Marriage and Family

views updated May 23 2018


changing family structure
bourgeois domesticity and its appeal
working-class and peasant families
the welfare state and family life
european families in a global context

European social theorists of the nineteenth century were keenly interested in the impact of modern industrial society and changing forms of government on the family, which they all regarded as a key institution of social life. Conservatives like Frédéric Le Play (1806–1882) of France (author of many books including La réforme sociale en France, published in 1864) developed pioneering new techniques of social science research to study household and family life, even though their goals were to preserve tradition. They sought to call attention to the forces of modern society that threatened the type of family they idealized. Le Play, for example, hoped to strengthen the three-generational peasant "stem family system," in which the family farm was passed down to one son who lived together with his parents, along with his own wife and children. Le Play worried that the tendency of law and practice in France since the Revolution toward favoring an egalitarian division of inheritance among all children undermined both parental authority and the viability of family farms based on this stem family type inheritance.

However, concerns and theories about changing family life did not just come from conservative thinkers. Liberal and socialist reformers also criticized the conditions of family life in rapidly growing urban centers. Liberals tried to reconcile their faith in human progress through market capitalism with their anxieties about "the social question"—poverty, unrest, and moral decay among the families populating new industrial cities. Their concerns would eventually lead to private and state initiatives in the new arena of social reform.

Socialists formulated a distinctive analysis of the problem of the family under industrial capitalism. Perhaps the most famous among them, the German socialist Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), spent time as a young man in the English industrial city of Manchester and used his observations there among other sources to develop his theory on the historical evolution of the family presented in his pathbreaking book The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, which was first published in 1884. Engels drew on the changes in family life that he observed—he noted for example that in some homes in Manchester's slums men could not find paid labor and women could, thus leading to a reversal of usual roles of gender dependency—to make the point that family, gender, and generational relations were rooted in economic conditions, and were therefore human, not natural, institutions. Although Engels was very critical of what he saw around him, his historical argument looked toward a possible socialist future where the ties that bound men and women, parents and children, would not be built around inequalities and dependency.

From a quite different direction, the modern family was also scrutinized by critics who imagined still other possible models of gender and even sexuality. "First-wave" feminists challenged aspects of family law and practice, the gender division of labor, and female political subservience all across Europe in the decades between 1880 and World War I. And sexologists such as Havelock Ellis (1859–1939) in England and Max Hirschfeld in Germany brought the subject of homosexuality into public discussion for the first time, even as openly gay cultures were appearing in some of Europe's metropolitan centers by around 1900.

All of these observations, debates, and theoretical claims were enmeshed in political controversies about the family that that these theorists confronted in their own times. Since these ideas fed into emerging disciplines such as sociology, psychology, and social work, subsequent social scientific theories of the family and also state policies have been informed by the historical conditions of families in industrializing Europe.

Similarly, theoretical and political concerns about the present, past, and future of the family motivated the outpouring of research and scholarship about the history of marriage and the family in modern Europe that began with "new social history" and feminist history in the 1960s. This research has emphasized several themes including: changing family strategies and gender relations in the face of massive social and economic transformations; the impact on family life of demographic transformation (especially lowered mortality and fertility and vastly increased rates of migration); the emergence of the modern nuclear family and the "private sphere" of domestic life and its relationship to class formation; and the impact of law, political conflict, and the state on marriage, reproduction, and the socialization of children. Research in all of these realms points to crucial connections between family history and other domains of historical transformation.

changing family structure

Before exploring some of these dimensions of modern European family history, it is useful to place European family patterns in a wider frame. In certain respects, the European families were distinctive in the early modern period when compared to those of other world regions. One of the striking peculiarities of central and western European family history that had developed before the seventeenth century was that men and women married relatively late, and a substantial minority never married. This pattern was connected historically with norms that discouraged marriage before the couple could establish the basis for a solid household economy—either plots of land or an artisanal shop. It was the responsibility of the family and the community to oversee courtship, betrothal, and marriage to assure that these conditions were met. Late marriage was also rooted in the common though by no means universal practice of neo-locality—that is, the expectation that a bride and groom would set up their own household at or soon after marriage. This expectation was far more common in northern and western Europe than in other regions of Europe and throughout the rest of the world.

Moreover, in connection with this marriage pattern, European young people of both sexes experienced a relatively long hiatus between puberty and marriage. Unmarried young adults played a distinctive role in economic life (as well as social, cultural, and political life) through such institutions as guilds, rural youth groups, domestic service, and universities. Young men and women were available for employment outside the familial household to a degree uncommon elsewhere. In part as a result of these patterns, Europeans, especially the young, were frequently on the move. Initially, they typically spent part of their youth working on nearby farms or in towns of their region, but industrialization and the growth of enormous new industrial cities drew them further from home. In addition, the huge upsurge in population growth that began at the end of the eighteenth century, along with the development of new technologies of transportation and communications, helped to turn temporary and regional migration streams into massive overseas emigration by the second half of the nineteenth century, as hundreds of thousands of Europeans went abroad, especially to the Americas, in search of new opportunities. All of these changes in the ways in which young people prepared for and entered the workforce, and in migration patterns, transformed family life and intergenerational relations.

The demands of modern industrial society not only changed prior patterns of setting up young people for marriage and economic life, they also encouraged different types of personalities, and hence different methods of socialization. Theorists and historians since the nineteenth century have discussed this phenomenon of the creation of the modern individual. Pavla Miller, in her book Transformations of Patriarchy in the West, 1500–1900, pulls together diverse strands of theoretical argument and historical evidence. She suggests that the changes associated with the development of capitalism and the modern state were built on and reinforced accompanying changes in family life, socialization, and gender relations. According to Miller, modern forms of political and economic organization were premised on the emergence of individuals who did not need to be coerced into working or behaving in a certain way, but rather were capable of self-discipline or, as she terms it, "self-mastery." Self-mastery entailed emotional and physical self-control, and the ability to learn and abide by normative rules of social behavior and conduct.

Accomplishing self-mastery entailed new and more intensive forms of child socialization and discipline both at home and in institutions like the churches and schools. It rested on a new gender division of labor and new intergenerational relations—indeed, on a new human psychology. The modern European family of the nineteenth century was more capable of producing such individuals than earlier family forms had been. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, initially under the tutelage and example of the urban middle classes, new notions of family life and childrearing were established throughout much of Europe; this project of creating a new type of family life, while never unchallenged, was increasingly reflected in and disseminated through the various economic, political, and social institutions over which urban elites held sway—for example, through lay and religious philanthropic ventures, private and state schools, factories, and domestic service—as well as in literature, and the arts, and consumer culture.

bourgeois domesticity and its appeal

What was this new family ideal? The reinvention of family life, within the private bourgeois home as its spatial and emotional center, was among the most innovative accomplishments of nineteenth-century Europe. The ideal modern family as portrayed in prescriptive literature, graphic images, and literature was based on close and loving relations between husband and wife and parents and children; it was lived out in the serene and thoughtfully planned and regulated spaces of the home, protected from the harsh realities of the outside world; it was based on new definitions of fathering, and especially mothering, and on a revised and highly polarized notion of gender differentiation.

From a spatial perspective, the modern European family took for granted the establishment of a morally superior and distinct "private" domestic realm in which a new style of family life and family relations could flourish. Family life in the domestic realm complemented the new institutions of public life (coffeehouses, public parks and gardens, stock markets, polling places) and was equally crucial for the establishment of bourgeois political and cultural predominance beginning in the late eighteenth century. Public space was, in theory at least, a realm of open and democratic access, even if in actuality it was dominated by men of property and education. In contrast with the public spaces of economic and political life, the domestic realm was apolitical and anticompetitive, and ideally segregated from the workplace, whereas in earlier eras households had been taken for granted as the sites of most economic activity (which was still true in peasant and artisanal households even in the nineteenth century). Separating private from public conveniently provided a solution to the moral neutrality of the capitalist marketplace. According to those who exalted its virtues, the private realm of the idealized modern family was a world dominated by women and children rather than by men, by emotion rather than by reason, by love rather than by economic considerations. Indeed many literary, artistic, and prescriptive representations of nineteenth-century family life self-consciously construct the domestic realm so as to emphasize its spatial and moral separation from the world of business and politics.

