- 20th Century US-American History
- 20th Century German History: National Socialism, Holocaust, History of both World Wars
- Cultural and Social History
- Gender Studies
- History of Science
Creating the ‘Hegemonic Family’: Family Values, Gender Norms, and the Expert in the 20th Century United States
During the entire 20th century the white middle class nuclear family remained the key concept of American family life, the family itself being perceived as a “cornerstone of society” (Lyndon B. Johnson). Nevertheless, many families and individuals did not want or could not afford to live up to this ideal, which obviously was socially and ethnically exclusive. But the picture of the happy, suburban family consisting of two parents and their kids has dominated public discourse and the media – although the numbers of single parent households, patchwork families and childless couples have been constantly rising. The ‘hegemonic family’ was reproduced in countless commercial and iconic TV series and films, inspired presidential policies as well as court decisions and forced people throughout the nation to compare their individual lifestyle with this ideal.
At the same time, the ideal of the white middle class nuclear family did not prevail unchallenged but became a site of cultural struggle. While the women’s movement fought for women’s equal rights and reproductive control, the student protests and the civil rights movement challenged the moral repressiveness of the middle class nuclear family model and its racial exclusiveness. Although these social movements inspired important value transformations in the realm of race relations, women’s rights, sexuality, culture, and intergenerational relations, they apparently did not fundamentally alter the moral fabric of the nation, as demonstrated by the passionate abortion debates and ‘traditional family values’-rhetoric of the 1980s.
In these processes of value transformation and re-evaluations of family concepts, the family in itself became contested terrain. Especially since mid-Century, experts (social scientists, psychologists, and doctors) started to play an increasingly important role in public debates on the state of the American family. By issuing family handbooks and marriage manuals, by discussing the influence of women’s work on their reproductive capacities and by providing child rearing advice they reflected upon and contributed to normative changes of family norms and gender relations and the respective backlashes. Whereas most experts addressed the paradigmatic white middle class family, others directed their attention to minority families. As a result, single black mothers as well as Mexican American families and other immigrant or minority groups adhering to different family models became subjects of re-education policies and welfare cutbacks intended to teach them ‘proper family life’.
My study analyzes expert advice and public debates around marriage, women’s work and reproduction in the 20th century. By this, it seeks to trace transformations as well as reconstructions of gender roles and family concepts during a period which is otherwise characterized by enormous social, economic and cultural change and, finally, it asks for the crucial link between dominant family values and the notions of state and individual in a modern society.