“Family” is a widely invoked word. Friends and colleagues talk about family. It is a central topic in journalism, biography, autobiography, fiction, television sitcoms, theater, and film. It is a significant point of reference in public policy, whether in debates over welfare, AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act), immigration laws, or, more generally, “family values.” The word has a long history in US culture. In 1869, Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe began their book The American Woman’s Home by posing the question, “What, then, is the end designed by the family state?” For them, the answer was self-evident: the family state consists of a “stronger and wiser” father who “undergoes toil and self-denial to provide a home,” a mother who becomes a “self-sacrificing laborer to train its inmates,” and the inmates themselves, children (18). Christian values ensure its welfare. This image of the family has persisted throughout US history, reaching its apogee in the 1950s, the “golden age of the family” (Coontz 1992).

The Beechers’ definition of family suggests additional clusters of keywords. One is “blood,” “kinship,” and “lineage.” Family members are biologically related through blood (genetic markers), creating kinship ties and linking progenitors to descendants across generations to establish lineage. Another cluster includes “home” and “domestic,” as the title of the Beechers’ book suggests. The text itself pointedly distinguishes between “out-door,” where the father labors, and the “domestic home”—a physical and emotionally charged space—realized by his labor. Finally, “family” invites consideration of words such as “marriage,” “wife,” “husband,” “patriarchy,” and “property.” The man of the family acquires and controls property, while his wife ensures the orderly transmission of both estate and blood by producing legitimate heirs.

Raymond Williams ([1976] 1983, 131–34) noted in his keyword essay on “family” that both the reality and the image of this nuclear, bourgeois family were nineteenth-century “inventions” and that the term has a richly diverse prehistory. “Family” derives from the Latin famulus, meaning “servant,” and familia, meaning “household.” Hence the early English meaning of “family” was that of the “household, either in the sense of a group of servants or a group of blood-relations and servants living together in one house” (108). By extension, “familiar” connoted feelings of friendship and intimacy born of “the experience of people living together in a household, in close relations with each other and well used to each other’s ways” (109). In subsequent rendering, “family” came to signify house, a kin group descended from a common ancestor. By the nineteenth century, family had acquired two distinct referents, the nuclear family and the extended family.

As inventions, definitions of family serve ideological purposes and often contradict historical reality. They are necessarily partial and incomplete. In line with Williams but contrary to the Beechers, family is not a “state” but a malleable process; its connotations range from a delimited social practice involving specific persons and spaces to broader notions of feeling and experience and finally to metaphor. For instance, the term has routinely been extended to demarcate national boundaries. Beginning in the nineteenth century, writers often cast the nation in familial, domestic terms as an expansion of the bourgeois home that stands in opposition to the foreign (A. Kaplan 1998). In all of these instances, family operates as a system of both inclusion and exclusion. Family members are kin, belong to the same lineage, share the same blood, but they reserve the right to exclude strangers not related by blood, not descended from the same ancestor, not living under the same roof, not belonging to the same class or race. These processes of inclusion and exclusion have frequently been rearticulated as a tension between “norm” and “deviance.” Family, it turns out, is not a private but very much a public affair.

In the 1970s and 1980s, feminist historians, anthropologists, and literary critics embarked on the critical process of questioning traditional norms by exposing the bourgeois family as a nineteenth-century invention (Coontz 1988; M. Rosaldo 1984; Rossi 1973; M. Ryan 1975; Rubin 1984; Tompkins 1985). Working on topics ranging from gender and slavery to sentimentality and nationhood, they mined the archives—notably John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government ([1690] 1988), John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women ([1869] 1976), and Friedrich Engels’s Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State ([1884] 1972)—to trace the evolution of the family from the North American colonial period onward. In the earlier periods, domestic home and workplace formed a single economic unit located in the household; whether working on farms or in trades, all of a family’s members—father, mother, and children—contributed to its sustenance. By the early nineteenth century, work became increasingly separated from household as fathers engaged in “out-door” labor, and the domestic work of mothers became privatized. This division of labor gave rise to the ideology of separate spheres.

Further critiques of the public/private-sphere dichotomy naturalized by bourgeois notions of the family drew from a diverse group of theorists who analyzed the family from different, if overlapping, perspectives. From a feminist perspective, the family has been viewed as a patriarchal system of sexual and property relations supporting state interests in which the father alone is entitled to property, which includes his wife and children; in contrast, as feme covert, the wife is herself property and denied power of ownership. From a more class-based perspective, the family has been seen as a social structure whose “happiness” (in the Beechers’ words) depends on the labor of servants; in direct contradiction to Williams’s familia, however, these servants are prohibited from establishing “relations of private intimacy” with their employers’ families (Beecher and Stowe 1869, 326).

