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Victorian family portrait

Welcome to Module 3: History of the Family (Sept 19-25). In this section we will read Chapter 2: The Family in History, p. 32-68 and watch the video The Way We Never Were (2010) by Stephanie Coontz.

Coontz is a faculty member at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and the director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families. She has published extensively on the topic of marriage and family life and is the author of several highly praised books, such as The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap and Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. [Please note that the following video is a lengthy lecture. You are free to view the video in shorter segments, come back to it over time, and pause the playing.]

This section of our course overviews the historical background to our understanding of American families and how we can understand the family as an institution.

Family Types and Terms

The chapter sets out to define different anthropological terms of different family types. Be sure that you can define all of those variations:

  • Monogamy
  • Polygamy
  • Patrilineal
  • Matrilineal
  • Patrilocal
  • Matrilocal
  • Patriarchal
  • Matriarchal

Origins of the American Family

Colonial America (before 1820)
“From the settlement of Europeans through the early nineteenth century, American family history was primarily the story of three interrelated groups: American Indians, White Europeans, and African Americans” (39).

The clash between White European settlers attempting to dominate a land occupied with indigenous peoples was a bloody battle of occupation. Europeans established their institutions and families structures, and Native Americans were forced into these traditions through boarding schools and enforced Christianity. Their own practices such as language, religion, and family traditions were banned. The chapter points out that a prominent aspect of Native families was that many were matrilineal, where people were primarily considered descendants of their mothers rather than their fathers (40).

For the White colonial people, marriage was a practical arrangement, more for bringing people together to work and survive together, not about love and affection. Women came with a dowry, which was desired almost as much as the wife was. Women provided labor and were completely dependent on their husbands, establishing a situation ripe for abuse. When a woman was married, she no longer had any rights at all, “under the legal doctrine of coverture, which meant that the wives were incorporated into their husbands’ citizenship” and he had complete legal control over her (41).

Children were desired more for their labor than their future prospects. Children worked in the home, on the family farm, or were leased out to work for other people (41).

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Covered of book: Killing the Black Body, by Dorothy Roberts

Blacks, stolen from their lands in West Africa, were brought to the country as slave labor, where their ability to structure their own families was broken. Slave owners could trade and sell slaves regardless of their relationship to other members. Indeed, they were often raped by slaves selected by the owners, in order to selectively breed, as well as raped by the owners themselves, as they were his property, as much as his white family was. Dorothy Roberts overviews how black bodies were used in the beginning of the century in many medical experiments, as forced labor in prisons as well as plantations, and sterilized against their will later on, in her book, Killing the Black Body.

The Emerging Modern Family (1820-1900)

Great changes took place during the emerging modern period, as the country transitioned from the colonial past into the industrial period. Men and women maintained roles that were more and more separated under this economy, coming to be called “separate spheres” (43). How does the author detail the conditions of separate spheres? How did it develop?

For Asian and Mexican migrants, they were put to work as laborers, but often not allowed to bring women with them (for Asian workers), so that they would not put down roots in the country and were expected to leave. Many anti-Asian laws were established to keep them from becoming citizens, marrying whites, or bringing over women.

The Modern Family (1900-1960s)
“In 1900, the typical man married at about age 26, and the typical woman at 22” (53). Men would work and perhaps become boarders with another family that rented rooms, while women would stay with this family until they married. Towards the end of this time period, men were given a family wage, which rather than being the norm, was an usual time in out history overall, but became an expectation that we still think of as a standard from which we are slipping.

 New Family Diversity (1960s-Present)

Since this time period, the chapter overviews many changes that have transpired within the American family. What are they and how did they develop? Define:

  • The Baby Boom
  • changes in household technology
  • social safety nets
  • women’s legal and economic rights
  • changes in household demographics
  • the role of children in the family

OPTIONAL comments: 
In the comments section below, write your response to the chapter and questions you would have for your classmates. What stood out to you? How does this history reflect, or not, your own family history?