The first family system in America was that of the native peoples. This was actually a kinship system rather than a family system, for despite the wide variety of marital, sexual, and genealogical customs found in several hundred different cultures, most early Native-American groups subsumed the nuclear family and even the lineage in a much larger network of kin and marital alliances. Kinship rules regulated an individual's place in the overall production and distribution of goods, services, knowledge, and justice. Exogamy, the requirement that a person marry out of his or her natal group into a different clan or section, made each individual a member of intersecting kin groups, with special obligations and rights toward each category of relatives.
This system was severely disrupted by European colonization of North America. Massive epidemics decimated kin networks, disrupting social continuity. Heightened warfare elevated the role of young male leaders at the expense of elders and women. The influence of traders, colonial political officials, and Christian missionaries fostered a growing independence of the nuclear family vis-àvis the extended household, kinship, and community group in which it had traditionally been embedded. Economic inequities, legislation, and racial discrimination ensured that such independence led more often to downward than upward mobility for these newly isolated families.
The European families that colonized America had conceptions of wealth, private profit, state authority over families, sexuality, and power relations within families that differed sharply from Native-American patterns. Although there were considerable variations among the colonies by region, and the Spanish colonies had a particularly distinctive mix of caste, family, and gender hierarchies (Gutierrez 1991), certain generalizations can be made. Colonial families had far more extensive property and inheritance rights than Native-American families, but they were also subject to more extensive controls by state and church institutions. The redistribution duties of wealthy families, however, were more narrow than those of Native Americans, so there were substantial differences in wealth and resources among colonial families right from the beginning.
Colonial families operated within a corporate system of agrarian household production sustained by a patriarchal, hierarchical political and ideological structure. The propertied conjugal family was the basis of this household order, but poor people without property tended to concentrate in wealthier households as apprentices, slaves, servants, or temporary lodgers, and the nuclear family did not occupy a privileged emotional or physical site in such households.
The propertied household, revolving around a single conjugal family, was the central unit of production, distribution, and authority. Thus, production and reproduction were tightly linked. The household head exercised paternal rights of discipline, including corporal punishment, over all household members; he was responsible for the education, religious instruction, and general behavior of his children, servants, and apprentices. Journals reveal the relative fluidity of household composition; as one or another member lived elsewhere for a while, servants came and went, and distant, relatives spent short stays. Yet the need for preservation of the family property demanded a strict hierarchy that left little room for independent reproductive and marital decisions.
Slaves, of course, did not experience this unity of family, work, production, sexuality, and reproduction. Slave families existed only at the discretion of the master, and traditional African kin ties were sundered by the processes of enslavement and sale. African slaves and their descendants, however, strove with considerable success to preserve or recreate kinship networks and obligations through fictive kin ties, ritual coparenting or godparenting, complex naming patterns designed to authenticate extended kin connections, and adoption of orphans.
By the last third of the eighteenth century, many economic, political, and religious forces had begun to undermine the colonial patriarchal, corporate order. Households gained more independence from neighbors and old social hierarchies; the tight bond between reproduction and production was loosened as land shortages disrupted old succession patterns; and the authority of fathers diminished, as witnessed by an erosion of parental control over marriage, an increase in outof-wedlock births, and a new concept of childhood that stressed the importance of molding the child's character rather than breaking the child's will.
After the Civil War, the pace of industrialization, immigration, and urbanization quickened. As families adapted to the demands of an industrializing and diverse society, different groups behaved in ways that created some average trends, often lumped together as general characteristics of "modernization." Average family size became smaller; families revolved more tightly around the nuclear core, putting greater distance between themselves and servants or boarders; parents became more emotionally involved in child rearing and for a longer period; couples oriented more toward companionate marriage; and the separation between home and market activities, both physically and conceptually, was sharpened.
The gradual separation of home and work, market production, and household reproduction in the early nineteenth century, along with the emergence of newly specialized occupations, paved the way for a changing relationship between family activities and economic production, a growing distinction between private and public life, and a new conception of male and female roles that stressed their complementary but sharply divided responsibilities and capacities. This has become known as the doctrine of separate spheres.
By the late nineteenth century, both external and internal challenges to the domestic family and the concept of separate spheres had appeared. Victorian sexual mores clashed with the growing use of birth control and abortion, as well as with the opportunities for nonmarital sex associated with increased urbanization and changing work patterns for youths. Prostitution, once a safety valve for Victorian marriage, became a highly visible big business. A women's rights movement combined campaigns for seemingly conventional goals such as social purity and temperance with attacks on the double standard and demands for expanded legal rights for women. Debates and conflicts over sexuality became increasingly public.