The nineteenth-century invention of the bourgeois family has obscured the history of other familial formations. Who, other than the bourgeoisie, have created families, and how have these been structured? “Family,” here and elsewhere, often functions as a code word intended to stigmatize the deviant, those who are placed beyond the norm by virtue of their race, sexuality, class, or other social identities. Yet further analysis of alternative family structures complicates this opposition between norm and deviance, challenging conventional systems of classification and evaluation.

Consider the history of the African American family. Defining slaves as property, US law denied them the right to create families, rejecting both the legality of slave marriage and the legitimacy of its children. Bent on economic profit, slaveholders refused to acknowledge that slaves could experience familiarity or feelings of intimacy, thereby justifying the separation of slave families. To the extent that US blacks in and out of slavery were able to form families, these were extended kin families, adapted from African culture (Sudarkasa 1988). In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl ([1861] 2001), Harriet Jacobs described her childhood family as composed of a brother, an uncle, and a grandmother. They both follow and counter the bourgeois family’s prescribed gender roles. Although male, Harriet’s uncle is a nurturer. Although female, her grandmother is the family’s economic provider yet simultaneously upholds the cult of true womanhood. If her adherence to true womanhood is normative, her application of it to slave women is deviant. If her role as primary provider challenges the gendered division of labor, her desire to use her earnings to purchase enslaved family members underscores her commitment to affective ties.

The post–Civil War era established the legality of African American marriage and family, which thereby affirmed US blacks’ right to establish affective bonds just as it granted them the ability to acquire and transmit property. Many African American writers of the period took as their subject the untangling of what Jacobs had called the “tangled skeins” of slave genealogies by reconstructing family lineages. Here, too, writers often followed a normative impulse, reconstituting the family as bourgeois and patriarchal and emphasizing lineage and inheritance. Yet once again this family structure may be seen as deviant in its application to African Americans. In diminishing differences between whites and blacks, black families proved a powerful threat to the norms of white supremacy, premised on the assumption that families were normally white.

This threat has echoed through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Even progressive public policymakers have not been able to discard binaristic notions in relation to the black family. In Family Limitation (1914), social reformer Margaret Sanger promoted birth control as a means of relieving poor women burdened with children. But she came to envision it as a tool of eugenics meant to ensure that the “unfit”—poor immigrants and African Americans—would not reproduce. Fifty years later, ignoring both past and present social history, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1965) issued a report that reduced the African American family to one single structure—the female-headed household—and classified it, in an uncanny echo of Jacobs’s language, as a “tangle of pathology” (29–45).

The word “household” returns us to Williams’s concept of familia. Scholars have provided multiple examples of household formations that both adhere to and counter his formulation of the familiar even as early as the nineteenth century. In the antebellum South, defenders of the slave system imagined the plantation as a family in which the slave master, as God’s steward on earth, figured as the benevolent patriarch of those whom he oppressed. In the North, managers of the Lowell mills cast their workplace as a family designed to protect working girls. Yet this family pointedly excluded those who were racially different, and its patriarchal structure left its daughters without protection. In cities, boarding houses assembled individuals not related by blood who bonded to form households resistant to the pressures of urban life. The establishment of settlement houses by middle-class white women—for example, Jane Addams’s Chicago Hull House—resulted in new household formations: while providing shelter to disparate members of the urban poor, they also enabled women reformers to eschew traditional family life and to create alternative family structures for themselves.

The economic prosperity of the post–World War II era reinforced the image of the bourgeois family as norm, enshrining it in television shows such as Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best. At the same time, this period witnessed the emergence of family studies that emphasize both historical continuities and new developments in family formations indifferent to traditional concepts of blood, nuclear structures, and lineage (Stacey 1990; Coontz 1992, 1998). They underscore the degree to which economic constraints impact family life, forcing mothers to work outside the home or nonkin individuals to regroup in boarding houses or communal households. Yet they also highlight how such formations are often rooted in familiarity, in voluntary association and affective ties. Single mothers rely on kin and nonkin community members to help raise their children. Parents divorce and remarry, forming blended families in which stepchildren live under the same roof. Married couples, gay partners, and single men and women create families by means of adoption, artificial insemination, or surrogate mothering. The skeins of genealogy retangle: it is possible to be both mother and aunt, half sibling and cousin. Family trees double: one tree may trace a child’s genetic history, while the other records their affective ties.

In today’s popular imagination, family is still a hotly debated topic. Many people in the United States welcome what sociologist Judith Stacey (1990) has called the postmodern family; Modern Family is their television show of choice. Others, however, decry these changes and promote restrictive legislation such as DOMA. These debates play themselves out on the national level as well as in arguments over who are the legitimate mothers, fathers, and children of the nation. On the one hand, anti-immigrationists support laws that tear apart the families of undocumented immigrants and penalize their children born on US soil; birthers insist that President Obama was not born in the United States and hence cannot be the father of the country. On the other hand, many continue to fight for a more inclusive nation. As Williams suggested, the history of the family is still one of radical change and contestation.


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