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The Evolution of American Family Structure

America’s mainstream culture evolves to reflect the predominant values of the day, including social systems such as the family. Instead of being one unit, the family institution has been in a constant state of evolution, according to California Cryobank.  Today, there really is no consistent definition of the American family. With single-parent households, varying family structures, and fewer children, the modern family defies categorization. But these most recent changes have brought with them a nostalgia-based myth: that divorce, domestic violence, and single parenthood are recent phenomena. When the history of the American family was surveyed in-depth by Insider, it became apparent that this is not the case. Constant change and adaptation are the only themes that remain consistent for families throughout America’s history. In fact, recent changes in family life are only the latest in a series of transformations in family roles, functions, and dynamics that have occurred over time.

A Brief History of the Pre-20th Century Family

When America was founded, a family was defined as a husband, wife, biological children and extended family (unfortunately, slaves were not considered part of any family). This meant that most people who could legally marry did, and then stayed married until death. According to Insider, in the 19th and early 20th centuries people often married to gain property rights or to move social class. All of that changed in the 1800s, with the ideas of love and romance becoming the main reason to wed. Divorce was rare; History Collection reports that, “the process of getting a divorce was very expensive, and a judge would never allow it, unless it was the last resort .. If two people were unhappy in a marriage, they sometimes decided to quietly separate in a mature, responsible way, but they were legally still married, and could never remarry someone else, unless their first husband or wife died.” Because this structure was so dominant, it played a crucial role in the creation and replication of cultural roles for men and women. The role of wives was to assist their husbands within the home, both keeping house and raising children.

Wives had no legal identity under a condition called coverture; ThoughtCo explains that “legally, upon marriage, the husband and wife were treated as one entity. In essence, the wife’s separate legal existence disappeared as far as property rights and certain other rights were concerned.” Husbands, in contrast, were managers and providers in the family. They controlled finances and had ultimate authority in the eyes of both society and the law. This meant that “a husband could not grant to his wife anything such as property, and could not make legal agreements with her after marriage because it would be like gifting something to one’s self or making a contract with one’s self.”

It was generally against the law to live together or have children outside of marriage. However, by the 19th century, coverture was less of an issue and these rigid legal boundaries were relaxed, with common-law marriage widely recognized as an acceptable union.

Government and the Family

The 19th century brought about a number of important changes to the family, according to Shirley A. Hill’s Families: A Social Class Perspective. In the first half of the century, married women began to have property rights through the Married Women’s Property Acts, which began to be enacted in 1839. By the early 20th century, most states permitted married women to “own property, sue and be sued, enter into contracts and control the disposition of property upon her death.” However, during this time a woman’s role in the family was still defined by her husband.

Another important development was government regulation of some aspects of childhood, such as child labor and schooling. To improve the well-being of children, “reformers pressed for compulsory school attendance laws, child labor restrictions, playgrounds … and widow’s pensions to permit poor children to remain with their mothers.” Despite these legal changes, the family became an even more important source of happiness and satisfaction. The “companionate family was envisioned as a more isolated, and more important unit — the primary focus of emotional life.” New ideas about marriage emerged, based on choice, companionship, and romantic love. This in turn caused a surge in the divorce rate, which tripled between 1860 and 1910.

Depression and War

The stability of families was tested by the Great Depression, as unemployment and lower wages forced Americans to delay marriage and having children. The divorce rate fell during this time because it was expensive and few could afford it. However, by 1940 almost 2 million married couples lived apart. Some families adjusted to the economic downturn by “returning to a cooperative family economy. Many children took part-time jobs and many wives supplemented the family income.”

When the Depression ended and World War II began, families coped with new issues: a shortage of housing, lack of schools and prolonged separation. Women ran households and raised children alone, and some went to work in war industries. The results of the war-stricken state of society were that “thousands of young people became latchkey children and rates of juvenile delinquency, unwed pregnancy, and truancy all rose.”

Family Structures in the Postwar World

In reaction to the tumult both at home and abroad during the 1940s, the 1950s marked a swift shift to a new type of domesticity. Insider reports that “the idea of the nuclear, All-American Family was created in the 1950s, and put an emphasis on the family unit and marriage.” This time period saw younger marriages, more kids, and fewer divorces. The average age for women to marry was 20, divorce rates stabilized, and the birth rate doubled. However, the perfect images of family life that appeared on television do not tell the whole story: “Only 60 percent of children spent their childhood in a male-breadwinner, female-homemaker household.”

This “democratization of family ideals” reflected a singular society and economy, one that was driven by a reaction against depression and war and compounded by rising incomes and lower prices. The economic boom that followed World War II led to significant economic growth, particularly in manufacturing and consumer goods; around 13 million new homes were built in the 1950s. Families moved to the suburbs because they could afford to, and the family became a “haven in a heartless world,” as well as “an alternative world of satisfaction and intimacy” for adults and children that had experienced the ravages of wartime. In fact, this is where the concept of close-knit families as we know it originates. Domestic containment as a way of life was reinforced by American youth, who wanted to have long-lasting and stronger relationships than their parents had. Soldiers and servicemen who returned from war were looking to get married and raise children.