To some extent, these new ideals could take hold because of the reorganization of space that resulted from industrialization. Industrial capitalism moved people from rural areas into towns and cities, and reclassified urban space. It increased the functional specialization of space (industrial zones, residential zones, and commercial zones) and segregated residential areas to an extent previously unknown. New urban patterns also brought more highly class-segregated residential neighborhoods—best exemplified by the working-class tenement slum on the one hand and the upper-class residential square or suburb on the other. Even though most urbanites continued to live in city centers, and most continued to rent their homes, the tone of modern bourgeois domesticity was set in the newly constructed posh neighborhoods around residential urban squares and in the suburbs, and then imitated to one degree or another elsewhere.

Where space was available, as in new suburbs, single-family or semidetached homes and gardens served as both status symbol and aesthetic frame around the domestic space within. The desire for privacy "marked property boundaries with gates, drives, hedges and walls around house and garden. Humphrey Repton strikingly demonstrated the effect in his paper model of the space in front of his Essex 'cottage' where the view of shops, road and passing public was cut off by fencing, shrubbery and trees, a strong contrast to the communal squares and terraces of Georgian style" (Davidoff and Hall, pp. 361–362). If this new topography of domesticity was first elaborated in England, other bourgeoisies followed suit, with national variations, later in the nineteenth century.

Still, despite the domestic ideology, the boundaries that separated private from public space were far more porous than the rhetoric of domesticity and privacy suggested. Since the creation of a new style of domestic life accompanied middle-class assertions of political superiority, the virtues of bourgeois domestic life had to be apparent out side the walls of the home. One history of the Swedish middle class argues explicitly that, ironically, "for the bourgeoisie, the home was both a showcase for the world and a shelter against it" (Frykman and Löfgren, pp. 127–131).

Moreover, the two realms of public and private could not really be disconnected from one another. Housewives had to be clever consumers, hence they remained in touch with the rules and prices of traditional markets and shops and new commercial outlets such as department stores. The proper management of a middle-class household required, at least until the end of the nineteenth century, the hiring and supervision of household servants. Thus the "angel of the house"—the wife and mother—was required to be an employer and manager of paid labor. Her economic activities sustained family life but undercut the claim that the home could be a realm of love rather than of market relations. In addition, family capital such as dowries and inheritances fed business ventures, and domestic desires, rooted in the search for the perfect family life, served to motivate and justify businessmen's drive to earn profits and accumulate wealth.

In addition to reorganizing domestic space, modern family life also entailed a reorganization of gender relations and notions about sexuality. Accompanying the idealized separation of space into public and private realms was the gender division of labor that charged women with sustaining private virtue and with the care of the home and children, and men with the public realm of work and politics. The establishment of the norm of companionate marriage among the English upper classes already in the early modern era has been documented; the norms were fully established by the beginning of the nineteenth century. Close emotional ties between husband and wife supposedly cemented their complementary (separate but equally important) realms; the emphasis on companionate marriages contrasted with older understandings according to which men were put in control over their unruly wives, and parental preferences and family strategies weighed heavily in the choice of marriage partners. In some regions, such as Baden, Germany, in the early nineteenth century the assertion of the ideal of a strong heterosexual bond between husband and wife in marriage was closely tied to the development of liberal parliamentary politics, new forms of urban associational life, and criticism of conservative Catholic clerical preference for celibacy.

But underlying pressures of economic interest that also drove family life could never be fully denied. Authors of domestic novels, a literary genre that emerged in the late eighteenth century along with the new family norms (which they also played a large role in disseminating), wrote stories whose plots pivoted on both fulcrums—love and fortune. Their heroines, whose efforts to negotiate successful matches have comprised the novel's most common plot line since its birth as a genre, were quite aware of the workings of property behind the drama of falling in love, the inseparability of economic interest from ties of affection, the intricate rituals and taboos evolved for working out this balance in the courtship rituals of the propertied classes.

The emphasis on love versus interest in marital matches varied regionally and according to class. Among the bourgeoisies of northern France, for example, economic negotiations drove marriage strategies until the end of the nineteenth century—arranged marriages were still quite common, and love matches were suspect, even at the century's

end. The bourgeois women seem to have seen no contradiction between the rhetoric of a domestic realm driven by love and the practical requirements of arranging respectable marriages. Similarly, the Athenian middle classes of the mid-nineteenth century considered love a "luxury." However, in something of a contrast, more discretion was beginning to be allowed to children in these milieus in the selection of their spouses. It should be noted, however, that even where children exercised such options, parents still exerted sufficient indirect control through their careful engineering of the circles in which their offspring circulated.

After marriage, middle-class family life centered on a reconfigured and intensified parent-child, in particular mother-child, relationship. Beginning with Enlightenment-era ideals of pedagogy and parenting, modern understandings of psychology and child development emphasized that children needed to be under the surveillance of trustworthy adults; their impressionable minds needed to be shaped by exposure to tasks commensurate with their developmental capacities. The practices and discourses of parent-child relations in Germany in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries offer clear evidence of the marginalization of fathers and the increasing prominence of mothers. The debate about mothering, "was shaped by changing ideas of the state, of citizenship, and of public-private boundaries. The most striking change, centrally illustrated by the works of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746–1827), was the shift from father-centered to mother-centered theories of child-rearing" (Allen, p. 17). Pestalozzi was a Swiss theorist of pedagogy who popularized his theories in novels like Leonardand Gertrude published in 1781, in which the loving and devoted mother was exalted as both the center of domestic virtue and morality, and also as the guarantor of society's future through her raising of model children. If such ideas appeared earliest in England, the Netherlands, Germany, and France, and were slower to permeate in regions of Europe where urban middle-class readerships were weaker, new ideals of family life and child rearing nevertheless began to appear by the beginning of the nineteenth century, even, for example, in publications aimed toward the literate urban classes of eastern and southern Europe.

working-class and peasant families

The exaltation of domesticity and the celebration of the family that was so much a hallmark of European middle-class life in the nineteenth century was thus a product of several factors: the idealized separation of space into public and private realms governed by different rules and associated with different genders; technological change that enlarged workplaces and separated them from home; and political changes that brought middle-class men into political predominance in a new way even as they continued to exclude poorer men, and virtually all women, from participation in public life. Ironically, these new conditions also made it harder than ever for lower-class families to maintain a viable family life at all, let alone to follow the norms and prescriptions for ideal family life that were circulating around them.

In the realm of lower-class marriage, historians' assessments of the role of interest and emotion vary considerably. It has been argued that the practice of marrying for love was in fact the invention of the lower classes, not the upper classes, precisely because the poor were not subject to the same constraints on choice of partner imposed on the wealthy by considerations of property. Many middle-class observers shared this assessment; it was a matter of some concern to them that propertylessness, in their view, bred carelessness with respect to marriage and family formation. Several key features of working-class family life struck nineteenth-century French moral economists as problematic. Their concerns "centered on problems of early marriage and lack of sexual self-control, the weakness of both financial and affective bonds between parents and children, and the apparent inability of workers to create nuclear households that were financially self-sufficient" (Lynch, p. 55).

