The Family and Its Members
The Family and Its Members
Life at Home
By: William Aikman
About the Author: William Aikman (1824–1909) was a Presbyterian minister, a Doctor of Divinity, and an author. He was the Pastor of Hanover Street Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware. During the Civil War, Aikman wrote his most remembered article for the Presbyterian Quarterly Review: "The Future of the Colored Race in America," published in July 1862.
Traditions that have shaped American cultural norms and beliefs about family have been influenced by major religious dogma and teachings, such as those of the early or medieval era Roman Catholic church leaders and counsel and their later or early modern Protestant counterparts. The Christian church exerted some influence over the formation of both canon and common law, and thereby helped to shape legislation and definition around marriage as constituting a legal agreement between a male and a female partner (in most jurisdictions in the United States), and helping to shape what became culturally, and legally, accepted norms regarding what constitutes a family.
The medieval Roman Catholic Church viewed marriage as a sacrament. A sacrament, as defined by the Roman Catholic Church, is a tangible, visible, or otherwise perceptible sign of acknowledgement of belief and participation in the rites or rituals of the Church and simultaneously acquiring elevated spiritual status. Part of the underlying philosophy of the sacrament of marriage was the notion of what constituted family; Biblical lore has it that married couples were tasked to procreate and have many children. Bearing children was therefore incorporated into the religious and cultural traditions around marriage and family. Early Catholic teachings suggested that it was "God's will" that human beings should marry in order to "be fruitful and multiply," and that having large families was beneficial in order both to serve their deity and to aid in supporting the family. Biblical literature also prescribes marriage as a means of enforcing fidelity—which served to protect and preserve intimate relationships and reinforce the notion of the nuclear family as a central unit of society. The Catholic Church took a stance on the family that was called "naturalist," meaning that it did not discourage natural means of family planning, but enacted canon law prohibiting artificial means of birth control, as well as abortion. Until the end of the sixteenth century, most of the Western countries of Europe accepted canon law as the primary doctrine, and subordinated common law to the Church's tenets.
The Protestant Church generally took a slightly less legislative or authoritarian position on matters concerning the family. During the Protestant Reformation period occurring in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the definition of marriage was shifted from the concept of "sacrament" to a more social definition, maintaining the naturalist prohibitions against artificial means of birth control and abortion, and continuing the implicit sanctions against spousal and child abuse, but redefined marriage as a voluntary union between two consenting adults. Although marriage was sanctified by the deity, it did not confer any special spiritual enhancement. Marriage was also viewed as a means of enhancing the growth and development of the community. Rather than simply being a religious ceremony, marriages were now also ratified by local legal officials, indicating that the act of marriage transcended the spiritual realm and entered that of the secular and community as well. Marriages were now registered and legally documented. With the Protestant reformation, marriage became a legalized social institution, subject to common and civil law.
… The Family is necessary for the development of the race. There can be no true development without it. The savage state knows little of the family. In the lowest types of humanity, such as the Bushmen of South Africa, it is almost unknown. Children are born, but as soon as they are able to care for their own wants, they wander off and are lost among the rest of the tribe, as a lamb is merged in the surrounding flock, and all connection between parents and their offspring is quickly lost. In tribes more elevated, but still barbaric—our American Indians may be an example—the same fact is seen; the family, such as it is in its true idea, is scarcely to be recognized. Husbands and wives may live in the same hut, and children may remain for a while near it, but all that intercourse and association which make the family is unknown. There is natural affection, often pure and deep, between individuals, but no general bond of sympathy and love holding the whole group together as a unity.
Civilization varies with the family and the family with civilization. Its highest and most complete realization is found where the enlightenment of Christianity prevails, where woman is exalted to her true and lofty place as equal with the man, where husband and wife are one in honor, in influence, in affection, and where children are a common bond of care and love. Here you have the idea of a perfect family.
