before they were shipped overseas for the war found that they had little in common after three to five years apart. The divorce rate slowed after 1946, but by the 1950s was steadily increasing. While divorce was not uncommon before the war, most divorces were sought by recently married couples without children or by older couples with grown children. Once children arrived, couples felt obliged to stay together for the sake of the children, no matter how uncomfortable or violent the marriage. Increasingly after World War II, and especially by the 1960s, the presence of children did not hinder divorce. Parents came to believe that it was better to rear children in a less-stressful setting than to maintain the fiction of marital success. Child custody became a divisive issue in divorces, adversely affecting parents and children.

The end of the war also rapidly reduced the number of married women employed outside the home, as returning veterans sought work. Many of these women gradually returned to work, either because they had enjoyed working or because the family wanted the second income to buy a new home in the suburbs, a second automobile, a new television set, or other consumer goods that were now available. Some veterans took advantage of their military benefits to attend college while their wives worked.

More and more young women graduated from high school and went to college, instead of working to help support their families or to subsidize a brother’s education. As young men and women delayed work and substantial responsibility, a youth culture developed during and after World War II. High school students embraced separate fashions from their parents, new forms of music and dance, slang expressions, and sometimes freer attitudes toward sexuality, smoking, or drug use that created a generation gap between parents and children. Yet parents were anxious to provide their children with advantages that had not existed during the depression and war years.

The 1950s and 1960s produced a period of unparalleled prosperity in the United States. Factories were kept busy filling orders from a war-devastated world. White-collar jobs expanded, wages were high, mortgage and tuition money was available thanks to federal support, and goods were relatively cheap. This economic prosperity allowed more Americans to become more middle class. The ideal middle-class family was epitomized in the new medium of television through shows such as Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet, in which fathers arrived home from work ready to solve any minor problem, mothers were always cheerful and loving, and children were socially and academically successful. These shows reflected the fact that a majority of Americans now owned their own home, a car, and a television, and were marrying earlier and having more children than earlier generations.

This idealized middle-class American family began to show cracks during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In response to the demands on men to create and support expensive domestic paradises, a mythical world of adventure and freedom eventually arose in popular culture. Movies about secret agents and Western gunslingers contrasted with the regimented suburban, corporate lifestyle of many men. The demands on women to be all things to all people—a sexy wife, a caring, selfless mother, a budget-minded shopper, a creative cook, and a neighborhood volunteer—and to find satisfaction in a shining kitchen floor often produced anxious feelings of dissatisfaction.

Concern grew over teenage delinquency and high pregnancy rates, as well as the perceived immorality of rock and roll, all of which were blamed on inadequate parenting, not on the difficulties inherent in the current standards of family life. The ideal suburban life was capable of providing comfort and being emotionally fulfilling for parents and children. It could also be a place where young adults had too little to do, married women became isolated and self-sacrificing, and men were harried by the pressure of providing the consumer products of the “good life.” Children, who were pressured to succeed and to conform to middle-class ideals, became rebellious and created alternative cultures.

The emergence of Beat culture, the civil rights movement, and the antinuclear movement in the 1950s signaled a more organized and intellectually grounded rebelliousness that would bloom in the 1960s. The 1960s and early 1970s saw the emergence and expansion of movements dealing with black power, students’ rights, women's rights, gay and lesbian rights, Native American rights, and environmental protection. Men and women also began experimenting with new gender roles that blurred traditional boundaries between masculine and feminine behaviors. In 1963 author Betty Friedan, in her book The Feminine Mystique, articulated women’s frustration with being only wives and mothers. The book helped revive the women’s rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Men took more interest in child rearing. Some men cultivated supposedly feminine attributes, such as nonviolence and noncompetitiveness. Women sought work, not just to earn money but to have careers. There were attempts to equalize the roles of husbands and wives, or to eliminate traditional marriage vows in favor of personal and/or sexual freedom. By the 1970s, gay and lesbian individuals publicly asserted their right to engage in same-sex unions. These unions were sometimes based on traditional marriage models, including marriage vows and children, and sometimes on newer models that involved more autonomy. Communal alternatives to traditional marriage, as well as open marriages and same-sex partnerships and families, challenged the ideals of the 1950s by rejecting the materialism of suburban lifestyles and by experimenting with nonnuclear family forms.

Throughout the 1970s the buoyant economic basis of the 1950s middle-class family gradually eroded. The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 reduced the military spending that had kept employment and wage levels high. Women moved into the job market in unprecedented numbers to pursue careers and to maintain the family’s standard of living when the husband’s income failed to keep up with inflation. As more women entered the labor force, they began removing some of the barriers to advancement through court cases and concerted pressure on institutions and businesses. Some women undertook careers in medicine, law, politics, management, and higher education that had been dominated by men. Traditionally female jobs were sometimes reconfigured so that, for example, some secretaries became administrative assistants, and some nurses became nurse practitioners, midwives, or other specialists.

These changes sometimes shifted the balance of power within families. Some husbands felt inadequate because they could no longer maintain the role of sole breadwinner for their families. Some wives felt that they had to be supermoms, continuing to cook, clean, and volunteer for local activities, while holding down a full-time job. These stresses contributed to rising divorce rates and may have discouraged some couples from seeking permanent unions. Non-marital unions (couples living together but not married) and out-of-wedlock births soared, particularly among the most financially pressured Americans, although movie and music stars were the most visible of those rejecting traditional marriages and childrearing arrangements.

The nuclear family felt even more pressure as companies fled older cities, factories shut and moved overseas, and service work replaced highly paid, unionized, skilled factory jobs. Young Americans of marriageable age could not count on secure, well-paid employment in the future and became reluctant to make permanent plans. Education became more essential, but fewer students could count on the GI bill to underwrite expenses. Many high school and college students began working after classes, reducing the amount of time spent reading and studying. This contributed to declines in educational achievement. At the same time, religious conservatives began calling for a return to traditional values of earlier times—families with a strong father figure, a domestic mother, and obedient children. These calls did not change many lives.

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