Ideal Family Essay, Research Paper
The ideal American family was transformed in the 19th century in large part due to the great changes taking place in the American society. Many family groups fit this changing mold while some did not. In this essay I will show how this concept of the ideal American family changed. I will also try to explain which groups of Americans followed this concept and why.
The end of the 18th century was a turbulent time in American history. The country had just won its independence from Great Britain and was attempting to find an identity for itself. Up to this point families in America were similar to British families. The father was the head of the household, but lived in harmony with his wife. The children were seen as part of the family’s labor force, helping to produce food and supplies for the family. The church ruled the family as much as colonial law in the late 18th. A change in the general economy paved the way for the emergence of a new type of family.
The market economy arose in the 1800’s in America. Goods were no longer being produced solely for family consumption. The families of this period were producing goods in excess to sell at markets. Goods able to be purchased at a market as well as the slave trade in the south helped to lessen the amount of household production for the average American family. With a market economy now in place in America, the door was open for the factory system and industrialization. This factory system created two main types of families in America: Middle Class and Working Class.
Middle class families were better off economically than their working class counterparts. In these families men worked in jobs considered to be middle class white-collar occupations. Women were therefore staying home and surviving on the man’s salary. With these middle class women staying home along with the smaller amounts of household production, a new type of labor arises. Women in this early 19th century time period become more and more involved in child rearing. The household work for these middle class women is task-oriented and unwaged. This makes them more and more dependent on their husband’s salary and more responsible for the children who were also out of the labor force.
Working class families were different in some ways from middle class families. Often in a marriage, the man’s wages were not enough to support a family so the woman would have to work outside of the home as well. Many women in working class families worked in factories. Working class families also tended to have more children than middle class families because their labor was often needed to supplement that of their parents. These traits applied mostly to Protestant Caucasians of British descent, but some immigrants were also affected by these economic changes.
The changes that shaped this domestic family were not only economic ones. Ideological transformations always accompany drastic economic changes. One such ideological change was the emergence of the Republican Mother. While women were discriminated against in politics as well as other forms of self-expression, they were still needed by the state. Because of the influence that women had in their families especially in the raising of the children the state had to convince women to be virtuous and to bring up good intelligent voters. This ideal was most likely applied only to middle class women as they were more virtuous and did not work outside of the home. Unlike the women of the colonial period, these women were responsible for their children and were blamed when the children were bad.
The idea that the children were born as blank slates was also a product of the new ideology of the 19th century. Religious ideals changed in the early part of the century through Enlightenment. Children were, for the first time, being seen as innocent. In colonial time it was seen as the father’s fault if the children were bad because their behavior was a result of a lack of punishment or discipline. Now with the moral mother in control of the child’s development as well as the rising Enlightenment belief that children were born as blank slates, women were held completely responsible for their child’s actions.
One other rising ideology was the way in which science was used to validate ongoing discrimination against certain groups. These sciences, usually called race sciences were used against sexes as well. Women were determined to be physically inferior to men. Women were classified as being more nurturing than men were and therefore more suited to remain in the home and raise good Republicans. Men were “discovered” to be more aggressive and speculating and therefore were perfectly suited to be in a work force that demanded a competitive spirit.
Not all Americans accepted these new ideals. They affected most Americans, but not all chose to live by these ideals. White middle class mainly Protestant families adopted the ideals more easily than other immigrant and minority groups. To these new Ideal American families, their type of family life was American by nature. The fact that some immigrant groups would not live by the same ideals was seen as being un-American.
Many Protestants had a sense of cultural superiority over other groups, as their consensus had not yet been challenged. The level of immigration was low for much of the first half of the 19th century so there was no one to oppose these ideals, which the Protestants lived by. Those immigrants that did come over were judged. Those who were deemed worthy were quickly assimilated. Any immigrants who were not assimilated were denigrated.
Between 1840 and 1880 many Irish immigrated to the United States. They were white so they were not immediately seen as inferior. However, the Irish did not choose to assimilate as far as the ideal American family wanted. They were mostly Catholic and readily identified with industrialization. Because of their working class background many of the immigrating Irish fell on hard times because of low wages and lack of work. It became impossible for them to meet the ideal family’s demands. Christine Stansell writes about the way that poor urban families were viewed in the mid-nineteenth century. She explains that some of the reformers of the day assumed that there was something inherently wrong, some “cursed vice” that must be affecting the poor immigrants. Often a simple rejection of Protestant values was seen as an indication of inferiority. “Female self-support,” says Stansell, “was seen as indigence.”
The Irish were eventually accommodated by society. Protestants tried through schooling to convert the Irish who instead opened their own parochial schools to teach Catholicism. The Irish also continued to flout Protestant ideals by not observing their Sabatarian laws and continuing their use of alcohol. Free blacks moving towards the north ultimately took much of the opposition away from the Irish.
The Irish were an oppressed group in their homeland and came to America in large part due to a powerful famine. They no doubt were seeking better lives in America. They did not however want to trade their rich culture and lifestyle for another more ideally American one. I feel that their very rejection of the efforts of Protestants to Americanize them shows how they felt about being different. They wholeheartedly embraced their culture the same way many of the New Immigrants of the twentieth century are allowed to do.
Although the Irish were oppressed in this country I feel that they were proud to be Irish. Possibly more so in relation to the surrounding social order. The two cultures, Irish and Protestant, held such different ideals that I believe that the Irish were as proud to be who they were as the Protestants were sure of the virtue of their own ways.
The idea of an ideal American family seems ridiculous today. Two hundred years ago many Americans may not have thought twice about the idea that there was a correct form that a family should follow. In the 19th century our country was young and was one of a few to have to come up with its own national identity in such a short period of time. In hindsight and with a bit of anachronism one could say that America dealt with its immigrant population with a great deal of hypocrisy. Instead of being a haven for immigrants America was almost a factory, attempting to take in different people and create a melting pot in which everything becomes alike. Every ingredient eventually loses its uniqueness.
christine stansell “women children and the uses of the streets” Femenists studies 8 (sep.82)