Indeed, many of the innovative practices of middle-class family life bore little relation to habits in lower-class milieus. In the first place, lower-class mothers engaged in a variety of economic activities that varied in intensity according to regions and occupation. It was rarely possible or even imaginable for lower-class women to devote themselves exclusively to child rearing and housework. Indeed, in many regions of Europe changes associated with proto-industry and the commercialization of agriculture brought intensification of women's work, the move of paid employment for women out of the home, and diminished time spent on childcare. Moreover, segregating children from the adult world of work, as modern models of childhood demanded, was inconsistent with the family economy of peasants and industrial workers in the nineteenth century. Children still worked alongside adults and were central to their economic activities; young children disappeared from the European labor force only toward the century's end, and in many regions of Europe, even later. Only with the triumph of the "male breadwinner" norm and increasing adult male real wage levels was it possible for families to imagine living without the supplemental wages of children or mothers. One-earner families became a possibility in most of Europe only during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and then only for the highest paid echelons of the working class.

Demographic conditions also made it extremely difficult to follow the prescriptions for a new style of family life in most of Europe. The new model—centered as it was on attention lavished on even very young children—made most sense when birth rates and infant and child death rates were low. With the exception of peasant and petit bourgeois France, where fertility had declined by the early nineteenth century, family size among the European popular classes remained high until the early twentieth century. High levels of infant and child mortality among the poor also persisted despite the overall mortality decline. In many regions including areas of Germany and northern Italy, demographic differentials between classes in fact widened as death rates declined, before they converged in the twentieth century.

Even where new family ideals were difficult to accomplish, however, evidence suggests that these ideals were known and could serve as a source of frustration and even anguish because they were so elusive. European working-class autobiographers who grew up in the nineteenth century called on normative ideals of childhood with which they were familiar even as they claimed that these ideals did not apply to their own experiences. They used common metaphors to describe what they had missed: the carefree "golden years" of childhood centered on the mother as "warming sunshine" or "bright spirit of the home." Adelheid Popp, who was born in 1869 into a family of village weavers in Austria, began her memoirs with a litany of what her childhood had lacked:

No bright moment, no sunbeam, no hint of a comfortable home where motherly love and care could shape my childhood was ever known to me. … When I'd rush to work at six o'clock in the morning, other children of my age were still sleeping. And when I hurried home at eight o'clock at night, then the others were going to bed, fed and cared for. While I sat bent over my work, lining up stitch after stitch, they played, went walking or sat in school.

the welfare state and family life

The flash points—points of contradiction between norms of proper family life and the real conditions faced by most families—were numerous. However, criticisms of imprudent marriages or deficient parenting among the poor could be turned around to criticize in turn the social and economic system that made the idealized family life impossible for the poor. It was these contradictions that led state authorities, social reformers, and socialist critics, all from different motives, to turn their attention to the conditions of modern family life. In so doing, they laid the groundwork for modern welfare state systems. Take living space, for example. Access to proper domestic space had become a politically charged issue in many regions of Europe by the late nineteenth century. The very structural transformations brought by industrial capitalism both encouraged the new domesticity and set up conditions in growing industrial cities that made it impossible for all but the very well off to find spaces suitable for family life. The internal migrations in Europe in the nineteenth century brought hundreds of thousands of migrants into crowded urban areas. Escape to the suburbs was hardly an option for most. In contrast with the relatively secluded domestic space of the propertied, protected from unwanted intrusion, the porosity of domestic space in urban working-class neighborhoods was apparent. Working-class men and boys, but also many women and girls, were (almost literally) at home in the streets. Moreover networks of kin, neighbors, and boarders figured prominently in working-class interior spaces and domestic strategies, and working-class mothers often helped their families to survive by doing "sweated" labor at home.

But the circulation of middle-class domestic models converted such contradictions into a possible focus of political mobilization or state intervention. The housing crisis that characterized many turn-of the-century European cities inspired the political imagination to search for alternatives that eventually fed, for example, into the working-class experimentation with municipal housing projects that appeared in cities throughout Europe by the early twentieth century. Whether in the form of arguments for municipal housing in Berlin or Lyon or home loans for working-class families in Stockholm, or public health measures to lower infant mortality in working-class slums in Bologna, or milk depots in workers' neighborhoods in Paris, reformist and socialist political organizations used the new norms of bourgeois family life and their inattainability as a political weapon in efforts to improve living conditions for poor families. Many of these redeployments of the models of middle-class domesticity by workers' movements involve tacit or even explicit endorsement of middle-class ideals. If such arguments proved very potent politically, they also, of course, suppressed the opportunity to offer a critique of or alternative to those ideals. That many workers' movements chose to demand rather than critique the comforts of home attests to the wide circulation not just of the images and artifacts of domesticity, but also of their powerful emotional appeal. By the same token, these new programs also gave opportunities to state authorities and social workers to intervene in the family life of the lower classes. Sometimes these interventions could provide welcome resources to family members. But they could also serve more sinister ends, as, for example, when harried working-class mothers were criticized for not living up to middle-class norms, and might even be threatened with loss of custody over their children for their "failings" as mothers.

european families in a global context

Europe's modern family, it cannot be forgotten, also evolved in a global context. On the one hand, there were new migration streams. Well-established patterns of life-cyclic migration, especially of young men and women, to nearby rural regions or cities, altered dramatically with the huge increase in over seas migration. Millions of Europeans migrated abroad in the nineteenth century, and this massive out-migration held equally massive implications for family life among the transplanted and those left behind. Secondly, the global competition and imperialist expansion of European states that heightened in the second half of the nineteenth century affected the family life of Europeans and of those people they colonized.

The impact of overseas migration varied tremendously by region, of course. In some areas of heavy out-migration such as southern and western Germany in the early to mid-nineteenth century and Italy and Ireland in the mid to late nineteenth century, migrant flows could carry away 20 percent or more of a region's population in a decade, largely concentrated among young adults. Although this massive outflow could devastate a region, there is also evidence pointing to the continuation of transnational family ties. Many migrants did return home, sometimes disillusioned, but sometimes with a small capital to start a farm or business. Even those who did not return often sent money home, and thus helped family in the home country to keep small farms going that might otherwise have been unviable. Patterns of chain migration that reunited separated family members in areas of settlement are also evidence of the persistence and strength of family ties despite long-distance migration. Nevertheless, it is ironic that the era of heightened emphasis on the emotional ties of family life was also the era of maximum migration around and out of Europe, and thus maximum stress on family ties for the huge numbers of migrants.

Imperialism brings out other dimensions of modern European family history. The economic and political histories of imperialism are relatively well known. But the ways in which family and gender relations were implicated in imperialist projects are just beginning to be recognized. Recent scholarship suggests the extent to which European empires of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries aimed to reconstruct family life along with political and economic life in the colonies. Moreover, the family history of European colonies demonstrates how, in the context of imperialism, global power systems, race relations, and family and gender history of both colonizers and colonized are bound together. For example, critical reading of the sources has debunked the once-prevalent myth that sexual liaisons between colonizing men and colonized women gave imperialism a "human side" that was disrupted with the arrival of European women in the colonies. Feminist histories of colonialism have pointed to the sexual regimes that were a component of imperial rule.

New histories of relationships between missionaries and colonial administrators and the peoples who lived in colonized areas also point to subtle interplays between strategies of rule and resistance, on the one hand, and family, gender, and generational relations, on the other. For example, varying responses to missionary activities in the Gikuyu region of Kenya in the early twentieth century could often be accounted for by people's varying positionalities in gender and generational hierarchies of the precolonial and early colonial family system.

The history of imperialism is just one of the more recent realms of modern European history in which attention to marriage and family is pushing us toward new understandings of the past. It has become clear that in order to analyze such major historical transformations as industrialization, the development of modern welfare state systems, or the imperialist world order, the historian's gaze cannot stop at the door of the cottage, townhouse, or hut, but has to take in domestic interiors as well.

