WITH THIS BOOK Carl Degler joins a growing number of historians (all of them male) who celebrate the emergence during the 19th century of the "modern family." The family is said to have been characterized by companionate and affectionate relations between husbands and wives, by restricted fertility but intense emotional relations between parents and children, and by an idea of separate spheres for men (work) and women (children and the home). While the other historians (Lawrence Stone and Edward Shorter) were not primarily concerned with the position of women, the focus of Degler's book is on women in the "modern family." Indeed, he raises the celebration of the family's historical progress to its highest level yet by depicting the "modern family" as the product of "women's push for autonomy and individuality" in the 19th century.
The entire book should be read as an attack on historians and feminists who trace the roots of women's current discontent to the 19th century ideology of domesticity. Its conclusion suggests that the source of today's tensions lie in the excessive individualism of contemporary feminists who would destroy the "modern family" in their search for even greater autonomy. The book is a defense of the organization and values of the middle-class family which Degler equates with the "modern family" and which he says set the standard for those "under stress" -- blacks, immigrants and workers -- whom he condescendingly depicts as less developed and less sophisticated groups in American society.
Degler takes evidence from a variety of sources on many different topics and reduces it all to proof of his theme of progress for women in the 19th century. In the process he ignores complexity, dismisses diversity, denies the existence of dissatisfaction or conflict and leaves major questions unexplored. He tells us, for example, that the idea of domesticity emerged early in the 19th century. By giving wives sole responsibility for a "separate sphere" and attributing to them moral superiority over their husbands and children, domesticity enhanced women's status in the family. Most married women, says Degler, enjoyed their autonomy. They exercised it by demanding that their husbands cooperate with them in controlling conception; by resorting increasingly to abortion when birth control failed; by trying to impose temperance and social purity on society as a whole, and eventually by demanding the right to vote. All these attitudes are presented as having developed simultaneously, when in fact they emerged at different times. There is a curious absence of any sense of sequence and change in this book, and there is no attempt to explain why things happened when they did.
As additional evidence that women experienced autonomy, Degler cites 19th-century medical ideas about female sexual passivity and the writings of marriage reformers. He insists that all of these people sought "to improve the position of women within marriage." It is doubtful that male doctors who wrote that women had no sexual desires were bent on enhancing their patients' "sense of their own self-interest." But even if we suspend that doubt, another crops up. Some marriage reformers explicity sought an end to what they considered the sexual oppression and exploitation of women by their husbands. They wanted, in Degler's words, to "enhance the autonomy of women." Doesn't that mean they considered women's real position less than satisfactory, that they formulated the goal of autonomy because they thought it lacking in actual family life?
In discussing the origins of women's quest for autonomy, Degler argues that it was individualism that was "in the air" before domesticity appeared. Women picked up individualism and out of it created domesticity and the "modern family." The other possibility, which Degler finds inexplicable, is that "individualism began to be taken up by women" at about the same time that domesticity appeared, and that the quest for autonomy represented a critique of domesticity by women who found that it thwarted rather than liberated them. That is surely an implication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's poignant letter to her husband about the impossibility of writing when burdened with children and family. Degler cites it to acknowledge that women carried heavy domestic responsibilities, but although he compares it to Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own , he never interprets the letter as evidence of a conflict between domesticity and women's autonomy, both of which he sees as synonymous in the 19th-century middle-class family. Not only does he equate those two conditions, Degler fails to see the distinction between a woman's search for autonomy and her experience of it.
Furthermore, Degler's discussion of the "modern family" suggests a single historical experience for all social groups in 19th-century America. He admits that he had little evidence on any but the middle class, but he nonetheless insists that their values trickled down to blacks, immigrants and the working class. Degler relies on quantitative data about the employment patterns of women, and children, to infer the existence of the "modern family." For instance, he tells us, "a majority of black mothers did not work outside the home after slavery." Later he goes on to explain this by saying that they followed the "cult of domesticity." This is questionable. Degler offers no evidence to support his claim. And the figures he cites on the employment of black women ignore those who worked as sharecroppers or on family farms, those who took in ironing and washing to earn money and those who worked as domestic servants and casual, unskilled laborers without reporting their jobs to census and tax enumerators. Their lives are recorded in a number of recent histories, in many a novel and short story and even in the diaries, letters and household account books of middle-class women. Degler claims he could find little qualitative evidence about such women. One has to conclude that he did not know where or how to look.
If he had looked at the family lives of black, immigrant and working-class women, he would have seen relationships and structures that could not be subsumed into a single notion of the "modern family" and certainly could not be explained as the product of women's quest for autonomy and individuality. In fact, a close look at working-class families calls into question Degler's neat and simple tale of progress, as well as his explanation for it.
From most perspectives this is a disappointing book. It enlightens us neither about the sources of tension within the contemporary middle-class family, nor about the reasons for differences between the outlooks and actions of different groups of women -- rich and poor, white and black, middle-class and working-class -- in the present as well as in the past.