January 1990 Vol. 4, No. I
The Family in America
A Publication of the Rockford Institute Center on The Family in America
By Nancy Pearcey
Frank and Sharan Barnett are husband and wife; they are also business colleagues who run their own advertising agency. Working together has been good for both their marriage and their work, say the Barnetts in Working Together: Entrepreneurial Couples. Sharing the same heartaches and joys at work has intensified their marriage. And having a colleague who is also someone loved and trusted has enhanced their work productivity.
We have too easily resigned ourselves to a way of life and work that separates us from those we love most, say the Barnetts. Is it for this that people marry and have children--to go their separate ways all day, to see each other only during leisure hours, to know each others’ daily activities only second hand?
Couples who start their own businesses have decided they want more out of life, and they are reaching back into the past to find it. In the Barnetts’ words, they are returning to "a way of life which, until the development of the industrial age, had served mankind well"--the family enterprise. They are "drawing upon a basic economic unit that is older and more solid than any economic system now in existence . . . the firm foundation of the family unit as an economic enterprise."1
When the Barnetts describe returning to a pre-industrial style of work, they’re not talking about hauling out the horse plow and the washboard. They are not anti-technology. But they do want to return to an integrated life pattern in which work enhances family relationships instead of impeding them.2 When work is performed within the family circle, then husband and wife, parent and child, engage in a wide range of common projects and responsibilities that knit them together through their daily round of activities.
The transfer of work from the home to the factory through industrialization tore apart the fabric of shared activities within the family. It sparked a trend to transfer many of the other functions of the family to outside institutions as well. The home has been emptied of all but early childcare and the simplest housekeeping chores. No longer the place where most of the important activities of society are carried on, the home no longer commands great allegiance or respect.
Modern defenders of the family will not understand the demise of the home unless they take into account the demise of the family’s economic base. Indeed, it is not too great an exaggeration to say the history of the family is the history of the family’s work. We may likewise find that revival of the family depends upon revival of the family enterprise.
Colonial families lived much the way families have always lived in traditional societies. Prior to the 19th century, the vast majority of people in the world lived on farms or in peasant villages. Productive work was done in the home or its outbuildings, whether for subsistence or for sale.3 Work was done not by individuals, but by families. Stores, offices, and workshops were located in a front room, with living quarters either upstairs or in the rear.4 The boundaries of the home were fluid and permeable; the "world" entered continually in the form of clients, business colleagues, customers, and apprentices.
What did this integration of work and life mean for family relationships? For husband and wife, it meant they inhabited the same universe, working side by side in a common enterprise (though not necessarily in identical tasks). For the mother, the location of work within the home meant she was able to raise children while still participating in the family sustenance. Marriage in colonial times "meant to become a co-worker beside a husband, if necessary learning new skills in butchering, silversmith work, printing, or upholstering--whatever special skills the husband’s work required."5 Of course, women were also responsible for household tasks which required a wide range of skills: spinning wool and cotton; weaving it into cloth; sewing the family’s clothes; gardening and preserving food; preparing meals without pre-processed ingredients; making soap, buttons, candles, medicines. Colonial mothers did not need to start a feminist movement to demand a role in economically productive work. Many of the goods used in colonial society were manufactured by women, doing the brainwork (planning and managing) as well as the handwork.6
Fathers enjoyed the same integration of work and child rearing responsibilities. Parenting was not, as today, almost exclusively the mother’s domain. Sermons, child-rearing manuals, and other prescriptive literature of the day addressed both parents, admonishing them to "raise up" their children together. When manuals did address one parent, it was usually the father, who was thought to be particularly important in religious and intellectual training.7 With productive endeavor centered on the family hearth, fathers were "a visible presence, year after year, day after day." They trained their children to work alongside them. "Fatherhood was thus an extension, if not an integral part, of much routine activity."8
All this is not to idealize colonial life, often a life of arduous and backbreaking labor. Yet in terms of family relations, it had distinct advantages over modern life. Families benefited from an integration of life and labor rare in our fragmented age--an integration sought by modern couples who recreate home-based businesses.
