The family was in crisis at the turn of the 19th century. It is fascinating to read the contemporary dire predictions about the results of the rising divorce rates and splintering “traditional” family values from the perspective of a century later. I cannot help but wonder what the student of 2110 will think of our current debates regarding gay marriage and global warming. So why was the family in crisis as we approached the 20th century? You might be surprised to learn that it was the same concerns that fill the news media today: pre-marital sex, high divorce rates, falling birth rates, and women prioritizing work or education over homemaking.
There were other factors influencing family dynamics, as well. An ever-widening wealth gap created social upheaval and led to labor protests in cities, factories, and mining towns. Droughts throughout the south and changes in the tenant farming system caused black Americans to migrate north for factory work. World War I took American husbands and workers away to fight in Europe, and their return led to a government-enforced deportation of Mexican American workers. Young, single adults were living on their own in the city, away from parents or chaperones as they went to college or started working.
In The History of Doubt, Jennifer Hecht shows the social, religious, and lifestyle changes repeatedly occur throughout history as metropolitan areas become more diverse and various cultures intermix. Something similar seems to occur with family and gender dynamics. As young adults moved to the city, they shifted away from a traditional house-call based courtship toward “stepping out,” or dating.
Under the “calling” system of courtship, women handled much of the courtship process: vetting and inviting potential suitors to the home; denying or admitting callers; and choosing to allow the courting couple privacy or require a chaperone. While women did have power in this process, men were not powerless. The social weight of their gender and the assets a suitor brought to a match protected him from abuse of the system.
With dating, the balance of power swung decidedly to the male as he also took on the roles of invitation and hosting. The only requirement of women under the new paradigm was that they be amusing and interesting enough to make the investment of time and money worth it. It’s probably unsurprising that the term “dating” actually came from prostitutes, who would mark the “dates” their clients saved. From there, it moved into working class slang. Working class youth often lived in crowded dormitory-type residences that lacked a parlor, making the system of “calling” hard to manage. Dating was a natural alternative for them, and it was soon adopted by affluent upper class youth as a form of rebellion. From there, it trickled down to the middle class, and dating became a way of American life.
Fashion trends also reflected the drastic changes in society, as hemlines rose and necklines plunged. A little known fact: The groundbreaking aviator and feminist icon Amelia Earhart (born in 1897) designed a celebrity fashion line called Amelia Earhart Fashions, which was sold at Marshall Fields’ in Chicago and Macy’s in New York. Amelia funded her flight career through speaking engagements and celebrity product endorsements. Amelia is an exceptional example, but she was hardly the only woman to seek fulfillment outside the home. As America entered the 20th century, women across the country chose to delay marriage and focus on their education and career — women’s participation in the workforce doubled between 1900 and 1920.
The choice to delay marriage makes even more sense when considering the rising divorce statistics. Despite the restrictive and punitive divorce laws of the time, the United States had the highest number of divorces worldwide. Although pre-marital sex — and awareness about sexual intimacy in general — was on the rise in the first decade of the 20th century, childbirth rates for middle class women were actually falling. Across the country, politicians, educators, and self-appointed experts on the family shared their opinions regarding the perceived decline or progress (depending on their point of view) of the American family. Disturbingly, some conclusions about what it all meant were pretty racist — Teddy Roosevelt even expressed concern that the American middle class was committing “race suicide.”
As always, major social change inspired a backlash of conservative values from some corners of public opinion. In the midst of the social, labor, and gender revolution of the 1920s came a response idealizing the “traditional” Victorian and Protestant values of previous generations. Proponents of the movement to return to traditional values saw the idealized Victorian family as a refuge against an immoral and corrupt world.
As we know from the debates about gay marriage currently roiling through our own historical moment, any time one set of self-appointed experts’ voices their opinions, another set feels the need to set them straight. The experts of the early 20th century were no different, and a small yet influential cadre of academics and psychologists countered the conservative backlash to defend the new conception of family that was coalescing among the social tumult.
These experts praised the growing emphasis on affectionate spousal relationships and sexual fulfillment of both husband and wife. The companionate family may have idealized affectionate familial relationships, but that didn’t mean egalitarian gender roles. Research on family patterns in the mid-1920s showed a vast difference in the responsibilities and priorities of the spouses. Wives were responsible for all household affairs, childcare and discipline, and social engagements. They identified as caretakers and nurturers. Husbands were primarily concerned with their job, income, and household or vehicle repairs. Their self-identity as fathers and husbands was not in how involved they were with their families, but in their ability to provide for the family financially. This shift from the father acting as the moral center and disciplinary force to identifying through his earning capabilities occurred in part because of increases in the amount of time away from home, which was caused by work and commute demands.