These changes in sexual behavior and gender roles—interacting with the transition to mass production, a new corporate economy in which the role of family firms and personal reputation counted for less, and the rise of more centralized government institutions—had produced a new constellation of family types by the turn of the century. Many of the direct, class-specific family strategies aimed at preparing children for work, maximizing family security, and coping with illness, unemployment, or old age were obviated by new hiring and promotion patterns, the advent of unions, compulsory education, new patterns of housing segregation, the rise of specialized health and welfare institutions, and suburbanization. As families relied less on local, particularistic institutions such as craft, associations, ethnic organizations, religious institutions, and urban political machines, they related instead to more formal, centralized institutions of education, job recruitment and training, social services, and distribution. Personal ties and intensities that had been dispersed among several complementary institutions, and personal networks that mediated between the individual and the larger society, were increasingly concentrated in the family. New notions of family privacy developed, along with heightened expectations of romance and individual fulfillment in marriage. A youth culture began to reorganize older family-centered courtship patterns into dating rituals that eroded the intense same-sex friendships and mother-child bonds of earlier years.
The new family shifted its axis from the mother-child relationship to the couple relationship and put forward the nuclear family unit as a place for qualitatively different relationships than those to be found with kin or friends. It also assumed a different relation to the state, simultaneously claiming an expanded sphere of private life and becoming more dependent on state subsidies or government institutions. At the same time, the emergence of a public policy aimed at establishing a family wage led to new ideas about family self-sufficiency and to condemnation of "promiscuous" families that pooled resources or shared housing beyond the nuclear unit.
Tensions and contradictions were associated with the new consumer family from the beginning. Peer groups were necessary for romantic love and heterosexual dating, but they conflicted with parental supervision and older sexual mores; elevation of the couple relationship to the primary center of all emotional and sensual satisfactions made an unhappy union seem intolerable, leading to a sharp rise in divorce rates. The emphasis on personal fulfillment opened up potential conflicts between the sacrifices necessary in families and the consumer satisfactions that romantic fantasies promised.
These conflicts began to surface in the 1920s, which experienced a generation gap, sexual revolution, and sense of family crisis that was every bit as disturbing to contemporaries as later rearrangements of family life and sexual behavior have been. Following the stock market crash of 1929, however, such anxieties took a backseat to the exigencies of the Great Depression, followed by World War II. After the family conflicts, separations, and hardships of depression and war, people set aside their earlier reservations and wholeheartedly embraced the innovations of the 1920s' family ideal, attaching it to the leap in single-family home ownership and personal consumption made possible by an unprecedented rise in real wages and government subsidization.
The ideal family of the 1950s, portrayed in countless television sitcoms, is now frequently mistaken as "traditional." In fact, the family of the 1950s was a historical blip. For the first time in 100 years, the age for marriage and motherhood fell, fertility increased, divorce rates declined from a 1945 high when one in every three marriages ended in divorce (Cherlin 1981), and women's increasing educational parity with men reversed itself. In a period of less than ten years, the proportion of never-married persons declined by as much as it had during the entire previous half-century.
The young nuclear families that dominated the U.S. cultural landscape in the 1950s were not as idyllic as nostalgia makes them (Coontz 1992). The percentage of U.S. children who were poor was higher during the 1950s than during the early 1990s, and much higher than during the period from 1965 to 1978. A high percentage of African-American two-parent families lived below the poverty line. Social workers and prosecutors failed to act decisively against incest, child abuse, or wife battering, and pervasive discrimination against women led many housewives to report that they felt trapped. Alcohol abuse was widespread.
The composition of U.S. families changed dramatically throughout the second half of the twentieth century in ways that have important implications for the well-being of all persons, from the very young to the oldest old. Young adults are increasingly choosing to delay or forgo marriage, and those who do marry face a high likelihood of divorce. As a result, men and women are spending fewer of their adult years with a spouse, and children are spending a greater proportion of their childhood living with a single parent or in step-families than ever before.