The industrial revolution took work out of the home. This apparently simple change--in the physical location of work--set off a process that led to a sharp decline in the social significance accorded the home. For when work left the household, so did most of the adults who had once worked in the household. And so, eventually, did most other activities. Today we go outside the home for everything from making a living to getting an education to looking for recreation. The home no longer represents values that can make serious demands on its inhabitants.
Industrialization took place in America at a breathtaking pace, within the period from 1780 to 1830. In the early stages, whole families went to work in the factories or did piecework at home. But it soon became evident that industrial work was in many ways inhumane. The relation between a colonial artisan or tradesman and his journeymen or apprentices had been personal; the relation between employer and worker in a factory was impersonal, defined by wages. In the handcraft tradition, a single craftsman planned, designed, and then carried out a project; capitalism gave rise to an ever-increasing class of managers and contractors who abrogated the planning and decision-making and left the worker little room for creativity or responsibility. A colonial tradesman took orders from his customers face-to-face and felt an ethical obligation to them; a factory worker produced for distant markets he would never see. Farming and handcrafts were "task oriented," performed in response to human needs and seasonal requirements. Factory work was "time oriented," governed by the clock and geared to the regularity of the machine. It was shaped not by human needs, but by the market mechanism. Ethical and personal relations gave way to a factory system where work was rationalized, fragmented, standardized.
It was not long before a great social outcry was raised against the new, alien work style. Large-scale efforts were made to restrict its dehumanizing effects. The primary strategy was to delineate one outpost in which the "old" personal and ethical values could be protected and maintained--namely, the home. Laws were passed limiting the participation of women and children in the factories. This was followed, beginning in the 1820s, by an outpouring of books, pamphlets, advice manuals, and sermons that delineated a doctrine of separate spheres. The public sphere of business and finance was to be cordoned off from the private sphere of home and family.
In what has been called the Cult of Domesticity, the image of the home was sharply redefined--it was to become a refuge, a haven, from the harsh and competitive world outside, a place of solace and spiritual renewal.9 Along with the new definition of the home came a new definition of male and female roles. Forced to leave home to earn their living, men gave up their previous position as parental and religious leaders in their families. They simply were not physically present in the home enough to tend to the daily, continuous work of training and disciplining their children.
Women, on the other hand, were gradually squeezed out of their traditional productive tasks. Spinning, weaving, sewing, knitting, preserving, brewing, baking, and candle-making were taken out of their hands and transferred to the factory. As women’s roles in production declined, their role in child rearing became more salient. Perhaps the most striking feature of the child-rearing manuals of the mid-19th century is the disappearance of references to fathers. For the first time we find sermons and pamphlets on the topic of child-rearing addressed to "mothers" rather than to "Parents."10 A mother was called upon to stoke the fires of affection, to minister to her world-weary husband, and to impress moral sentiments onto the hearts of her children.
For a time, both public and private spheres commanded equal esteem. As the seat of piety and culture, the home was accorded a transcendent value that balanced the productive value of the world. But such a happy balance was not to last.
The removal of production from the home to the factory led to a bifurcation between "life" and "work," between public and private spheres. In time, the two spheres became not just separate, but incompatible. As a result, men and women tended to develop incompatible attitudes and values. In the words of Kenneth Keniston, "the family became a special protected place, the repository of tender, pure, and generous feelings (embodied in the mother) and a bulwark and bastion against the raw, competitive, aggressive, and selfish world of commerce (embodied by the father)."11
Such a situation was inherently unstable. The worlds inhabited by men and women were so different that it became difficult for them to communicate. As John Demos writes, "Women’s identity and men’s seemed to diverge so radically in the nineteenth century that all human communication across the gender-boundary was impaired."12 The result was eventually a drive to seek unity by imposing the values of one sphere upon the other. Thus began a war for cultural domination.
Women announced that they could not carry out their commission to guard the home unless they exported home values to the world outside. It was impossible to seal off hermetically the private life from the public sphere. Unleash one aspect of life to a dog-eat-dog ethos and the brutalizing effects must pervert family relations as well. Public vices--immorality, drunkenness, prostitution--have private consequences. Women sallied forth to make the world safe for family values.
Working first through churches and eventually forming their own societies and charitable associations, women set out to reform the public sphere. They set up benevolent societies to feed and clothe the poor; they began the Sunday School movement and missionary societies; they formed "reasoning" societies and literary groups that met to discuss politics and economics; they worked in behalf of temperance, education, and anti-slavery. They set out to make the world home-like.