Child development styles were also in flux at this time. Earlier family models of interaction had strongly discouraged open affection or teasing conversations between parents and children. That changed in the early 20th century as it became socially acceptable for families to show casual, open affection toward one another in a way that wasn’t common only a generation earlier. At the same time, youths were allowed more independence. This was happening at the same time as a nationalized form of popular culture really took off. For the first time in America, a working city girl on the East coast could hear the same news stories and enjoy the same entertainment as a small-town rural farm girl on the West coast, so long as they both had access to a radio or cinema house. All these elements coalesced to allow the birth of teen culture.
In the 1920 and 1930s, dating took a form that might look strangely familiar to today’s hook-up culture. Called “rating and dating,” this method of dating frankly “ranked” the date-ability of guys and girls. On college campuses and in high schools, listing ranking who was date-able were commonplace. Dating just one person was seen as a sign of how unpopular a person was, and so frowned upon. The ideal date would be where a guy took a girl to a dance, and she spent the entire time flying from one guy to another. For the guy, it meant he could “get” an extremely popular and likeable girl and show her a good time, which reflected well on him and meant he “ranked” higher on the scale. For the girl, skipping from guy to guy showed how popular and in demand she was, which meant she “ranked” higher on the scale. The worst social embarrassment a girl could experience was not changing partners at a dance.
It wasn’t just affluent and middle class teenagers who enjoyed close family relationships and more free time — by the 1920s, fewer working class families expected their children to hand over their entire paychecks to their parents. Instead, they took whatever was necessary to help cover their share of the family essentials, and the left the kids the rest to spend as they saw fit.
Scientific childrearing is another development from the turn of the century. It was promoted by the Mother’s Movement, which began as a response to a drop in domestic labor as more employee opportunities opened up for poor and working class women. As a result, the middle class women who relied on nannies, housekeepers, and cooks to manage the tedious minutiae of household work and childrearing suddenly found themselves holding the bag of domestic responsibilities. By educating young women in economics, nutrition, germ theory, and psychology as the ideal way to set them up as homemakers in order to teach them essential homemaking skills, the creators of home economics classes hoped to highlight the value of housewives. The sad remnants of this ill-fated attempt to help society take domestic labor seriously struggle on in today’s much-maligned “home economics” courses.
In 1929, however, all the concerns about immoral youth and skyrocketing divorce rates were put on the back burner as the Great Depression gripped the nation. The effects of the Great Depression on family life are almost unimaginable today. In 1929, no comprehensive social welfare net yet existed. Although signs of the upcoming economic strain had been evident on the lowest rungs of society for some time, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 brought the financial hardship to middle class and working class families. Following the crash, entire families were thrust into homelessness and malnutrition. Many Americans shared living quarters with their families or in-laws, and delayed marriage and child bearing. The divorce rate dropped, not because of solidarity in hardship, but because divorce was an expensive process that many families could no longer afford.
Family life suffered as marriage rates declined and birth rates dropped throughout the 1930s. Husbands and fathers who identified through their ability to provide for their family were suddenly stranded in their households without work. Often the mother became the primary income earner and money manager in his stead. Women did face unemployment during the Depression as well, but not at quite the same rate as men. For one, the women were paid less than men were. Another reason was that women worked in “pink collar” industries that were not as immediately affected by the bank closures and farm evictions. The sudden and discomfiting switch from being the household provider to being dependent on a woman’s earning capabilities caused a lot of depression and angst among working class men. The cultural conception of what made a good husband/ father had been so tied up in their ability to provide for their families that men who lost their jobs often lost their self-respect — as well as the respect of their wife and children.
In the 1940s, World War II brought America out of the Great Depression and definitively changed American dynamics in marriage, child bearing, and workplace demographics. By the time the U.S. got involved with the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it had been raging in the European theatre for two years. The industry and manufacturing sectors had been hit particularly hard, so the U.S. wartime production was not only to provide uniforms and munitions to the American military, but also to produce those same goods to sell to our allies.
The demand on the American manufacturing sectors streamlined efficiency and increased productivity. The wartime economic boom brought an increase in internal migration, as Americans gravitated to industrial centers in search of work, or followed loved ones seeking employment. Their presence created a demand for housing and other community developments, further encouraging the economic recovery. The demand for labor in manufacturing was intense, but the traditional labor class (men) was sent overseas to fight. As a result, the manufacturing industries began hiring women, blacks, and even teenagers. In many states, restrictions on child labor laws were temporary relaxed with special wartime measure to increase the labor pool.