See alsoChildhood and Children; Cities and Towns; Demography; Gender; Public Health; Sexuality.


Allen, Ann Taylor. Feminism and Motherhood in Germany, 1800–1914. New Brunswick, N.J, 1991.

Ariès, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. Translated from the French by Robert Baldick. New York, 1962.

Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780–1850. Chicago, 1987.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Translated from the French by Robert Hurley. New York, 1978–1986.

Frader, Laura M., and Sonya O. Rose, eds. Gender and Class in Modern Europe. Ithaca, N.Y., 1996.

Frykman, Jonas, and Orvar Löfgren. Culture Builders: A Historical Anthropology of Middle-Class Life. Translated by Alan Crozier. New Brunswick, N.J., 1987.

Gillis, John. Youth and History: Tradition and Change in European Age Relations, 1770 to the Present. New York, 1981.

Gray, Marion W. Productive Men, Reproductive Women: The Agrarian Household and the Emergence of Separate Spheres during the German Enlightenment. New York, 2000.

Hajnal, John. "European Marriage Patterns in Perspective." In Population in History: Essays in Historical Demography, edited by D. V. Glass and D. V. Eversly, 101–140. Chicago, 1965.

Heywood, Colin. Childhood in Nineteenth-Century France: Work, Health, and Education among the Classes Populaires. Cambridge, U.K., 1987.

Kertzer, David I., and Marzio Barbagli, eds. Family Life in the Long Nineteenth Century, 1789–1913. New Haven, Conn., 2002.

Lynch, Katherine. Family, Class, and Ideology in Early Industrial France: Social Policy and the Working-Class Family, 1825–1848. Madison, Wis., 1988.

Maynes, Mary Jo. Taking the Hard Road: Lifecourse and Class Identity in Nineteenth-Century French and German Workers' Autobiographies. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1995.

Maynes, Mary Jo, and Ann Waltner. "Family History as World History." In Women's History in Global Perspective, edited by Bonnie Smith. Champaign-Urbana, Ill., 2004.

Miller, Pavla. Transformations of Patriarchy in the West, 1500–1900. Bloomington, Ind., 1998.

Mitterauer, Michael, and Reinhard Sieder. The European Family: Patriarchy to Partnership from the Middle Ages to the Present. Translated by Karla Oosterveen and Manfred Hörzinger. Chicago, 1982.

Peterson, Derek. Creative Writing: Translation, Bookkeeping, and the Work of Imagination in Colonial Kenya. New York, 2004.

Ross, Ellen. Love and Toil: Motherhood in Outcast London, 1870–1918. Oxford, U.K., 1993.

Sabean, David Warren. Property, Production, and Family in Neckarhausen, 1700–1870. Cambridge, U.K., 1990.

Sant Cassia, Paul, with Constantina Bada. The Making of the Modern Greek Family: Marriage and Exchange in Nineteenth-Century Athens. Cambridge, U.K., 1992.

Seccombe, Wally. "Patriarchy Stabilized: The Construction of the Male Breadwinner Wage Norm in Nineteenth-Century Britain." Social History 2 (1992): 53–76.

Shorter, Edward. The Making of the Modern Family. New York, 1976.

Sinha, Mrinalini. Colonial Masculinity: The "Manly Englishman" and the "Effeminate Bengali" in the Late Nineteenth Century. New York, 1995.

Smith, Bonnie. Ladies of the Leisure Class: The Bourgeoises of Northern France in the Nineteenth Century. Princeton, N.J., 1981.

Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500–1800. New York, 1977.

Strobel, Margaret. European Women and the Second British Empire. Bloomington, Ind., 1991.

Tilly, Louise A., and Joan W. Scott. Women, Work, and Family. New York, 1987.

Wildenthal, Lora. German Women for Empire, 1884–1945. Durham, N.C., 2001.

Mary Jo Maynes

Marriage and Family Life

views updated May 11 2018


As elsewhere in Europe, marriage and family life in Russia have varied across time and by social group, reflecting the complex interplay of competing ideals, changing patterns of social and economic organization, differing forms of political organization and levels of state intrusiveness, and the effects of cataclysmic events. If in the long run the outcome of this interplay of forces has been a family structure and dynamic that conform essentially with those found in modern European societies, the development of marriage and the family in Russia nevertheless has followed a distinctive path. This development can be divided into three broad periods: the centuries preceding the formation of the Russian Empire during the early eighteenth century, the imperial period (16981917), and the period following the Bolshevik Revolution and establishment of the Soviet state in October 1917. While the pace of development and change varied significantly between different social groups during each of these periods, each period nonetheless was characterized by a distinctive combination of forces that shaped marital and family life and family structures. In Russia's successive empires, moreover, important differences also often existed between the many ethno-cultural and religious groups included in these empires. The discussion that follows therefore concerns principally the Slavic Christian population.

pre-imperial russia

Although only limited sources are available for the reconstruction of marital and family life in medieval Russia, especially for nonelite social groups, there appears to have been broad continuity in the structure and functioning of the family throughout the medieval and early modern periods. Family structures and interpersonal relations within marriage and the family were strongly shaped by the forms of social organization and patterns of economic activity evolved to secure survival in a harsh natural as well as political environment. Hence, constituting the primary unit of production and reproduction, and providing the main source of welfare, personal status, and identity, families in most instances were multigenerational and structured hierarchically, with authority and economic and familial roles distributed within the family on the basis of gender and seniority. While scholars disagree over whether already by 1600 the nuclear family had begun to displace the multi-generational family among the urban population, this development did not affect the patriarchal character or the social and economic functions of either marriage or the family. Reflecting and reinforcing these structures and functions, the marriage of children was arranged by senior family members, with the economic, social, and political interests of the family taking precedence over individual preference. Land and other significant assets, too, generally were considered to belong to the family as a whole, with males enjoying preferential treatment in inheritance. Marriage appears to have been universal among all social groups, with children marrying at a young age, and for married women, childbirth was frequent.

After the conversion of Grand Prince Vladimir of Kievan Rus to Christianity in 988, normative rules governing marriage and the family also were shaped and enforced by the Orthodox Church, although the effective influence of the Church spread slowly from urban to rural areas. Granted extensive jurisdiction over marital and family matters first by Kievan and then by Muscovite grand princes, the Church used its authority to establish marriage as a religious institution and to attempt to bring marital and family life into conformity with its doctrines and canons. For example, the Church soughtwith varying degrees of success to limit the formation of marriages through restrictions based on consanguinity and age, to restrict marital dissolution to the instances defined by canon law, to limit the possibility of remarriage, and to confine sexual activity to relations between spouses within marriage for the purpose of procreation. At the same time, through its teachings, canonical rules, and ecclesiastical activities, the Church reinforced the patriarchal order within marriage and the family, thereby providing a religious sanction for established social structures and practices. Hence the extent to which the Church transformed or merely reinforced existing ideals of and relationships within marriage and the family remains disputed.