A number of important changes have occurred in the marriage patterns of women and men in the United States since World War II that have led to a general decline in marriage rates. While it is true that a large majority of men and women continue to marry at some point in their lives, the timing and duration of marriage have changed substantially (Bianchi and Spain 1986). More and more young men and women are opting to delay marriage, and for those who do marry, the risk of divorce has increased dramatically. In addition, those who have experienced divorce or widowhood are remarrying at lower rates. The net result has been a reduction in both the average duration of marriage and the total proportion of an individual's life that is shared with a spouse. One study suggested that U.S. men and women who reach adulthood around the end of the twentieth century can expect to spend more than half of their lives unmarried (Schoen et al. 1985).
While marriage is still highly valued (Bumpass 1990; Thornton and Freedman 1983), young men and women are increasingly opting to delay the start of their married lives. As illustration of this trend, the median age at first marriage (i.e., the age by which exactly half of all persons marrying for the first time in the specified year were married), has increased steadily since 1960 for both men and women. For women, the median age at first marriage increased from 20.3 in 1960 to 24.1 in 1991. The median age at first marriage for men, which is typically higher than that for women by about two years, also increased during this period (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1991b; U.S. Bureau of the Census 1992).
Despite sharp declines in marriage rates since World War II, the United States still has one of the highest rates relative to other countries at similar levels of social and economic development (United Nations, 1992).
As is true for patterns of first marriage, rates of remarriage (expressed as the ratio of the number of marriages involving persons who were previously married to the number of previously married persons in any given year) have declined for both men and women. For example, between 1973 and 1987, the remarriage rate declined from 133.3 to 90.8 for men and from 40.6 to 35.8 for women (National Center for Health Statistics 1991). Throughout this period, rates of remarriage for men remained considerably higher than those for women, although the differential narrowed somewhat due to the much sharper decline in rates for men compared to women.
Part of the decline in rates of remarriage is attributable to the fact that persons who have experienced marital dissolution through divorce or widowhood are less likely to remarry than they once were (Bumpass 1990). In addition, just as women and men have delayed the timing of first marriage, they have also extended the length of time between marriages.
Perhaps no other demographic trend has raised more concern than the increasing prevalence of divorce among U.S. couples. Divorce is not a new phenomenon in this country, however; in fact, divorce rates have been increasing in the United States since as far back as 1860 (Cherlin 1981). What is unique about the latter decades of the twentieth century is the pace at which divorce rates have increased.
Following a century characterized by a slow but steady rise, divorce rates increased dramatically during the 1960s and 1970s, to reach an all-time high in 1979. The divorce rate (expressed as the number of divorces per 1,000 married women fifteen years of age or older) more than doubled between 1960 and 1979, from 9.2 to 22.8. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the trend leveled off, and divorce rates actually declined slightly to 21.2 in 1992 (National Center for Health Statistics 1993a). Unless divorce rates decline substantially, however, researchers estimate that as many as 60 percent of first marriages occurring since the late 1980s will end in divorce (Bumpass 1990).
Throughout the history of the United States, widowhood, not divorce, was the more common outcome for married persons. However, beginning in the mid-1970s this balance shifted, such that the number of marriages ending in divorce each year actually exceeded the number ending through the death of a spouse (Cherlin 1981).
The practice of men and women living together as an unmarried couple (i.e., cohabitation) became increasingly common during the latter half of the twentieth century. Defined as households containing only two adults with or without children under fifteen years of age present, the number of unmarried-couple households increased from 523,000 in 1970 to 2.9 million in 1990 (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1991b).
Children have always been and continue to be a central part of the U.S. family. Despite the profound changes that have occurred since World War II with respect to patterns of marriage and divorce, the vast majority of young women (more than 90 percent) still expect to give birth to at least one child at some point in their lives (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1991a). This does not imply that patterns of childbearing (or fertility) have remained unchanged, however. In fact, with the exception of a brief but dramatic increase in fertility rates during the postwar "baby boom," family size has declined fairly steadily throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Cherlin 1981).
The most notable aspects of childbearing patterns in recent decades are the pace at which fertility declined during the 1960s and 1970s, and the fact that fertility rates reached an all-time low during this period. A number of factors contributed to this decline, including an increasing tendency by young couples to delay the start of childbearing, to have fewer children in total, or to remain childless altogether. In addition to the general decline in fertility rates, the context in which childbearing takes place also changed during this period, as the proportion of births occurring outside of marriage increased dramatically.