These early crusades did not base their claim to work outside the home on the modern feminist argument that there are no important differences between men and women. Just the opposite: They accepted the doctrine that women are more loving, sensitive, and pious, and argued that it is precisely these qualities that equip them for benevolent work beyond the confines of the home.13 Moreover, they argued, homemaking gives women skill in the management of practical affairs, and isn’t the work of government merely homemaking on a larger scale? In the 1850s Theodore Parker defined the political economy as "national housekeeping" and asked, "Does any respectable woman keep house so badly as the United States?"14 Homemakers alone had the character and the skills to redeem the world.
Yet in the end, it was the public sphere that won the war for domination. The world was not infused with the values of the hearth; instead, the home was permeated by the ethos of science and industry.
For all the glorification of the home during the height of the Cult of Domesticity, the stubborn fact remained that many important functions once performed in the home were now performed by other institutions. The family’s sustenance came from without; a husband’s wages, status, and professional friendships were all based on associations outside the home. For all the transcendent values associated with it, the home was becoming an adjunct to the "real" world outside.
Fewer people seemed to reverence those transcendent values anyway. After the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, evolutionism took over biology and the social sciences. With its implacable materialism, Darwinism undermined confidence in any transcendent truths. If home stood for the outmoded values of piety and religion, then the home itself was an outmoded institution.
Moreover, Social Darwinism took direct aim on the home by exalting the public sphere as the seat of evolutionary progress. Beginning with the assumption that men are superior to women, Social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer sought to explain why men had evolved faster. They proposed that, from their brute beginnings, males fought for survival out in the world and were thus subject to natural selection, a process that weeds out the weak and inferior. Women, at home nurturing the young, were out of reach of natural selection and hence evolved more slowly. What is significant is the contempt Social Darwinists expressed for both women’s character and women’s environment (i.e., the home). Homelife was denounced as a drag on evolutionary development. As Glenna Matthews puts it, Spencer’s theory made the home "utterly irrelevant to human progress. Male struggle outside the home is the engine of change."15
Social Darwinism was immensely popular in the United States right up to World War II. It seemed to conform to common experience. After all, where did progress take place? Not in the pre-modern working style of the home. Astonishing material progress followed only when manufacture and industry were removed from the household and subject to scientific management techniques. Even those who sought to defend women against Social Darwinist theories of biological inferiority did so by denigrating the home. Sociologist Lester Frank Ward argued that women are not inherently inferior; their faculties are merely underdeveloped because of their restriction to the home. Since nothing of significance happens in the home, those who spend time in it have only trivial matters upon which to exercise their minds. No wonder they are stunted in their development.16
Perhaps the most fervent detractor of homelife was Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a student of Ward’s. She argued that women are isolated in the pre-scientific home and hence cut off from evolutionary progress; hence, all the functions that remain in the home should forthwith be removed and put under the care of scientifically oriented professionals. Only when taken out of the amateurish hands of the housewife will any progress be made in cooking, cleaning, or child care.17
This was in striking contrast to writers of an earlier period who had stressed the strength and character necessary to run a household. The time was gone when the home was held to be a training ground for important skills and sentiments18. It was the public sphere that was delivering the technological goodies Americans seemed to care about most, and the best thing the private sphere could do was to emulate its techniques. In a huge leap since the days men were urged to learn virtue from women,19 women were now exhorted to learn scientific technique from the world of men. "Scientific management," the application of scientific method to industry, was to be applied to home management as well.
Americans might not have been ready yet to follow Gilman's advice and take child care and cooking completely out of the hands of mothers. But why shouldn’t mothers themselves be trained in the methods proving so effective in industry? Raising a family should be treated as a profession requiring special knowledge and training. What had once been done according to tradition and moral precept now demanded scientific study. Beginning in the 1870s, prescriptive literature on childcare began to be written by child study "experts," most of them trained in the new discipline of psychology. The result was the "professionalization of motherhood."20 Of course, to treat mothering as a profession is eventually to invite the conclusion, Let professionals do it. With the growth of early childhood education and the childcare industry in our own day, increasing numbers of parents seem to be reaching precisely that conclusion.