Although patriarchal attitudes and structures and a gendered division of labor also prevailed within elite households, the role of family and lineage in determining relative status within and between elite groups, access to beneficial appointments and the material rewards that followed from them, and the prospects for forming advantageous marriage alliances between families imparted distinctive characteristics to elite family life, especially after the late fifteenth century. The practice among the Muscovite elite of secluding women in separate quarters (the terem ), for example, which reached its greatest intensity during the seventeenth century, appears to have been due largely to the desire to protect family honor and ensure the marriage utility of daughters in a context in which the elite was growing in size and complexity. Seclusion itself, however, considerably increased the politically important role of married women in arranging and maintaining family alliances. Similarly, the development of a system of service tenements in land to support the expansion especially of military servitors after the late fifteenth century led initially to a deterioration in the property and inheritance rights of elite women. Yet such women also often had principal responsibility for managing the estates and other affairs of husbands who frequently were away on military campaigns or carrying out other service assignments. Hence within the Muscovite elite, and quite likely among other social groups in pre-Petrine Russia as well, the normative ideal and legal rules supporting the patriarchal family often concealed a more complex reality. This ideal nonetheless provided a powerful metaphor that helped to legitimize and integrate the familial, social, and political orders.

imperial russia

The history of marriage and the family during the imperial period was marked both by a complex pattern of continuity and change and by sharp diversity between social groups, as the exposure of different groups to the forces of change varied significantly. Nonetheless, by the early twentieth century the long-term trend across the social spectrum was toward smaller families, the displacement of the multigenerational family by the nuclear family, a higher age at the time of first marriage for both men and women, declining birth rates, an increased incidence of marital dissolution, and, in urban areas, a decline in the frequency of marriage. Within the family, the structure of patriarchal authority was eroding and the ideal itself was under attack.

The groups that were exposed earliest and most intensively to the combination of forces lying behind these trends were the nobility, state officialdom, the clergy, and a newly emergent intelligentsia and largely urban bourgeoisie. During the eighteenth century, for example, the nobility represented the main target and then chief ally of the state in its efforts to inculcate European cultural forms and modes of behavior and to promote formal education and literacy. Among the effects of such efforts was a new public role for women and the dissemination of ideals of marriage, family, and the self that eventually came to challenge the patriarchal ideal. By helping to produce by the first half of the nineteenth century a more professionalized, predominantly landless, and largely urban civil officialdom, as well as a chiefly urban cultural intelligentsia and professional bourgeoisie, changes in the terms of state service and the expansion of secondary and higher education both provided a receptive audience for new ideals of marriage and the family and eroded dependency on the extended family. By expanding the occupational opportunities not only for men but also for women outside the home, the development of trade, industry, publishing, and the professions had similar effects. Most of these new employment opportunities were concentrated in Russia's rapidly growing cities, where material and physical as well as cultural conditions worked to alter the family's role, structures, and demographic characteristics. For this reason, the marital and demographic behavior and family structures of urban workers also exhibited early change.

At least until after the late 1850s, by contrast, marriage and family life among the peasantry, poorer urban groups, and the merchantry displayed greater continuity with the past. This continuity resulted in large part from the strength of custom and the continued economic, social, and welfare roles of the multigenerational, patriarchal family among these social groups and, at least among the peasantry, from the operation of communal institutions and the coincident interests of family patriarchs (who dominated village assemblies), noble landowners, and the state in preserving existing family structures. Facilitated by the abolition of serfdom in 1861, however, family structures and demographic behavior even among the peasantry began slowly to change, especially outside of the more heavily agricultural central black earth region. In particular, the increased frequency of household division occurring after the emancipation contributed to a noticeable reduction in family size and a decline in the incidence of the multigenerational family by the last third of the

century, although most families still passed through a cycle of growth and division that included a multigenerational stage. While marriage remained nearly universal, the age at first marriage also rose for both men and women, with the result that birth rates declined somewhat. The growth of income from local and regional wage labor, trade, and craft production and the rapid expansion of migratory labor contributed to all these trends, while also helping to weaken patriarchal structures of authority within the family, a process given further impetus by the exposure of peasants to urban culture through migratory labor, military service, and rising literacy. Although most peasant migrants to cities, especially males, retained ties with their native village and household, and consequently continued to be influenced by peasant culture, a significant number became permanent urban residents, adopting different family forms and cultural attitudes as a result. With the rapid growth of Russian cities and the transformation of the urban environment that took place after the late 1850s, family forms and demographic behavior among the poorer urban social groups and the merchantry also began to change in ways similar to other urban groups.

Normative ideals of marriage and the family likewise exhibited significant diversification and change during the imperial period, a process that accelerated after the late 1850s. If closer integration into European culture exposed Russians to a wider and shifting variety of ideals of marriage, the family, and sexual behavior, the development of a culture of literacy, journalism and a publishing industry, and an ethos of civic activism and professionalism based on faith in the rational use of specialized expertise broadened claims to the authority to define such ideals. These developments culminated in an intense public debate over reform of family lawand of the family and society through lawafter the late 1850s. Very broadly, emphasizing a companionate ideal of marriage, the need to balance individual rights with collective responsibilities and limited authority within marriage and the family, and the necessity of adapting state law and religious doctrines to changing social and historical conditions, advocates of reform favored the facilitation of marital dissolution, equality between spouses in marriage, greater rights for children born out of wedlock, the recasting of inheritance rights based on sexual equality and the nuclear family, and the decriminalization of various sexual practices as well as of abortion. Many of these principles in fact were embodied in draft civil and criminal codes prepared by government reform commissions between 1883 and 1906, neither of which was adopted, and proposals to expand the grounds for divorce made by a series of committees formed within the Orthodox Church between 1906 and 1916 proved similarly unsuccessful. Socialist activists adopted an even more radical position on the reconstitution of marriage and the family, in some cases advocating the socialization of the latter. Opponents of reform, by contrast, stressed the social utility, naturalness, and divine basis of strong patriarchal authority within marriage and the family, the congruence of this family structure with Russian cultural traditions, and the role of the family in upholding the autocratic social and political orders. Although significant reforms affecting illegitimate children, inheritance rights, and marital separation were enacted in 1902, 1912, and 1914, respectively, deep divisions within and between the state, the Orthodox Church, and society ensured that reform of marriage and the family remained a contentious issue until the very end of the autocracy, and beyond.

soviet russia

With respect to marriage and the family, the long-term effect of the Soviet attempt to create a modern socialist society was to accelerate trends already present in the early twentieth century. Hence, by the end of the Soviet period, among all social groups family size had declined sharply and the nuclear family had become nearly universal, the birth rate had dropped significantly, marriage no longer was universal, and the incidence of marital dissolution had risen substantially. But if by the 1980s the structure and demographic characteristics of the Russian family had come essentially to resemble those found in contemporary European societies, the process of development was shaped by the distinctive political and economic structures and policies of Soviet-style socialism.

Soviet policies with respect to marriage and the family were shaped initially by a combination of radical ideological beliefs and political considerations. Hence, in a series of decrees and other enactments promulgated between October 1917 and 1920, the new Soviet government introduced formal sexual equality in marriage, established divorce on demand, secularized marriage, drastically curtailed inheritance and recast inheritance rights on the basis of sexual equality and the nuclear family, and legalized abortion. The party-state leadership also proclaimed the long-term goal of the socialization of the family through the development of an extensive network of social services and communal dining. These measures in part reflected an ideological commitment to both the liberation of women and the creation of a socialist society. But they also were motivated by the political goals of attracting the support of women for the new regime and of undermining the sources of opposition to it believed to lie in patriarchal family structures and attitudes and in marriage as a religious institution. In practice, however, the policies added to the problems of family instability, homelessness, and child abandonment caused mainly by the harsh and disruptive effects of several years of war, revolution, civil war, and famine. For this reason, while welcomed by radical activists and some parts of the population, Soviet policies with respect to marriage and the family also provoked considerable opposition, especially among women and the peasantry, who for overlapping but also somewhat different reasons saw in these policies a threat to their security and self-identity during a period of severe dislocation. In important respects, Soviet propaganda and policies in fact reinforced the self-image that partly underlay the opposition of women to its policies by stressing the ideal and duties of motherhood. Yet the direction of Soviet policies remained consistent through the 1920s, albeit not without controversy and dissent even within the party, with these policies being embodied in the family codes of 1922 and 1926.