In addition to delaying the onset of childbearing, an increasing proportion of couples are choosing to have only one child or no children at all. It is still too early to tell what consequences the sustained low fertility levels of the 1970s and 1980s will have for completed fertility levels, because women who entered their childbearing years during that period are only now starting to complete their childbearing. However, the experiences of women who had their children toward the end of the baby boom and who have now completed their families lend some insight into what might happen in the future. For example, the proportion of women age fifty to fifty-four who had only one child increased slightly between 1985 and 1991, from 9.6 percent to 11.1 percent. The percentage of women in this age group who were childless also increased slightly during the late 1980s, from 8.4 percent in 1987 to 9.3 percent in 1991 (National Center for Health Statistics 1993b). This latter figure is expected to increase rapidly, however, and researchers have projected that the proportion of women who remain childless may reach as high as 25 percent among women who will be completing their childbearing early in the twenty-first century (Bloom and Trussell 1984).
Childbearing in the United States has become increasingly separated from marriage. Sexual activity outside marriage, particularly premarital sexual activity, has risen dramatically among women since the 1960s, and women are becoming sexually active at younger ages on average than ever before (National Center for Health Statistics 1987). These trends, coupled with the fact that women are delaying marriage and spending a smaller portion of their reproductive years in marriage, have led to an increase in the number and proportion of births that occur to unmarried women.
Changes in patterns of family formation and dissolution and childbearing have translated into profound shifts in family and household composition for children and adults. The family model prevalent in the 1950s of breadwinner-husband and homemaker-wife raising their own children together in their own home is increasingly being replaced by a mosaic of alternative family types, including single-parent families, remarried-parent or stepfamilies, married couples with no children, and unmarried couples with children (Ahlburg and De Vita 1992). In addition, households comprised of persons living alone or with nonrelatives are becoming increasingly common.
Perhaps more striking are changes that have occurred in the composition of the family groups themselves. The percentage of families with dependent children that are maintained by two parents declined since 1970. The proportion maintained by a single parent (either mother or father) more than doubled during this period, from approximately 13 percent in 1970 to just under 30 percent in 1990. Single-parent families are much more likely to be maintained by a mother than a father. Although this pattern is starting to change somewhat, even in 1990 the vast majority of single-parent families (87 percent) were maintained by women (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1991b).
What the rise in single parenthood means from a child's perspective is that an increasing number and proportion of children are spending at least part of their childhood with only one parent. In 1992, more than one-quarter of all children under eighteen years of age (representing a total of 17.6 million children) were living in a single-parent family, up from 9 percent (or 5.8 million) in 1960 (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1991b, 1993). These figures relate to living arrangements at a given point in time; however, the proportion of children who have experienced or will ever experience living in a single-parent home is somewhat higher. Based on trends in marital dissolution and non-marital fertility described earlier, researchers have estimated that the proportion of children expected to live in a single-parent household at some time before reaching adulthood will range between one-half and three-quarters (Bumpass 1984; Hofferth 1985). For some children this arrangement is only short-term, followed quickly by the parent's remarriage and the arrival of a stepparent; however, many children may spend a large part of their childhood years living with a single parent, because the parent either never remarries or experiences multiple marital disruptions (Sweet and Bumpass 1987).
Stepfamilies are also becoming much more prevalent in American family life, and it is important to keep in mind that children who are reported as living with two parents do not necessarily live with their biological parents
There is a great deal of uncertainty about what the future will bring for the family in the United States, as well as what the consequences of changes experienced thus far will be for individuals, family groups, and society at large. Demographic trends since the mid-1980s suggest a somewhat slower pace of change for the beginning of the twenty-first century. Furthermore, despite profound changes in its composition and function, the family continues to be highly valued in U.S. society, and the vast majority of young Americans expect to marry and have children at some point in their lives. Because the changes that have occurred have been so far-reaching, however, it seems unlikely that there will ever be a return to what Dennis A. Ahlburg and Carol J. De Vita referred to as the "seemingly well-ordered family world of the 1950s" (1992, p. 38). Hence it will be important to continue to focus efforts on developing a better understanding of the "new realities" of family life in the United States.
See also: AFRICAN-AMERICAN FAMILIES; AMERICAN INDIAN FAMILIES; ASIAN-AMERICAN FAMILIES; CANADA; HISPANIC-AMERICAN FAMILIES; MEXICO
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STEPHANIE COONTZ (1995)
MARY BETH OFSTEDAL (1995)
REVISED BY JAMES J. PONZETTI, JR.
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