Not only childcare but also the rest of the domestic sphere--cooking, cleaning, decorating, and home furnishings--was subject to scientific method beginning with the birth of home economics as a discipline in the late 19th century. Home economists sought to propel the housewife out of the backward, pre-scientific era into the modern era of professionalism. The home should be run as efficiently as a business enterprise. Standards taken from outside--from industry and the professions--were imposed upon the home. The pioneer home economists "strove to make the home as much like a male workplace as possible.
Finally, family relations themselves were subject to scientific scrutiny. After the development of industrial psychology in the early 1920s, it became standard methodology to model theories of family psychology after studies on small-group interaction in industry. Psychiatrists and other experts in human relations began to "apply to the family techniques already perfected in industrial management." The family was just another "small group," indistinguishable from any other gathering of individuals. What occupied the minds of the experts now was how the home could be organized to manage the interactions of its inhabitants, to cope with the strains put on them by the modern world, and to promote their maximum efficiency and productivity--standards indistinguishable from those of a business enterprise.
The professionalization of the home has its logical conclusion in the contemporary trend among corporations simply to take over the private functions of the family. Corporations have been urged to become the center of life for their employees. Many already offer day care, social and recreational events, addiction counseling, fitness programs, diet and nutrition programs. Some writers even call on corporations to become the main teachers and transmitters of values in society. The public sphere is on its way to absorbing the private sphere.
When work and home were wrenched apart, the effect on the family was the isolation of family members, both physically and psychologically. Whereas a father once worked at the head of a productive household, he now bears the responsibility for earning a living alone. The family enterprise has given way to the father’s job. Whereas a mother once shared the tasks of child-rearing with her husband and other kin, she now bears the major responsibility for bringing up children alone. Whereas children once experienced a gradual assimilation into adult responsibilities through training in a family business, they now grow up isolated from the adult world and have only the vaguest notion what their fathers do.
In spite of this, sociologists and psychologists reassure us industrialization has been good for the family. The standard interpretation is that when "extraneous" tasks like the production of goods and services are removed from the home, families are freed to concentrate on love and personal development. For example, sociologist Talcott Parsons maintained that modernization proceeds through differentiation and specialization. Whereas the family was multifunctional, it now specializes in affective functions. And since specialization increases efficiency, the family may now actually be better than ever at performing its emotional functions. In the words of Carl Degler, the family no longer works together, religious life no longer centers on the hearth, and parents are no longer their children’s educators; yet "it is quite possible that this divestiture of functions has been a gain in that it has permitted a concentration upon the primary functions of the family"--namely, love and affection. It might be said that the modern family "is for the first time free to perform its primary purposes without internal distraction."
Some might respond that having to work together, pray together, and learn together are not "distractions" from giving love and affection; on the contrary, it is precisely such common activities that provide an avenue for developing love and affection. The multifaceted functions of the family in traditional societies are not "external props," the erosion of which leads to family relationships based on "pure" affection. What sort of affection is so abstract that it can exist in a vacuum, apart from shared tasks, shared purposes, shared commitments?
Moreover, we must ask whether, empirically, the family is in fact stronger since being freed to "specialize" in emotions and relationships. The answer is, Clearly not. The family in modern America is more fragile, less stable, and under more vigorous attack than ever. Fathers continue to withdraw from family obligations into their work; mothers are conforming to the same pattern, leaving the home in record numbers for paid employment; divorce continues to rise, tearing apart the emotional fabric of the family; schools and day care are taking over the socialization of ever-younger children. The family doesn’t seem to be very good at providing even emotional solace any more. Contrary to the theorists, loss of its erstwhile functions has not made the family any stronger.
It is unrealistic to expect that people would relate better when they lead separate lives most of the day and have few activities in common. The home has become an empty shell in which sociologists expect scattered family members to come together and somehow relate with each other over nothing at all. We are desperately trying to build families on the fragile base of personal affection and sentiment largely divorced from any material interdependence. Indeed, this is often presented as desirable. But, as Christopher Lasch has effectively argued, without a wider framework of shared functions and commitments, the family cannot fulfill even its affectional functions well.