Here is one of those innumerable, but powerful, because indirect and unannounced, proofs of the supernatural character of the Bible. What book of ancient times gives such pictures of the family life—what book such precepts for family government? How wonderful it is, that these old books, written many of them in those far back centuries which antedate historic records, do give us such advanced ideas! Here is a book which in this regard was clearly made not for that time alone, but for all time, not for society as it then was, but for society in its highest state—for civilization in its very best form. Paint for yourself your brightest conception of what a family should be, have husband and wife living in pure and blissful companionship; father and mother wise and loving, yet sovereign; surround the fireside with perfect children, children who are just what you would have them, affectionate, obedient, joyous; let brothers and sisters be linked together in unwavering and kindly sympathy, in love as strong and glowing as our imagination can picture; then look into the Bible. You shall find that very family set before you, you shall see all the exhortations and injunctions of this Book looking toward just such a home.
The concept of marriage and family began to change with the appearance of the women's suffrage movement during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Although religious and ethno-cultural traditions still exerted considerable influence on the definition of the ideal family in American middle-class white society, the burgeoning Women's Rights movement began to effect some changes in the ways in which traditional female roles were viewed. The Temperance Movement, which occurred during the suffrage era, was also championed by women as a political and social means of reducing or eliminating the consumption of alcohol, particularly by males. Temperance was also considered a means of limiting or eradicating the domestic violence that was sometimes associated with drinking.
Those two movements had a significant impact on the appearance and the changing roles of the American family, particularly of the female members thereof, at the end of the nineteenth and the early decades of the twentieth centuries. May Wright Sewall (1844–1920), who was an activist in the suffrage movement, referred to the tasks of the senior female household member (traditionally, wife and mother) as equivalent to the work done by men outside the home. She described the process of managing home, family, and household as a business not unlike any other—it is because of that stance that she engaged in the struggle to broaden the civil rights of women.
William O'Neill, writing in the early 1970s on feminism in the era at the end of the Civil War in America, expresses his belief that the nineteenth century women's movement was unable to achieve many of its initial intents because the activists were unable to grasp (on the whole) the full extent to which they experienced a dearth of rights and freedoms, or fully understand the negative conditions under which they went about their daily business. It is his contention that the early feminist movement dissolved after suffrage was achieved as a result of its inability to come to terms with the adverse conditions imposed by the male-dominated culture in Victorian-era America. Historical writers documenting the women's movement in the United States have stated that nineteenth century feminists tended to focus on the acquisition of voting rights as a panacea for all that was wrong in American society, and failed to take adequate notice of the political, economic, and social challenges that beset them in their traditional roles. Gerda Lerner, a feminist historian, believes that the solitary focus on obtaining the vote for women prevented them from being able to see the ways in which middle-class white society oppressed women and families who were poorer or of ethnic or racial minority, as well as those with a single head of household. She refers to the leaders of the feminist movement at the end of the Civil War as "nativist, racist, and generally indifferent to the needs of working class women."
Daniel Scott Smith (writing in Hartman and Banner's Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women) views the status of women and the family during the latter half of the nineteenth century somewhat differently: he believed that there was a parallel feminist movement occurring within American households, in which women began to assert their rights and roles within the confines of what had been viewed as a traditional family constellation. He refers to this movement as "domestic feminism," and states that its centerpiece was women's taking an active role in regulating family size, and beginning to examine the means and efficacy of various types of birth control. It is his contention that women were changing the understanding of power and control within the family in a far more subtle way, within individual homes, by increasing personal autonomy, limiting family size, and shifting roles and responsibilities within the household. Political feminism, then could be viewed as taking place within the sphere of the home and family, and changes could be viewed as occurring on a small scale and gradually being accepted by the larger society.
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Hartman, Mary, and Lois Banner, eds. Consciousness Raised: New Perspectives on the History of Women. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
Jagger, Gill and Caroline Wright. Changing Concepts of Family. London: Routledge, 1999.
Lerner, Gerda. The Majority Finds its Past: Placing Women in History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.
O'Neill, William. Everyone Was Brave: A History of Feminism in America (5th edition). New York: Quadrangle Books, 1974.
DuBois, Ellen. "The Radicalism of the Woman Suffrage Movement: Notes Toward the Reconstruction of Nineteenth-Century Feminism." Feminist Studies 3 (Fall 1975): 63-71.
Sewall, May Wright. "Domestic Legislation." National Citizen and Ballot Box (September 1881): 1.