The severe social disruptions, strain on resources, and deterioration of already limited social services caused by the collectivization of agriculture, the rapid development of industry, the abolition of private trade, and the reconstruction of the economy between the late 1920s and the outbreak of war in 1941, however, led to a fundamental shift in Soviet policies with respect to marriage and the family. With its priorities now being economic growth and social stabilization, the Soviet state idealized the socialist family (which in essence closely resembled the family ideal of prerevolutionary liberal and feminist reformers), which was proclaimed to be part of the essential foundation of a socialist

society. A series of laws and new codes enacted between 1936 and 1944 therefore attempted both to strengthen marriage and the family and to encourage women to give birth more frequently: Divorce was severely restricted, children born out of wedlock were deprived of any rights with respect to their father, thus reestablishing illegitimacy of birth, abortion was outlawed, and a schedule of rewards for mothers who bore additional children was established. Although the goals of women's liberation and sexual equality remained official policy, they were redefined to accommodate a married woman's dual burden of employment outside the home and primary responsibility for domestic work. Economic necessity in fact compelled most women to enter the workforce, regardless of their marital status, with only the wives of the party-state elite being able to choose not to do so. Despite the changes in normative ideals and the law, however, the effects of Soviet social and economic policies in general and of the difficult material conditions resulting from them were a further reduction in average family size and decline in the birth rate and the disruption especially of peasant households, as family members were arrested, migrated to cities in massive numbers, or died as a result of persecution or famine. The huge losses sustained by the Soviet population during World War II gave further impetus to these trends and, by creating a significant imbalance between men and women in the marriage-age population, considerably reduced the rate of marriage and complicated the formation of families for several decades after the war.

The relaxation of political controls on the discussion of public policy by relevant specialists after the death of Josef Stalin in 1953 contributed to another shift in Soviet policies toward marriage and the family during the mid-1960s. Divorce again became more accessible, fathers could be required to provide financial support for their children born out of wedlock, and abortion was re-legalized and, given the scarcity of reliable alternatives, quickly became the most common form of birth control practiced by Russian women. Partly as a result of these measures, the divorce rate within the Russian population rose steadily after the mid-1960s, with more than 40 percent of all marriages ending in divorce by the 1980s, and the birth rate continued to decline. But these trends also gained impetus from the growth of the percentage of the Russian population, women as well as men, receiving secondary and tertiary education, from the nearly universal participation of women in the workforce, from the continued shift of the population from the countryside to cities (the Russian population became predominantly urban only after the late 1950s), and from the limited availability of adequate housing and social services in a context in which women continued to bear the chief responsibilities for child-rearing and domestic work. These latter problems contributed to the reemergence in the urban population of a modified form of the multigenerational family, as the practices of a young couple living with the parents of one partner while waiting for their own apartment and of a single parent living especially with his or usually her mother appear to have increased. In the countryside, the improvement in the living conditions of the rural population following Stalin's death, their inclusion in the social welfare system, yet the continued out-migration especially of young males seeking a better life in the city also led to a decline in family size, as well as to a disproportionately female and aging population, which affected both the structure of rural families and the rate of their formation. Nonetheless, the ideals of the nuclear family, marriage, and natural motherhood remained firmly in place, both in official policy and among the population.

See also: abortion policy; family code of 1926; family code on marriage, the family, and guardianship; family edict of 1944; family laws of 1936; feminism


Clements, Barbara Evans; Engel, Barbara Alpern; and Worobec, Christine D., eds. (1991). Russia's Women: Accommodation, Resistance, Transformation. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Engel, Barbara Alpern. (1994). Between the Fields and the City: Women, Work, and Family in Russia, 18611914. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Freeze, ChaeRan Y. (2002). Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia. Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press.

Goldman, Wendy Z. (1993). Women, the State, and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 19171936. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hubbs, Joanna. (1988). Mother Russia: The Feminine Myth in Russian Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lapidus, Gail Warshofsky. (1978). Women in Soviet Society: Equality, Development, and Social Change. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Levin, Eve. (1989). Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs, 9001700. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Marrese, Michelle Lamarche. (2002). A Woman's Kingdom. Noblewomen and the Control of Property in Russia, 17001861. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Mironov, Boris N., with Eklof, Ben. (2000). The Social History of Imperial Russia, 1700-1917. 2 vols. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Pouncy, Carolyn J., ed. and tr. (1994). The "Domostroi": Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Ransel, David L., ed. (1978). The Family in Imperial Russia: New Lines of Historical Research. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Ransel, David L. (2000). Village Mothers: Three Generations of Change in Russia and Tataria. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Schlesinger, Rudolf, comp. (1949). Changing Attitudes in Soviet Russia: The Family in the USSR. London: Routledge and Paul.

Wagner, William G. (1994). Marriage, Property, and Law in Late Imperial Russia. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Worobec, Christine D. (1991). Peasant Russia: Family and Community in the Post-Emancipation Period. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

William G. Wagner

Marriage and the Family

views updated Jun 11 2018

Marriage and the Family


Variety of Experiences. Several important variables produced significant differences in family life from colony to colony. The health of the climate and the ratio of men to women were important environmental and circumstantial factors. The social and legal definition of family produced important differences as well. English colonists generally organized the household in nuclear families composed of mother, father, and their offspring. The Puritan colonists of New England were able to preserve this ideal in practice. Early settlers immigrated in whole family units, so they began with a relatively favorable balance in the numbers of men to women. This balance remained throughout the colonial period. In addition the climate of New England proved remarkably healthy, and the land supported a variety of crops that helped the people maintain excellent nutrition. All family members were consequently healthier than their counterparts in either England or other early colonies, so infant mortality was low, and people lived longer.

The South. In early Virginia and Maryland, by contrast, deadly diseases and an unbalanced sex ratio produced much different family patterns. In the early seventeenth century many more men than women came to the Chesapeake, most of them single indentured servants who worked in tobacco fields. The smaller number of young indentured women who came often found prospective husbands who paid off their terms of service early so they could marry. Plantation owners sometimes brought wives with them as well, but the overall ratio of women to men remained imbalanced, and there were not enough families to sustain the population until the 1680s. The unhealthy climate also took a heavy toll as many succumbed to diseases such as malaria, typhus, and dysentery. Few seventeenth-century Chesapeake families survived intact until the children reached adulthood. Families therefore came to extend beyond the nuclear unit to include step-siblings and cousins.

French and Spanish Colonies. In New Netherland, New France, and the Spanish borderlands family life was also shaped in important ways by the small number of women in proportion to men. Family life in New Netherland was unstable until Peter Stuyvesant became director general of the colony in 1647 and began working for policies that would encourage the formation of nuclear family units. New regulations encouraged more families to immigrate during Stuyvesants term, bringing more stability to the colony as a result. New France achieved a relative balance in the sex ratio only after 1710, but the healthy climate contributed to stable nuclear family households. The small number of Spanish women in the borderlands prompted the first soldier-settlers to take Native American women as wives. Yet the Spanish government worked hard to promote the immigration of Iberian women to marry and create an upper class of largely Spanish descent. This situation resulted in substantial diversity in family life and customs according to racial class, though extended families became quite common in the Spanish borderlands.


Traveling could be hazardous in the sparsely settled backcountry. People usually moved by trails rather than roads. They crossed rivers and streams either by wading across at shallow fords or by ferry boat. The experience of Charles Woodmason, an Anglican minister in the backcountry of South Carolina, illustrates the hazards of crossing during spring floods. Woodmason arrived at Thompsons Creek in mid February 1767. He and his horse had already swum several creeks, but this one was too deep and rapid. His first hope of being ferried across failed when the rapids sank the ferry raft before he could get on board. A resident then found a very large strong and High Horse that could swim a spot where the waters were less rapid. Woodmason and his escort undressed, tied their clothes in a bundle over their heads, clambered on the horse, and entered the water. People lined both banks to fetch them out if they slipped off. They arrived safely on the opposite bank, but Woodmason was almost stiff and torpid with the Cold, and being in the Cold Waterthe Wind blowing very sharp at N.E. and Ground covered with Ice.