"It is inaccurate to speak of a variety of functions, some of which decline while others take on added importance," Lasch says. When work is removed from the home and a child’s parents no longer provide a visible role model for adult life or give instructions in skills needed to work, "the child no longer identifies with his parents or internalizes their authority." Likewise, I would add, when husband and wife are no longer coworkers in a common economic enterprise, they lose a significant sense of unity and common purpose beyond the gratification of their private "intimacy needs."
What can be done to reverse the decline of the family? If the decline is traceable to the loss of family functions, the logical solution is to seek to regain them--most fundamentally, perhaps, the economic function. As sociologist Jessie Bernard has commented, one need not be Marxist to interpret the history of the family in terms of the history of the production of material goods. When production is
removed from the home, a separate and competing power center is created. Freed from the restraints of family relationships, the public sphere becomes autonomous of family values. Claiming to be value-neutral, progressive, and scientific, it invades the home and bears off whatever booty it can, and what it cannot, it seeks to subject to control by the "experts." Hence, we are inundated today by books that prescribe techniques for the most intimate of family interactions, from marital arguments to sexual relations to showing your children you love them. The 19th-century reformers were right: We cannot wall off the home from the outside world. It may be that the only way to save the home is to bring the world back in.
Couples like Frank and Sharan Barnett who start their own businesses are recreating the economic base of the family with its network of shared activities and obligations. They are part of a growing trend to return work to the home, whether through family businesses, cottage industries, or home worksites (e.g., telecommuting). Realistically, not all aspects of every industry can be adapted to performance at home. Nor is home-based work necessarily best for everyone. Yet, it may be ideal for families with children still at home, who would benefit most from the integration of work and family responsibilities. As William Mattox of the Family Research Council has suggested, "Perhaps we should begin to see work as a progression throughout the adult life cycle, with place of employment based upon parental status. It might become a societal norm for parents of young children to take on work that can be done at least partly at home, moving into other forms of work as their children grow older."
Of course, we don’t have to stop with work. Other functions can be returned to the home as well. With medical costs soaring, home-based health care is coming into vogue. The home-birth movement seeks to return one of the most elemental of family functions to the family circle. The home-schooling movement represents an effort by families to regain their erstwhile education and socialization functions. Even care of the handicapped is being returned to the hands of family members. There is a role to be played by professionals in these fields, of course; that role is not taking over family tasks, but giving family members the tools to perform them better.
Perhaps most important for the family is to regain a sense of transcendent obligation or calling. What makes families strong in traditional societies is "a network of religiously and socially sanctioned mutual obligations that transcend personal affection and sentiment," says Tamara K. Hareven. If America’s families are to be strong, we must commit ourselves to a spiritual vision of the family--seeing it as a structure transcending the individuals in it, rooted in unyielding moral and spiritual obligations, called to a purpose beyond anything its members can do on their own. If we begin here, we will have already accomplished a great deal toward rebuilding the family.
Nancy Pearcey is a freelance writer living in Washington, DC.
Most of us view industrialization in the West as a positive development. The conveniences we enjoy, the consumer items available to us, the labor-saving devices we use--all bespeak the great progress made since the bad old days of constructing household items by hand. But, then, what is wrong with women? Why is it that hard on the heels of the industrial revolution came the first wave of feminism? Why do modern feminists blame industrialization for the bulk of women’s woes? Because the revolution that removed work from the home removed it from the hands of women, leaving them only the most menial and routine housekeeping jobs and rendering them economically dependent on a man’s wages.
We can discern two distinct stages in the impact of industrialization on women’s work in the home. The first stage was beneficial. By handing over to machines repetitive, manual labor, women were freed to devote more time to the creative, artistic aspects of home production. The culinary arts are a good example. Cookbooks from the early 19th century reveal that the cuisine of the average American household had greatly improved since colonial days. Industrialization had given the housewife more time and greater access to a wide range of ingredients. But as the century wore on, the effects of industrialization began to be negative. Whereas industry had once enabled women to do their jobs better, it now began to take their jobs over.
A mixer and a dough hook reduce a homemaker’s physical labor and enable her to be actually more creative in baking breads. A factory that makes bread for her takes over her job and gives her a less creative one in return: grocery shopping. We have largely failed to draw this distinction between routine work, which is readily assumed by industry, and craft work, which requires creativity and intelligence. The result has been what Glenna Matthews calls a "de-skilling" process: As the housewife came to rely on mass-produced, standardized, industry-made products, the craft and artistry once part of cooking or decorating or tailoring was lost. Her work might be easier, but it was also more boring.