The Idyllic ’50s

The standard structure of the family in postwar America consisted of a breadwinner male, his wife who did household chores and looked after the children, and the children themselves. Families ate meals and went on outings together, and lived in sociable neighborhoods. Parents paid close attention to disciplining their children and live-in relationships were unheard of — in fact, girls stayed in their parents’ home until marriage and did not commonly attend college. Children became emotional rather than economic assets for the first time, close with their parents and the center of the family. Because of this, parents studied child development and worked to socialize their children so that they would become successful adults. Childhood became a distinct period of life. However, young girls were supposed to be housewives instead of educated professionals. 

All in all, family structure in the ’50s was based around one central necessity: a secure life. The economic and global instability of the early 20th century gave rise to the need for closely defined family units. This led to an ideology that lauded economic advancement and social order, the results of which were younger marriages that lasted longer, more children, fewer divorces, and more nuclear families.

The Modern Family Unit

The nuclear family of the ’50s epitomized the economically stable family unit. The idea of the middle-class, patriarchal, child-centered families were short-lived. This is why the modern family, in most cases, bears little resemblance to this “ideal” unit. Many of the changes that were part of this transition are a direct result of the expanding role of women in society, both in terms of the workplace and education. The rise of the post-industrial economy, based in information and services, led to more married women entering the workplace. As early as 1960, around a third of middle class women were working either part-time or full-time jobs. Since the ’60s, families have also become smaller, less stable, and more diverse. More adults, whether young or elderly, live outside of the family as well. Today, the male-breadwinner, female-housewife family represents only a small percentage of American households. A considerable majority of Americans (62 percent) view the idea of marriage as “one in which husband and wife both work and share child care and household duties.” Two-earner families are much more common as well. In 2008, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that women made up almost 50 percent of the paid labor force, putting them on equal footing with men when it comes to working outside the home. In addition, single-parent families headed by mothers, families formed through remarriage, and empty-nest families have all become part of the norm.

Along with these shifts have come declining marriage and birth rates and a rising divorce rate. The American birth rate is half of what it was in 1960, and hit its lowest point ever in 2012. In addition, the number of cohabiting couples increased from less than half a million in 1960 to 4.9 million in the 2000 census. According to the 2005 American Community Survey, more than 50 percent of households in America were headed by an unmarried person during that year. And by 2007, almost 40 percent of children were born to unmarried, adult mothers. One reason for these developments is that marriage has been repositioned as a “cornerstone to capstone, from a foundational act of early adulthood to a crowning event of later adulthood.” It is viewed as an event that should happen after finishing college and establishing a career.

Further Change in the Marital Family

A number of historical factors contributed to shifts in how Americans perceive and participate in family structure. According to the American Bar Association, in 1965, the Supreme Court extended constitutional protections for “various forms of reproductive freedom” through its ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut. There were also medical advances in contraception, including the invention of the birth control pill in 1960. As a result, the way children were brought into families became more varied than ever before. Divorce changed during the ’60s as well. In 1969, California became the first state to adopt no-fault divorce, permitting parties to end their marriage simply upon showing irreconcilable differences. Within 16 years, every other state had followed suit.

Included in these trends is the expansion of rights granted to same-sex couples. With the decline of barriers to lesbian and gay unions and the increase in legal protections, more LGBTQ populations are living openly. Gay marriage was legalized in 2015; However, for some legal purposes these relationships are still not treated like marriages. Still, in general, families are more racially, ethnically, religiously, and stylistically diverse. However, all of this change does not mean that the family is a dying institution. About 90 percent of Americans still marry and have children, and those who divorce usually remarry.

The Role of Family Science

Many who are interested in family development and culture choose to pursue a career in family science. With an emphasis on current issues and skills for living successfully in today’s society, this applied science is constantly evolving, much like the family units that are its area of study. It is a discipline including contributions from related academic areas such as law, sociology, psychology, anthropology, healthcare, and more. Because of this, professionals in the field practice in a variety of contexts, including:

  • Education
  • Research
  • Community outreach
  • Human services
  • Nutrition

The field of family science plays an important role in navigating the implications of today’s global society. Though the families of today have little in common with those in previous decades and centuries, family science professionals have a clear perspective on how to approach the complexities of a constantly evolving institution. And these skills will only become more valuable as families continue to evolve.

Next Steps: Family Science Degrees at Concordia University, St. Paul

Concordia University, St. Paul offers online family science degree programs at both the undergraduate and graduate level. The comprehensive education students receive through these programs allows them to become practitioners in this dynamic and interdisciplinary field. Because both of Concordia’s family science programs are approved by the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR), students are also prepared for a wide variety of careers after graduation. To learn more about these online degree programs, visit their program webpages.