Source: Charles Woodmason, The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution: The Journal and Other Writings of Charles Woodmason, Anglican Itinerant (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1953).


Well-to-do travelers accounts of diet in America report what sounds deceptively like a delectable variety of poultry, pork, venison, fish, oysters, vegetables, and fruits among the dishes served by their hosts, often leaving unsaid that their hosts took special pains to feed them unusually well. Undoubtedly colonial gentry often enjoyed substantial variety in a cuisine that might include a number of separate dishes per meal. Most colonists, however, did not have the time, the available labor, or the inclination to lay out such fancy meals. Nearly every day they took their main meals from an iron pot that hung over the fire constantly and required little tending. Whatever food was in season went into the pot: beans, turnips, parsnips, carrots, onions, pumpkins, corn, and meat (when available) were all cooked together into a pulp. Seasoningif it was done at allconsisted of parsley, hyssop, thyme, marjoram, salt, and sometimes pepper. Few English colonists developed a taste for the wide variety of vegetables enjoyed today, but maize, or corn, adopted from Native Americans, became a staple of colonial diet everywhere. In the summertime it was commonly eaten on the cob. Northerners pounded it into samp and made porridge out of it. In Southern households it was processed into hominy, which might be eaten whole kernel. It was also commonly ground into grits, which was then made into porridge. Beans were also adopted from Native Americans, who taught Massachusetts settlers how to cook them in clay pots. Pigs were brought from England and permitted to roam free in American woods, where they multiplied quickly. They provided inland settlers with the most common source of protein.

Source: David Freeman Hawke, Everyday Life in Early America (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).

Matrimony. Like other social patterns in colonial North America, marriage habits and customs varied by colony, ethnic background, and social rank. Love was only one reason for colonists to wed and often not the most important. New England Puritans thought a happy marriage depended on love between prospective partners. Meanwhile other colonists did not think love a necessary

prerequisite to marriage, though they did expect it to follow the taking of vows. Throughout all European colonies marriage could serve to create alliances between important families. Indeed, Spanish American aristocrats labored hard to limit their childrens marriages to persons of their own rank. In the English colonies marriage could sometimes provide a way for young men or women to climb the social ladder into the ranks of the gentry. It might also strengthen the position of young gentlemen, as in the case of George Washington, whose marriage to the widow Martha Dandridge Custis brought him the additional lands and wealth needed to establish his place as one of the leading figures in Virginia.

Households. For most English colonists marriage also meant establishing a separate household and bringing new children into the world to insure that the family name would carry on, the church and community would have a strong future, and the household would have plenty of workers to make it prosper. Young Anglo-Americans who wanted to marry usually could choose their partners, though the parents watched closely to make sure that they made a suitable match. Peoples age at marriage varied by colony. In New England teen marriages were rare because fathers controlled the distribution of land to their sons and used that power to keep them at home until their early to mid twenties. Daughters generally waited until their twenties to marry as well. New England marriages were usually stable and long-lasting, with couples generally establishing households in separate dwellings and beginning to bear children within the first nine to fifteen months. In the Chesapeake, by contrast, a striking number of young women entered their first marriage before their sixteenth birthday, seven to ten years sooner than their counterparts in either New or Old England. Death frequently separated fathers, mothers, and children: only one in three early Chesapeake marriages lasted as long as a decade. Because of the sex ratio imbalance a widow whose husband died usually remarried fairly soon, bringing any children of her first marriage with her and blending the families if her new husband also happened to be a widower with children. A woman might lose two or three husbands to death, bringing additional children into a subsequent marriage and producing complex patterns of extended family relations. This situation often gave Chesapeake women unprecedented power over their families and property since their husbands often willed them control of their estates at death, and they often enjoyed a favorable range of choice in potential mates. Yet the circumstances under which many women first arrived in the Chesapeake and the fragility of life there also must have made many of them feel extremely insecure.

Growing up in America. The way children grew up in colonial America depended in part on where they lived, what the family occupation was, and the child-rearing practices of their parents. Children in the Chesapeake grew up in insecure circumstances: so many were left without parents that officials in Maryland and Virginia had to set up special orphans courts to see to their upbringing and to administrate inheritances. Elsewhere life was more stable, with children commonly growing up in nuclear families of seven or more siblings, though family size declined in eighteenth-century coastal settlements. A childs most carefree, playful years were generally short, confined to the first few years of life. Boys six and older who grew up on family farms, as over 90 percent of colonial Americans did, were needed as field hands and were trained to perform various tasks as soon as they could manage them. Girls were likewise needed to help with domestic tasks. In many regions boys and girls were also taught to read and write during these years, though boys commonly received more schooling than girls. Most colonists also recognized the early teens as pivotal years. Male youths assumed more responsibility for labor on the farm, occasionally assisted neighbors, and were sometimes apprenticed to learn a trade. Female teenagers served their own sort of apprenticeships by being put out as domestic servants in separate households.


English Puritans and Quakers held simple weddings in brides homes where local justices of the peace officiated, with no religious ceremony or exchange of rings. Spanish American brides and grooms, by contrast, got married in churches with great ceremony and festivity. The celebration opened with a great procession in which the veiled bride, her father at her side, made her way from her home to the church and up the aisle to the altar, preceded by her bridesmaids, family, and friends. At the altar the father physically gave his daughters hand to the groom. The priest, after reading an appropriate passage from one of the biblical accounts of Jesus life, would step down to the couple and explain the meaning of marriage to the couple and the gathered community. He would conclude these remarks with the Latin statement ego vos in matrimonium conjugo (I unite you in marriage). The groom then gave a ring to his bride, slipping it on her left thumb first with the words In the name of the Father, then on the index finger saying and of the Son, next on the middle finger with and of the Holy Spirit, and finally on the fourth finger with Amen. Wealthy grooms gave bands of gold to their brides, while commoners gave bands of wood or leather. After the ring was given the couple was often wound with a large rosary or rope to symbolize their union. If he had not already done so a groom then gave the bride an arras, a symbolic endowment of a pouch containing thirteen coins. The priest often rented this item to a wedding party who might not otherwise be able to afford the custom. The wedding was solemnized with a mass and concluded with the priest giving the kiss of peace to the groom, which the groom then gave to the bride. Afterward the couple left the church amid music, gun salutes, and loud celebration, which served both to congratulate the couple and to ward off evil spirits.

Source: Ramon A. Gutiérrez, When Jesus Carney the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846 (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1991),

Preparation for Adulthood. Colonial parents believed it necessary to prepare their children for a hierarchical society by shaping their wills in various ways. Children growing up in New England farming and artisan families were seen as wayward subjects of their parents love whose wills must be broken so that their souls could be prepared for salvation and they could learn obedience. Parents tried to use gentle measures to teach a child to obey, but if those did not work the child might be whipped or forced to wear a painful device in his mouth or on his nose accompanied with written signs that proclaimed his offense. Parents of similar middling families elsewhere may not have used the signs or devices the Puritans used, but they did use spankings, deprivation, and other means of punishment to break or conform their childrens wills

in ways demanded by their communities. Children of Chesapeake or Carolina planters had their wills shaped to encourage competitive assertiveness but also to observe the elaborate social rules that governed planter society. They were taught to bow or curtsy and address their parents respectfully whenever they approached them, to submit to their social superiors, to show courtesy to their equals by strict observance of etiquette, and to display benevolence to their social inferiors.

