Two centuries ago leading white, middle-class families in the newly united American states spearheaded a family revolution that replaced the premodern gender order with a modern family system. But modern family was an oxymoronic label for this peculiar institution, which dispensed modernity to white, middle-class men only by withholding it from women. The former could enter the public sphere as breadwinners and citizens, because their wives were confirmed to the newly privatized family realm.
Ruled by an increasingly absent patriarchal landlord, the modern, middle-class family, a woman’s domain, soon was sentimentalized as traditional. It took most of the subsequent two centuries for substantial numbers of white working-class men to achieve the rudimentary economic pass book to modern family life a male family wage. By the time they had done so, however, a second family revolution was well underway. Once again middle-class, white families appeared to be in the vanguard. This time women were claiming the benefits and burdens of modernity, a status they could achieve only at the expense of the modern family itself.
Reviving a long-dormant feminist movement, frustrated middle class homemakers and their more militant daughters subjected modern domesticity to a sustained critique. At times this critique displayed scant sensitivity to the effects our antimodern family ideology might have on women for whom full-time domesticity had rarely been feasible. Thus, feminist family reform came to be regarded widely as a white, middle-class agenda, and white, working-class families it’s most resistant adversaries.
African-American women and white, working-class women have been the genuine postmodern family pioneers, even though they also suffer most from its most negative effects. Long denied the mixed benefits that the modern family order offered middle-class women, less privileged women quietly forged alternative child rearing. Struggling creatively, often heroically, to sustain oppressed families and to escape the most oppressive ones, they drew on traditional premodern kinship resources and crafted untraditional ones, lurching backward and forward into the postmodern family.
Rising divorce and cohabitation rates, working mothers, two-earner households, single and unwed parenthood, and matrilineal, extended, and fictive kin support networks appeared earlier and more extensively among poor and working-class people. Economic pressures more than political principles governed these departures from domesticity, but working women like Martha Porter and Dotty Lewison soon found additional reasons to appreciate paid employment.
Popular images of working-class family life, like the Archie Bunker, rest on the iconography of unionized, blue-collar, male, industrial breadwinners and the history of their lengthy struggle for the family wage (Stacey 30). But the male family wage was a late and ephemeral achievement of only the most fortunate sections of the modern industrial working class. Most working-class men never secured its patriarchal domestic privileges. Postmodern conditions expose the gendered character of this social-class category, and they render it atavistic.
As feminist have argued, only by disregarding women’s labor and learning was it ever plausible to designate a family unit as working class. In an era when most married mothers are employed, when women perform most working-class job, when most productive labor is unorganized and fails to pay a family wage, when marriage links are tenuous and transitory, and when more single women than married homemakers are rearing children, conventional notions of a normative working-class family fracture into incoherence.
The life circumstances and mobility patterns of the members of Pamela’s kin set and of the Lewisons, for example, are so diverse and fluid that no single social-class category can adequately describe any of the family units among them. If the white, working-class family stereotype is inaccurate, it is also consequential. Stereotype is moral stories people tell to organize the complexity of social experience. Narrating the working class as profamily reactionaries suppresses the diversity and the innovative character of many working-class kin relationships.
The Archie Bunker stereotype may have helped to contain feminism by estranging middle-class from working-class women. Barbara Ehrenreich argues that caricatures which portray the working-class as racist and reactionary are recent (Handel 655), self-serving inventions of professional, middleclass people eager to seek legitimating for their own more conservative impulses. In the early 1970s, ignoring rising labor militancy as well as racial, ethnic, and gender diversity among working-class people, the media effectively imaged them as the new conservative bedrock of middle America.
Thus, All in the Family, the 1970s television sitcom series that immortalized racist, chauvinist, working-class hero-buffoon Archie Bunker, can best be read, Ehrenreich suggests, as the longest-running Polish joke, a projection of middle-class bad faith. Yet, if this bad faith served professional middle-class interest, it did so at the expense of feminism. The inverse logic of class prejudice construed the constituency of that enormously popular social movement as exclusively middleclass. By convincing middle-class feminists of our isolation, perhaps the last laugh of that Polish joke was on us.
Even Ehrenreich, who sensitively debunks the Bunker myth, labels starting the findings of a 1986 Gallup poll that 56 percent of American women considered themselves to be feminists, and the degree of feminist identification, was, if anything, slightly higher as one descended the socioeconomic scale. Feminist must be attuned to the polyphony of family stories authored by working-class as well as middle-class people if they are ever to transform data like these into effective political alliances.
While the ethnographic narratives in this research demonstrate the demise of the working-class family, in no way do they document the emergence of the classless society postindustrial theorists once anticipated. On the contrary, recent studies indicate that the middle classes are shrinking and the economic circumstances of Americans polarizing. African-American has borne the most devastating impact of economic restructuring and the subsequent decline of industrial and unionized occupations. But formerly privileged access to the American Dream in the 1960s and 1970s, now find their gains threatened and not easy to pass on to their children.
While high-wage, blue-collar jobs decline, the window of postindustrial opportunity that admitted undereducated men and women, like Lou and Kristina Lewison and Don Frankin, to middle-class status is slamming shut. Young white families earned 20 percent less in 1986 than did comparable families in 1980, and their homeownership prospects plummeted. Real earnings for young men between the ages of twenty and twenty four dropped by 26 percent between 1980 and 1986, while the military route to upward mobility that many of their fathers traveled constricted.
In the 1950s men like Lou Lewison, equipped with VA loans, could buy homes with token down payments and budget just 14 percent of their monthly wages for housing costs. By 1984, however, carrying a median-priced home would cost 44 percent of an average male’s monthly earnings. Few could manage this, and in 1986 the U. S government reported the first sustained drop in home ownership since the modern collection of data began in 1940. Thus, the proportion of American families in the middle-income range fell from 46 percent in 1970 to 39 percent in 1985.
Two earners in a household now are necessary just to keep from losing ground. Data like these led social analysts to anxiously track the disappearing middle class, a phrase that Barbara Ehrenreich now believes in some ways missed the least from the middle range of comfort. Conclusion The major arena to which expert turned in their examination of postwar masculinity was the American family, placing a spotlight upon men’s roles as husbands, fathers, and family heads.
It was commonly noted by social scientist and delineators of American character that men had lost much of their former authority within the family. Indeed, the typical American male, as described by the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, was seen as having so completely given up any claim to authority that the family would constantly risk disintegration and disaster if not for the efforts of his wife (Reumann 66). On the other hand, commentators diagnosed an assault on middle-class manliness and warned of its effects on the nation and its culture.
Obsessively rehearsing a narrative of nationwide decline, social disarray, and familial and gender collapse, they pictured a country in which masculinity had become a besieged and precious resource.
Handel, Gerald. and Gail, Whtchurch, The Psychosocial Interior of the Family, Aldine, Transaction, 1994 Reumann, Miriam. American Sexual Character: Sex, Gender, and National Identity, Berkeley, California: London University of California Press, 2005 Stacey, Judith, In the Name of the Family: Rethinking Family Values in the Postmodern Age; U. S, Beacon Press, 1996