The sudden drop in the male population affected the dating scene, too. Rating and dating was suddenly out of style, and “going steady” became the thing to do. The age of marriage dropped, too. Through the early 19th century, men and women had gotten married later and later — through the Great Depression, the average age of marriage was in the late 20s, for both men and women. With the onset of the war, though, young marriage became completely acceptable and the average age of marriage dropped to 18 for women and 22 for men. During the war, marriages rates skyrocketed. Approximately 1.5 million American soldiers got married during the war, and they apparently were not patient men — the sharp increase in marriages was accompanied by an equally sharp increase in childbirth — the population soared by 6.5 million during the war years, thanks to the wartime birth surge.
Wartime marriages had a very specific effect on black families. First, wartime wages brought about an abrupt increase in income, making marriage affordable for many people who had put it off during the Great Depression due to a lack of finances. This effect was particularly strong in the black community, who had faced discrimination, union color bars, and lower earning potentials in addition to the privations of the Great Depression.
Second, black women also enjoyed the benefits of increased earning potential during the war. Surprisingly, the increased financial earnings actually led to more marital instability in black families. In the decades prior to WWII, black women had adopted the role of household leader and financial managers, due in part to more reliable employment in the domestic sector. Although black women’s earnings did increase during WWII, they did not increase as substantially as the earnings of black men. This change in their economic profiles enhanced the authority of black men while decreasing the authority black women had held — a recipe for disaster.
Finally, birth rates nearly doubled for black Americans during the war years. A program instituted by the U.S. government to provide medical care and support for soldier’s wives during their pregnancy, labor, and the first year substantially lowered the childbirth mortality rate in the black community. Unfortunately, not all the new mothers had access to this military healthcare program — although some of the increase in children was due to wartime marriages, others were due to a sharp rise in teen pregnancy and single motherhood.
Childcare was a huge problem for working mothers of all racial backgrounds during the war, as the nation dealt with a sudden and unexpected transition to households headed by a working mother while the fathers were away, serving in the war. Some families doubled up, lived with family or friends for cost effective childcare, and reduced housing costs. Others could find no solution but to lock their kids in a room or their car while they went to work. The government did attempt to roll out childcare programs, but they were inadequate to the demands.
The new family dynamics affected teen culture, too, as the older and more self-sufficient teens and pre-teens suddenly found themselves largely free from adult supervision and in possession of extra money. Across the country, school attendance requirements and child labor laws were relaxed in order to allow all capable hands to support the war effort. Under the pressure cooker of war, a separate teen culture emerged.
Of course, none of this could last. The war ended, and the first workers to lose their jobs were the people of color and the women. Men and women who had married in haste, swept up in the mood of the moment, returned home to repent of their impulsiveness at leisure. By 1950, almost a million GIs and war brides had divorced. The rate of women in the workforce has remained high and continued to rise steadily since WWII in comparison to pre-war employment rates of women. That said, the immediate post-war years saw a not-always-voluntary exodus of women from the workforce.
Romantic relationships were affected by the end of the war, too. Aside from the war shortages, Americans were largely insulated from the violence and horror occurring overseas. This created a communication and perspective gulf between spouses. The women were upset about losing their jobs; the returning soldiers were suffering from PTSD and grieving for their lost friends. Both parties had legitimate needs, but neither was in a position to validate or understand the other. In order to negotiate this intense psychological distance, men and women retreated into the safety of neatly prescribed gender etiquette. Gender stereotypes and the proper performance of “natural” gender roles seemed to provide a structure by which families thought they could safely negotiate their relationships in an emotionally damaged era.
Unfortunately, it also sowed seeds of discontent that would fester in a quiet undercurrent of resentment through America’s Golden Age. For example, Playboy was started by Hugh Hefner as a celebration of bachelorhood decrying the expectation that men should work their fingers to the bone to support a family who didn’t appreciate them. Meanwhile, women felt stifled and unappreciated, pulled from college educations and wartime careers to serve as housewives to resentful husbands. Through the 1950s, the economic boom continued, fostering the growth of suburbia. The tide of history now echoed the retrained values of a century prior as men and women pushed down their emotions and sexual needs in order to put on a happy face and try to enjoy the peace and economic prosperity of the 1950s. Soon enough, the sexual revolution of the 1920s would find its historical echo in the 1960s.