Slave Practices. Meanwhile a significant slave population was also emerging in the Chesapeake and would soon emerge in South Carolina as well. Slaves adapted various traditional African family arrangements to the constraints of slavery, producing a distinctive African American family life. Masters tended to encourage monogamy among their slaves, though on many plantations the African practice of polygamy survived into the nineteenth century. Slave children were brought up by their parents in large families, and the traditional pattern of extended families provided a large network of nurturing and protection for young children. This extended family network was important even when families remained intact, for mothers were frequently put back to work soon after childbirth. It took on additional importance if families were separated through death or through the sale of a parent or child, a frequent occurrence. Families provided slaves indispensable ways of surviving: companionship, love, sympathetic understanding, and lessons in how to avoid punishment, cooperate with other slaves, and maintain a sense of self-worth. In the North, where slaves tended not to live in quarters with other slaves but in the attics, cellars, and sheds of their owners, family life was more difficult. Husbands and wives tended not to live with one another, and children were often sold at a young age since they took time away from their working mothers.


Ramón Gutiérrez, When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846 (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1991);

Barry Levy, Quakers and the American Family: British Settlement in the Delaware Valley (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988);

Gerald F. Moran, Religion, Family, and the Life Course: Exploration in the Social History of Early America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992);

William D. Piersen, Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988);

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Good Wives: Image and Reality in the Lives of Women in Northern New England 1650-1750 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).

Marriage and Family

views updated May 21 2018


The institutions, patterns, and practices of marriage and the family play a key role in Middle Eastern society.

Marriage and family form the heart of Middle Eastern society, which is structured around the extended family system. Familial loyalty takes precedence over loyalty to work, friends, the law, and the nation. The institutions and practices of marriage are enforced by kinship networks to form reliable alliances. Hence, marriages between families serve important social, economic, and political functions by bringing together families in an expanding network of relationships, which extends membership rights and duties to relatives and their spouses. Each nuclear or extended family arranges different kinds of marriage alliances to accomplish both general and specific purposes. Membership in an influential family may be the only necessary criterion for success.

The Middle Eastern family is unequivocally patriarchal. The male is recognized as the head of his family, and his role is overt, whereas the female's
role is more covert. Patriarchy also connotes obeying and respecting the decisions of elders. Respect for elders is held as the highest family duty, and disagreements with patriarchs are considered sinful. Hence, age and bearing children increase an individual's status in the family.

Bonds of obligation and trust unite people, and relationships within families are often multidimensional and intense. Families and kin groups are brought together to witness births, marriages, deaths, religious and other rituals, and the affairs of daily life. In-group cohesion is a sign of a strong family, and individuals may count on family members for unconditional support. Even at times of antipathy among relatives, they defend each other's honor and display group cohesion. Religion plays an important role in dictating family life and law; it is an integral part of the inherited social identity, rather than a matter of choice or personal conviction.

Most family relations, however, are constrained by tradition rather than religion. While traditions provide support for family members, they also constrain their personal freedom and privacy. For instance, it is a common practice for single adults (male and female) to live with their family until marriage. They are governed by their elders and seek their permission regarding personal decisions. Traditions also play an important role in selecting a spouse, proposing a marriage and deciding its various logistics. Marriages are built based on financial security, social status, and child-bearing potentials rather than on love and romance.

Marriages are often arranged by women and are initiated with an official request from an elder in the groom's family to an elder in the bride's family. And elaborate engagement celebration is then held as a public announcement permitting the groom and bride to appear in public together prior to marriage. Engagements usually are short unless economic hardships prevent the couple from securing a residence. Marriage ceremonies are almost always large, expensive, and joyous affairs involving the groom and bride's wider kinship and residential groups.

Children are important elements of a successful marriage. No marriage is considered complete unless it produces many children. The average family size in the Middle East is over six members, including the parents. Desiring large families is common, but sons are often preferred to daughters because sons carry the name of the family, and remain with their parents after marriage in this patrilineal society. Nonetheless, daughters are desired as caregivers of aging parents, while sons are obliged to provide financial security.

Boys' education and work begin at a very early age and are usually mediated by various adult male relatives. Girls' domestic training starts early as well and is transmitted by various female relatives. Overall, relatives, neighbors, and friends participate in raising children and teaching them family values and morals. Young adults are given duties and responsibilities within the family setting, against which they rarely rebel. They are also encouraged to maintain and pass on social values from one generation to another. Disciplining children is an acceptable practice that may be carried out by any relative, neighbor, or friend.

The Middle Eastern family is neither unique nor constant nor uniform. Changes happen at all levels at all times. For instance, while, the bride and the groom often live with the groom's family in more traditional and rural settings, the trend for the urban middle and upper classes is for a new, separate residence to be established. The groom and bride's families remain in close contact and visit frequently. Similarly, more rural and traditional settings tend to favor marriage at a very young age for both males and females as a tool of social control. However, in modern urban settings, new marriage laws and new opportunities in education and employment have raised the age of marriage for both sexes.

Although polygamy is accepted as a lesser evil than divorce, it is outlawed in Tunisia, Turkey, Israel, and Iraq and is subject to court approval in Morocco, Syria, Jordan, and Yemen. Moreover, polygamy rates have always been low, and they are decreasing rapidly almost everywhere, primarily for economic and social reasons. Alternatively, while divorce is considered a social stigma for both men and women, its rates vary widely across the region and are increasing overall, in tune with rapid social change and economic pressures. In the case of divorce or widowhood, Islamic laws grant women the custody of children until age seven for boys and nine for girls. Divorce is much more difficult for Jews and Christians in the region. Among the Druze, a husband and wife who divorce are forbidden from remarrying, unlike in Islam.

Familial honor is another social asset and stigma. The reputation of any family member influences the reputation of the entire family. However, women who bring dishonor to their families because of presumed sexual indiscretions are forced to pay a terrible price at the hands of male family members. The problem of "honor killings" throughout the Middle East is manifested in the legal safeguards protecting men by granting them special legal exemptions and reduced sentences in cases of conviction.

The Middle East experienced rapid changes and challenges in the twentieth century. While women continue gaining access to formal education and careers, they continue to face societal restrictions concerning their contacts outside the home and beyond their kinship groups. Widespread economic change, especially trends toward modernization and Westernization vis-à-vis reactionary and Islamist
movements, have affected customary notions of marriage and the family.

see also polygamy.


Doumani, Beshara. Family History in the Middle East: Household, Property, and Gender. New York: State University of New York Press, 2003.

Esposito, John L., and DeLong-Bas, Nanata. J. Women in Muslim Family Law. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2001.

Fernea, Elizabeth W. Women and the Family in the Middle East: New Voices of Change. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985.

Hale, Sondra. "Gender and Economics: Islam and PolygamyA Question of Causality." Feminist Economics 1 (1995): 6779.

King-Irani, Laurie. "Kinship, Ethnicity, and Social Class." In Understanding the Contemporary Middle East, 2d edition, edited by D. Gerner and J. Schwedler. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2003.

Lopata, Helena Z. Widows: The Middle East, Asia and the Pacific. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1987.

Moghadam, Valentine M. "Gender, National Identity and Citizenship: Reflections on the Middle East and North Africa." Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 19 (1999): 137157.

Obermeyer, Carla. M. Family, Gender, and Population in the Middle East: Policies in Context. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1995.

Prothro, Edwin T., and Diab, Lutfi. N. Changing Family Patterns in the Arab East. Beirut: American University of Beirut, 1974.

Sonbol, Amira El Azhary. Women, the Family, and Divorce Laws in Islamic History. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996.

rita stephan

About this article

Marriage and Family

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About content Print Topic