DOMESTIC REVOLUTIONS A Social History of American Family Life By Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg Free Press/Macmillan. 316 pp. $22.50
AS WE ALL know, the American family is going to hell in a handbasket. Divorce rates are high, illegitimate births are higher, households headed by unmarried or divorced women are increasing as are single households, and poverty is pandemic among women and children. Not merely that, but the country's moral fabric is shot through with holes: public display of homosexuality is commonplace, as is public display of intimate heterosexual relationships; religious life is less important and active than it once was in the middle class; the national focus is no longer on familial and communal life, but on individual "self-awareness" and "fulfillment." In such a climate, how can "the family as we know it" hope to survive?
It's a familiar question and a familiar litany of complaints, and as Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg demonstrate in this timely work of social history, it all has been heard many times before. In Puritan New England, "the colonists feared that their families were disintegrating, that parents were growing ever more irresponsible, and that their children were losing respect for authority"; at the beginning of the 20th century, "critics denounced the family as 'illimitably selfish, psychologically egocentric, spiritually dwarfish and decivilizing' and declared it a 'factory of feeble-mindedness and insanity.' " Yet in both periods the family survived by adjusting to the altered social and psychological climate; what Mintz and Kellogg are here to tell us is that it will do so once again. As they say at the outset:
"Although the family is seen as the social institution most resistant to change, it is, in fact, as deeply embedded in the historical process as any other institution. The claim that it is essentially a conservative institution -- an island of stability in a sea of social, political and economic change -- is largely an illusion. If the family is a conservative institution in the sense that it transmits the moral and cultural values of one generation to the next, it is not conservative in the sense of being static. In structure, role and conception, the American family has changed dramatically over time."
Mintz and Kellogg (they are husband and wife, a historian and an anthropologist, respectively) are able to document these changes in impressive and convincing detail as a result of what has been learned in the past couple of decades in the new discipline known as "family history." Domestic Revolutions is, in effect, a synopsis of what many of these historians have discovered, and as such it is a valuable introduction to American family history for the general reader; it is repetitious at times, and the most to be said for its prose is that it is competent, but it is thorough, meticulous and informative. It is also, for those who fear for the family's future, a cautionary tale, and a heartening one as well.
As described by Mintz and Kellogg, the American family has evolved over four centuries in a distinct direction, though that evolution has taken place in unpredictable and occasionally unlikely ways. The clear trend has been toward what in today's vocabulary is called "liberalization": of paternal and maternal stereotypes, of restraints imposed on children, of sexual attitudes and behavior, of formality in relations among family members and in the appearances families present to the world. The strictly hierarchical family of Puritan New England, in which God and father were one and the same and all else cowered before Him, gave way to the "democratic family" of the early 19th century, and then to the "companionate family" a century later, and now to the "radical departures" that have strained and altered family life since the 1960s; but through all this change, the family as a unit has endured.
AS ANALYZED by Mintz and Kellogg, the principal agents of change have been economic, demographic and cultural. Economic change has altered the family from a self-sustaining unit to one that acquires its income and goods in the outside world; demographic change has involved the lowered birth rate and longer life expectancy; cultural change has most specifically centered on the new role of women, especially now in the post-feminist era with its "dramatically altered women's attitudes toward family roles, child care, marital relationships, femininity and housework." Mintz and Kellogg give particular emphasis to the ways in which all of these agents of change were accelerated by the Depression and World War II, "seminal experiences in the lives of 20th-century Americans":
"The legacy of the Depression was to reinforce a long-term trend toward growing government involvement and responsibility in American family life. The legacy of World War II was no less important. A shared sense of danger and privation drew families closer together and infused family and community bonds with new strength. At the same time, conditions tested families with novel economic and psychological strains whose effects remain with us today."
In studying all of these forces for change, Mintz and Kellogg cast a wide net. Though their primary focus is on the middle-class family, they are careful to analyze as well the unique influences that have come to play on Afro-Americans, on the Nisei, on the working class and on urban immigrants. Perhaps the most attractive aspect of the writing and teaching of history in recent years is this willingness to embrace groups previously ignored or overlooked; Domestic Revolutions is a fine example of what can be accomplished when this inclusiveness is exercised unencumbered by ideological baggage. It is also convincing evidence that in one form or another, the family is here to stay.