Industrial production tends to emphasize efficiency and convenience at the expense of the art and craft side of production. From the start, pre-processed foods were made by relying on additives, on chemical substitutes for natural ingredients, and on cheap but less healthy ingredients like sugar. It was back in 1897 that Jell-O first appeared, and traditional aspic mixtures were replaced by sugary gelatine full of artificial flavors and colors.
Though her traditional jobs were gone and those left steadily being "de-skilled," woman could not simply leave home to find new jobs, because there was one task that required more attention than ever--raising children. Now that fathers were gone, along with older siblings, maiden aunts, domestic help, and servants, mothers were the only adults left in the house to raise the children. Moreover, new philosophies of childhood proposed at the end of the 19th century stressed the early years of life as the most impressionable, highlighting the importance of early nurture and education. Hence the irony that while commercial production was reducing the scope and skill of household activities, women’s increasing responsibility for childrearing bound them ever more closely to the household. Is it any wonder women began to experience homelife as confining?
Feminism could not have captured the attention it has were it not tapping into feelings widespread among American women. The woman at home has suffered a massive loss in status and skill opportunities. Of course, feminists propose to solve the problem by promoting more of the same--by degrading the home yet further and exalting the public sphere as the true source of woman’s fulfillment. Yet, traditionalists have offered no effective counterproposal, for they have found no solution to the decline of the home.
To do that requires them to become a good deal more traditionalist than they now are. Most pro-family advocates call us to a vision of family life stemming from the 1950s. But the home of the ‘50s was already stripped of its former productive functions, shunted off to the private sphere, and devalued as a place of leisure where none of the "important" work of society occurs. Woman’s work within the household was already well on its way to being de-skilled, and even her less tangible work as wife and mother was increasingly being directed by outside professionals as the cult of the experts took over in psychology and education (see main text).
It is possible women’s role in the home will fail to regain its former esteem until we reach back a long way prior to the ‘50s to the days when productive work took place within the household. Prior to the industrial revolution, women were responsible for the manufacture of many of the goods required by society. As Lundberg and Farnham point out, "[Women’s] consciousness of their economic indispensability gave a strong support to their egos." Today women are economic dependents--consumers instead of producers--and no amount of waxing floors or scrubbing sinks will give them the same ego support, however much it is glorified by advertising.
Of course, a conscientious woman still finds ways to be creative within the home, particularly in childrearing, but neither she nor the wider society is likely to accord her work the status of being necessary. Deciding to cook from scratch or do art projects with the kids is treated as a lifestyle choice, a middleclass luxury.
Possibly the only way to reestablish respect for the homemaker is to give her access again to income-producing work within the home---to take the colonial days as a model for re-integrating work and home. This does not mean rejecting technology, but applying it in more humane ways. It’s possible to design machines that support creativity instead of stifling it. Give women dough hooks and knitting machines that allow them to resume their traditional work with increased creativity--or computers and fax machines that allow them to contribute to the family income in new ways. (The word processor is an excellent illustration of technology that unleashes creativity.) In either case, a return to home-based work may be the only way women will regain respect and fulfillment within the home by giving them the opportunity to contribute, as they traditionally have, to the family sustenance.
The Family in America is a publication of The Rockford Institute Center on the Family in America: Director; Bryce J. Christensen. The views expressed in The Family in America are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Rockford Institute, Allan C. Carlson, president, or of its directors. Nothing inThe Family in America should be construed as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress. Board of Advisors for The Center on the Family in America Philip Abbott, Wayne State University; William Donohue, LaRoche College; Jack Douglas, University of California-San Diego; Jacqueline Kasun, Humboldt State University; Maurice MacDonald, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Robert Nisbet, Columbia University; J. Craig Peery, Brigham Young University. SUBSCRIPTION DEPARTMENT: P.O. Box 416, Mount Morris, IL 61054. Copyright(c) 1990 by The Rockford Institute. All rights reserved.
Copyright 1999 Nancy Pearcey.
File Date: 11.10.99