by Carla L. Peterson

About Carla L. Peterson

Carla L. Peterson is Professor Emerita in the Department of English at the University of Maryland. She is the author of Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City.


“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).